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Thomas Pynchon and

the Postmodern Mythology

of the Underworld
Yoshinobu Hakutani
General Editor

Vol. 62

New York y Washington, D.C./Baltimore y Bern
Frankfurt y Berlin y Brussels y Vienna y Oxford
Evans Lansing Smith

Thomas Pynchon and

the Postmodern Mythology
of the Underworld

New York y Washington, D.C./Baltimore y Bern
Frankfurt y Berlin y Brussels y Vienna y Oxford
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Smith, Evans Lansing.
Thomas Pynchon and the postmodern mythology of the underworld /
Evans Lansing Smith.
p. cm. — (Modern American literature: new approaches; v. 62)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Pynchon, Thomas—Criticism and interpretation. 2. Voyages to the otherworld
in literature. 3. Gnosticism in literature. 4. Mythology in literature. I. Title.
PS3566.Y55Z884 813’.54—dc23 2012031428
ISBN 978-1-4331-2027-5 (hardcover)
ISBN 978-1-4539-0951-5 (e-book)
ISSN 1078-0521

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Necrotypes and Postmodernism ................................................ 1

Chapter One: V................................................................................................ 7

Chapter Two: The Crying of Lot 49 .............................................................. 45

Chapter Three: Gravity’s Rainbow ............................................................... 65

Chapter Four: Mason & Dixon.................................................................... 171

Chapter Five: Against the Day .................................................................... 215

Works Cited ................................................................................................ 329

Index ........................................................................................................... 337

Introduction: Necrotypes and Postmodernism

One of the most important metaphors of the High Classical Modernism of

the first quarter of the 20th century combines the reduction of molecular
compounds to their fundamental elements (reductio) with a return to origins
(ricorso). An alchemical analogy is implied: the breakdown of molecules to
those elements which may be recombined to create new forms. This meta-
phor manifests itself in the archaeology (digs in Egypt, Crete, and Mesopo-
tamia), science (nuclear and sub-atomic physics) and, linguistics (deep struc-
tures, signifiers and signifieds), anthropology (myth and ritual theory), psy-
chology (complexes and archetypes), painting (geometric abstraction) and
literature (myth and folklore) of Modernism—for they all entail a search for
elemental forms beneath the surface of things, in the underworld, as it were.
For nearly all of the most important Modernists, myths were regarded as the
fundamental building blocks of larger poetic, dramatic, and fictional struc-
Indeed, T.S. Eliot’s “mythical method” remains the most enduring leg-
acy of the Modernists writing before World War II to the Postmodernists
writing afterwards. I use the term Postmodernism historically, and culturally.
Historically, it refers to literature written since the end of the World War II
which employs the “mythical method” of Modernist literature written before
it. Eliot’s famous method uses myth to confer “shape and significance” upon
the “anarchy and futility” of history. The method involves a sustained paral-
lel between the realistic details of daily life, and an undercurrent of mytho-
logical symbolism. Modernism’s “mythical method” is Postmodernism’s
point of departure.
The most important myths in Modernism and Postmodernism include
the labyrinth, the Great Goddess, the apocalypse, and various aspects of
hermeticism (Kabbalah and alchemy). The single most important of these,
however—whether modernist or postmodernist—is the nekyia, a Homeric
term for the descent to the underworld. The variations on the myth are stag-
gering: there is not a single major figure of the 20th century who does not at
some point refer to the myth in one or more major works.
The Modern and Postmodernist underworld can be conceived as a man-
sion with four chambers: crypt, inferno, temenos, and cornucopia. As a
2 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

crypt, the underworld is a place where the hero or poet confronts the ances-
tral voices of the dead (as in the Odyssey, the Aeneid, or the Inferno). The
ancestors communicate the accumulated wisdom of the generations, and of-
ten reveal the pattern shaping the hero’s destiny. For Modernism, this often
involved incorporating the themes, styles, or techniques of the literary ances-
tors of the tradition, usually in the form of allusions, citations, imitation, and
parody (as in Pound’s Cantos, Joyce’s Ulysses, or Eliot’s Waste Land).
As an inferno, the underworld is a place of suffering and torment, not
only psychological and spiritual, but also cultural and historical (as in Con-
rad’s Heart of Darkness, Mann’s Death in Venice, or Hermann Broch great
masterpiece, The Death of Virgil). Yet the underworld is simultaneously a
temenos—a sacred space of revelation and transformation—where the fun-
damental forms of the imagination are manifested in dramatically potent
symbolic images. In this last sense, the underworld is a granary, where the
seed forms of the imagination are stored—Pluto’s cornucopia, filled with the
archetypal images that give shape and significance to life and art.
C.G. Jung derived his term archetype from Plato’s word eidos, usually
translated as “idea” or “form.” The post-Jungian theorist, James Hillman,
associates eidos with “aidoneus,” an epithet for Hades, Lord of the Under-
world, in whose cornucopia are stored the “ideational forms and shapes” that
govern life and art (Dream 51). Hillman’s linkage between the nekyia and
the revelation of the fundamental forms of the archetypal imagination is cen-
tral to my conception of the myth, as it occurs throughout the work of the
20th century, and now on into the 21st, as exemplified by the late novels of
Thomas Pynchon.
Indeed, certain images are catalyzed by the appearance of the myth with
such regularity that we may well call them archetypal—they are universal
symbols of the human imagination that recur in all times and all places, in a
variety of artistic, religious, and literary contexts. Hence, they form the
backbone of the traditions associated with the various arts. I combine the
words archetype and nekyia in a coinage, “necrotype,” which I use to refer
to those archetypal images catalyzed by the descent to the underworld.
My use of the term necrotype for the deep images of the mythical
method that provide shape and significance upon the Postmodernist nekyia
has something in common with a wide range of terms various scholars have
used to designate the fundamental structures of literary form (such as ele-
mentary idea, archetype, schema, memorial image, monad, minute particu-
lar, image cluster, hieroglyph, etc.). At a very basic level, however, I use the
Introduction 3

term with reference to images typically associated with the underworld:

there are, for example fluvian (river crossings), oreographic (mountain im-
agery), threshold (doorways, staircases), clothing (divestiture and investi-
ture), catoptric (mirrors and reflections), insectopmorphic (butterflies, bees
and honey), ornithological (various species of birds), ocular (eye symbol-
ism), astronomical (solar, lunar, planetary, and zodiacal cycles), geometrical
and architectural, and, finally, textual necrotypes. These images are the ele-
mentary constituents of the nekyia, analogous to functions, motifs, arche-
types, and complexes.1
The textual necrotype is of particular interest, for it suggests that the
nekyia is a mythic image of the creative mysteries of both writing and read-
ing—of the production of a text (poeisis), and its interpretation (herme-
neusis). Traditionally, the underworld is associated with texts in various
forms (books, songs, mysterious inscriptions, paintings, frescoes, hiero-
glyphics, etc.), and a wide range of responses to, and interpretation of, those
texts: Egyptian, Babylonian and Tibetan mythologies have their Books of
the Dead, for example, texts mysteriously produced which catalyze the dy-
namics of interpretation and response.
Sometimes these texts come in the form of geometrical figures (spheres,
triangles, squares, cubes, various polyhedrons, and so forth) that form hiero-
glyphic symbols. When we find a single image that embraces the opposites
of the entire creation, I call these figures hologlyphs, combining the words
hieroglyph (a symbolic image communicating a spiritual truth) and holo-
graph (an image in which every part contains the whole). Hence, a
hologlyph is a representation of the polarities of the cosmos in one image,
such as the sign of the macrocosm in Goethe’s Faust, sometimes called
Solomon’s Seal. It is composed of interlocking equilateral triangles, upward
and downward pointing, inscribed within a circle, and it represents the entire
cycle of birth and death, the creation and destruction of the world and the
soul, of both incarnation and transfiguration (for which W.B. Yeats used the
symbolism of interlacing cones spinning in gyres).
Such necrotypes occur in Postmodernism in an elaborate, playful, multi-
cultural, self-reflexive manner that I call ludic syncretism—taking the word
ludic from Johan Huizinga’s pivotal book, Homo Ludens, of 1938, in which
he argues that play, performance, and games characterize our species, no
longer referred to as Homo sapiens. Indeed, such developments in science
and psychology as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and Jung’s Collective
Unconscious in the early decades of Modernism rendered the notion of Ho-
4 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

mo Sapiens obsolete, and necessitated its replacement with the idea of Homo
Faber—mankind as the species that makes the world it lives in by producing
what Wallace Stevens called Supreme Fictions (such as those of art, litera-
ture, mythology and religion). Huizinga’s work takes the next step by focus-
ing on the element of play, performance, and game in the production of these
fictions that confer shape and significance upon life and art.
One may adduce a wide variety of works from the canon of Postmodern-
ism to exemplify the ludic nature of its literature. Several of these literally
use games as metaphorical paradigms, such as Italo Calvino’s use of the Ta-
rot in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, or James
Merrill’s 1001 nights with the Ouija Board in The Changing Light at Sand-
over. Such great works often combine the ludic element with a vast multicul-
tural range of mythological materials. Hence, my term ludic syncretism: the
playful, multicultural development of the mythical method in Postmodern-
ism, which evolved from Modernism in the same way Ovid, let’s say, and
the younger generation of Latin poets (like Apuleius), evolved naturally
from the Classical dignity of figures such as Virgil and Lucretius.
Several analogies from the history of art suggest that this movement
from Modernism to Postmodernism represents a basic dynamic of cultural
development. The playful theatricality, ornate style, and dynamic revision-
ism of Postmodernism recalls the exaggerated forms of Mannerism, the Ba-
roque, or the Rococo, which evolved out of the classicism of the Renais-
sance. This development may be exemplified by a comparison between the
“Davids” of Michelangelo and Bernini, let’s say; the “Madonnas” of Raph-
ael and versus El Greco; or the “Last Suppers” of Leonardo (1495–98) and
Tintoretto (1592–94)—the serene simplicity and balanced symmetry of the
former clearly of the Renaissance; and the theatricality, dramatic chiaro-
scuro, and vividly swirling forms of the latter just as clearly Mannerist. It is
a movement similar to the one that takes us, say, from the discrete under-
statement of Marguerite Yourcenar’s restrained classicism (in works such as
Fires or Memoirs of Hadrian), to the pyrotechnic playfulness of Nabokov’s
nimble exuberance (in works such as Pale Fire or Pnin).
One might also adduce the development of the Hellenistic out of the
Classical, or of the Gothic out of the Romanesque, as analogies of the cul-
tural dynamics by which Postmodernism grew out Modernism—the tortuous
drama of the “Battle of the Titans,” from the Altar of Zeus at Pergamon,
evolving from the refined serenity of the “Birth of Athena,” on the pediment
Introduction 5

of the Parthenon; or the stupendous vaulting of a Reims or Chartres exfoli-

ated from the firm stolidity of St. Denis or Ste. Madeleine de Vézelay.
More recent exemplifications of this cultural dynamic would include the
development of the Post Impressionism of a Gauguin or Van Gogh out of the
Impressionism of a Manet or Renoir—or even of the late out of the early
Monet, a movement illustrated by a comparison between the Water Lilies of
the early 1920s, and the Haystacks of the early 1890s. Such analogies are
called to mind when we compare the mythical method as employed by
Postmodernists like Nabokov, Borges, Eco, Carter, or Pynchon, with that of
their great Modernist precursors, like Musil, Broch, Mann, Eliot, Joyce,
Pound, or Lawrence.2
It is, of course, in the camp of Postmodern ludic syncretistm that the tent
of Thomas Pynchon’s work is to be pitched. The single most important myth
in his novels is the nekyia, the descent to the underworld, a sustained pres-
ence throughout the course of his extraordinary career. The chapters that
follow offer close readings to verify this assertion. My method is based upon
the premise that a thesis requires substantiating evidence, before it can be
accepted or refuted. To that end, I provide extensive exemplification, in the
form of quotations and analysis, to show that the diction and iconography of
the nekyia is the single most important myth in the novels, conferring that
shape and signficance upon their potential anarchy and futility that Eliot saw
as the consequence of the mythical method. Because the nekyia is associated
with regularly recurring settings, characters, plots, images, themes, and clus-
ters of symbolic images (which I call necrotypes), some density of specifica-
tion is require to establish the centrality of the underworld in the novels of
this most extraordinary artist.

For an overview of these terms, see my book, The Descent to the Underworld in Mod-
ernism: 1895–1945.
The art critic Thomas McEvilley also suggests “the periodic recurrence of the post-
modern,” and that “modernist and postmodernist tendencies have actually been following one
upon the other throughout history” (Weschler 126). McEvilley also suggests a parallel be-
tween our postmodernism and the Hellenistic age similar to the one I am proposing here.
Chapter One: V.

The letter V, like the metaphor of the Yo-yo that Pynchon uses to evoke his
hero Benny Profane’s peregrinations up and down the East Coast, is a hiero-
glyphic symbol of the nekyia—the descent to, and return from, the under-
world. In The Great Code, Northrop Frye uses the letter “U” in the same
way, to delineate the sequence of descents and returns that confers shape and
significance upon the Biblical nekyia. Pynchon’s “V” puts an edge on the
“U,” playfully reinforced by the image of the Yo-yo, which he compares to
the orbit of a planet: “The point furthest from the sun is called aphelion. The
point furthest from the Yo-yo hand is called, by analogy, apocheir” (30).
This language connects the trajectory of the Yo-yo to the rhythmic cycle of
the nekyia. And so it is no surprise to find this vast and complicated novel
structured throughout by reiterations of the myth of nekyia, a series of reit-
erations Northrop Frye used the sine wave to signify (in his classic study of
Biblical narrative), in the same way that I use the letter “W” to signify an
interlaced sequence of descents and returns.
V. begins with a characteristically ludic variation on the myth, when
Benny Profane, on leave from his old “ghost ship,” the U.S.S Scaffold, wan-
ders through the streets of Norfolk, heading towards a bar called “The Sail-
or’s Grave” (1). It is Christmas Eve, 1955, and a host of the damned are
gathered at the bar, waiting for “Suck Hour,” when a barmaid named Bea-
trice will blow a “boatswain’s pipe,” unleashing a tidal wave of drunk sailors
diving for the beer taps, which are “made of foam rubber, in the shape of
large breasts” (8). The barmaid’s name is the first of several allusions to
Dante’s Inferno, and indeed, “The Sailor’s Grave” is inhabited by the
damned: standing in “the doorway,” with “one foot in the Grave,” Benny
Profane hesitates, before crossing the threshold into “a normal night’s dream
turning to nightmare” (2). It is an underworld inhabited by “underage” Ma-
rines “barfing in the street”; barmaids with ship’s propellers “tattooed on
each buttock”; a “potential berserk studying the best technique for jumping
through a plate glass window” (an image Pynchon’s later—and lesser—
novel Vineland begins with); “a drunken deck ape crying in the alley,” scared
the SP’s will “put him in a strait jacket”; and a host of other shades, whose
8 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

faces are “turned green and ugly” by the “mercury-vapor lamps, receding in
an asymmetric V to the east where it’s dark and there are no more bars” (2).
Mercury, of course, is the metal of Hermes, classical guide of souls to the
underworld, and the asymmetric V recedes into the darkness of its depths.
The letter is therefore the first of a series of hieroglyphs catalyzed by the
nekyia: signs and symbols mysteriously inscribed that must then be deci-
phered during the course of the journey. The second allusion to this theme,
so central to the myth, comes when Benny watches the sailors diving for the
breast taps: “Beer had soaked down most of the sawdust behind the bar:
skirmishes and amateur footwork were now scribbling it into alien hiero-
glyphs” (9). And the second allusion to Dante’s Inferno comes when Benny
subsequently escapes the “Grave” before the cops shake it down, running off
with a woman named Paola Maijsral, from the island of Malta (another des-
tination of the nekyia later in the novel). Her name, of course, alludes to
Dante’s unforgettable image of Paolo and Francesca, whirled around in a
tornado of desire, in the second circle of the Inferno. Though the genders are
reversed, Paola will play the role of Beatrice, initiating Benny’s journey into
the depths of various underworlds, in search of the mysterious V.
Wandering back and forth between Norfolk and Newport News, in and
out of bed with Paola, though ultimately unable to “decode her several han-
kerings” during the holiday festivities (11), Benny wakes up one morning
thinking of Rachel Owlglass, a Jewess with an MG, whom he had met while
working in restaurant in upstate New York. Benny’s musings introduce the
first of several historical episodes central to the novel’s quest for the myste-
rious V: that of the war between the Israelis and the Arabs for control of Pal-
estine. Benny’s boss at the restaurant and motel is a Zionist, though of a pe-
culiar sort: he has “a mezuzah nailed up over the vegetable reefer,” and a
“Zionist banner hanging in back of the salad table,” along side which he puts
a machine gun he imagines having been “smuggled out of Parris island piece
by piece,” the way “the Haganah [a paramilitary organization in British con-
trolled Palestine from 1920 to 1948] would do it” (16). As the novel pro-
gresses, the incorporation of historical material having to do with the crisis in
the Middle East intensifies.
After the holiday season in tidewater Virginia is over, Benny wanders
north for an extended stay in New York City—an episode which revolves
around one of the most extraordinary variations on the nekyia in the history
of the novel. After finding a mattress in “a downtown flophouse called Our
V. 9

Home” (31), Benny gets up one morning and decides to go Yo-yoing on the
subway. After a gang of Puerto Rican kids invites him to go help their friend
Angel “kill alligators” in the sewers, “Down there” below the subways, “un-
der the street” (34), Benny falls asleep and has a dream replete with allusions
to the nekyia that foreshadow his descent. He dreams he is “walking on a
street at night where there was nothing but his own field of vision alive”
(34). He sees neon signs scattered here and there, spelling out words he
wouldn’t remember when he woke” (34)—thus implicating the combined
dynamics of poeisis and hermeneusis catalyzed by the oneiric nekyia. Benny
fears that if he “kept going down that street, not only his ass but also his
arms, legs, sponge brain and clock of a heart must be left behind to litter the
pavement, be scattered among manhole covers” (35)—as if dismembered,
like Osiris, the Egyptian Lord of the Dead. The allusions to the myth con-
tinue as Benny wonders if “the mercury-lit street” is “home,” and that if is
“returning like the elephant to his graveyard, to lie down and soon become
ivory” (35).
Before making that promised journey down below the subways into the
sewers of the city, however, Pynchon interpolates another variation on the
nekyia, at the beginning of Chapter Two, when Rachel Owlglass, working as
a “personnel girl at a downtown employment agency,” goes to an appoint-
ment with a plastic surgeon named Shale Schoenmaker (to make beautiful),
in his office on the East Side (39). The office is in a “fashionable maze or
warren of rooms in an apartment building between First and York Avenues,
at the fringes of Germantown” (40). Rachel sits in the waiting room looking
at a clock on a shelf under a large mirror. It is a “turn-of-the-century clock”
with a “double face” that is “suspended by four golden flying buttresses
above a maze of works” (40). The pendulum that drives the clock is a disk
that turns quarter revolutions: “Mounted on the disk were two imps or de-
mons,” whose movements “were reflected in the mirror along with the win-
dow at Rachel’s back” (41). The mirror reflects the big pine tree outside the
window, and the “two demons” performing their “metronomic dance” on the
disk of the clock (41). Since Rachel looks at the mirror at an angle of 45º, she
can see both the “face” of the clock “turned toward the room and the face on
the other side, reflected in the mirror” (41). The image, and Rachel’s reflec-
tions upon it, yield philosophical musings central to the postmodern nekyia
(in which mirrors play a central role, from Borges to Eco): “here were time
and reverse time,” Pynchon writes, “co-existing, canceling one another ex-
actly out” (41). Does “real time plus virtual or mirror-time equal zero [….]
10 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

Or was it only the mirror world that counted,” a world in which those “al-
tered” by Schoenmaker’s plastic surgery “would thence forth run on mirror-
time; work and love by mirror-light, and be only, till death stopped the
heart’s ticking (metronome’s music) quietly as light ceases to vibrate, an
imp’s dance under the century’s own chandeliers” (41).
Nearly all the major postmodernists (Borges, Eco, Márquez, and others)
fuse the catoptric imagery the nekyia with the myth of the labyrinth—which
in Borges figures both time and the text. Here, the mirror world is driven by
demons, hence yielding a Gnostic variation on the nekyia—according to
which this world below is a distant reflection of the soul of God (Sophia),
who has fallen into, or cast her shadow upon, the waters of the abyss, and is
then imprisoned by the demonic archons of the material world (Quispell
212–13). Rachel, in fact, has come to plead the case for her ex-College
roommate, Esther Harvitz, who is “flat broke,” “going through hell,” and
hence unable to pay for her nose job—which, like a “long unbroken chain of
Jewish mothers going all the way back to Eve,” she is convinced she needs
(42). We will hear more about what I dare not call Esther’s nasal nekyia in a
later chapter.
The image of the clock reflected in the mirror, with its disk revolving in
counter-revolutions, may be taken as a metaphor for the novel itself, which
will revolve between the “real time” of the novel’s present (circa 1956), and
the multiple episodes of “mirror time” in the “mirror world” of history (41).
The book moves relentlessly back and forth between the two, its narrative
nekyia oscillating (like the demons in the clock and mirror) back and forth
between the present and the past, taking the reader into what one critic called
“the burial place of memory,” in his discussion of the Classical underworlds
of Homer and Virgil (an argument logically extended to Dante). In Book 11
of the Odyssey, and in Book 6 of the Aeneid, the epic heroes encounter the
great figures of the historical past, and, in Virgil, of the future as well, since
the souls of those Romans who have served the empire in previous lives, are
preparing for rebirth in their next. Similarly, Pynchon’s novel delves ever
more deeply into the complex world of the ancestral past, following a variety
of forkings in the labyrinth of history.
The first forking comes after Rachel’s trip to see Dr. Schoenmaker, when
she goes to a party with the Whole Sick Crew, to which she is invited by
Paola Maijstral. Leaving Paola’s room, Rachel imagines its clock passing
through “the surface of a mirror,” now prepared “to repeat in mirror-time
V. 11

what it had done on the side of real-time” (47). When she arrives at the party,
Pynchon evokes the ocular imagery long associated with the nekyia, and the
goddess who presides over the journey: Profane is mesmerized by Rachel’s
eyes, which “a thousand secret things” seem to have been done to, so that
they look “sexy and fathomless” (47). They shine in a “haze of cigarette
smoke,” and seem to be suffused with the “smoke” of the city, “ its streets
the courtyards of limbo, its bodies like wraiths” (48)—details which defini-
tively connect Manhattan to the underworld.
The historical revelations that proceed are ancestral, revolving around
the father of a young man at the party named Stencil, a “world adventurer”
who is fascinated by Paola, because she is Maltese (48). Stencil’s father,
Sidney, had “died under unknown circumstances in 1919 while investigating
the June Disturbances” (48). After his father dies, Stencil Jr. comes upon a
passage in his journal, dated “Florence, April, 1899,” in which Stencil Sr.
wrote that “‘There is more behind and inside V. than any of us had sus-
pected’” (49)—an entry which sets Stencil Jr. off on a life-long quest to un-
cover the mystery of his father’s identity, and of his relationship with V. That
quest has led Herbert (Stencil Jr.) to jobs in various “kingdoms of death”: in
East Africa, Greece, southern France, and “civil service positions back
home” (50). The search for V animates his life, and, as it turns out, Dr.
Schoenmaker is said to own “a vital piece of the V. jigsaw” (51).
Chapter Three, however, moves from the New York of 1956, to Stencil
Sr.’s encounters with V. in Cairo and Alexandria, around the turn of the cen-
tury, when a spy named Porpentine is murdered in Egypt by a man named
Eric Bongo-Shaftesbury (61). Stencil Jr. attempts to reconstruct the story
from the manuscript his father has left behind—thus putting a text within the
text at the heart of the novel’s nekyia. The story is baroquely complex, with
only the mysterious figure of V. to guide us through its labyrinth, as Ariadne
did Theseus. Stencil first hears of her in a café in Alexandria, where there is
talk of Victoria Wren and her father Sir Alastair, implicated in some assassi-
nation plot. We then move from a party at the Austrian consulate, with talk
of an anarchist plot against Lord Kitchener in Khartoum, to a restaurant in
the Place Mohammed Ali, where a pedophile named Maxwell Rowley-
Bugge watches twelve men and a small girl come in for dinner (70).
When the assassin to be, Bongo-Shaftsbury, comes into the restaurant,
allusions to the Egyptian nekyia are evoked. He sits down at a table with
Victoria and her boyfriend Goodfellow, and he introduces himself as “‘Har-
makhis,’” pointing to the mask he is wearing—a “ceramic hawk’s head.
12 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

‘God of Heliopolis and chief deity of Lower Egypt [….] Literally Horus on
the horizon’” (70). Horus, of course, plays a key role in the resurrection of
his father Osiris, Lord of the Egyptian underworld, who is assassinated by
his wicked brother Set. Horus recovers the various limbs of his dismembered
father, scattered all over Egypt (like the pieces of Pynchon’s jig saw puzzle),
and defeats Set in a furious battle, during which he loses the eye that will
later be used to resuscitate Osiris. Hence, Bongo-Shaftsbury’s interest in
Luxor, Grébaut’s excavation of the “‘tomb of Theban priests back in ’91,’”
and the earlier work of Sir Flinders Petrie, is appropriate, and reinforces the
previous allusions to the mythology of the underworld in the novel (74).
Further references reinforce the allusion, when Stencil heads north on the
Alexandria-Cairo train, heading into the Delta, itself a V-shaped feature of
the Egyptian landscape (82). The conductor on the train is named Waldetar, a
Portugese Jew obsessed with his Sephardic ancestry, who muses upon the
story of a massacre of the Jews in the year 3554 by Ptolemy Philopator
(77)—the first of various genocidal campaigns to be evoked by the novel’s
exploration of what James Joyce called the “nightmare” of history. Yet when
Waldetar looks out of the window while collecting tickets on the train, his
musings combine the Egyptian and the Jewish underworlds with Greek my-
thology: “from the window” Waldetar watches as “The site of the ancient
Eleusis—a great mound, looking like the one spot on earth fertile Demeter
had never seen, passed by to the south” (78). The reference is central to the
novel’s quest in pursuit of V., who, this passage suggests, may be seen as a
kind of Persephone, whose abduction to the underworld by Hades, Lord of
Death, formed the basis of the Eleusinian mysteries of Classical Greece—
rituals founded by the grieving mother Demeter, goddess of the grain, who
compels the resurrection of her daughter by withholding the fruits of the
What led Pynchon to move Eleusis from Greece to Egypt I cannot say. A
very different and distinctly Egyptian underworld follows hard upon the allu-
sion to the Classical mysteries: when the train passes by lake Mareotis, Wal-
detar thinks about “150 villages” underneath the water

submerged by a man-made Flood in 1801, when the English cut through an isthmus
of desert during the siege of Alexandria, to let the Mediterranean in. Waldetar liked
to think that the waterfowl soaring thick in the air were ghosts of fellahin. What
submarine wonders at the floor of Mareotis! Lost country: houses, hovels, farms,
water wheels, all intact. (79)
V. 13

The image evokes both the ornithological and the aquatic archetypes of the
nekyia (souls were represented as birds in the Egyptian Books of the Dead,
which record the sun god Ra’s journey across the river through labyrinthine
hours of the Tuat), and connects both with the historical underworld of the
“ghosts of fellahin,” Egyptian peasants killed by the British during the siege
of Alexandria.
Further ramifications of the historical underworld of the Middle East are
explored in the next section of Chapter Three, which is devoted to an impov-
erished carriage driver in Cairo named Gebrail, whose name refers to the
archangel Gabriel, who dictated the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed (84).
Gebrail drives an Englishman with a gangrenous face into the “pungent laby-
rinth” of the Bazaar to pick up a girl for someone in the British Consulate
(84). The same Englishman tells Gebrail that he is “‘taking Victoria to the
opera tomorrow night,’” hence enlisting his services (86). Gebrail also works
for a jewel merchant who “lent money to the Mahdists,” a fanatic organiza-
tion associated with “Mohammed Ahmed, the Mahdi of ’83,” who

was believed by some to be sleeping not dead in a cavern near Baghdad. And on the
Last Day, when the prophet Christ re-establishes el-Islam as the religion of the
world he will return to life to slay Dejal the antichrist at a church gate somewhere in
Palestine. The Angel Asrafil will trumpet a blast to kill everything on earth, and an-
other to awaken the dead. (85)

The myth is both Arthurian and Apocalyptic, evoking the Once and Future
King who will defeat the forces of evil on the Last Day, after rising himself
from the cavern of the dead. Hence, in a few short but dense pages, Pynchon
has evoked Islamic, Egyptian, Greek, and Arthurian variations on the myth
of the nekyia, and linked them all with the historical underworld of the Mid-
dle East.
At the conclusion of Chapter Three, Porpentine finally meets Victoria
face to face, and she confesses her love for Goodfellow, on a night when her
father, Sir Alastair, is at a German church listening to Bach. Later, in a box at
a summer theatre, Porpentine is finally assassinated by Bongo Shaftsbury
when he goes with drawn pistol to fight a German jewelry salesman called
Lepsius. The murder of Porpentine, and the cloud of conspiracy associated
with it, brings this chapter, devoted to Stencil Sr.’s journals, to an end, leav-
ing us to wonder about the mystery of Victoria’s secrets.
The chapter had begun with two important, if slightly overbearing allu-
sions, directly relevant to the novel’s nekyia. Stencil awakens one morning to
14 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

hope that “the pursuit of V. was merely a scholarly quest after all, an adven-
ture of the mind, in the tradition of The Golden Bough or The White God-
dess” (59). Both books inform the innumerable variations on the myth of the
underworld and the goddess in the literature of the 20th century. Frazer’s
book focuses on the death and rebirth of the King of the Wood, guardian of
an oak tree in a grove sacred to the goddess Diana. Three central chapters, as
Eliot instructed us, focus on the dying and resurrecting gods of the Ancient
Mediterranean, such as Attis, Adonis, and Osiris. Graves focuses on the
Celtic and Classical variations of the myth of the goddess, who presides over
the mysteries of death and rebirth, and the energies of poeisis she inspires.
Both books therefore relate directly to the quest for V., who leads us into a
complex underworld, as historical as it is mythical. Stencil’s pursuit is, he
realizes “literal,” V. being “ambiguously a beast of venery, chased like a
hart, hind, or hare, chased like an obsolete, or bizarre, or forbidden form of
sexual delight” (61).
The allusion to the deer is particularly apt here, since the animal was sa-
cred not only to the Classical goddesses Artemis and Diana, but also to the
Celtic goddesses of Old Europe, for whom the stag represented the rhythms
of death and rebirth over which she presides (since it sheds its antlers sea-
sonally). In the Arthurian romances of the Middle Ages, which drew heavily
from Celtic myth, the deer leads the hunters into the depths of the forest,
where the mysteries of death and rebirth proceed. And the reference to the
“hare” anticipates one of the perverse inhabitants of the demonic underworld
in Chapter Three: Maxwell Rowley-Bugge, the pedophile who pursues Alice
(down the rabbit hole?) in Yorkshire in 1890 (69).
Chapters Four and Five return us from the “mirror world” of the histori-
cal past, to the so-called “real time” of the present, in which Benny Profane
goes down into the sewers to hung alligators, and Esther Harvitz goes to get
a nose job from Dr. Schoenmaker. Both episodes are richly informed by the
mythology of the nekyia, most explicitly the alligator hunt, which Benny
associates with “the soul’s passage down the toilet and into the underworld,”
where “alligator ghosts” congregate in one special “alligator’s sepulcher”
Down in the sewers, with his Puerto Rican sidekick Angel holding the
flashlight, Benny is chasing an odd alligator, “pinto, pale white, seaweed
black,” moving along “fast but clumsy” (115). The chase has been “going on
since nightfall,” and has lead Benny ever more deeply into the labyrinthine
V. 15

underworld beneath the streets of New York, bringing him to a particularly

“tortuous” section of the “sewer tunnel,” which bifurcates in a “stretch of
short, crazy angles” (115–16). Following “the tip of the alligator’s tail sa-
shaying around the next bend,” Profane stumbles into a region of the tunnels
called “Fairing’s Parish, named after a priest who’d lived topside years ago”
(122)—and here the revelations characteristic of the nekyia proceed, in one
of the oddest temenoi in the history of the myth. All descents move toward a
temenos, a sacred space of revelation and transformation, where the myster-
ies of death and rebirth are enacted; but none quite so strange as Fairing’s
During the “Depression of the ‘30’s, in an hour of apocalyptic well-
being,” Father Fairing had “decided that rats were going to take over after
New York died” (122). Foreseeing “nothing but a city of starved corpses,
covering the sidewalks and the grass of the parks, lying belly up in the foun-
tains, hanging wrynecked from the streetlamps” (122), Father Fairing climbs
“downstairs through the nearest manhole, bringing a Baltimore Catechism,”
and sets out to convert the rats “to the Roman Church” (122). The first of
several perverse Jesuits in Pynchon’s canon has left his story behind in a
journal “still preserved in an inaccessible region of the Vatican library”
This second text within the text (Stencil Sr.’s manuscript is the first) had
been discovered “on top of a brick, stone and stick cairn large enough to
cover a human corpse, assembled in a stretch of 36-inch pipe near a frontier
of the Parish” (125). The position of the journal therefore evokes the connec-
tion between the nekyia, poeisis, and hermeneusis, since it has been discov-
ered on a “cairn” that resembles a coffin. A cairn is a “sepulchral monument
over the grave of some person of distinction” (O.E.D 315). The journal lies
beside a “breviary,” but there is “no trace of the catechism or Knight’s Mod-
ern Seamanship,” leading Manfred Katz (previously in charge of the alligator
operation) to conclude that “‘maybe they are studying the best way to leave a
sinking ship’” (125)—an image with connects Father Fairing’s endeavor to
the aquatic necrotype of descent, and burial at sea.
Other images associated with the production and interpretation of the
text surface as Benny crawls further along the network of sewer tunnels:
“Scrawled on the walls were occasional quotes from the Gospels, Latin tags
(Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem—Lamb of God,
who taketh away the sins of the world, grant us peace” (125). This inscrip-
tion from the Mass is appropriate to the Catholic view of the underworld as
16 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

an Inferno or Purgatory where the dead are punished for , and purged of,
their sins. Father Fairing’s sins are distinctly perverse. Crawling past “old
inscriptions,” and a “dark stain shaped like a crucifix,” Benny realizes he is
all alone, and that the alligator will “be dead soon. To join other ghosts”
(126). Then he thinks about “the accounts of Veronica” discovered in the
journal, which evoke “an unnatural relationship between the priest and his
female rat, who was described as a kind of voluptuous Magdalen” (126). In
quotations from the journal, Victoria is called simply “V.” (126)—the title of
our novel, and the name of its mysterious, shape-shifting heroine. She appar-
ently aspires to sisterhood in the Church, but she is devoured by guilt, pre-
sumably because of her relations with Father Fairing (126).
Hence, the mysteries catalyzed and disclosed by Benny’s nekyia revolve
around poeisis (the production of a text, here the journal), and hermeneusis
(its interpretation and the reader’s response). Further allusions reinforce the
previous references to the mythology of the descent, and to the labyrinth,
when Benny finds himself in a section of sewer with “twistings intricate as
any early Christian catacomb” (127), and with the “eyes of ghost rats” upon
him, in a “36-inch pipe that was Father Fairing’s sepulcher,” way down in
the depths of a “bonecellar” (127). Turning a corner amidst the “chalkwritten
walls of legend,” Benny comes upon “a wide space like the nave of a church,
an arched roof overhead, a phosphorescent light coming off walls whose ex-
act arrangement was indistinct” (128). In this oddest of temenoi, Benny finds
himself waiting for some “otherworldly” revelation: perhaps “the alligator
would receive the gift of tongues, the body of Father Fairing be resurrected,
the sexy V. tempt him away from murder” (128). This temenos is not only a
sacred space of revelation, resurrection, and redemption, however; it is also
clearly an Inferno where the sins of the dead are evoked: for “Here in this
room an old man had killed and boiled a catechumen, had committed sod-
omy with a rat, had discussed rodent nunhood with V., a future saint” (128).
To make matters even more ludically complex, we subsequently learn
that the alligator Benny shoots down deep in the labyrinth (like Theseus slay-
ing the Minotaur, or like Jesus Harrowing Hell), turns out to be none other
that Stencil Jr. in disguise, wearing an alligator suit Benny’s boss had given
him. Why is he there? Because “Somewhere in the Paris dossier” left behind
with his father’s journals, is a story about an interview with one of the Col-
lecteurs Généraux who worked the main sewer line which ran under Boule-
vard St. Michel” (139). The old man recalls having seen “a woman who
V. 17

might have been V. on one of the semimonthly Wednesday tours shortly be-
fore the outbreak of the Great War” (139). Stencil takes the old man out to
lunch, and during the conversation “Veronica was mentioned: a priest’s mis-
tress who wanted to become a nun, referred to by her initial in the journal”
(140). And so Stencil Jr. has followed the lead in his father’s dossier, slip-
ping into an alligator suit to descend into the catacombs of the “bonecellar,”
the “sepulcher” of Father Faring, marked by cairns—where he becomes the
sacrifice of a distinctly odd ritual of death and rebirth, shot in the backside by
Benny Profane, before ascending through a manhole, somewhere “on East
River Drive” (140).
So V. is a kind of Ariadne figure, leading us into the historical labyrinth
pieced together by the various episodes of the novel. So far we have seen her
as Victoria Wren, daughter of Sir Alastair; as a young woman in Cairo, in
love with Mr. Goodfellow; as a female rat in the sewers of New York, aspir-
ing to sisterhood, but fucking around with a priest; and as a woman called
Veronica, said to be the mistress of a priest, in Paris shortly before World
War I. Whoever she is, she is surely an archetypal figure, embracing the op-
posites of the great goddess: womb and tomb, saint and whore, angel and
animal. Is she Diana, the goddess of death and rebirth, presiding over the
sacred grove at Lake Nemi? Or is she the White Goddess, Celtic muse and
shapeshifter, like the sorceress Ceridwen? The Jungian school would call her
an anima figure, a manifestation of Pynchon’s inner feminine, imagining
whom leads him to build a labyrinth in her honor. Is she a manifestation of
his mother complex, beneath which is the archetype of the anima, beneath
which further is the divine principle of the great goddess? Surely she is a
manifestation of Goethe’s “Ewige weibliche,” the eternal feminine who leads
us ever more deeply into the labyrinth of the world, and of ourselves.
Incidental allusions to the myth are sustained throughout Chapter Six,
when Benny gets drunk and is carried “down Amsterdam Avenue” by a gang
of “pallbearers, all chanting, ‘Mierda. Mierda. Mierda’” (143). He wakes up
“in Union Square at sundown,” covered by “pigeons who looked like vul-
tures” (143). The nekyia that proceeds is as secular as it is sexual, revolving
around the coming of age of Fina, Angel’s sister, whose eyes haunt Benny
throughout the chapter. The gang she is mixed up with, “The Playboys,” cul-
tivate a “carefully sinister image,” their “faces pale and soulless as the other
side of the night” (145). Fina and her friends’ eyes turn “mirthless, ringed in
shadow,” their “dark eyeholes”—like the Mal Occhi of Italian folklore, or
the spiral eye goddess of death at Hal Tarxien on the Island of Malta (Di
18 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

Stasi 101)—seem to “absorb all the light in the street,” and they inspire one
of Pynchon’s characteristically peculiar songs (148–49). This one cements
the association between the eye goddess and the underworld. It is about “The
eyes of a New York woman,” which are “the twilit side of the moon,” as
“Dead as the leaves in Union Square, / Dead as the graveyard sea” (148).
The song therefore combines the ocular, night-sea, and lunar necrotypes—
the phases of the moon, we should remember, represent what Robert Graves
called the Triple Goddess (Virgin, Mother, and Crone). Fina, alas, soon
makes her passage from one to the other, raped at the end of the chapter, by
one of the lords of one of New York’s many underworlds, after a night in a
seedy bar on a “dream-street” of the hood (158).
The novel then returns to the “mirror time” of the historical underworld,
when further glimpses of V. emerge. The quest this time will take us to Flor-
ence. During a chat with his dentist, Young Stencil talks about one of his
emerging theories about V.: “that she’d been connected, though perhaps only
tangentially, with one of those grand conspiracies or foretastes of Armaged-
don which seemed to have captivated all diplomatic sensibilities in the years
preceding the Great War. V. and a conspiracy. Its particular shape governed
only by the surface accidents of history at the time” (164). The apocalyptic
theme, always closely affiliated with the nekyia (as D.H. Lawrence pointed
out in his last book), has been anticipated by the introduction of the Jihad
fanatics called the Mahdis in Egypt, and by the image of V. pursued by the
alligator in the sewers, like the Virgin Mary by the dragon in St. John’s
Chapter Seven is surely one of the most baroquely complicated in all of
postmodernism. And yet its intersecting plots—V.’s deflowering, a plan to
steal Boticelli’s “Birth of Venus” from the Uffizi Gallery, Godolphin’s Sr.’s
journey to Vheissu, and a raid on the Venezuelan Consulate— are consis-
tently held together by the myth of the nekyia. It is Florence, 1899, the
month of April. Miss Victoria Wren is “nineteen,” her father is widowed, and
she is in love with Evan Godolphin. Her “deflowering” occurs against the
backdrop of the “Fashoda crisis” (176), and she has a comb carved in the
shape of five crucified British soldiers, by a Mahdist, who, in 1881 rebelled
against Egypt, forcing the British to intervene. Lord Kitchener was the com-
mander in chief, but the Egyptian army recaptured Khartoum in 1898. Some
20,000 Sudanese died during the English suppression of the Mahdists. The
V. 19

Fashoda crisis that Pynchon refers to involved a standoff between French and
English forces in 1898.
Victoria therefore to some extent represents the forces of the Empire, and
all the historical nightmares that haunted its demise towards the end of the
century. Her “deflowering” by Evan Godolphin would therefore seem to
suggest the loss of innocence of the Victorian world. Certainly, Evan’s fa-
ther, Captain Hugh, is a “hero of the Empire,” and an “explorer of the Ant-
arctic” (165), whose exploits were “for the Queen,” and “some gorgeous no-
tion of Empire” (180). Much of the chapter focuses on these exploits: in
“China, the Sudan, the East Indies,” and above all Vheissu (167)—the story
of which he tells Victoria in the garden of a church. It is a tale saturated with
the imagery of the nekyia.
Vheissu is an otherworldly country, made up like an entry in an encyclo-
pedia by Borges. It is reached “on camel back over a vast tundra, past the
dolmens and temples of dead cities, finally to the banks of a broad river
which never sees the sun” (179). A dolmen is a prehistoric tomb consisting
of a large, flat stone laid across upright stones, most commonly associated
with pre-Celtic sites of Northern France and England. Godolphin has there-
fore entered a peculiar underworld indeed, the standard threshold of which is
the river crossing, which our Victorian hero traverses “in long teak boats
which are carved like dragons and paddled by brown men whose language is
unknown to all but themselves” (179). A portage “over a neck of treacherous
swampland to a green lake” brings the intrepid Victorian hero to the “first
foothills of the mountains which ring Vheissu” (179). Native guides won’t
risk the passage into the mountains, nor the two more weeks needed to
scramble “over moraine, sheer granite and hard blue ice before the borders of
Vheissu are reached” (179). The topography is mythical: journeys across the
water, and into remote mountains, have been conventional motifs of the
nekyia ever since Odysseus sailed upon the wine dark sea, and Gilgamesh
descended through the twelve leagues of darkness at the roots of the moun-
tains of Mashu, before crossing the ocean of the waters of death, to the Land
of the Faraway.
In Vheissu, Godolphin is captivated by the colors, which are those of an-
other world. Outside the “head shaman’s house” there are “spider monkeys
which are iridescent. They change color in the sunlight” (181). And the col-
ors are constantly changing, as if one “lived inside a madman’s kaleidoscope.
Even your dreams become flooded with colors, with shapes no Occidental
ever saw. Not real shapes, not meaningful ones. Simply random” (181). The
20 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

revelation of shape, pattern, and form is central to the climax of the mythical
nekyia: and surely these shapes would not be “random” for the native Vheis-
suvians (the implied connection with Mt. Vesuvius will surface later in Go-
dolphin’s tale). Later in the chapter we learn that the fish in the rivers are
“opalescent and sometimes the color of fire”; that there are human sacrifices
in Vheissu; and that there are volcanoes with “cities inside them which once
every hundred years erupt into flaming hell” (207).
The colors and shapes are also to be found on the body of “a dark
woman tattooed from head to toes,” with whom Godolphin seems to have
been “in love” (182)—until the “gaudy godawful riot of pattern and color”
revolts him, and he wants “To flay that tattooing to a heap of red, purple, and
green debris, leave the veins and ligaments raw and quivering and open at
last to your eyes and touch” (182). Godolphin’s sadistic fantasy is, surely, a
metaphor for Imperial conquest, and is set against the backdrop of General
Gordon flayed alive by the Mahdis at Khartoum (182). It is a distinctly infer-
nal fantasy, appropriate to a nekyia, leaving one to wonder if perhaps it was
acted upon.
Godolphin says he has “been fury ridden” ever since his journey (180),
as if to suggest pursuit by the spirits of vengeance of the Classical under-
world—and indeed, as his story proceeds, Victoria suspects the old man is
afraid of being spied upon by “Emissaries” from Vheissu, watching him in
the cafés of Florence, at the turn of the century (183). Were these furies sent
to avenge Godolphin’s flaying of his Vheissuvian mistress? We only know
that he is being pursued.
The next section of the chapter is set in the Venezuelan Consulate, where
a gaucho lurking around outside is arrested and sent to the British Consulate.
Victoria has also taken Godolphin’s story to the authorities there. Waking up
at sundown in Victoria’s room at the Savoy, he begins to suspect that “she
might after all be one of the enemy,” and regrets telling her his story: it is as
if he “had stepped into the confessional and found himself instead in an
oubliette” (195). An oubliette is a “secret dungeon, access to which is ob-
tained only through a trapdoor above” (O.E.D. 235). And indeed Sir Hugh
finds himself locked into Victoria’s room, and his escape follows the pattern
of the nekyia established by the image of the trapdoor and secret dungeon.
Finding a letter from Victoria explaining she has gone to the Consulate,
and not to try to escape, Godolphin is overcome by “Remorse and a numb
impotence,” afraid that he “‘was not meant to leave those mountains alive’”
V. 21

(196). He forces the door open with shears, and goes down a flight of “back
stairs and out a service entrance” into the “Via Tosinghi, a block north of the
Piazza” (196)—a descent which proceeds through a sequence of doorways,
characteristic of the threshold imagery of the nekyia. It is a descent which
will ultimately turn Sir Hugh into “a fugitive, a temporary occupant of pen-
sion rooms, a dweller in the demimonde” (196). And, in a manner com-
pletely consistent with the myth of the nekyia, he now sees his “fate com-
plete, pre-assembled, inescapable,” awaiting him in the “demimonde” ahead
of the future (196). The equally characteristic motif of divestiture is reiter-
ated during his flight, when he thinks of “the suicidal fact that below the glit-
tering integument of every foreign land there is a hard dead-point of truth”
The details of Godolphin’s flight from his pursuers turn quickly towards
the related myth of the labyrinth, in a marvelous playful refiguration. Sir
Hugh dashes off “down a narrow, twisting side street,” then turns “abruptly
down an alley,” climbs a trellis, kicks in some French windows on a balcony,
interrupts a couple making love, opens a door, finds a stairway, climbs onto
the roof, clambers over the tops of two or three buildings to an “outside
stairway” descending to another alley, and then jogs along for another “ten
minutes” or so, “steering a sinuous course,” until he comes to a brilliantly
“lighted back window,” where he stands chuckling “in amazement,” as he
recognizes the people inside (198). For, in the middle of the maze, there is
another conspiracy in progress. Here Godolphin is reunited with Signor Man-
tissa, an old friend from Port Said; they share “an identical uprootedness, a
similarly catholic despair,” get drunk together, and find “a temporary home
in the half world behind Port Said’s Europeanized boulevards” (199). Godol-
phin agrees to accompany his old friend on a “river barge at midnight,” for it
seems the conspiracy to steal Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” is underway
Further details about Vheissu, later in the chapter, reinforce its associa-
tion with the underworld. In section VIII, a neo-Machiavellian spy named
Ferrante, assigned to the Venezuelan problem, whose office is on the 2nd
floor of an antique instruments factory run by an Austrian named Vogt,
learns from his mother that Vheissu is not a code name for Venezuela, as he
suspected. Rather, it refers to the reality of a “barbaric and unknown race,
employed by God knows whom,” who are “blasting the Antarctic ice with
dynamite, preparing to enter a subterranean network of natural tunnels, a
network whose existence is known only to the inhabitants of Vheissu, the
22 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

Royal Geographic Society in London, Herr Godolphin, and the spies of Flor-
ence” (211). This notion of an international conspiracy involving labyrin-
thine underworlds coiled beneath cities will later reappear in Umberto Eco’s
fascinating—but far inferior novel—Foucault’s Pendulum.1
Further allusions to the nekyia occur in the next section of the novel,
which begins with Victoria waiting for Evan Godolphin at the “intersection”
of Via del Purgatorio and Via dell’Inferno” (212). Standing “stone still at the
crossroads,” she sees Godolphin Jr. moving towards her “like a wraith,” a
“spiritual double,” or “doppelgänger to the father” (213). A “wraith,” of
course, is a “ghost, or spectral figure of the person supposedly seen just be-
fore or after his death” (Webster’s 858). This particularl wraith evokes Jung-
ian and doctrinal reflections, as Victoria thinks to herself that

If there were, as some doctors of the mind were beginning to suspect, an ancestral
memory, an inherited reservoir of primordial knowledge which shapes certain of our
actions and casual desires, then not only her presence here and now between purga-
tory and hell, but her entire commitment to Roman Catholicism as needful and plau-
sible stemmed from and depended on an article of the primitive faith which glim-
mered shiny and supreme in that reservoir like a crucial valve-handle: the notion of
the wraith or spiritual double. (214)

The doctor of the mind cautiously alluded to is surely C.G. Jung, and the
doctrine both that of the archetypes of the collective unconscious, and of the
Holy Trinity, according to which the Father and the Son are one. But the rev-
elation of the ancestors is absolutely conventional in the myth of the descent
to the underworld, so richly evoked by Pynchon’s novel: Odysseus sees his
mother, Aeneas his father, and Scipio his Grandfather in their descents to the
land of the dead. But it also seems to Victoria that she and Evan are like
“brother and sister,” as they walk through the streets of the “strange” city
(216). It seems that they are “‘in limbo,’” at “‘some still point between hell
and purgatory,’” and it feels “As if something trembled below its surface,
waiting to burst through” (216). Together they look upon the “strolling
chains of tourists like a Dance of Death” (216).
The father and the son eventually meet at “Scheissvogel’s Biergarten und
Rathskeller,” a favorite gathering place for exiles in search of “some Hof-
brauhaus of the spirit like a grail,” holding “a krug of Munich beer like a
chalice” (218). The grail quest will reappear, in association with what we
might call the Arthurian nekyia, in Gravity’s Rainbow. Here, in the Biergar-
ten, it remains a casual motif, falling in the shadow of further revelations
V. 23

about Vheissu, when Godolphin Sr. tells the story of his trip to the Antarctic.
He speaks of his “Southern Expedition” in terms which evoke the diction and
imagery of the nekyia: it is a trip to “the dead center of the carousel,” to a
place “entirely lifeless and empty,” where he finds “the corpse” of a spider
monkey from Vheissu, left as a sign of “evil” and a “‘mockery of life,
planted where everything but Hugh Godolphin was inanimate’” (221). The
Antarctic, for Sir Hugh, represents a “‘dream of annihilation’” (221).
In the final section of Chapter Seven, two of the gaucho’s plots con-
verge: the raid on the Venezuelan Consulate, and the attempt to steal Boti-
celli’s “Birth of Venus.” Godolphin escapes with his son, while Victoria
stays behind to watch the riot, which she calls “the fair of violent death”
(224). Mantissa slashes the painting when the colorful light reminds him of
“Hugh Godolphin’s spider-monkey, still shimmering through crystal ice at
the bottom of the world” (225). Stencil Sr. appears to say that he had thought
the plot was the assassination of the Foreign Minister. And the Chapter then
concludes with Evan, Sr. Hugh, and Mantissa floating off on a barge at mid-
night, calling “in what were already ghost’s voices” (228), as they disappear
into the “mirror world” of the Florentine conspiracies.
Chapter Eight therefore returns us to the “real time” of the historical pre-
sent, on the streets of New York, where Benny Profane reads the Classifieds,
looking for work. Once again, the oscillation between the past and the pre-
sent reminds us of the image of the clock in Dr Schoenmaker’s office, driven
by demons standing on the disk, and reflected in the mirror. Benny sits at the
“geographical center” of Manhattan (229), in front of the “Space/Time Em-
ployment Agency, down on lower Broadway” (231). He is dreaming of “his
own submarine country, peopled by mermaids and deep-sea creatures all at
peace among the rocks and sunken galleons” (231). Waking up after rush
hour, he thinks that “If under the street and under the sea are the same then
he was the king of both” (231).
Meanwhile Stencil continues to ponder the “ultimate shape of his V-
structure,” wondering how Paola fits “into this grand Gothic pile of infer-
ences he was hard at work creating” (244)—which of course suggests that
Stencil is a mirror image of Pynchon, a writer within the text, engaged in the
energies catalyzed by the nekyia, here represented by his “pursuit of V.”
(244). A stencil of course is a pattern, traced from an original (here the doc-
uments left behind by Stencil’s father), which can be used to reproduce an
image. It is therefore a self-reflexive image of the artist at work, and a meta-
phor for those archetypal forms that govern and shape life, revealed at the
24 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

climax of the descent to the underworld. The pattern Stencil traces is also a
kind of silhouette, though of a very complex sort, a portrait of the many faces
of V. His musings conveniently recapitulate the various threads so far woven
together in the novel:

Truthfully, he didn’t know what sex V. might be, nor even what genus and species.
To go along assuming that Victoria the girl tourist and Veronica the sewer rat were
one and the same V. was not at all to bring up any metempsychosis: only to affirm
that his quarry fitted in with The Big One, the century’s master cabal, in the same
way Victoria had with the Vheissu plot and Veronica with the new rat-order. If she
was historical fact then she continued active today and at that moment, because the
Plot Which Has No Name was as yet unrealized, though V. might be no more a she
than a sailing vessel or a nation. (244)

The disclosure of a master cabal and of its “Plot Which Has No Name”
would be the key to the history of our century, the archetypal form which
Stencil is engaged in tracing, and we the reader in deciphering. Our nekyia
therefore mirrors Stencil’s, who, like us is reading a document (his father’s
papers) which takes him ever more deeply into the underworld of an interna-
tional conspiracy that transcends the boundaries of space and time. In this
sense, V. is a kind of Anima mundi, soul of the world.
But alas, the letter of her name also implicates the mysteries of the “Ver-
geltungswaffe Eins and Zwei. The magic initial” here referring to the V-1
and V-2 rockets the Nazis were developing at Peenemünde (246), the subject
of Pynchon’s great novel to come, Gravity’s Rainbow. At a party on Long
Island, Stencil Jr. meets Kurt Mondaugen, and engineer who worked on the
project at Peenemünde, and whose story Stencil retells in Chapter Nine, one
of the most original variations on the myth of the nekyia in this most ex-
traordinary of first novels.
It is May, 1922, when Mondaugen heads to South Africa, traveling into
the “mirror time” of the Southern Hemisphere (248), from Munich to Kalk-
fontein in the Warmbad district (247). He is there to study “atmospheric ra-
dio disturbances: sferics for short,” and the effect thereupon of “earth’s mag-
netic field” (248)—a central theme of the nekyia in the more recent master-
piece, Mason & Dixon, a section of which is also set in South Africa. Mon-
daugen’s journey takes him to “the farm of one Foppl, in the northern part of
the district, between the Karas range and the marches of the Kalahari” (248).
It is a “baroque plantation” in a “godforsaken region” where an “eternal
Fasching” seems in progress (249). Here he learns that the local natives, the
V. 25

Bondelswaartz, “believe in ghosts,” and that “the sferics frighten them”

(249). There is talk of rebellions in progress, of dangerous Bondelswaartz
teaming up with “homicidally-disposed Veldshoendragers and Witboois
from up north” (250)—all set against the background of the Boer War and
the “days of von Trotha” in 1904 (251). When Mondaugen arrives at Foppl’s
farm, there is a siege in progress, and thus begins a most extraordinary ver-
sion of the myth called “Foppl’s Siege Party” (253).
This entire section is a sustained refiguration of the myths of the nekyia
and the labyrinth, evoking many motifs conventional to both (ocular, catop-
tric, ornithological, and astronomical). All of Europe goes into its making,
beginning with a woman named Vera Meroving, mistress of a man named
Weismann from Munich. She has an artificial eye, which she removes to
show Mondaugen, before his descent into the depths of the house: the eye is
a “bubble” with a watch inside, which is inscribed with “green and flecks of
gold” which have been “fused into twelve vaguely zodiacal shapes” (255)—
the ocular and astronomical necrotypes here anticipate the revelations of the
nekyia to follow, when Mondaugen goes “into the house and down, in search
of” the generator that powers the home (256). Passing through a “geometry
of corridors that somehow baffled all sound,” Mondaugen encounters the
perverse eroticism characteristic both of the Inferno and the Labyrinth. First
he sees Vera striking Weismann with a “small riding crop,” and exchanging
obscenities, reflected in a mirror (256). Then he hears music, “which grew
louder the deeper he descended into this house” (257). The singer behind the
“door jamb” is a sixteen year old “white-blond” named “‘Hedwig Vogel-
sang’” who sees herself as a kind of siren: her “‘purpose on earth,’” she says,
“‘is to tantalize and send raving the race of man’” (258). But her name (Bird
Song) evokes the ornithological necrotype, one of the myth’s most archaic
motifs, and often a symbol of the supernatural energies of poeisis catalyzed
by the descent.
Mondaugen grabs the girl by the waist, and wheels off “through a bed-
room lined with mirrors,” and then down a “long gallery” hung with land-
scapes and portraits, on into a “tiny furnished room hung all in black velvet,”
and finally “down three or four steps to Foppl’s own planetarium” (258). It is
a “circular room with a great wooden sun, overlaid with gold leaf, burning
cold in the very center and round it the nine planets with their moons, sus-
pended from tracks in the ceiling, actuated by a coarse cobweb of chains,
pulleys, belts, racks, pinions and worms” (258). It is a zodiacal labyrinth, and
when Mondaugen trots on the treadmill that sets it in motion, “the wooden
26 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

planets began to rotate and spin, Saturn’s rings, to whirl, moons their preces-
sions, our own Earth its nutational wobble, all picking up speed” (258).
Hedwig dances, choosing “the planet Venus for her partner,” evoking per-
haps the most ancient of all necrotypes, for the planet is the symbol of the
Sumerian goddess Inanna, whose descent to the underworld is our oldest re-
corded version of the nekyia.
Hedwig appropriately vanishes when the dance stops, and Mondaugen
staggers “off the treadmill to carry on his descent and search for the genera-
tor” (259). The descent is infernal, and historical: in a “basement room” he
stumbles upon Foppl flagellating a “Bondel male, face down and naked, the
back and buttocks showing scar tissue” from previous beatings, and “more
recent wounds” which have cut through to the “white vertebra” Mondaugen
tries not to see (259). He shrieks at the man with his voice raised to “the hys-
terical-bitch level Foppl always affected with Bondels” (259), and speaks of
“General von Trotha,” who will come back to “punish” the people who have
“‘defied the Government,’” and deliver them from their sins, “Like Jesus
returning to earth” (259). Foppl, it seems, is “under compulsion somehow to
recreate the Deutsch-Südwestafrika of nearly twenty years ago” (260)—
another reference to the period of the Boer Wars at the turn of the century.
The details of the historical nekyia are later filled in by the V. of Foppl’s
plantation, Vera Meroving, when she comes at dawn to tell Mondaugen
about the Great Rebellion of 1904–07, when the Hereros and Hottentots, who
usually fought one another, staged a simultaneous but uncoordinated rising
against an incompetent German administration. General von Trotha is re-
cruited to institute a campaign of genocide, his “‘Vernichtungs Befehl,’”
whereby German forces were ordered to exterminate systematically “every
Herero man, woman and child they could find” (264). Some “60,000 people”
were subsequently murdered during this harrowing precursor of the holo-
caust in Nazi Germany (265). Foppl had come to South Africa at that time,
“as a young army recruit,” and “it didn’t take him long to find out how much
he enjoyed it all,” soon becoming expert in the demonic arts of mass murder
and terror: bayoneting, hanging, and the slow death by flagellation the Bon-
delswaartz named Andreas suffers in the basement room of the plantation,
twenty years after the revolution.
These revelations occur after Mondaugen has a dream about Vera, in
which allusions to the nekyia are explicit. The dream occurs after Mon-
daugen meets Godolphin Sr. (who speaks about his trip to the Antarctic), and
V. 27

talks to Weissman about Munich and Hitler (261). Ascending afterwards to

his “turret room with its ludicrous circular bed,” Mondaugen finds “that a
typhoon of sferics had been bombarding the earth” (262). Then he falls
asleep and has a dream about “Fasching, the mad German Carnival or Mardi
Gras that ends the day before Lent begins” (263). It is the depression of the
Weimar Republic, during which “human depravity” became the “ordinate”
of a sharply rising curve of “inflation” (263)—also the subject of Ingmar
Bergman’s film, “The Serpent’s Egg.” In the dream, Mondaugen sees “a fig-
ure with an old woman’s face,” whom he imagines “might, like some angel
of death, mark in pink spittle the doorsteps of those who’d starve tomorrow”
(263). In a beer hall he links arms with “students, all singing a death-song
and weaving side to side in a chain” (264). A cat is roasted in the fireplace,
and, while girls sit on his lap for their breasts and thighs to be squeezed,
flames engulf the tables, and have to be doused with beer, while the cat (“fat
and charred black”) is tossed around like a football (264). The smoke hangs
“like winter fog,” transforming “the massed weaving of bodies to more a
writhing perhaps of damned in some underworld. Faces all had the same cu-
rious whiteness,” concave cheeks, highlighted temples, and “bone of the
starved corpse there just under the skin” (264). It is in the midst of this in-
ferno of the damned that Vera Meroving appears, to lead Mondaugen “by the
hand through narrow streets” in which “White faces, like diseased blooms,
bobbed along in the dark as if moved by other forces towards some grave-
yard, to pay homage at an important burial” (264). She seems a kind of Per-
sephone, Queen of the Dead, manifesting the archetypal energies of the
dream, catalyzed by Mondaugen’s descent to the basement of Foppl’s de-
monic plantation in Southwest Africa. It is appropriate, therefore, that she be
the one to disclose its haunted secrets.
Mondaugen’s descent next turns to the task of deciphering a mysterious
text, a standard theme of the nekyia, which catalyzes the combined energies
of poeisis and hermeneusis. Most characteristic is the diction and iconogra-
phy of form revealed at the climax of the descent. The text in this case in-
volves the “sferic signals” which “the resourceful Mondaugen” builds a
“crude sort of oscillograph to record” in Foppl’s absence (265). As he strug-
gles to decipher the significance of the “sferics,” Mondaugen begins to detect
a “regularity or patterning” in the “cryptic pen scrawls,” almost as “if it were
a code” and he were “trying to break it” (265–66). When his machine stops
functioning, therefore, he begins to suspect it wasn’t an accident. His suspi-
cions are confirmed later during a costume party, in 1904 style, when
28 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

Weissmann says to Mondaugen that he thinks someone is sending him “‘in-

structions. I may not know electronics,’” Weismann continues, “‘but I can
recognize the scrawlings of a bad cryptanalyst’” (272). The pun is finely ob-
served, and typical of Pynchon’s penchant for paranomasia: for a “crypt” is a
tomb, like the one into which Mondaugen has descended, as well as a code to
be deciphered, and—as Bottom might say—an ‘analyst’ is a thing of naught.
The pun forms a conceit connecting the nekyia to both the production and
interpretation of a mysterious text.
Ocular and catoptric necrotypes continue to emerge as Mondaugen’s de-
scent proceeds. Thinking of the “‘eye’ in his dream of Fasching,” he finds
Vera Meroving sitting beside the goldfish pool in the garden with Godolphin
Sr. (266); and before the costume party begins, he stumbles upon Hedwig
after paddling “along crimson carpeted passageways, mirrored, unpopulated,
ill-lit, without echoes” (270). She is sitting “before her vanity mirror making
up her eyes,” which Mondaugen says “‘look so antiquated’” (270). Later,
after hearing a chorus “singing a Dies Irae in plainsong,” he follows “a trail
of blood splatters, still wet,” to what looks like “a human form, lying covered
with a piece of old canvas sail” (273)—a Dies Irae is a sequence in a Req-
uiem Mass “pro defunctis” (for the dead). Mondaugen hears the song again,
when a “wake” is formed for the black man Foppl has flayed to death. The
body is wrapped in “silk sheets stripped from his bed,” covering “the last
brightness of dead flesh,” before the “cadaver” is taken “off to a ravine to
toss it in” (277).
Shortly afterwards he finds Sir Hugh, and carries the old man “along the
white ramps, between mirrors, and past tapestries,” walking by the locked
rooms of haunted house (274). He puts Godolphin down on his “circular
bed,” covers him “with a black satin comforter,” and then sings a song popu-
lated by various shades of the dead: “the vampire’s creaking wing”; singing
“banshees,” “ghouls,” and “Skeletons with poison teeth, / Risen from the
world beneath”; ogres, trolls, and a “Bloody wraith”; a “Shadow on the win-
dow shade, / Harpies in a midnight raid, / Goblins seeking tender prey”; and,
finally, the “Angel” of death, come to “fetch” old Godolphin’s soul away
(275). Afterwards, Godolphin won’t leave the room, so that Mondaugen will
have to beg Vera, whose “eyes” are “rimmed in black,” for help (277).
A long collage follows, mixing feverish delirium with the “memory,
nightmare” of a “common dream,” having mostly to do with Foppl’s service
in the Herero / Hottentot Rebellion of 1904, and coming to a focus on a long
V. 29

“trek from Warmbad to Keetmaarchoop,” which Mondaugen compares to a

“mural of the Dance of Death” in a church in the Palatinate (284). After
clubbing one of the Hottentots to death, Foppl says “there came over him for
the first time an odd sort of peace, perhaps like what the black was feeling as
he gave up the ghost” (286). This peace catalyzes the revelation of those ar-
chetypal forms which govern and shape our lives:

Things seemed all at once to fall into a pattern: a great cosmic fluttering in the
blank, bright sky and each grain of sand, each cactus spine, each feather of the cir-
cling vulture above them and invisible molecule of heated air seemed to shift imper-
ceptibly so that this black and he, and he and every other black he would henceforth
have to kill slid into alignment, assumed a set symmetry, a dancelike poise. (286)

The vocabulary of those forms revealed at the climax of the nekyia is em-
phatic: “pattern,” “symmetry,” and the dance all reiterate the key theme of
revelation at the nadir of descent.
This descent is distinctly infernal, yielding a grotesque image of the
nightmare of history. During the Rebellion of 1904, the landscape of South
Africa becomes an “ash plain impregnated with a killer sea,” with “rotting”
whales on the shore, “beached, covered by feeding gulls who with the com-
ing of night would be relieved at the giant carrion by a pack of strand
wolves” (290). The “barren islets off” the coast of “Lüderitzbuch” become
“natural concentration camps” (290). The water holes are “filled to the brim
with black corpses” (292). Cries like laughter float “across the narrow strait,”
not quite “human,” making “the fog colder, the night darker, the Atlantic
more menacing”; and from the shore comes the “cry of the brown hyena
called the strand wolf, who prowled the beach singly or with companions in
search of shellfish, dead gulls, anything flesh and unmoving” (291). When
Foppl takes a black concubine named Sarah, she, like his other partners, lies
still as a corpse beneath him, and subsequently drowns after escaping, her
body washing up on the beach. Indeed, the island becomes a “Kingdom of
Death,” its “terrible coast […] littered each morning with a score of identical
female corpses, an agglomeration no more substantial-looking than seaweed
against the unhealthy yellow sand” (297). Pynchon’s South Africa is an un-
derworld more haunting, more vividly rendered, and more historical than
Eliot’s Waste Land.
Meanwhile twenty years later, holed up in his turret, Mondaugen
continues to work on deciphering the sferics, all the while suspecting he has
been poisoned by Weismann. His fever modulates towards “moral
30 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

outrage,” and he begins to “wonder if he would ever escape a curse that

seemed to have been put on him during Fasching: to become surrounded by
decadence no matter what exotic region, north or south, he wandered into,”
and sunk into a “soul-depression which must surely infest Europe as it
infested this house” (302). In the midst of this prophetic depression—the
Nazi holocaust is just around the corner—Mondaugen continues to work on
the code, rather hilariously misinterpreted by Weissmann, who thinks
he sees Vera Meroving’s name in the cryptic transmissions, and then rear-
ranges the letters to spell out the “remainder of the message […]
DIEWELTISTALLESWASDERFALLIST”—“The world is all the case that
is” (302). Two readers; one text.
Mondaugen’s escape from the hell he never manages to successfully har-
row, nor interpret, comes after he sees “another Bondle, perhaps Foppl’s
last,” hanging in a “hopyard,” while old Godolphin and Vera Meroving
(dressed in the old man’s clothes) dance around the body, “flicking its but-
tocks with a sjambok” (302–03). Too disgusted now either to watch or listen,
Mondaugen decides to leave the compound. His departure is presented using
the threshold necrotypes associated with the underworld: he gathers up “his
log books, oscillograms and a small knapsack of clothing” from his room in
the “turret,” sneaks “downstairs” to go out by a “French window,” and then
drops a “plank across the narrow part of the ravine,” which he passes “gin-
gerly across, trying not to look down at the tiny stream two hundred feet be-
low” (303). Looking back at the guests gathered to watch his “departure,” he
sees that “the morning’s sun” has “bleached their faces a Fasching white,” as
they gaze “across the ravine dehumanized and aloof, as if they were the last
gods on earth” (304). In fact, they are ghosts in an underworld no “Re-
deemer” has harrowed (296).
Chapter Ten returns us from the “mirror time” of South Africa to the
“real time” of New York in the 1950s, with various excursions across the
city and out to Long Island. Benny finds work at a lab called Anthroresearch
Associates, where he spends his time talking to a dead manikin called
“SHROUD,” killed in an old Plymouth (309). While Esther returns to
Schoenmaker, who wants to work on her pelvis, in order to make her corre-
spond to a Platonic ideal; while a “Catatonic Expressionist” speaks about a
“Dance of Death” at an exhibition (323); and while Eigenvalue comments on
what could well be Pynchon’s own poetics (“‘This sort of arranging and rear-
ranging is Decadence, but the exhaustion of all possible permutations and
V. 31

combinations was death’” (325), Benny Profane talks to SHROUD about

Auschwitz (322). Meanwhile Stencil rides the rails of the Manhattan under-
ground, doing the “Dance of Death brought up to date” in a crowd of “Verti-
cal corpses, eyes with no life” (330). When he arrives at Rachel’s apartment
and finds Paola there, she shows him a “small packet of typewritten pages”
entitled the “Confessions of Fausto Maijstral” (331)—another manuscript
within the text, initiating another nekyia into the nightmare of history, the
subject of Chapter Eleven.
The entire Chapter is presented in terms consistently and explicitly evok-
ing the diction and iconography of the nekyia. The manuscript itself is a
crypt, an ancestral vault, devoted to four generations of Faustos—a name
alluding to the underworld of Goethe’s poem—in the Maijstral family, cov-
ering the history of the island of Malta, and converging on Fausto IV during
World War II. Fausto’s mother Elena was killed during one of the bombing
raids, and he is a member of a “grand school of Anglo-Maltese Poetry”
called “the Generation of ‘37” (336). He inherits a “physically and spiritually
broken world” (331), and falls therefore under the influence of T.S. Eliot,
whose “Hollow Men” and “Ash Wednesday” are alluded to and parodied by
Pynchon (337). The manuscript itself is a composite palimpsest, with over-
lays from the journals of all four generations of Fausto’s family. Piecing
them together enables us to construct a history of the island, from prehistory
to the present.
Malta’s prehistory is of central importance to the novel, for it is domi-
nated by the iconography of the Great Goddesses of the Ancient Mediterra-
nean, and by the myth of the descent to the underworld over which she pre-
sided. During this time, we learn from Fausto II’s journals, the “motley of
races” on the island lived “in caves, grappled with fish on the reedy shore,
buried our dead with a song, with red-ochre and pulled up our dolmens, tem-
ples and menhirs and standing stones to the glory of some indeterminate god
or gods” (341). Fausto claims “whatever temple or sewer or catacomb’s
darkness” may have sheltered his people in the past, now provides the refuge
needed to write (341). “Malta,” Fausto IV concludes, is a “matriarchal is-
land,” dominated by “mother-rule” (355), and “Her soul is the Maltese peo-
ple, who wait—only wait—down in her clefts and catacombs” (351). Such
imagery refers to the well-known caves and temples of the Great Goddess on
the island, such as the Ghar Dalam Cave, the Ggantija temples, the Hal
Saflieni Hypogeum, or Hal Tarxien shrine, with its colossal stones inscribed
32 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

with great spiral eyes at the entrance (Streep 83f.; Di Stasi 101; Gimbutas
From there the historical overview passes quickly by the “Knights of St.
John” (340) to the period of the Second World War, and the mysterious en-
counter with a character called the Bad Priest, “the Dark One” (344), who is
compared to “Lucifer” (339). This entire sequence is nightmarish, set “down
in the abandoned sewer” where the family takes refuge during the “Siege of
’40-’43” (341). The period spent in the underworld of the bomb shelters is
consistently compared to “Purgatory” (347, 348, 356), and the years of the
Siege to a “slow apocalypse” (349). The Maltese live in “the clefts and cata-
combs” of the besieged city” (351), when “everything civilian and with a
soul was underground” (357). Valleta at night seems swelled with “black
fluid [….] As if the city were underwater; an Atlantis, under the night sea”
(358). It is a “subterranean home” beneath the streets, a nightmare of “two
worlds: the street and under the street. One is the kingdom of death and one
of life. And how can one live without exploring the other kingdom” the poet
wonders (359)? Setting out to explore those streets he finds children “aban-
doned so early to a common underworld” haunted by the Bad Priest (379).
Revelations about the identity of the Bad Priest come with the climax of
the chapter’s nekyia. Shortly after Elena’s death in a bombing raid, Fausto
leaves his home in Ta Kali, and wanders through the streets into “a part of
the city” he doesn’t know (379). He comes to “the top of a slope of debris”
and sees children swarming “among the ruins,” closing in on a “broken struc-
ture” he recognizes as “the cellar of a house” (379). He then lurches “down
the slope” to a bunch of kids clustering “round a figure in black. The Bad
Priest. Wedged under a fallen beam” (379). It may be merely coincidental
that the name Ta Kali evokes the great Hindu Goddess of the burning
ground, typically depicted sitting on a corpse and devouring its entrails,
while offering her breast with her other hand (Campbell, Mythic Image Fig.
323). But Pynchon’s depiction of the “Bad Priest” certainly yields a death
goddess, and evokes the archaic necrotype of divestiture, associated with the
Sumerian goddess Inanna.
For as it turns out the Bad Priest is “‘a lady,’” as one of the children ex-
claims (380). More significantly, it seems she is the V. of Stencil’s quest
(that is why he is reading Paola’s family journals). As the slow, tortuous di-
vestiture of the dying V. proceeds, the children pull out “an ivory comb”
(380), which we last saw in Victoria Wren’s hair in Florence. Next her
V. 33

golden slippers come off, along with “an artificial foot” (380), and then her
robes, shirt, gold cufflinks, and black trousers are removed (381). A “star
sapphire” is cut out of her “navel,” recalling Benny Profane’s dream of “a
boy born with a golden screw where his navel should have been,” much ear-
lier in the novel (39–40). After cutting the sapphire out of her navel, the chil-
dren take her “false teeth” and then a “glass eye with the iris in the shape of a
clock” (381), which we recognize as Vera Meroving’s eye at Foppl’s planta-
tion in South Africa. As the gruesome stripping down proceeds, Fausto won-
ders “if the disassembly of the Bad Priest might not go on, and on, into eve-
ning. Surely her arms and breasts could be detached; the skin of her legs be
peeled away to reveal some intricate understructure of silver openwork”
When the children disperse after the all-clear sirens sound, Fausto is left
alone with the grotesque mystery of the dismembered V. before him: she is,
he writes, horribly, still alive; but she has a “bare skull, one eye and one
socket, staring up at me: a dark hole for the mouth, stumps at the bottom of
the legs” (381). The ocular, dismemberment, and divestiture necrotypes con-
verge in this most extraordinary re-figuration of the descent to the under-
world, which concludes with Fausto performing last rites, anointing the muti-
lated body with her own blood, “dipping it from the navel as from a chalice”
(382). And the chapter concludes with an entry from Fausto’s Confessions
about “‘An Englishman; a mysterious being named Stencil’” (384)—and so
Stencil Jr. resolves to set off for Valleta (another V.) on the island of Malta,
where his father was killed—Pynchon’s version of Joyce’s great theme in
Ulysses (the atonement of the father and the son).
The next two chapters of the novel are devoted to the “real time” of New
York in the 50s, when a series of “not so amusing” events unfolds (385).
These include Esther’s pregnancy and abortion in Cuba, Winsome’s suicide
attempt and incarceration in Bellevue, the arrest of the Whole Sick Crew,
which gets tangled up with the Mafia, and Pig Bodine’s pranks on the USS
Scaffold. At the end of this sequence of misadventures, Profane and Stencil
Jr. get drunk together and speak about going to Malta, where Stencil Sr. ap-
parently met V. and died shortly thereafter. Are the two events related? We
get a recapitulation of what we know of V. so far, with some new additions,
such as her incarnation as a fierce “hussar” in the back country of Spain,
“rushing by in a red field-cape, glaring out of a glass eye in the shape of a
clock: ‘as if I’d been fixed by the evil eye of time itself,’” the officer who
saw V. explains (430). We are also reminded of her association with “cruci-
34 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

fied English corpses” at Khartoum, of the “lucky mascot to the Mahdists,”

and of her life in Cairo as the lover of “Sir Alastair Wren” (430). The recap
then leads into the next extended nekyia in the novel, set in Paris in 1913,
revolving around V.’s lesbian love affair with a remarkable young woman
named Mélanie l’Heuremaudit—hour of the damned poet, one might assume,
à la Rimbaud, whom it is suggested V. may have “known as a child,” when
he was “gun-running in the Red Sea” (430).
Mélanie’s nekyia (in “Chapter Fourteen: V. in love”) is another remark-
able refiguration of the myth, one dominated by the ocular, catoptric, and
spiral necrotypes. Just when one thought Pynchon had exhausted all possible
permutations and combinations of the descent to the underworld, he pulls
another one out of the hat. It begins when Mélanie leaves the Serre Chaude
family estate in Normandy (an ancient pile from the reign of Henri IV) to go
to Paris. Her eyes are “dead, her nose French,” and she is fifteen (438). Her
journey by taxi through the labyrinth of Paris takes her from the Gare du
Nord, to the Boulevard Haussmann, up rue Chausée d’Antin (with Apollo
atop the Opera on the left), to a Montmarte cabaret called Le Nerf, on “the
rue Germaine Pilon, near Boulevard Clichy” (439).
She is greeted by M. Itague, who calls her “‘fétiche,’” and gives her the
stage name “Mélanie, La Jarretière” to perform the role of Su Feng, the vir-
gin who is tortured to death defending her purity against invading Mongoli-
ans,” in “Satin’s finest ballet,” called “L’Enlèvement des Vierges
Chinoises—Rape of the Chinese Virgins” (440), a title which associates Mé-
lanie with the Rape of Persephone. It is July 24, 1913, the year Stravinsky’s
“Rites of Spring” stormed the stage in Paris. Hence Pynchon’s composer is
Russian, Vladimir Porcepic (another V), and his patroness, as we will shortly
learn, is none other than the ubiquitous V.
The association between the diction and catoptric iconography of the
nekyia is quickly established. Mélanie’s room has a mirror over the bed, into
which she gazes as she puts on her Su Feng costume (441), the investiture
that will lead eventually to her stripping down by V. In a café called
“L’Ouganda,” lined of course with mirrors, the choreographer of the ballet,
Satin, tells M. Itague that Mélanie “functions as a mirror,” looking into
which every man will “see the reflection of a ghost,” that of Mélanie’s
“wretched” father, who molested her as a child (443)—a detail also evoca-
tive of the Persephone complex, since, as Karl Kerényi has suggested, Zeus
(Persephone’s father) and Hades may be equivalent (Gods 230). But the
V. 35

“ghost” in Mélanie’s mirror, Satin continues, is also one that “‘fills the walls
of this café and the streets of this district, perhaps every one of the world’s
arrondisements’” (443). Is Mélanie therefore Anima mundi, the ghost in the
machine, the ghost of the absent and abusive father, a sort of demonic deus
absconditus, or the ghost of Nietszche’s dead God, whom we have ourselves
Soon after these reflections in the café, a mysterious woman arrives, later
identified as V., in her incarnation as the Russian patroness of the ballet.
Ocular and spiral motifs quickly surface, as M. Itague watches V. sitting at
the café, listening to a new dance that, unlike the waltz or the tango, allows
for “no words, no deviating: simply the wide spiral, turning about the danc-
ing floor, gradually narrowing, tighter, until there was no motion except for
the steps, which led nowhere. A dance for automata” (445). Automata are
machines, without souls, Pynchon’s shades of the dead (like the mannequin
SHROUD who speaks to Profane about Auschwitz, or like Esther with a
prosthetic nose and hip, or like the Bad Priest with mechanical eyes and
feet—and, alas, perhaps like the demonic forces behind the conspiracy ruling
the nightmare of history in our century). And the spiral recalls those etched
on the dolmens and temples, the whirling eyes of the Death/Mother god-
desses of Malta. Watching V. M. Itague feels “suddenly alone in the wheel-
ing, mechanical darkness of la Ville-Lumière,” with V.’s “Blank eyes” fixed
upon him (445).
Back in her room, Mélanie undergoes what we might call an oneiric
nekyia, a descent into the darkness of the collective unconscious. The dream
is about a “German,” who is also her “Papa,” who commands her to turn
over in the bed, where she is stretched out as if “crucified” (446). Ocular and
catoptric necrotypes follow: Mélanie’s “eyes—which somehow she was able
to see, as if she were disembodied and floating above the bed, perhaps
somewhere behind the quicksilver of the mirror—her eyes were slanted Ori-
ental: long lashes, spangled on the upper lids with tiny fragments of gold
leaf” (446). Turned ghostly and mechanical in the dream, Mélanie turns over
as her Papa commands, twisting her skirt up to her thighs, “their two inner
edges blond and set off by the musk-rat skin on the slit of the skirt” (446). Is
she reliving Papa’s molestations? Much to her surprise, the “Mélanie in the
mirror watched sure fingers move to the center of her back, search, find a
small key, which he began to wind. ‘I got you in time,’ he breathed. ‘You
would have stopped, had I not’” (446). Is Mélanie time? Like the clock re-
flected in the mirror at Dr. Schoenmaker’s office, driven by Gnostic demons
36 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

of the deep? Certainly she is mechanical, an automaton—as perhaps, Pyn-

chon suggests, we all are, at the mercy of sinister forces beyond our control.
The music to which this section of the novel is set is, appropriately, a
“Black Mass” composed by Porcépic, a stand in for Stravinsky. For the mu-
sic is “highly dissonant,” like “Rites of Spring,” “experimenting with African
polyrhythms” (446–47). After the performance, Itague is mesmerized by a
mysterious woman (V.) who sits in a “side pew with one of the acolytes, a
little sculptress from Vaugirard” (another V) (447). The little sculptress lies
with “head pillowed against her companion’s breasts. The black hair seemed
to float like a drowned corpse’s hair against the cerise tunic” (447)—a simile
which evokes the night-sea necrotype. While sleeping, the lady burns tiny
holes through the skirt of the sculptress with her cigarette, “writing ma fé-
tiche, in black-rimmed holes,” so that when she is finished “the words would
be spelled out by the young sheen of the girl’s thighs” (448)—an image
which links the nekyia with the energies of poeisis. Porcepic’s circle of ex-
iles reinforces these allusions to the underworld: they sit about discussing
Revolutions, decadence, and History in a room that gives their voices a “se-
pulchral ring” (450).
V.’s subsequent abduction of Mélanie is a fascinating and extended vari-
ation of the nekyia, here used essentially as a myth of relationship, albeit les-
bian. Heading towards the Metro, the couple “vanished down the Boulevard
Clichy,” “descended the moving stairs,” before “crossing the river” near the
Eiffel Tower, and then “bearing southwest, into the district of Grenelle”
(451). The descent, river crossing, and southwesterly course are all arche-
types of the nekyia, the destination of which this time is a “loft apartment” in
the factory district, reached after climbing “flight after flight” of narrow
stairs (451). There begins V.’s lesbian affair with Mélanie, not so unusual
“inside a circle inclined toward sadism, sacrilege, endogamy, and homosexu-
ality anyway” (452).
The catoptric necrotype dominates this section of the novel: V. provides
Mélanie “with mirrors, dozens of them. Mirrors with handles, with ornate
frames, full-length and pocket mirrors,” in order to create “a curious coun-
try,” like the otherworld that V. lives in, populated by “near-inanimate” peo-
ple who live amidst “inanimate monuments” (454). It is a lifeless world
evoked by the catoptric necrotype shared by the myths of the maze and un-
derworld: Mélanie watches “herself in the mirror; the mirror-image perhaps
contemplating V. from time to time” (455), so that Mélanie sees “in a mirror
V. 37

her double, [and] the double becomes a voyeur” (455). Mélanie’s reflections,
along with those of V. and of a third “other—multiplied perhaps by mirrors,”
doubles “her own double,” creating a mise-en-abîme, an infinite regress of
images, a labyrinth of doubles drifting through an underworld of “inanimate
objects” that Pynchon calls “a colony of the Kingdom of Death” (456).
The fusion of the maze and the nekyia, therefore, yields a myth of rela-
tionship, which is seen as a “progression toward inanimateness,” set to the
music of the Wagnerian Liebestod, “the single melody, banal and exasperat-
ing, of all Romanticism since the Middle Ages” (456). Their relationship
thus involves them in a “politics of slow dying,” the climax of which will be
a literal descent into the underworld: “Dead at last, they would be one with
the inanimate universe and with each other” (456), like Tristan and Isolde.
Throughout this passage Pynchon is emphatic: the nekyia serves as a myth of
relationship: its “Love-play” is an “impersonation of the inanimate, a trans-
vestism not between sexes but between quick and dead; human and fetish”
(456). It is as if we have moved from Eros to Thanatos, refiguring the nekyia
in Freudian terms.
But the myth is also a Jungian image of the individuation process, since
Mélanie finds “her own identity” in “the mirror’s soulless gleam” (456). As
always, it is a descent that moves inexorably towards the revelation of form,
of those archetypal patterns that govern and shape life, which Pynchon calls
“the larger scheme” of things the various incarnations of V. fit into (457). V.
finds herself drawn ever more deeply into this “Kingdom of Death,” ever
more deeply “into a fetish-country until she became entirely and in reality—
not merely as a love-game with any Mélanie—an inanimate object of desire”
(457). As such, she becomes more and more mechanical, an “automaton
[….] both eyes glass but now containing photoelectric cells” (457).
The climax of Mélanie’s erotic nekyia is her death onstage during a per-
formance of Porcépic’s ballet, which Stencil reads about in the “police re-
cords” (458). The description of the performance is based on the legendary
events surrounding Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring.” The performance degen-
erates “into near-chaos” as the “Porcépiquistes” and the “anti-Porcépic fac-
tion” break out into a brawl (458). In the last portion of the ballet, called the
“Sacrifice of the Virgin” (also the climax of Stravinksy’s ballet), the music
moves to a “powerful, slow-building seven-minute crescendo which seemed
at its end to’ve explored the furthest possible reaches of dissonance, tonal
color and (as Le Figaro’s critic put it next morning) ‘orchestral barbarity’”
(459)—a phrase often applied to Stravinsky’s music. At the climax of the
38 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

crescendo, Mélanie is grotesquely killed, when she is impaled on the stage as

the “last chord blasted out” (460). She was “supposed to have worn a protec-
tive metal device, a species of chastity belt, into which the point of a pole fit”
(460). But she “had left it off,” having forgotten it, perhaps “exhausted by
love [….] Adorned with so many combs, bracelets, sequins, she might have
become confused in this fetish world and neglected to add to herself the one
inanimate object that would have saved her” (460)—thus becoming herself,
inanimate at last.
The concluding chapters of the novel take us at last to Valleta (Chapter
Sixteen), where Benny accompanies Stencil Jr. on his quest for V., and the
mystery of his father’s death. The chapter evokes one of the great themes of
the nekyia, both Classical and Biblical: that of the nostoi, or homecoming of
the hero. As Northrop Frye pointed out long ago, homecoming, reunion, and
reconciliation are the traditional rhythms of comedy. Hence, when Stencil Jr.
at last speaks with the surviving member of the Maijstral family, the
priest/poet who witnessed the “disassembly” of V., in her guise as the Bad
Priest (494), he will learn about his father’s good deeds, however uncertain
he will remain about his father’s death.
The uncertainty is characteristic of the postmodern nekyia, for which
there is no closure, but rather an endless repetition of the spiral of descent
and return. That rhythm yields a new kind of narrative structure: not a circle,
but a sine wave (which Northrop Frye introduced to signify the reiterations
of the nekyia in the Bible), or loop (which in Robert Coover’s Pinocchio in
Venice becomes a roller coaster ride). Hence the hieroglyph of Kilroy
scrawled in chalk on “a blank wall” (like the text upon the page) in a back
alley of Valleta, is refigured by Pynchon as an “Inanimate” glyph, which he
calls the “Grandmaster of Valleta” (485). The revelation is a central charac-
teristic of the nekyia, which typically serves as a complex allegory for the
combined energies of the production, and interpretation, of a sacred text.
Such revelations occur in all of Pynchon’s variations on the myth (one thinks
of the hieroglyphs Oedipa sees in the Scope, or the glyphs Slothrop sees on
the lining of the sewer pipes when he dives into the toilet to retrieve his har-
monica). In V. the glyph turns Kilroy’s face into a “band-pass filter,” in
which the horizontal line representing the wall Kilroy hangs onto becomes
band of broadcasting frequencies or wave lengths, his head the looping cir-
cuits, and his eyes the positive and negative charges of electrical energy
(485). The fusion of science, myth, and low culture is fundamentally Pyn-
V. 39

chonian, as is the visual pun implied by the figure. For the frequencies of the
wave lengths representing Kilroy’s right and left hands form a sequence of
four V’s, on either side. Hence, the glyph figures the mysteries of the novel’s
pursuit, and the many facets of its elusive heroine. The eyes, one a “+” and
the other a “-” sign, suggest her eyes, one of which we know is inanimate,
blind, negative, and the other animate, functioning, and positive. The loops
of Kilroy’s hair form three spirals of descent and return, hence suggesting the
reiterations of the nekyia which serve as the basis for the novel’s narrative
structure, which oscillates back and forth between numerous underworlds, in
both the “real” and “mirror” times of its chapters.
As a visual symbol, a hieroglyph signifies the hidden mystery of the
world’s ultimate form and meaning. In the myth of the nekyia, this iconogra-
phy of form is often paralleled by a diction of form, to suggest those ultimate
structures of the mind and spirit which give shape and significance to life,
disclosed at the nadir of the descent. Hence, as Stencil Jr. “sketched the en-
tire history of V.” for the last of the surviving Maijstral brothers, a pattern
begins to emerge, even if it “did add up only to the recurrence of an initial
and a few dead objects” (494). The verb “sketched” seems appropriate, for it
implies the energies of poeisis generated by his nekyia, and represented a
few pages earlier by the sketch of Kilroy on the blank wall of the alley.
Whatever the pattern may be, whatever archetypal forms are configured by
the various facets of the mysterious V., it ultimately is “full of myth,” as the
old priest Father Avalanche puts it, when Stencil goes to see him in search of
missing glass eye (494). Stencil himself later concludes that “ ‘V.’s is a
country of coincidence, ruled by the ministry of myth’” (500)—and, I would
argue by one myth in particular, that of the nekyia. However that may be, the
revelation of the myth that confers shape and significance upon V.’s history,
and upon the novel, is of a “design” (450), one either created by “Provi-
dence” (450), or one in which “‘Events seem to be ordered into an ominous
logic’” (449), one perhaps created by the demons on the disk which drive the
pendulum of the clock in Dr. Schoenmaker’s office. For, in the long run,
Pynchon’s is a Gnostic nekyia; his underworld is essentially that of time, the
material world we all live in, created and ruled by demonic forces of the
Or is it perhaps ruled by a Goddess, one who traditionally presides over
the mysteries of the nekyia in the Ancient cultures of the Mediterranean
world? Her presence, as we have seen, is particularly strong on the island of
Malta, and Pynchon’s “Epilogue” to the novel would seem to suggest that
40 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

she is indeed the compelling force behind the various descents associated
with V.’s history.
It is 1919, and Stencil Sr. is sailing into the harbor at Valleta, on board a
“green xebec whose figurehead was Astarte, goddess of sexual love” (507).
The name of the goddess is aptly chosen, for it ultimately evokes the most
ancient of all versions of the nekyia over which she presides: “Inanna, Ishtar,
Astarte, Aphrodite, Venus: those were the names she bore in successive cul-
ture periods of the Occidental development” of her myth, which was that of
the “descent […] into the lower world” (Campbell, Hero 213–14), and of the
death and rebirth of her consort, variously named Dumuzi, Tammuz, and
Adonis. Her worship was widespread on many of the “islands and coastal
cities of the Mediterranean” world (Stone 113). She is ultimately much more
than a “goddess of sexual love.” She is also a Death Goddess, from whose
tomb new life emerges, as her consort dies to be reborn. Barbara Walker
identifies her with “the same creating-preserving-and-destroying Goddess
worshipped by all Indo-European cultures,” and notes that she “ruled all the
spirits of the dead who lived in heaven wearing bodies of light” (70). As a
figurehead on the xebec Stencil Sr. sails into Valleta on, therefore, she both
prefigures and recapitulates the various preceding and subsequent iterations
of the nekyia upon which the novel is structured.
The skipper of the xebec, Mehemet, then speaks at length to old Stencil
about the goddess who seems to rule the island of Malta, whom he calls
“Mara,” and whose mythical history he recites over a pipe of hashish the
night they arrive in Valleta. She is “‘a spirit,’” the old sailor tells Stencil;
“‘the peninsula whose tip is Valleta her domain. She nursed the shipwrecked
St. Paul—as Nausicaa and Odysseus—taught love to every invader from
Phoenician to French’” (513). And though she “was from all evidence a per-
fectly historical personage,” her story soon passes into the myth implied by
her name: for Mara may be “Maltese for woman,” but it is also the name of
the lord of death who tempts the Buddha beneath the Boddhi Tree, in tandem
with Kama, lord of sexual love and desire.
Mehemet’s version of her story is remarkable. It is set during the “Great
Siege” of the Knights of Malta, in 1565, when some Turkish sailors “lashed
Mara to the bowsprit” of their galleon when it entered Constantinople: “a
living figurehead” (513). She is brought to the Sultan, and was subsequently
represented as “a number of goddesses, minor deities,” “disguise” being one
of her attributes (513). Her images on “jar ornaments, friezes, sculptures, no
V. 41

matter” show a “tall, slim, small-breasted and bellied” goddess (513–14). But
she is also a kind of sorceress, a necromancer of sorts, who raises “hell” once
installed in the Sultan’s “seraglio” (514). Her “carob pod” becomes a kind of
“Wand, scepter,” and she “some kind of fertility goddess,” though a “quaint,
hermaphrodite sort of deity” (514)—rather like V. She tells the Sultan (called
“His Ghostly Magnificence”), that she has taught the women in the Sultan’s
harem to “‘love their own bodies, showed them the luxury of a woman’s
love; restored potency to your eunuchs to that they may enjoy one another as
well as the three hundred perfumed, female beasts of your harem’” (515).
The Sultan is soon overcome by “an atavistic terror” when he realizes he is
“in the presence of a witch” (515).
His fears are well grounded. Back home in Valleta, the Turks are laying
siege to the Knights of Malta, beheading “their slaughtered brethren,” tying
“their corpses to planks,” and floating them “into the Grand Harbor,” like
“death’s flotilla” (515). Pynchon then proceeds to clear up the mystery of the
Turkish retreat. A rumor, it seems, was spread among the besieging soldiers
of the Sultan that some “twenty thousand troops had landed” on the island,
and so a “General retreat was ordered” by none other than “the head of the
Sultan himself. The witch Mara had sent him into a kind of mesmeric trance;
detached his head and put it into the Dardanelles, where some miraculous set
and drift—who knows all the currents, all the things that happen in this
sea?—sent it on to a collision course with Malta” (516). By the time “the
head returned to Constantinople and its owner,” Mara has escaped, returning
to her island “disguised as a cabin boy,” and subsequently associated with
“Salome, who beheaded St. John,” after appearing in a vision to La Vallette
(517). “‘Beware of Mara,’” the old sailor then warns Stencil Sr., before set-
ting him loose on the city of 1919, set on a “peninsula shaped like the mons
Veneris” (517). Decapitation and dismemberment are images long associated
with the nekyia, in the Bible, folklore, and myth—in addition to Salome, one
thinks of “Sir Gawain the Green Knight,” and of the head of Orpheus, float-
ing down the river after he is dismembered by the maenads.
Stencil Sr.’s ominous arrival in the harbor then leads to a tortuous jour-
ney through the winding streets of the city, after he speaks to one of the Mai-
jstral men, who warns him about an impending attack on the local newspa-
per, and about the urgency of the imminent uprising against the British brew-
ing on the island. Stencil sees the events in Biblical terms as a kind of
“Apocalypse,” with the significant difference that this time, since Malta is a
“matriarchal island,” the “Paraclete” might “be also a mother” (525). Shortly
42 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

afterwards, he meets a fellow spy named Demivolt, and they follow Maijstral
to a bar, where meets another V: “Veronica Manganese,” who has come to
the island “in the company of one Sgherraccio, a Mizzist,” and who is now
“intimate with various renegade Italians” hostile to the British (525).
Stencil and Demivolt follow Veronica to her villa, moving “southwest”
in “near darkness” till they go past Sliema near the sea (527). When he sees
the Villa di Sammut, he is overcome by “a nostalgia which urged him gently
back toward childhood; a childhood of gingerbread witches, enchanted parks,
fantasy country” (528). Climbing over the “dream-wall” of the villa’s gar-
den, Demivolt and Stencil are abruptly confronted by an Englishman who
identifies himself as V.’s “caretaker,” and who they recognize as their “‘Old
running mate,’” probably Godolphin Sr. (529). With that recognition comes,
as Demivolt puts it, “a tremendous nostalgia about this show [….] The pain
of a return home’” (529). For, like Stencil Jr. in the previous concluding
chapter of the novel, a homecoming of sorts seems to be in process, a nostoi,
or return of the soldier to a place of origins—in this case an uncanny child-
hood fantasy of home. Old Stencil seems to recognize V. (our matriarchal
Paraclete of the Apocalypse?), and figures that he will see her again.
It is at this “second meeting,” which occurs “in a kind of false spring,”
during which the local insurgencies against the British continue to fulminate,
that V.’s role as a death goddess, encountered at the nadir of Stencil’s
nekyia, becomes clear (529). Stencil Sr. begins to sense “an apocalyptic
rage” (531) seething beneath the “ominous patterns” of events (534), and to
discern a “Situation” with “its own logic” developing into a “conscious plot”
against him, taking “shape” and “arranged” into an “alignment” of conspir-
acy (537)—diction which suggests the revelation of formal patterns tradi-
tionally catalyzed by the nekyia. When he goes to speak to Father Fairing
about his suspicions, he encounters V., Veronica Manganese, wearing the
same “carved ivory comb” with “five crucified faces” (541) he had seen her
wear “twenty years ago,” when as girl she had “seduced him on a leather
couch in the Florence consulate” (542)—for he is indeed a consort of the
great goddess, and hence will suffer the archetypal fate she presides over.
V.’s death goddess attributes emerge when she drives Stencil to her villa,
and confesses that their “ends” may be the same, “to keep Italy out of Malta”
(541), however different their means may be (Stencil thinks of the murdered
ragman, left with his genitals sewn into his mouth—an image consistent with
the castration motif sometimes associated with the goddesses of the Ancient
V. 43

Mediterranean, most famously exemplified by Cybele). He recognizes that

“‘Absolute upheaval’” is her way; because she resolves the “two extremes”
of “The street and the hothouse,” she begins to “frighten him” (542). This
resolution of opposites is a key theme throughout the novel’s portrayal of V.,
and equally central to conceptions of the Goddess, who is both womb and
tomb, both “loving and terrible,” as Jung puts it (Four Archetypes 16). Hence
it is appropriate, that before making love, V. says “‘How pleasant to watch
Nothing,’” with her face “at peace, the live eye dead as the other, with the
clock-iris” (542). Stencil sees also the “star sapphire sewn into her navel,”
and she speaks of wanting a prosthetic foot, “of amber and gold, with the
veins, perhaps, in intaglio instead of bas-relief” (542), so that we recognize
her as the Bad Priest the children will disassemble when she lies dying after
a bombing raid in World War II.
The ocular necrotype is emphatically associated with Stencil’s nekyia
when he gets up to leave the villa, and V. says her “caretaker” will drive him
back. When she does so, Stencil looks up to see a “mutilated face” appear at
the door, as “fixed as any death mask” (543). It is the face of old Godolphin,
who is, like all of us, “her servant” too (543), bound as we are to the arche-
typal feminine who sustains us during life, and takes us back to her womb
when we die.
Stencil’s death remains a mystery until the last page of the novel, when,
after forcing the spy Maijstral to return to his pregnant wife, he leaves V.’s
villa for the last time, departing on a June morning shortly after riots in the
streets against the British. As the xebec in which he arrived sets sail (thus
bringing his night-sea journey full circle), Stencil looks back at Veronica’s
“shining Benz” pull up near the wharf, to see him off (547). On the evening
of the same day, somewhere between Malta and Lampedusa, “a waterspout
appeared and lasted for fifteen minutes. Long enough to lift the xebec fifty
feet, whirling and creaking, Astarte’s throat naked to the cloudless weather,
and slam it down again,” drowning her most recent consort beneath the sur-
face of an otherwise calm and quiet sea (547).
A funnel cloud, of course, forms a V in the sky, as does the maelstrom or
whirlpool (such as the one Aphrodite is born from when the severed genitals
of her father Uranos are thrown into the water by his son Kronos). This last
affiliation between the initial and the iconography of the Ancient Mediterra-
nean world recalls the first chapter of The Language of the Goddess by
Marija Gimbutas. The chapter is entitled “Chevron and V as Bird Goddess
Symbols,” and provides extensive exemplification of the hierogylyphic ini-
44 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

tial, from the Paleolithic “waterbird figurines from Mal’ta in Siberia,” to the
artifacts of the Neolithic, from numerous sites in the Mediterranean world,
including several symbols of he Goddess from the Tarxien cemetery on the
island of Malta (9). The twenty-nine permutations and combinations of Pyn-
chon’s heraldic initial include the upward pointed sine wave sequence noted
above in the re-figuration of Kilroy on the wall of the alley in Valleta (12).
For Gimbutas, the primary signification of the letter points to the pubic trian-
gle, and the bird goddess, particularly exemplified by waterbird figurines.
Hence, the conclusion of Pynchon’s novel serves to link the two primoridial
powers of the Goddess: birth and death—both evoked by Stencil Sr.’s final
encounter with the mysterious V. of this most extraordinary of first novels,
which is structured throughout by reiterations of the nekyia, over which the
Goddess presides.

See my Figuring Poesis.
Chapter Two: The Crying of Lot 49

Pynchon’s second novel fuses metaphors from science, Christianity, mathe-

matics, electronics, folktales with the myth of the underworld. The novel is a
quest for that language or myth which will give shape and significance to the
anarchy and futility of the contemporary waste land (which for Pynchon be-
comes suburban Southern California). It is a quest shared by reader, author,
and protagonist. In the playful, parodic manner of Postmodernism, it com-
bines elements of black humor and a kind of gothic revisionist approach to
those myths which have traditionally given shape to life and the novel.
The descent to the underworld is the central metaphor in this short novel,
the vortex of a whirlwind of allusions. Its protagonist, Oedipa Maas, be-
comes a postmodern Persephone, Sumerian Inanna, Rapunzel, Oedipus, and
a prophetess crying in the wilderness during her quest for knowledge. For it
is the death of her former lover Pierce Inverarity that lures Oedipa out of the
world of Tupperware parties and marital infidelities into the “underworld of
suicides” (80), where the dense complications of the Tristero postal conspir-
acy hover just beyond the reach of her awareness. Pierce becomes a kind of
Hades, the invisible Lord of the Dead who knows all the secrets. And it is
during Oedipa’s nekyia and attempt “to bestow life on what had persisted” of
the “organized something” left behind after Pierce’s ”annihilation” (56) that
the whole question of the existence and nature of the patterns which give
shape and significance to life is raised as the central theme of the novel.
The promise of an initiatory revelation of secret knowledge (which is
traditionally associated with the descent to the underworld) occurs immedi-
ately after Oedipa leaves her home in Northern California and arrives in San
Narciso, a suburb of L.A., where she goes to meet Inverarity’s Lawyer. She
sees the “ordered swirl of houses and streets” as a “circuit card” in a transis-
tor radio: “there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of con-
cealed meaning, of an intent to communicate” (14–15). Oedipa feels a “reve-
lation” trembling “just past the threshold of her understanding,” as if words
she is unable to hear are being spoken “on some other frequency, or out of
the eye of some whirlwind rotating too slow for her heated skin even to feel
the centrifugal coolness of” (14). The word spoken in the whirlwind here
46 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

combines the Biblical imagery of the Old Testament prophets, with their
“revelations” in the desert (here Southern California), and the “hieroglyph-
ics” of electronic circuitry. Pynchon adds the imagery of modern science to
the psyche’s granary, replenishing its repository of archetypal forms.
On her first evening in Los Angeles, at the Echo Court Motel, Oedipa is
seduced by Metzger, the dead Inverarity’s lawyer, who here plays the role of
the abductor Hades. During the seduction, Oedipa watches an advertisement
for Fangoso Lagoons, one of Inverarity’s real estate interests, to which she
will have the rights as the recipient of his legacy (remember that Hades is
also the bestower of riches in the traditional imagery). When the map flashes
on the screen, she catches her breath, and feels that “some immediacy was
there again, some promise of hierophany: printed circuit, gently curving
streets, private access to the water, Book of the Dead” (20).
If this sense of the nearly grasped yet ever receding symbol echoes the
loss of Eurydice to Hades or of the flower of immortality to the serpent in
Gilgamesh, Oedipa’s experience of being stripped down to raw bone and
emotional nerve during her quest also echoes the Sumerian “Descent of
Inanna,” the oldest nekyia we know. Like the myth, The Crying of Lot 49
begins with a death (Gugalanna in the myth and Pierce Inverarity in the
novel), and exploits the theme of the stripping of the veils as a central meta-
phor for the revelation of the truth that accompanies the descent to the un-
derworld. For example, Oedipa attempts to defend herself against Metzger’s
seduction plot by “putting on as much as she could of the clothing” she has
brought with her, “six pairs of panties in assorted colors, girdle, three pairs of
nylons, three brassieres, two pairs stretch slacks, four half-slips, one black
sheath, two summer dresses” and so forth (23), so that when he strips her
down it takes “twenty minutes, rolling, arranging her this way and that” dur-
ing which time she falls “asleep once or twice” (27).
Throughout this seduction scene at the Echo Courts motel, Pynchon
evokes that sense of concealed pattern associated with Persephone’s abduc-
tion into Hades: her infidelity with Metzger, which she sees as “part of ... an
elaborate seduction plot” (19), “brings to an end her encapsulation in her
tower” and intensifies her haunting sense of “revelations in progress all
around her” (29). That is to say, rape has literally led to “revelation” in Pyn-
chon’s version of the nekyia, although the disturbing suspicion of incipient
madness remains: the plots, systems, circuited patterns, “hieratic geometry”
(37), and “coincidences blossoming these days wherever she looked” (75)
The Crying of Lot 49 47

could be paranoid delusions. Yet as Oedipa descends more deeply into the
“underworld of suicides” (80), “revelations come crowding in exponentially,
as if the more she collected the more would come to her, until everything she
saw, smelled, dreamed, remembered, would somehow come to be woven
into The Tristero” (56).
While watching a floor show at the The Scope (a bar frequented by the
Yoyodyne employees) the divestiture theme is repeated. When the “sinister
blooming of The Tristero” occurs, Oedipa compares its progressive revela-
tion to a deathly strip-tease: “As if the breakaway gowns, net bras, jeweled
garters and G-strings of historical figuration that would fall away were lay-
ered dense as Oedipa’s own street-clothes in that game with Metzger in front
of the Baby Igor movie; as if a plunge towards dawn indefinite black hours
long would indeed be necessary before The Tristero could be revealed in its
terrible nakedness” (40). And would it then be coy, she wonders, or “would
it instead, the dance ended ... its luminous stare locked to Oedipa’s, smile
gone malign and pitiless” bend to her and “speak words she never wanted to
hear?” (40).
In the Sumerian myth, Inanna also prepared for her descent by putting on
royal robes and crown, breastplate and beaded necklace, make up and golden
ring, and by taking measuring rod and line in hand. One by one, at each of
the seven gateways into the underworld, these symbols of her power and be-
ing in the world are taken away, until, like Oedipa, she faces her sister
Ereshkigal, Queen of the Dead, in her terrible nakedness: the eye of death is
fastened upon her, and the word of wrath is spoken against her (Wolkstein
and Kramer 53–60). Inanna returns, after being hung up on a peg for three
days and three nights, with the “demons of the underworld” clinging to her
side. These are the galla, who kill her husband Dumuzi as her substitute.
Oedipa’s journey into the “underground of the unbalanced” quickly
evokes a sense of the world as a cryptic text, a “Book of the Dead,” whose
“hieroglyphics” she can intuit, but not decipher. Her initial discovery of the
Tristero postal symbol (the muted horn Pynchon has copied in his text) “on
the latrine wall, among lipsticked obscenities” at the Scope (a bar near the
Yoyodyne plant of Galactronics, Inc., another one of Inverarity’s interests)
reiterates this sacramental view of the world as a divine text: she copies the
symbol into her address book, “thinking: God, hieroglyphics” (38).
Like Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Ulysses, Oedipa’s journey is to read the
“signatures of all things”, and in attempting to do so, she uncovers what
looks like an “American cult of the dead” (47). This occurs during an outing
48 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

to another one of her dead lover’s interest: an elaborate real estate develop-
ment called the Fangoso Lagoon, one of Inverarity’s last big projects” (40).
The “hieratic geometry” of the development reiterates the sense of revelation
hovering just on the brink of consciousness, as does the “helix” of “sand
roads” leading down to the lake at the center of the project (41).
Oedipa’s guide into the mysteries of the Fangoso Lagoons is an “ac-
tor/lawyer friend” of Metzger’s appropriately named “Manny Di Presso,”
who is engaged in litigation “against the estate of Pierce Inverarity” (42).
The revelations that proceed reiterate Pynchon’s elaborately ludic handling
of the myth of the nekyia, which provides structure to the novel as a whole
by connecting its various episodes together. Manny Di Presso’s client, Tony
Jaguar, has “supplied some bones” Inverarity used for the “bone charcoal” of
a “Beaconsfield filter” investment (45). The bones were indeed “Human,”
but did not come from the “Old cemeteries” ripped up by the suburban de-
velopment (46). “These bones,” Di Presso says, “came from Italy,” from the
bottom of the Lago di Pietà, near the “Tyrrhenian coast, somewhere between
Naples and Rome,” the “scene of a now ignored,” but tragic battle fought
during World War II, in 1943 (46).
One of the great themes of the myth of the descent to the underworld is
the revelation of the lives of the heroic dead. The nekyia (from Homer to
Virgil to Dante) is historical, recording the epic events of the ancestral dead.
Pynchon’s variation involves “a handful of American troops” massacred at
the base of vertiginous cliffs rising from the “narrow shore of the clear and
tranquil lake” (46). Di Presso’s client, Tony Jaguar had been “a corporal in
an Italian outfit attached to the German force” that massacred the American
troops, whose bones, he knows, are buried at the bottom of the appropriately
named Lago di Pietà (47). He harvests the bones, uses his contacts with the
mafia to sell them to “An import-export firm,” which sells them to a “fertil-
izer enterprise,” which stores them in a warehouse outside of Fort Wayne,
Indiana, until the Beaconsfield bone charcoal company buys them (47).
In a bizarre sequence of transactions, the bones of the lost battalion have
been “fished up, turned into charcoal,” sold to an investment firm called “Os-
teolysis, Inc.” owned by Oedipa’s dead lover, and now lie at the bottom of
the lake at Fangoso Lagoons (48). The transactions implicate all of corporate
America in an elaborate conspiracy, motivated by a “labyrinth of assumed
motives” (47). The whole sick history reminds one of the Paranoids (along
for the excursion to the Lagoons) of a play he’d just seen, a “Jacobean re-
The Crying of Lot 49 49

venge” drama by one Richard Wharfinger, called The Courier’s Tragedy.

Oedipa’s trip to see the play continues to evoke the myth of the descent to
the underworld, and extends the historical nekyia backwards to the English
Civil War of the 17th century (49). The plot of the play (entirely Pynchon’s
invention) is notoriously baroque. It involves a lost guard of soldiers associ-
ated with a postal conspiracy used by the Thurn and Taxis group called the
“Trystero,” which becomes the ancestor of the Tristero postal conspiracy
Oedipa stumbles on at the Scope. In the play, the lost guard is murdered, and
their bones turned into ink—a fascinating image that connects the myth of
the nekyia with the energies of poeisis.
Fascinated by the connection between the bones and postal conspiracy,
Oedipa wanders backstage to talk to the director, one Randy Driblette. When
she does so, the traditional necrotypes—catoptric and ocular—of the descent
to the underworld emerge forcefully in the text, and are combined with the
related myth of the labyrinth. The first is the ocular necrotype (already
evoked by the stripper’s malignant stare at the Scope): moving backstage,
Oedipa passes “into a region of brightly-lit mirrors,” in the midst of which
she encounters Driblette. She is mesmerized by “his eyes. They were bright
black, surrounded by an incredible network of lines, like a laboratory maze
for studying intelligence in tears. They seemed to know what she wanted,
even if she didn’t” (60).
The fusion of the mirror, the maze, and the hypnotic eyes is consistent
with Pynchon’s handling of the nekyia throughout the novel. And the sense
of some secret knowledge to be revealed at the climax of the descent is a
primary convention of the myth. Pynchon explicitly connects the images to
the myth when Driblette smiles at Oedipa, his “furrowed eyes” looking at her
from “the centers of their webs” (61, 63). When he does so, Oedipa feels the
“cold corpse-fingers of grue on her skin,” as if embraced by the lord of the
dead, or by the Minotaur at the center of his labyrinth (61). Driblette, of
course, will soon be dead himself.
Chapter Four of the novel takes us back to the Yoyodyne corporation,
where further revelations unfold, all related to the historical nekyia at the
heart of the novel. The sense of a pattern beginning to emerge continues to
haunt Oedipa’s descent. She feels the presence of “an organized something”
as she rereads Pierce’s will, as if she were standing in a planetarium, where
the mystery of the estate is brought into “pulsing stelliferous Meaning, all in
a soaring dome around her” (64). Two more pieces of the puzzle are intro-
duced: the first, by Stanley Koteks, having to do with a physicist named John
50 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

Nefastis, who is preoccupied with an experiment to test a phenomenon called

Maxwell’s Demon (68); and the second involving postal conspiracies associ-
ated with Wells Fargo and the Pony Express.
At the Fangoso Lagoons, Oedipa had noticed a “bronze historical
marker” commemorating the death of a “dozen Wells Fargo men” who were
killed by “a band of masked marauders in mysterious black uniforms” (71;
italics in text). In pursuit of the mysterious connections to the various postal
conspiracies so far encountered (the Peter Pinguid Society at the Scope; the
Thurn und Taxis Trystero, etc.), Oedipa goes to see a man called Mr. Thoth,
who lives in another one of Inverarity’s investment schemes: the “Vesper-
haven House, a home for senior citizens” (72). Here, Oedipa determines to
confer “order” upon the various constellations of mystery surrounding her
dead lover (72). Mr. Thoth, of course, is appropriately named after the Egyp-
tian god of writing, who records the last judgment in the Books of the Dead.
He is therefore a figure who brings the myth of the underworld into explicit
connection with the mysteries of poeisis and hermeneusis—since the text he
writes must also be read.
Mr. Thoth tells Oedipa a story about his grandfather, who had ridden for
the Pony Express, when he was attacked by “Indians who wore black feath-
ers, the Indians who weren’t Indians” (73). These “false Indians were sup-
posed to burn bones and stir the boneblack with their feathers to get them
black,” in order to make “them invisible at night” (73). These are the invisi-
ble shades of the ancestral dead, who attack only at night, and who have
lived on in Mr. Thoth’s dreams. They seem to have been Mexicans, and Mr.
Thoth’s grandfather has cut the ring off one of their fingers. To Oedipa’s as-
tonishment, the ring is embossed with “the WASTE symbol” she had seen in
the ladies room at the Scope (74). When she sees it, she feels once again as if
she were “trapped at the center of some intricate crystal” (74).
Another piece of the Pony Express puzzle falls into place when Oedipa
goes to visit Genghis Cohen, the “eminent philatelist” whom Metzger has
hired to “inventory and appraise Inverarity’s stamp collection” (75). His of-
fice evokes the threshold and labyrinthine imagery characteristic of the
nekyia: Oedipa first sees him when he opens “the door of his apart-
ment/office,” and stands “framed in a long succession or train of doorways,
room after room receding in the general direction of Santa Monica” (75).
Like Hades in a famous Classical ceramic, in which the Lord of the Under-
world offers Persephone a cup of wine, Cohen serves up a glass of “home-
The Crying of Lot 49 51

made dandelion wine,” fermented from flowers picked “in a cemetery” torn
up to build the San Narciso Freeway—the same cemetery mentioned in con-
nection with the bone charcoal scheme of the Fangoso Lagoons.
The wine catalyzes a recurrent motif in the novel: that of what we might
call the epileptic nekyia, during which the visionary travels by seizure into
another world, returning with the sense of a revelation hovering at the mar-
gins of consciousness. Oedipa compares the allusion to the Freeway as one
of those “signals like” an “epileptic is said to have” before a seizure, a “secu-
lar announcement” he remembers, while forgetting “what is revealed during
the attack” (76). Oedipa wonders whether “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 bland when the ordinary world came
back” (76).
The revelation this time has to do with one of Inverarity’s stamps, which
has “irregularities” in the “watermark,” like the ones Cohen recognizes from
an “old German stamp” with the “Thurn und Taxis” legend in the margin
(77). The connection enables Cohen to trace the lineaments of “‘An 800-year
tradition of postal fraud,’” one which originated “in the Bergamo region”
near Milan in 1290, and continued on down the line to the attacks on Wells
Fargo and the Pony express, and on up to the contemporary Tristero group
that Oedipa stumbled on the bar of the Yoyodyne corporation.
Such revelations of secret conspiracies are at the heart of Pynchon’s
work, and they are at the heart of the traditional motifs of the nekyia—which
always catalyzes the recognition of those archetypal forms and images that
govern and shape our lives. Pynchon’s conclusion to this chapter’s revela-
tions of the eight hundred year old postal conspiracy explicitly evokes the
mythology of the descent to the underworld, though in a manner altogether
characteristic of the author’s ludic approach. Oedipa sits in the office at the
end of the labyrinthine hall, wishing the “bones could still rest in peace,
nourishing ghosts of dandelions,” with “no one to plow them up. As if the
dead really do persist, even in a bottle of wine” (79).
The revelations of the nekyia turn from the philatelic to the scientific in
Pynchon’s next extended variation on the myth, which will take Oedipa from
LA to Berkeley, and then back again, after stopovers in San Francisco and
Kinneret. Oedipa arrives in Berkeley at midnight, and stays in a labyrinthine,
“many-leveled, German-baroque hotel,” where there is a Deaf Mute Assem-
52 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

bly in progress (80). Her room is at the end of “corridors gently curving as
the streets of San Narciso” (81). It has a “reproduction of a Remedios Varo”
painting on the wall (81), and, during the night, Oedipa keeps “waking from
a nightmare about something in the mirror across from her bed” (81). This
fusion of the mirror, the labyrinth, and the dream is characteristic of the onei-
ric nekyia, a widespread motif in postmodernism (c.f., Borges, Cortázar, and
The next day Oedipa goes to the Lectern Press on Shattuck Avenue to
buy a copy of The Plays of Ford, Webster, Tourneur and Wharfinger (81).
Like the Remedios Varo painting the night before, this puts a second text at
the heart of the labyrinth, and implicates the energies of the nekyia and her-
meneusis—since those texts discovered during the journey must be read and
deciphered. Oedipa is particularly concerned about the allusion to the “Trys-
tero” conspiracy, which is uncertain, since it doesn’t occur in the various
texts collated by one Professor Bortz, editor of the paperback reprint of the
play she buys at the Lectern Press—which, it turns out, is at variance from
the edition she had bought at Zapf’s bookstore in Los Angeles. Pynchon’s
parody of academic scholarship is compelling and informed. My point here
is that the nekyia has catalyzed the dynamic energies of hermeneusis, as
Oedipa struggles to interpret the mysteries of the texts discovered during the
course of her journey.
That journey takes her next to the home of John Nefastis, who explains
the mysteries of Maxwell’s Demon, first introduced into the text by Stanley
Koteks at the Yoyodyne corporation in San Narciso. Nefastis initiates Oedipa
into the world of physics, explaining the concepts of “entropy,” “thermody-
namics,” and “information flow”: “Communication is the key,” Nefastis con-
cludes, before attempting to seduce Oedipa (86). This scene (among many
others) is important, for it exemplifies Pynchon’s incorporation of the lan-
guage of science into his ludic version of the classical nekyia—which always
moves towards the revelation of those mysteries that give shape and signifi-
cance to life. Pynchon’s versatility in his adaption of the key themes of the
myth of the descent to the underworld is central to his achievement, moving
as he does effortlessly among the diverse discourses of science, history, phi-
latelics, and textual criticism.
When Oedipa leaves Nefastis to head across the Bay into San Francisco,
an extended variation on the night-sea journey of the nekyia proceeds, with
various stations along the way. She crosses the Bay Bridge at rush hour
The Crying of Lot 49 53

(87)—such thresholds are of course central to the myth (one thinks of the
rivers Styx and Jordan; of the sea voyages of Odysseus or Sinbad; or of the
waters of death Gilgamesh crosses on his journey to the Land of the Fara-
way). From there, Oedipa’s is a long day’s journey into the night, with a se-
ries of revelations punctuating her descent—all revolving around the “muted
post horn” of the Tristero conspiracy, which she sees on a pin in the lapel of
one Arnold Snarb, who she follows into a gay bar called “The Greek Way”
(89). Snarb tells her the story of the origins of the “post horn,” a symbol used
by a group called the “‘IA. That’s Inamorati Anonymous. An inamorato is
somebody in love. That’s the worst addiction of all’” (91).
His story about the Yoyodyne executive who founded the organization in
“the early ‘60’s” incorporates many of the themes of Pynchon’s ludic nekyia
(91). After being laid off at Yoyodyne, the failed executive puts an ad in the
paper asking if “anyone who’d been in the same fix had ever found any good
reasons for not committing suicide” (92). One day, an old bum arrives carry-
ing a sack of letters, most of them from “suicides who had failed,” but none
offering “any compelling reasons to stay alive” (92). Then, after reading “a
front page story in the Times” about the “Buddhist monk in Viet Nam who
had set himself on fire to protest government policies,” the Yoyodyne exec
douses himself with gasoline, and prepares to incinerate himself with a
“farewell flick of the wheel on his faithful Zippo, which had seen him
through the Normandy hedgerows, the Ardennes, Germany, and postwar
America” (93). But when he is interrupted by the sound of “his wife and
some man” coming into the apartment to fuck on the floor, he suddenly starts
to laugh, for “a solid ten minutes” (93). Then he peels the stamp off one of
the letters brought by the old bum, and sees “the image of the muted post
horn,” and realizes that the WASTE conspiracy enables a “whole underworld
of suicides who failed” to communicate in secret (94).
It is into this underworld that Oedipa now continues to descend, spend-
ing the rest of her night in San Francisco “finding the image of the Trystero
post horn” nearly everywhere she turns (94): “on a sign among ideographs”
in Chinatown (94); “two of them in chalk” on a sidewalk (94); a “circle of
children in their nightclothes” playing jump rope, stepping “alternately in the
loop, the bell, and the mute” of the posthorn, while singing “Tristoe, Tristoe,
on, two, three” (96); on the front page of “the anarcho-syndicalist paper Re-
generación,” from 1904, which a revolutionary name Jesús Arrabal shows
her in “an all night Mexican greasy spoon off 24th (96–98); stitched on the
gang jackets of a “dreamy cloud of delinquents” down at the “city beach”
54 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

(98); “scratched on the back of a seat” in a bus full of “exhausted Negroes,”

she sees “the post horn with the legend DEATH” (98); somewhere “near
Fillmore” she finds “the symbol tacked to the bulletin board of a Laundro-
mat” (98); a Mexican girl on another bus traces “post horns and hearts with a
fingernail, in the haze of her breath on the window” (99); losers in a poker
game at the airport enter their losses “in a little balance-book decorated in-
side with scrawled post horns” (99); in a latrine nearby Oedipa finds “an ad-
vertisement by ACDC, standing for the Alameda County Death Cult, along
with a box number and post horn” (99); a boy kissing his mother passion-
ately good-bye, before boarding a “TWA flight to Miami” tells his mother to
“‘Write by WASTE’” (100); and, finally, an extended assortment of alien-
ated ghosts of the night (a welder, a child, a Negro woman, a night watch-
man, and a voyeur) all have a “cufflink, decal,” or “aimless doodling” with
the post horn on it (100).
That yields so far twelve encounters with post horn, associated with
various groups of alienated citizens, all somehow withdrawn from the great
debacle of the American dream. There will be yet a thirteenth encounter, just
before dawn, as if Oedipa were making her way through the twelve chambers
of the night in an Egyptian Book of the Dead, struggling like a lost soul to
read the hieroglyphics that will guide her into the afterlife. It is interesting to
note that the verbs Pynchon uses to describe the demarcations of the post
horn all implicate metaphors of poeisis with the nekyia: the horn is a “sign
among ideographs” (94), a “diagram” etched in chalk on a sidewalk (94), the
refrain in a game of jump rope (96), a “handstruck image” on an old newspa-
per (98), a horn “stitched” on gang jackets (98), a “symbol tacked to” a bul-
letin board (98), a sign traced in the window by a girl’s fingernails (99), or
“scrawled” into ledger books at a poker game (99), and aimlessly doodled on
cuffinks and decals of the dispossessed (100). All of these verbs suggest a
variety of ways the signs and symbols of a secret text may be written, and
then deciphered by Oedipa, thus fusing the energies of poeisis and herme-
neusis catalyzed by her nekyia.
The climax of her long day’s journey into the San Francisco night is her
thirteenth encounter with the post horn, which occurs just “before the morn-
ing rush hour” (101), bringing her diurnal nekyia full circe (it had begun at
rush hour on the Bay Bridge). This final encounter yields one of the most
extraordinary epiphanies in the long history of the myth of the nekyia, in one
of Pynchon’s most famous passages. Walking towards the Embarcadero,
The Crying of Lot 49 55

Oedipa sees an old man through “an open doorway,” huddled on the stairs
“leading up into the disinfectant-smelling twilight of a rooming house”
(101). Both the doorway and the stairs evoke the standard threshold necro-
types of the myth, traceable back to the Egyptian Books of the Dead, in
which the soul passes through a sequence of twelve doorways, leading into
the chambers of the night, in the sixth of which it encounters Osiris, Lord of
the Staircase (Campbell, Mythic Image Fig. 391). Oedipa sees the post horn
tattooed on the back of the old man’s left hand, and is gripped by “the terror
of eyes gloried in burst veins,” which stops her in her tracks (101). The ocu-
lar necrotype is as ancient as the threshold imagery, as we know from the
Eyes of Horus in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and from the eye of death
Ereshkigal fastens on Inanna in the Sumerian myth alluded to earlier in strip
show at the Scope.
The old man stares “into her eyes” and asks her to drop a letter to his
wife in Fresno in the box under the Freeway (102), which of course has the
“hand-painted” initials of the “W.A.S.T.E” postal system on its hinges (105).
Before Oedipa deposits the letter, however, she takes the old man in her
arms, and then helps him upstairs to his bed, amidst a labyrinthine “warren of
rooms and corridors, lit by 10-watt bulbs, separated by beaverboard parti-
tions” (103). Her meditation on the old sailor’s death then evokes the myth
of the nekyia, but combines it with the diction of calculus in the most ex-
traordinary way. She thinks of the “massive destructions of information” that
will occur when the old sailor dies, his mattress flaring up in “his Viking’s
funeral” (104). The mattress has stored “coded years of uselessness, early
death, self harrowing” (104)—a word which combines the Christian nekyia
(Christ’s Harrowing of Hell) with that of the Nordic.
These allusions then yield to Oedipa’s musings upon what we might call
the alcoholic nekyia—which of course involves a visionary journey of sorts.
Because she has cradled the old man in her arms, and felt his tears against
her breast, Oedipa knows “that he suffered DT’s,” and suggests that “Behind
the initials was a metaphor, a delirium tremens, a trembling unfurrowing of
the mind’s plowshare” (104)—a metaphor which sustains the allusion to the
Biblical nekyia, since the word “Harrowing” is a pun, meaning both to steal
(Jesus steals the souls of the patriarchs from Hell), and to break up the soil
with a plow in preparation for planting the seed. And it is entirely consistent
with the logic of the myth that, at the climax of the descent, some revelation
of the archetypal forms that govern and shape our lives will occur: here,
Oedipal thinks of the saint, the clairvoyant, and “the paranoid for whom all is
56 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself”

The metaphor of the DT’s then modulates, as, “Trembling, unfurrowed,”
Oedipa remembers her “second or third collegiate love Ray Glozing” bitch-
ing about “freshman calculus; ‘dt,’ God help this old tattoed man,” Oedipa
remembers, “meant also a time differential, a vanishingly small instant”
(105). The connection yields to an extraordinary variation on the nekyia as a
journey to visionary worlds beyond the normal reach of consciousness, to-
wards a place where “death dwelled in the cell though the cell be looked in
on at its most quick” (105). The sailor’s delirium tremens have taken him on
such a journey: he has “seen worlds no other man had seen if only because
there was that high magic to low puns, because DT’s must give access to dt’s
of spectra beyond the known sun, music made of purely Antarctic loneliness
and fright” (105). The density of Pynchon’s prose generates a complex con-
ceit which combines the diction of biology, calculus, optics, and alcoholism
with the visionary journey of the nekyia—which here moves southwards
across the sea to the Antarctic ice cap. And the journey catalyzes the energies
of poeisis, here alluded to by the “music made” in the drunken sailor’s mind,
a complex harmony of myth and science, characteristic of Pynchon’s bril-
liant, original, re-figuration of the nekyia.
Oedipa then leaves the old man in the flophouse, puts his letter to his
“wife” in the “W.A.S.T.E” mail box under the bridge, and then rides back to
Oakland by bus, and on back to the hotel in Berkeley, where her harrowing
night-sea journey had begun: “She was back where she’d started, and could
not believe 24 hours had passed” (106), thus completing the full cycle of a
diurnal nekyia. And here again the metaphor of music resurfaces, as Oedipa
is swept into the ballroom by “a handsome young” deaf mute, wearing a “a
Harris tweed coat and waltzed round and round, through the rustling, shuf-
fling hush, under a great unlit chandelier” (107). Oedipa is stunned by the
“unthinkable order of music,” by the “many rhythms, all keys at once, a cho-
reography in which each couple meshed easy, predestined,” although none
can hear the harmonies that govern their couplings (107). Music, dance, cho-
reography, order, all the keys of the universe playing at once—all suggest
those revelations of the pattern that gives shape to all things characteristic of
the nekyia.
A second hero journey cycle is brought full circle the next day, when
Oedipa drives down the “peninsula to Kinneret,” from which her journey had
The Crying of Lot 49 57

started at the beginning of the novel. The intersection of hero journey cycles
therefore suggests that the novel as a whole is structured by reiterations of
the nekyia: from Kinneret to San Narciso and back; from San Narciso to
Berkeley and back (in the conclusion of the novel); and from Berkeley to San
Francisco and back. That yields three interlocking narrative cycles, all con-
nected by the imagery and diction of the myth of the nekyia—which confers
that shape and significance upon the novel as a whole that Eliot associated
with the mythical method. The dazzling exfoliation of the monomyth to em-
brace multiple cycles of descent and return is entirely characteristic of post-
modernism as a whole, and applies particularly to Pynchon’s oeuvre: as radi-
cally innovative as it appears, the work is nevertheless consistently structured
by reiterations of, and variations on, the conventional motifs of the nekyia.
Oedipa’s return to Kinneret brings the primary motifs of the historical
nekyia back into focus, after our excursion into the discourse of calculus and
physics. Her psychiatrist (Dr. Hilarius) is psychopathic, her husband tripped
out on LSD. The crisis of the crossing of the return threshold is embodied by
Dr. Hilarius, whose office Oedipa finds surrounded by police. The revela-
tions that proceed are those of the Nazi nekyia, a memorial descent into the
inferno of the holocaust. When Oedipa pulls into the “clinic a little after sun-
set,” the wind in the “Eucalyptus branches” blows “in a great stream of air
that flowed downhill, sucked to the evening sea” (108). Halfway up the flag-
stone path leading the office, she hears what sounds like “an insect whirring
loudly past her ear, followed at once by the sound of a gunshot” (108)—her
psychiatrist is shooting at her with his rifle, “A Gewehr 43 from the war”
(108). Hilarius is paranoid, thinking he is being pursued by Israeli terrorists,
because of his involvement in the holocaust. Several ghosts of that period
emerge in his ravings: when Oedipa identifies herself, Hilarius says “‘May
Speer and his ministry of cretins rot eternally in hell’” (109). He then evokes
the “ghost of that cantankerous Jew,” Sigmund Freud, whose doctrines he
has “Tried to cultivate a faith” in, “even the idiocies and contradictions”
(109)—although he acknowledges that if “I’d been a real Nazi I’d have cho-
sen Jung, nicht wahr?” (112)—anticipating the recent debate about Jung’s
presumed Anti-Semitism by several years.1
When Oedipa asks where he did his internship, Hilarius replies, “‘Buch-
enwald,’” where he worked on “‘experimentally-induced insanity. A cata-
tonic Jew was as good as a dead one,’” he explains. “‘Liberal SS circles felt
it would be more humane’” (112). The experiments provide a glimpse of an
infernal chamber of horrors: the Nazi psychologists Hilarius had worked
58 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

with “went at their subjects with metronomes, serpents, Brechtian vignettes

at midnight, surgical removal of certain glands, magic-lantern hallucinations,
new drugs, threats received over hidden loudspeakers, hypnotism, clocks that
ran backward, and faces. Hilarius had been put in charge of faces” (112). The
description of the faces Hilarius developed in the experiments explicitly con-
nects the Nazi underworld with the myth of the nekyia: Zvi, “the young
man” he used it upon, was driven “‘Hopelessly insane’” (110). Hilarius tells
Oedipa to warn the police he “‘can make that face again’”; that “it has an
effective radius of a hundred yards and drives anyone unlucky enough to see
it down forever into the darkened oubliette, among terrible shapes, and se-
cures the hatch irrevocably above them’” (110). A terrible face indeed! Ra-
ther like the head of the Medusa, or the eye of wrath Ereshkigal fastens upon
Inanna, trapping her in the Sumerian underworld.
This “dramatic siege at the Hilarius Psychiatric Clinic” ends with Oedipa
finding her husband Mucho recording the scene for “the KCUF mobile unit”
(113). Mucho, it turns out, has been a participant in Dr. Hilarius’s most re-
cent research project: LSD. Under its influence, Mucho has developed re-
cording technology at the station to perform a “Spectrum analysis” of any
song he plays: he can “‘break down chords, and timbres, and words too into
all the basic frequencies and harmonies, with all their different loudnessess,
and listen to them, each pure tone, but all at once’” (116). These experiments
suggest the kind of reduction to those fundamental elements from which all
creation comes, and to which it returns, which is at the core of the myth of
the nekyia, particularly as conceived by the Modernists. Pynchon’s handling
of the material is uniquely ludic, and exemplifies the fusion of science, tech-
nology, history, psychology, and myth so characteristic of his work as a
The traditional nekyia typically concludes with nostoi: homecomings
of the hero, such as we find in Homer, with the reunion of husband and wife
on the island of Ithaca. No such closure exists for Oedipa: Mucho has cheat-
ed on her, and she cannot stay home in Kinneret any longer. Her circle is
broken, so she decides to go back to San Narciso, returning in Chapter 6 to
the Echo Courts motel, bringing another hero journey full circle, and initiat-
ing a deeper descent. Metzger has gone off to marry a 14-year old in Las Ve-
gas, and Randy Driblette, one of her guides to the Tristero underworld, has
drowned in the Pacific. Pynchon again returns to the divestiture necrotype to
express her terror of the abyss at this point: “They are stripping from me, she
The Crying of Lot 49 59

said subvocally—feeling like a fluttering curtain in a very high window,

moving up to then out over the abyss—they are stripping away, one by one,
my men” (125–26).
The revelations that proceed as Oedipa continues her search for the mys-
teries of the 800 year old postal conspiracy are primarily historical. Through
conversations with the editor of Wharfinger’s plays, Professor Bortz, and
return visits with Genghis Cohen, the philatelist in charge of Pierce Inverar-
ity’s stamp collection, we learn how baroquely complicated the conspiracy
is. Nevertheless, as is appropriate in any re-figuration of the myth of the de-
scent to the underworld, a sense of order gradually discloses itself: the web
of conspiracy implicates the Vatican during the Counter Reformation, when
an obscene parody of The Courier’s Tragedy was produced (127); during the
English Civil War, Puritan Scurvhamites rebelling against Charles the 1st
changed the words of the play, which they would rather have seen banned
“into hell” (128); the postal system was also employed in 1577, in associa-
tion with the rise of the Dutch republic by a reactionary group of “Disinher-
ited” exiles, led by Jan Hinckart, protested the collapse of the Holy Roman
Empire (132); subsequently, the same “disinherited” heirs of the HRE used
the system in a scheme to “unify the continent” during the period of the
Thirty Year’s War (135); and, in the last of Professor Bortz’s revelations, a
“secular Tristero” emerged as a driving force behind the French Revolution
Further historical ramifications of the postal conspiracy emerge when
Oedipa visits Genghis Cohen, who shows her a translation of an article pub-
lished in the Bibliothèque des Timbrophiles in 1865, at the time of the
American Civil War. Oedipa then learns that when the Tristero was split
apart by internal tensions associated with “the battle of Austerlitz” and the
“difficulties of 1848,” many of its members fled to America (142–43).
Hence, we are to assume, the sequence of attacks on Wells Fargo and the
Pony Express revealed by Mr. Thoth at the Vesperhaven senior citizens
home earlier in the novel; and hence the sequence of postal reforms and il-
licit stamps in the United States, which, Cohen informs, occurred in 1934,
1947, and 1958—which brings us up to the present, as Oedipa awaits the
auctioning of Inverarity’s stamp collection, at the end of the novel.
The range of Pynchon’s historical reference is stunning, especially to a
generation of Americans (of the post war period) for whom the subject has
become esoteric. Some students today do not know the dates of the American
Revolution or the Civil War. How then can we expect the common reader to
60 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

follow Pynchon’s argument? Its baroque complexities, however, are entirely

consistent with the poetics of postmodernism, which favors densities of spec-
ification and style that recall the Baroque and Mannnerist periods of the 17th
century, which emerged from the Classical serenity of the High Renaissance
in the same way Hellenistic art developed from the Greek miracles of the
Athenian Golden Age.
Before the final piece of the historical puzzle hovers on the brink of con-
sciousness, however, Oedipa goes to Randy Driblette’s funeral, during which
the allusions to informing myths of the novel (the nekyia and the labyrinth)
are reiterated. She watches his mother cry, “spectral in afternoon smog”
(132) and returns at night “to sit on the grave and drink Napa Valley musca-
tel, which Driblette in his time had put away barrels of” (133)—a scene that
reminds one of the famous ceramic dish which shows Hades offering Per-
sephone a cup of wine. As she sits drinking on Driblette’s grave, Oedipa be-
gins to feel like a ghost, wondering if “some version of herself hadn’t van-
ished with him. Perhaps her mind would go on flexing psychic muscles that
no longer existed; would be betrayed and mocked by a phantom self as the
amputee is by a phantom limb” (133). She imagines herself reaching out “to
whatever coded tenacity of protein might improbably have held on six feet
below, still resisting decay” (133). Pynchon’s evocation of a “transient,
winged shape” struggling to “scramble up” through the earth is uncanny
(133), and recalls the delicate winged spirits of the dead that haunt the Clas-
sical myths of the underworld (Harrison 163–217). The image is apparently
of Driblette’s soul, perhaps figured by the Minoan symbol of the butterfly,
which emerges from the cocoon of the corpse. Still sitting on the grave,
Oedipa imagines herself “briefly penetrated” by Driblette’s soul,

as if the bright winged thing had actually made it to the sanctuary of her heart—
perhaps, springing from the same slick labyrinth, adding those two lines had even,
in a way never to be explained, served him as a rehearsal for his night’s walk away
into that vast sink of the primal blood the Pacific. She waited for the winged bright-
ness to announce its safe arrival. (134)

As difficult as these lines are to unpack, they would seem to combine

motifs central to the myths of the nekyia and the labyrinth. In Minoan Crete,
as mentioned, the word psyche meant both soul and butterfly. One finds the
motif most commonly in association with the mythology of the maze and the
Minotaur: on ceramics and wooden coffins, the wings of the butterfly unfold
The Crying of Lot 49 61

between the horns of a bull’s cranium like the twin blades of the double axe,
itself a symbol of the labyrinth (Gimbutas, Language 274). On the other
hand, Pynchon’s imagery and diction here is oddly reminiscent of Jane Har-
rison’s discussion of Keres, “little winged figures” often depicted on the
lekythoi (used to pour offerings of wine to the dead) and grave jars in the
mortuary symbolism of Ancient Greece (43–44). These “little winged fig-
ures” were associated with the “souls” that “escaped” from the jars, and “to
them necessarily returned” (44). These “little winged sprites” of the 5th cen-
tury B.C., “fluttering about the grave” (165), were sometimes associated with
fate (Harrison 183–87).
To what extent Pynchon’s incorporation of these motifs into his text was
conscious, or a spontaneous manifestation of the archetypal energies of the
psyche, can perhaps not be known. What I find most interesting, however, is
the association between the nekyia and poeisis in the passage, implied by
Oedipa’s fantasy that Driblette’s adding of the mysterious lines to the text of
The Courier’s Tragedy was in some mysterious way a “rehearsal” for his
suicide, when he walked into the waters of death, off the shores of Santa
The novel concludes with an inexorable movement towards the kind of
revelation of order characteristic of the nekyia—although, in the manner of
postmodern re-figurations of the myth, full disclosure is withheld. Oedipa
learns from Genghis Cohen about a mysterious stranger who will place a bid
(through his agent, C. Morris Schrift) for the stamp collection. Though prob-
ing the mysteries of Pynchon’s ludic nomenclature, it is interesting to sug-
gest that the agent’s name combines several key motifs of the novel: the sea;
the labyrinth (implied by the Nine Men’s Morris dance, which Shakespeare
associates with “the quaint mazes on the wanton green” in A Midsummer
Night’s Dream), and poeisis (“Schriftsteller,” auf deutsch, means writer).
After learning of the auction, Oedipa takes a long walk on the railroad
tracks, during which her peregrinations are recapitulated, and the fusion of
the nekyia and poeisis reiterated. Losing her bearings, Oedipa experiences a
profound sense of loss, “pure, instant, spherical,” like the “sound of a stain-
less orchestral chime held among the stars and struck lightly” (147). With
that piercing note comes the recognition, at last, that “Pierce Inverarity was
really dead,” and that “she could never again call back any image of the dead
man” (147). Yet what she can continue to do is try to make “sense of what
Inverarity had left behind, never suspecting that the legacy was America”
(147). The key to that legacy is of course his will, written while “facing the
62 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

spectre” of death, and, in some inscrutable way, thereby hatching a “a plot

[…] too elaborate for the dark Angel to hold,” and therefore “by that much
beaten death” (148). Drawn into the underworld in search of the key to mys-
teries of that document, Oedipa may just as well have been named Perseph-
one—lured ever deeper into the underworld (of the “unbalanced,” of “failed
suicides,” of the “disinherited” exiles of the Trystero) by the will of her dead
During her final walk along the tracks, Oedipa wonders whether the
Trystero really exists, or is the figment of a paranoid imagination. She feels
like she is “walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes
and the ones twinned above” (150). Those opposites embrace the antimony
of order and chaos: “Behind the hieroglyphic streets,” Oedipa speculates,
“there would either be a transcendental meaning, or only the earth” (150). In
either case, it has been her task to interpret the hieroglyphs, to read the text
of the world and the will, and to enter into its mysteries like a soul on a jour-
ney in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Her musing upon the opposites of
order and chaos recapitulates the various episodes of the novel: the Para-
noid’s song was “either some fraction of the truth’s numinous beauty,” or
“only a power spectrum”; “the bones of the GI’s at the bottom of Lake In-
verarity were there either for a reason that mattered to the world, or for skin
divers and cigarette smokers”; and, “At Vesperhaven House either an ac-
commodation reached, in some kind of dignity, with the Angel of Death, or
only death and the daily, tedious, preparations for it” (150).
All these antimonies boil down to a fundamental theme of Pynchon’s
work, paranoia: either there is “Another mode of meaning behind the obvi-
ous, or none. Either Oedipa in the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia, or a
real Tristero” (150). After all, the paranoid and the poet are of imagination
all compact: both create order out of chaos, and impose systems of meaning
upon what may be the random chaos of life. Paranoia and poeisis are one,
and both compel the nekyia: a journey to that mysterious other world where
ultimate meanings are revealed, patterns discovered, history and destiny ex-
At the end of the novel, Oedipa awaits that final epiphany. But Oedipa’s
nekyia has no closure, her wisdom no substance. She is left wondering
whether she has stumbled “on to a secret richness and concealed density of
dream” or whether “a plot has been mounted against her” so “labyrinthine
that it must have meaning”, or whether she is hallucinating, “fantasying some
The Crying of Lot 49 63

such plot” and “out of her skull” (117–118). Only the descent of a miracu-
lous angel, speaking the Pentecostal, epileptic Word that would inflame all
tongues and make intelligible the many languages spoken in the novel (tech-
nological, religious, medical, philatelic, mathematical, literary) can say
which, as Oedipa stands waiting for its “rare, random descent” (Sylvia
Plath’s words) at the stamp auction where the novel ends.

One of the best clarifications of the misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Jung’s
response to the Nazi may be found in Aniela Jaffé’s chapter on “C.G. Jung and National So-
Chapter Three: Gravity’s Rainbow

The heraldic initial of Pynchon’s first novel survives in his most famous one:
in the letter “v” of its title, and in the V-1 and V-2 rockets at the center of its
plot. The novel continues in the playful but at the same time gothic mode of
parody in its evocation of myth and folktale as a means of giving shape to his
sprawling, anarchic material. Indeed, the novel is suffused throughout with
an occult sense of the dead as shaping presences in its “plot,” the languages
of chemistry and rocket technology are added to his arsenal of metaphors,
and there is, as in The Crying of Lot 49, a sense that the final revelation will
come with a terrifying explosion of transcendent light that will annihilate all
awareness and memory of what is revealed. Although Pynchon’s revision-
ings of the nekyia are by turns playful, parodic, obscene, grotesque, and of-
ten terrifying (his extraordinary signature as a novelist), they share the quest
for the revelation of patterns of meaning evident in the Modernist literature
as a whole, both High Classical and Post.
Like Ezra Pound’s Cantos, this encyclopaedic work begins with a de-
scent to the dream kingdom of Hades, which establishes the central myth of
the novel’s quest. In the first chapter, Pirate Prentice dreams about a “rush of
souls” descending on a subway train to “some vast, very old and dark hotel”
(4) corresponding to the palace of Hades in the Classical tradition coming
down from Homer and Virgil. The souls are sequestered in “thousands of ...
hushed rooms without light” to wait for the “judgment from which there is
no appeal” (4). There is “no light anywhere,” and a labyrinthine sequence of
thresholds to be crossed, as the “Evacuation” proceeds ever more deeply into
the “total blackout” (3). Is it simply the evacuation from the city (London
during the Blitz), or from the city of life itself? The journey moves “out of
the main station, out of downtown,” and begins “pushing into older and more
desolate parts of the city” (3). The “carriage” Pirate sits in seems of the 19th
century, since it is in “velveteen darkness,” and since the collapsing glass he
anticipates is “the fall of a crystal palace” (3). Its journey is “not a disentan-
glement from, but a progressive knotting into—they go under archways, se-
cret entrances of rotted concrete that only looked like loops of an underpass
... certain trestles of blackened wood have moved slowly by overhead” (3).
66 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

The passage fuses the threshold imagery of both the nekyia and the laby-
rinth, as the carriage moves inexorably towards “Absolute Zero,” the Mino-
taur in the middle of the maze (3). The road too is knotted and labyrinthine,
“getting narrower, more broken, cornering tight and tighter until all at once,
much too soon, they are under the final arch” (4). At the “end of the line” the
“evacuees are ordered out,” and forced down the “corridors” of the “very old
and dark hotel” (4). The “rush of souls” passes into “remote wings” of the
hotel haunted by the “ghosts” of the “rats” who have “died,” leaving their
impressions on the rotting wood like images of a “cave painting” (4). Each
soul hears a voice threatening damnation, saying “‘You didn’t really believe
you’d be saved. Come, we all know who we are by now. No one was ever
going to take the trouble to save you, old fellow’” (4).
Hence, the diction and iconography of this initial dream establishes the
central myth of the entire book, and indeed of Pynchon’s oeuvre as a whole:
that of the nekyia, of which there are numerous reiterations throughout Grav-
ity’s Rainbow. Episode Five, for example, is set at a place called “Snoxall’s,”
where a séance is in progress: “Anybody’s guess what’s happening over on
the other side. This sitting, like any needs not only its congenial circle here
and secular, but also a basic, four-way entente which oughtn’t, any link of it,
be broken: Roland Feldspath (the spirit), Peter Sachsa (the control), Carroll
Eventyr (medium), Selena (the wife and survivor)” (32). The presentation of
this world and the other combines the geometrical figures of the circle and
the square, forming what Jung would call a mandala—an archetypal symbol
of the totality of the Self: conscious and unconscious, anima and animus,
persona and shadow, all held together by the power of the individuation
process. Even the odd detail of the statistician who records the séances, Mil-
ton Gloaming, looking for a “vocabulary of curves—certain pathologies, cer-
tain characteristic shapes” in the transcripts of the session, is consistent with
the conventions of the nekyia, which typically moves towards a revelation of
those formal patterns that govern and shape our lives, manifested in the dic-
tion (“characteristic shapes”) and iconography (“curves,” circles, and
squares) of the text.
Explicit allusions to the mythology of the nekyia reinforce its presence in
this episode. The crossing to the “other side” is referred to as a ‘transection’
“into the realm of Dominus Blicero” (30). As Steven Weisenburger points
out in his indispensable guide to the novel, Blicero is the “Teutonic deity of
death” (36), a Germanic Hades one might say. Pynchon’s source was
Gravity’s Rainbow 67

“Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology” (37). The Persephone of this complex would

therefore be the bereaved widow of Roland Feldspath, Selena, “whose name
alludes to the ancient moon goddess” (Weisenburger 37). The famous
“Endymion Sarcophagus” from the Metropolitan Museum in New York de-
picts the goddess descending from her chariot to join her mortal lover
Endymion, who is granted “perpetual youth with perpetual sleep” by Zeus
(Morford and Lenardon 58). The myth was “a common subject for Roman
sarcophagi (seventy examples are known from the second to the third centu-
ries A.D.) because it gave hope that the sleep of death would lead to eternal
life” (Morford and Lenardon 59). And, as Pynchon surely knew, the myth
was the subject of Keats’s great poem “Endymion.” As we have seen above
in the chapter on V., Pynchon was well aware of the traditional affiliation
between various goddesses and the nekyia of their consorts, over whose
death and rebirth she presides.
It is in this episode that we are introduced to Roger Mexico, who, like
Tyrone Slothrop and Pirate Prentice, works in one of the “circles” of intelli-
gence operations associated with the central mystery of the novel, that of the
V-2 rocket. The “Firm,” as the central agency seems to be called, is currently
involved in “Operation Black Wing,” its endeavor to apply statistical analy-
sis to information garnered from the “other side” during the séances at Snox-
all’s. Although Roger “doesn’t get on with the rest of his section,” which is
composed of “clairvoyants and mad magicians, telekinetics, astral travelers,
gatherers of light,” and although he has “never touched the Other World di-
rectly,” he still is said to have a “grave-marker self,” spending his days fol-
lowing the trail of the rocket strikes in a city he calls “Death’s antechamber”
(40). Such excursions constitute the secular rhythms of the historical nekyia
of the novel, variously and brilliantly evoked by Pynchon’s prose, by turns
charged with solemn pathos or ludic sarcasm.
The former is exemplified by Tyrone Slothrop’s discovery of a “child,
alive, a little girl, half-suffocated under a Morrison shelter” in a row of
houses destroyed by one of the rocket strikes (25). Pynchon’s prose waxes
elegiac in this episode, and his evocation of the tenderness that emerges
when Slothrop gives the little girl a lozenge of “Thayer’s Slippery Elm” (in-
stead of the “‘gum, chum?’” she asks for) is powerful (25). When, however,
Pointsman, Jessica, and Roger Mexico go after a dog wounded by a strike for
Pointsman to use in his lab, the elegiac pathos modulates towards ludic hilar-
ity. After being moved to tears by the sight of a bra dangling from a bedpost
in a broken row of houses, Jessica then stands by to watch Roger and
68 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

Pointsman chase the dog, whose descent into the cellar of the ruins is evoked
using imagery characteristic of the nekyia. The dog itself is the traditional
guardian of the underworld in Classical myth. This one leads its pursuers
through a sequence of thresholds also characteristic of the myth: from the
“cellar entrance” down to the “bottom of the smashed house” (45). Roger
begins his “cautious descent” with a bottle of ether to anaesthetize the dog,
and illuminates his “vampire face” with his flashlight, before losing the dog.
Pointsman has been rendered helpless by stepping into a toilet bowl, which
he can’t get off his foot, so that the two of them eventually fall down beneath
a wall that threatens to “plunge them into deadly collapse at any moment”
(46). Fortunately, it falls the other way, and the dog escapes.
This episode concludes when Roger and Jessica drop Dr. Pointsman off
at one of the many demonic domiciles of the novel. Its architecture evokes
the classical imagery of the Halls of Dis, and the castles of the Hours of the
Dead in Medieval illuminated manuscripts. In this case, the building is
“known as the Hospital of St. Veronica of the True Image for Colonic and
Respiratory Diseases, and one of its residents is a Dr. Kevin Spectro, neu-
rologist and casual Pavlovian” (47). Spectro and Pointsman are behaviorists,
and the former’s name clearly connects him with the spectral inhabitants of
the domain of the dead. The building itself is magnificently evoked, in lan-
guage that combines the imagery of the nekyia and the labyrinth (47), both of
which myths are central to Christian iconography, in which the underworld
and the maze are conflated, and Satan and the Minotaur become one figure.
Again, Pynchon’s prose rises to the challenge: the hospital is described as a

lengthy brick improvisation, a Victorian paraphrase of what once, long ago, resulted
in Gothic cathedrals—but which, in its own time, arose not from any need to climb
through the fashioning of suitable confusions toward any apical God, but more in a
derangement of aim, a doubt as to the God’s actual locus (or, in some, as to its very
existence), out of a cruel network of sensuous moments that could not be tran-
scended and so bent the intentions of the builders not on any zenith, but back to
fright, to simple escape, in whatever direction [….] (47)

The secularization exemplified by the historical transition from Gothic to

Victorian architecture is central to the novel’s theological concerns. Indeed,
the name of the hospital links it to the Biblical nekyia, since Veronica’s nap-
kin was said to have retained the impression of Christ after his crucifixion,
harrowing of hell, and resurrection. And the fact that “There was no such
London hospital,” as Weisenburger points out (44), underscores the power of
Gravity’s Rainbow 69

versatility of Pynchon’s imagination and prose, which here conjures up a

vision out of Piranesi.
Inside, the hospital is a spectral domain indeed. Drs. Pointsman and
Spectro sit together in the “annulus of night,” discussing the mystery of Ty-
rone Slothrop, whose erections come at the site of future rocket strikes. The
V-2 rocket that mysteriously stimulates Slothrop before it strikes is called a
“ghost in the sky” (49). Pavlovian reversals of stimulus and response, and
Jungian theories of abreaction are brought to bear upon the subject, as the
two men ponder the mystery, warmed only by the “autoclave,” which
“shimmers its fine clutter of steel bones” (48). The office space is compared
to “the cave of an oracle: steam drifting, sybilline cries arriving out of dark-
ness … Abreactions of the Lord of the Night” (49)—which I suppose would
be Carl Jung, whom Colin Wilson called “The Lord of the Underworld.” But
Pointsman sees his colleague as the Lord of the Night: “‘Spectro, you’re not
the devil [….] Are you?’” he asks (53). And indeed, his experiments seem
demonic. The wards of the hospital are filled by the shell-shocked victims of
the “harrowed city,” the “Lord of the Night’s children,” whom, it appears,
Pointsman seduces at “St. Veronica’s Downtown Bus Station” (51), where
he sits watching “Soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen” stepping into the “per-
fectly black rectangle of night and disappear”: “One by one, gone” (52).
This heady mixture of sexual deviance, domination, Pavlovian and
Jungian psychology, and the physics of the V-2 rocket is sustained through-
out the novel, and yields a powerfully original, postmodern, re-figuration of
the myth of the nekyia. One of the many shocking, original re-figurations of
the myth occurs in Episode 10, when Slothrop is injected with sodium amytal
at St. Veronica’s Hospital, “lapses into an induced hypnotic vision”
(Weisenburger 51), and imagines himself being flushed down the toilet by
Malcolm X in the Roseland Ballroom. As Weisenburger notes, the “under-
ground journey” that follows reappears frequently in the novel (51), in sev-
eral variations of what I call the nekyia. After his harmonica goes, Slothrop
swiftly but reluctantly follows the “harp’s descent toward stone white cervix
and into lower night” (63).
For Pynchon, “feelings about blackness were tied to feelings about shit,
and feelings about shit to feelings about putrefaction and death” (276), so
that his linkage of the nekyia and excrement follows the kind of archetypal
logic Hillman discusses in The Dream and the Underworld (in the sections
on “Black” and “Mud and Diarrhea”) (144–146; 183–185). Hillman notes the
“descriptions of the underworld as a realm of mushy or fecal matter” in Plato
70 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

and Aristophanes, and reminds us that “to the Egyptian underworld imagina-
tion, the dead walked upside down so that the stuff of their bowels came out
through their mouths” (183). The imagery is totally appropriate to Gravity’s
Rainbow, where the descent is frequently associated with an excremental
But the reference to the “white cervix” of the toilet bowl also evokes the
kind of perinatal imagery, often in association with the psychedelic nekyia,
that was the special subject of Stanislav Grof’s life work, which classifies
four stages of the birth process, Basic Perinatal Matrices. In the third matrix,
the cervix has opened, and the fetus is propelled down the birth canal, under-
going the “mechanical crushing pressures and frequently high degree of suf-
focation” associated with vaginal contractions (Realms 124). The third stage
is associated, therefore, with “the enormous power of flooding rivers, stormy
oceans, and tidal waves” (125); with “excessive sexual excitement” (129);
and with “scatological” imagery that “seems to belong to the final stage of
the death-rebirth struggle and often immediately precedes the experience of
birth or rebirth” (130; italics in the original). All of this applies to Slothrop’s
descent down the toilet bowl, during which he is inundated with feces, fears
being raped by a gang of Negroes (65–66), endures a “tidal wave” of excre-
ment when the toilet is flushed behind and above him (67), and, as we will
see, gradually moves towards a concluding vision of death and rebirth, such
as the kind Grof classified in connection with the third perinatal matrix.
Yet even in the scatological mire of Pynchon’s underworld—where “De-
cline and fall work silently .... No sun, no moon, only a smooth sinewaving
of the light” (67)—a sense of hieroglyphic revelation emerges: the shit
crusted on the sewage walls hardens into “patterns thick with meaning,
Burma-Shave signs of the toilet world, icky and sticky, cryptic and glyptic,
these shapes loom and pass smoothly as he continues on down the long
cloudy waste line” (65). The revelation of the “shapes” that govern our lives,
in the form of hieroglyphic images and texts encountered at the climax of the
nekyia, is a central characteristic of the myth—however ludically refigured
by Pynchon.
Although it is quite clear that Pynchon plays around here with the rela-
tionship between signifier and signified in a way that lends itself to postmod-
ernist or deconstructive analysis, it is equally clear that his sense of the
mythic dimensions of the modern quest for meaning could come right out of
Joyce’s “Circe” chapter in Ulysses. The need to interpret the patterns of
Gravity’s Rainbow 71

meaning behind such experiences as the toilet bowl descent informs

Slothrop’s quest throughout Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon, in fact, is only a
little more extreme than Mann or Joyce in his irony and sense of play, but no
less serious than these Modernist precursors in his sense of the importance of
myth as a shaping power of the mind. Nor is he less syncretic than they in the
diversity of allusions employed to give shape and significance to his material
(Near-Eastern, Egyptian, Biblical, Greek, Gnostic, Teutonic, Arthurian, and
Kabbalistic—to name a few). His is a pluralistic, polycentric view of psy-
che’s granary, which continually returns to Hades in its imagery and plot.
Another central characteristic of the nekyia is the encounter with the
shades of the dead, and the demonic domiciles they inhabit. And so, as
Slothrop moves on down the line, he is able to “identify certain traces of shit
as belonging definitely to this or that Harvard fellow of his acquaintances”
(66). These include “that ‘Gobbler’ Biddle” and “Dumpster Villard,” in
whose feces Slothrop “can, uncannily shit-sensitized now, read old agonies,”
remembering that Dumpster “tried suicide last semester,” after submitting to
the “erotic cruelty” of the “black professionals” Malcolm X turned him on to
at the Ballroom (67). The verb is critical, suggesting that the nekyia intensi-
fies the creative dynamics of hermeneusis, enabling Slothrop to “read” the
hieroglyphic text hardened on the wall of the sewer pipe. Other shades fol-
low, as Slothrop passes the “sign of Will Stonybloke, of J. Peter Pitt, of Jack
Kennedy, the ambassador’s son” (67). That yields five shades total, two of
them with Virgilian overtones—since Aeneas must endure the shade of the
suicidal Dido adrift in the darkness of Dis, before meeting his father, who
shows him the historical shades of the noble dead, those whose service to the
Empire has warranted afterlives in the Elysian fields. So also in Homer,
Odysseus encounters the shades of the historical and mythical Greeks whose
lives warrant inclusion in the catalogue of the noble dead in Book 11 of the
After evoking the shade of Jack Kennedy, Slothrop’s journey through the
sewers catalyzes the imagery of the night-sea necrotype, during his “passage
to the Atlantic, odors of salt, weed, decay washing to him faintly like the
sound of breakers” (67). And, at this point, the Orphic motifs associated with
the lost “harp” emerge: as Slothrop continues his struggle to retrieve the
harmonica, the energies of poeisis are catalyzed: “For the sake of tunes to be
played, millions of possible blues lines, notes to be bent from the official
frequencies, bends Slothrop hasn’t really the breath to do … not yet but
someday … well at least if (when …) he finds the instrument it’ll be well
72 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

soaked in, a lot easier to play” (67). Then he composes one of the little ditties
Pynchon is infamously well known for. As we will see, the Orphic nekyia is
reiterated throughout the course of the novel. At this point in his descent,
however, Slothrop’s song is interrupted by the “tidal wave” of the flushing
toilet above him, with the result that perinatal imagery returns to the text:
fetus like, Slothrop “tries a feeble frog kick” to avoid the “cylinder of waste”
that wipes him out (67). Then, as if he were being “torpedoed by Japs! the
brown liquid tearing along, carrying him helpless … seems he’s been tum-
bling ass over teakettle,” he is relentlessly propelled towards the “dawn” at
the end of the tunnel, to emerge, like a fetus, slimed with the various fluids
released by the delivery process (68).
Slothrop’s “frog kick” is interesting, given the context. The “Egyptians
made the frog a symbol of the fetus,” and a “Sacred Amulet of the Frog”
worn by the Goddess Hekat “bore the words ‘I Am the Resurrection,’ an-
other phrase of birth-magic copied by early Christians” (Walker, Encyclope-
dia 326). Slothrop’s frog kick and propulsion towards the dawn evokes such
associations. Curious also that Marija Gimbutas devotes an entire section to
the frog in her book The Language of the Goddess (23.1), in which she notes
that “a toad is a portent of pregnancy,” that the “toad was regarded as an
epiphany of the Goddess or her uterus,” and that “In many countries, the
croaking of frogs in springtime is said to resemble the cries of unborn chil-
dren; the frog itself, therefore, represents the soul of the not yet incarnate
child” (251). The toad, Gimbutas concludes, “was incarnated with the pow-
ers of the Goddess of Death and Regeneration, her functions were both to
bring death and to restore life” (256). Since Slothrop’s perinatal nekyia will
conclude with an image of death and rebirth, these associations feel particu-
larly apt.
The new light of the underworld into which Slothrop emerges illumi-
nates a shadowy, labyrinthine, domain of the dead. He senses “‘contacts’
living in these waste regions. People he knows. Inside shells of old, what
seem to be fine-packed masonry ruins—weathered cell after cell, many of
them roofless” (68)—an image drawn from the secular underworld of the
bombed-out streets of the city above. The shadowy denizens of these “waste
regions” are “transacting some … he can’t place it exactly … something
vaguely religious,” amidst an “intricacy” of “dwellings” that “amazes”
Slothrop, as he continues his descent into a “landscape” where “Decline and
fall works silently,” and where “No sun” or “moon” light shines (68). Stand-
Gravity’s Rainbow 73

ing outside the labyrinth of “communal rooms and spaces,” Slothrop senses
religious rites in progress, but holds back, afraid that if he joins them, “They
would never release him” (68). He would be trapped, like a sinner in Dante’s
Inferno, in a region of the same kind of “perverted sex, sadomasochism, sca-
tology, and an emphasis on death, with elements of blasphemy, inverted reli-
gious symbolism, and a quasi-religious atmosphere” that Stanislav Grof sug-
gests is “characteristic of BPM III,” when the fetus is propelled down the
birth canal by inscrutable forces beyond its control, and by powerful contrac-
tions that stimulate every neuron in the body to an extreme of pain and ec-
stasy (Realms 133).
Such a fusion of perverted sex, sadomasochism, and murderous aggres-
sion is reiterated when Slothrop emerges from the sewer at “either dawn or
twilight” into the American west, land of the setting sun (69). Here he en-
counters “Crutchfield, or Crouchfield, the westwardman” (69), who, as it
turns out, is ravenously homosexual (with little pards all up and down the
line), and equally violent, as he prepares for a “shootout and bloody as hell”
(71). He is “the White Cocksman of the terre mauvais, doing it with both
sexes and all animals except for rattlesnakes […] but lately he’s been havin’
these fantasies about that rattlesnake, too! Fangs just tickling the foreskin …
the pale mouth open wide, and the horrible joy in the crescent eyes” (70).
The snake, of course, is one of the most primordial of all necrotypes, an an-
cient symbol of death and rebirth first found in the iconography of Sumerian
cylinder seals, in the Egyptian Books of the Dead, and in the Epic of Gil-
gamesh. As Joseph Campbell often pointed out in his lectures, the snake
combines the opposites of the male and the female, the phallus and the va-
gina, and hence seems an appropriate totem for the bisexual killer named
Crouchfield, whose territory is the “terre mauvais” of the west, and whose
home is called the “‘Rancho Peligroso’” (70).
As Weisenburger points out, the name of the ranch has Arthurian asso-
ciations, evoking the “siege perilous” of the Grail quests of the Middle Ages
(57). So too the name of the territory, “terre mauvais,” seems distinctly Ar-
thurian, evoking as it does the Waste Land surrounding the Grail Castle
where the Maimed King sits in agony, wounded in the groin during a joust
with a pagan knight. And indeed, as the novel proceeds, elements of the Ar-
thurian nekyia become more and more central, as we will see. For Pynchon,
as for T.S. Eliot, the Waste Land was Europe, devastated by the First and
Second World Wars, and awaiting the redemption to be conferred upon the
land and its wounded King by the arrival of the Grail hero—at which point
74 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

the King would be healed and the land regenerated. Hence, Slothrop’s com-
modic nekyia concludes with a powerful vision of death and rebirth, when
“For a moment” it seems, “ten thousand stiffs humped under the snow in the
Ardennes take on the sunny Disneyfied look of numbered babies under white
wool blankets, waiting to be sent to blessed parents in places like Newton
Upper Falls” (72). It is a vision accompanied by the chiming of “all the
Christmas bells in the creation,” joining in a “chorus” of sublime “harmony,
present with tidings of explicit comfort, feasible joy” (72).
This most remarkable conclusion to Slothrop’s journey down into, and
up from the world below the toilet bowl, completes his nekyia, and, again,
evokes parallels with the perinatal imagery diligently classified by Stanislav
Grof. Stage Four of the birth process has to do with the delivery of the fetus,
its emergence into the dazzling light of the day, after its horrific ordeal in the
vaginal canal. This stage may be associated with the “liberating aspect of
rebirth and the affirmation of positive forces in the universe” (143)—such as
those evoked by Slothrop’s vision of new-born babies at Christmas time,
welcomed into the world by a celestial chorus of bells chiming in perfect
harmony. Stage Four of the birth process may also be associated with “the
innocent world of newborn animals, birds hatching from eggs, and parents
feeding their young” (Realms 144). For Slothrop, however, the return to con-
sciousness in the laboratory room of St. Veronica’s Hospital, after the so-
dium amytal wears off, will take him back to the “slum darkness” of Beacon
Street in Boston, and then on to the bombed-out streets of London.
We learn the purpose of Slothrop’s narcotic nekyia in Episode 12, set at
“The White Visitation,” an old lunatic asylum where psychological and psy-
chic research is underway. “Operation Black Wing,” it turns out, is exploring
the roots of racial fear, and the possibility of organizing a group of
“Schwarzkommando” to undermine German security (76). Hence, the inter-
est in Slothrop’s sexual fears about being raped by Negroes in the bathroom
of the Ballroom. An intricate host of agencies is clustered together at the
White Visitation, categorized by a “lush maze of initials,” but all under the
heading of “Political Warfare” (78). The building itself is evoked in language
that fuses the mythologies of the labyrinth and the underworld: here, com-
munication with the spirits of the dead proceeds in “triangular, spherical”
rooms that are “walled up into mazes” (84). Again, it is Piranesian necrotec-
ture (let’s call it): there are “frescoes,” “portraits,” “archways, grottoes, plas-
ter floral arrangements,” “fountains that depict Salome with the head of John
Gravity’s Rainbow 75

the Baptist,” and balconies that “give out at unlikely places, overhung with
gargoyles” (84). And, in the middle of the maze, there is a Minotaur of sorts,
“floor mosaics in which are tessellated together different versions of Homo
Monstrosus, and interesting preoccupation of the time—cyclops, humanoid
giraffe, centaur repeated in all directions” (84).
Like nearly all of the elaborate, baroque domiciles in Postmodern litera-
ture (the libraries of Borges and Eco, the Invisible Cities of Italo Calvino),
Pynchon’s architecture is a metaphor for the labyrinthine complexity of the
text he is in the process of building. As Penelope Doob points out in her ter-
rific book on the symbolism of the labyrinth, Daedalus represents the poet,
trapped in the maze of the text he creates, and the reader gets lost in. Hence,
the construction and penetration of the labyrinth allegorically configures the
complexities of poeisis and hermeneusis. For that reason, regarding the old
lunatic asylum now called The White Visitation, “no two observers, no mat-
ter how close they stand, see quite the same building in that orgy of self-
expression” (84). The penetration of the labyrinth, the perception of its shape
and significance, will therefore vary from viewer to viewer, from reader to
reader. It is as if we are lost in a painting by Yaacov Agam, one which
changes as we shift our point of view, moving from right to left, from top to
The connection between the nekyia and the labyrinth is reiterated in the
next Episode (13), and fused with the mythology of the Goddess in a way
that prefigures her powerful presence later on in the novel. The Episode is
focused on the experiments performed on Slothrop as an infant, when his
erections were conditioned by swabbing his penis with Imipolex G, a chemi-
cal that, we later learn, is used in the construction of the V-2 rocket. Points-
man and Roger Mexico discuss the theory and ethics of the procedure during
a walk together on the grounds of the Visitation, on the Winter Solstice, the
coldest, shortest, and darkest day of the year. Traditionally, the solstice was
affiliated with the mythology of death and rebirth, and associated with the
earth goddess at places like Newgrange, in Ireland, where stones with great
swirling spirals guard the entrance to the long corridor that leads into the in-
ner chamber, which is both the womb and the tomb of the goddess, and
which the rising sun penetrates on the morning of the solstice. The swirling
spirals figure the rhythm of death and rebirth, and the labyrinthine interior of
the goddess, from whose underworld the sun king will be reborn. We find the
same swirling eyes at the tomb/temples of the goddess on the island of Mal-
ta, alluded to in V.
76 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

Pointsman’s interest in Pavlovian conditioning focuses on “Chapter LV”

of “The Book,” “‘An Attempt at a Physiological Interpretation of Obsessions
and of Paranoia’” (89). Pointsman’s interest came to him at age 28, in 1928,
when a translation of Pavlov’s book came into England. Pynchon describes
Pointsman’s decision to change careers in terms that reiterate the fusion of
the myths of the goddess, the labyrinth, and the underworld. Pointsman’s

came to him at age 28 like a mandate from the submontane Venus he could not re-
sist: to abandon Harley Street for a journey more and more deviant, deliciously on,
into a labyrinth of conditioned-reflex work [….] But she did warn him—did she
not? was he ever listening?—of the deferred payment, in full amount. Venus and
Ariadne! She seemed worth any price, the labyrinth looking, in those days, too intri-
cate for them—the twilit pimps who made the arrangement between a version of
himself, a crypto-Pointsman, and his fate … too varied, he thought then, ever to find
him in. But he knows now. Too far in, preferring not to face it just yet, he knows
that they only wait, stone and sure—these agents of the Syndicate she must also
pay—wait in the central chamber, as he draws closer …. They own everything:
Ariadne, the Minotaur, even, Pointsman fears, himself. (90)

The passage is characteristic of Pynchon’s dense, evocative power, focusing

here on the “Syndicate” of forces that controls the various plots of the novel,
and the efforts to decipher the runes of the V-2 rocket. As in Umberto Eco’s
Foucault’s Pendulum, therefore, the myths of the underworld and the laby-
rinth serve as metaphors for an international conspiracy of corporate con-
glomerates, of enormous complexity and ruthlessness, that will do anything
to achieve the ultimate goal of global power. And, as in James Merrill’s
Changing Light at Sandover, a sinister collective of spiritual agencies (de-
voted to experiments on the human soul), communicated with via the Ouija
Board, seems implicated in the conspiracy.
The lure that draws Pointsman into this sinister labyrinth is the “submon-
tane Venus,” goddess of sexual love, whose domain is below the mountains,
i.e., in such underworlds as those constructed at Newgrange and Malta, dur-
ing the Neolithic period, and which will reoccur later in the novel when Pyn-
chon refigures Wagner’s Tannhäuser. As in V., therefore, this passage con-
flates the mythologies of the goddess, the labyrinth, and the underworld, and
brings all three up to date by using them as metaphors for the complexities of
our sexual and political lives—and as self-reflexive images of the novel it-
self, which is as labyrinthine and infernal as it is erotic. Indeed, as Weisen-
Gravity’s Rainbow 77

burger points out, for the Cyprian cult, Venus and Ariadne were regarded as
“the same goddess” (71).
If there is a Minotaur in this Episode it seems to be Pointsman himself,
for standing on the chalk cliffs overlooking the Channel, he turns to Mexico
with a smile that the latter recalls “as the most evil look he has ever had from
a human face” (91). He thinks this because Pointsman seems to care as little
about Slothrop as he does about the girls who die in the rocket strikes a few
days after he screws them—sacrificial offerings to the Minotaur that they
are. The setting of this conversation, on the grounds of the Visitation, rein-
forces its affiliation with the nekyia: it is the coldest day of the year, and “the
chalk cliffs rear up above, cold and serene as death. Early barbarians of Eu-
rope who ventured close enough to this coast saw these white barriers
through the mist, and knew where their dead had been taken to” (91). Hence,
The White Visitation becomes a domain of the dead—a labyrinth presided
over by the “submontane Venus,” as we will see in the unforgettable scene of
Brigadier General Pudding’s ‘therapy,’ deep in the basement of the building.
Episode 14 is a richly textured chapter in which a sequence of journeys
is woven together, all of which serve as variations on the nekyia. The allu-
sions to the Grimms Brothers’ “Hansel and Gretel,” and to Rilke’s “Tenth
Elegy,” both implicate the imagery of the myth; and the historical journeys
of Blicero to Southwest Africa, and Katje’s Dutch ancestors to Mauritius in
the 17th century, are resonant figurations of the nekyia. The narrative struc-
ture of the chapter moves ana-and-proleptically, flashing backwards and
forwards, like a film.
We begin the Episode in Pirate’s flat in London, where he has taken
Katje after rescuing her from Captain Blicero in Northern Germany, at the
site where the V-2 rocket is being developed. Passing back and forth in front
of a mirror, she pauses at the sound of the oven in the kitchen smashing shut,
and remembers her sado-masochistic ordeal in Blicero’s room on the Conti-
nent, where he reenacted his perverse version of the story of Hansel and Gre-
tel. The folktale is itself a variation on the myth of the nekyia, in as much as
the children leave home for a journey into the forest that will become their
domain of death and rebirth. It is a domain again presided over by the arche-
typal feminine, the goddess here become the witch, and her house and oven
the sacred space where the rituals of the nekyia proceed. She fattens up
Hansel, feeling his fingers everyday to see when he is ready to cook. He
wisely substitutes a skinny chicken bone for his finger, thus delaying the
time when he will be put into her oven—a euphemism for the boy maturing
78 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

into a man capable of a firm erection that no Freudian would miss. When
Gretel pushes the Witch into the oven instead, they are reborn as it were, and
return home from her inferno.
Captain Blicero reenacts this fable after hours at the rocket site, with
Katje playing the role of Gretel: “she is corruption and ashes, she belongs in
a way none of them can guess cruelly to the Oven … to Der Kinderofen”
(96), the domain of Captain Blicero, the name for the Germanic Lord of the
Dead Pynchon took from Grimms’ Teutonic Mythology (Weisenburger 37).
Katje’s counterpart in the sado-masochistic rituals enacted before the oven is
a boy called Gottfried, a name Weisenburger associates with the Nordic fer-
tility god Frey, whose “worship was celebrated with orgies,” and whose
“disappearance underground” was related to the myths of the dying and res-
urrecting gods of the Ancient Mediterranean worlds: “Tammuz, Adonis, and
Orpheus” (74). Blicero’s domain is an erotic inferno of decadent perversion:
he forces Katje and Gottfried to kneel “side by side in dark confessional +
children out of old Märchen kneeling, knees cold and aching, before the Ov-
en, whispering to it secrets they can tell no one else + Captain Blicero’s
witch-paranoia, suspecting them both” (97). The confessions would be of the
bizarre sexual acts performed under his command, such as forcing Katje to
lick a prosthetic vagina dentate he has specially made for him in “Berlin by
the notorious Mme. Ophir, the mock labia and bright purple clitoris molded
of—Madame had been abject, pleading shortages—synthetic rubber and Mi-
polam, the new polyvinyl chloride … tiny blades of stainless steel bristle
from lifelike pink humidity” (97). Blicero’s bisexuality will resurface later in
the chapter.
As with all myths and folktales, this revolting re-figuration of “Hansel
and Gretel” confers shape and significance upon the random chaos of the
war. Katje believes “it’s better […] to enter into some formal, rationalized
version of what, outside, proceeds without form or decent limit day and
night, the summary executions, the roustings, beatings, subterfuge, paranoia,
shame” (98). The key words here are “formal” and “without form,” for the
reenactment of the myth protects all three participants from “the absolute
rule of chance” governing the War outside their domain: “it would seem
Katje, Gottfried, and Captain Blicero have agreed that this Northern and an-
cient form, one they all know and are comfortable with—the strayed chil-
dren, the wood-wife in the edible house, the captivity, the fattening, the
Oven—shall be their preserving routine, their shelter” (98). There is a kind
Gravity’s Rainbow 79

of apotropaic function in the ritual reenactment of the folk tale, for Blicero
trusts that his “charmed house in the forest will be preserved” by the ritual
(99). His deepest fear, however, is that a British raid will be the “one prohib-
ited shape of all possible pushes from behind, into the Oven’s iron and final
summer. It will come, it will, his Destiny” (99).
Like the allusion to “Hansel and Gretel,” the quotations from Rilke’s
“Tenth Elegy” extend the implications of the nekyia. As Pynchon puts it, the
Elegy (Blicero’s favorite) focuses on “the newly-dead youth, embracing his
lament, his last link, leaving now even her marginally human touch forever,
climbing all alone, terminally alone, up and into the mountains of primal
Pain, with the wildly alien constellations overhead” (100). As I have shown,
Rilke’s Tenth Elegy is modeled throughout on the myth of the descent to the
underworld (Modernist Nekyia 92–96). Pynchon’s emphasis is on the tradi-
tional destination of the nekyia, in both its Egyptian and Mesopotamian pro-
totypes—the mountains. But for Blicero, the ultimate destination is also the
Oven: “He only wants now to be out of the winter, inside the Oven’s
warmth, darkness, steel shelter, the door behind him in a narrowing rectangle
of kitchen-light gonging shut, forever” (101). His yearning combines Freud’s
death wish with yearning for the mother: a desire for “the black indomitable
Oven” (101).
After this perverse fusion of Rilke and the Brothers Grimm, the nekyia
turns historical, when Blicero remembers his “journey to Südwest” Africa,
vividly evoked by Pynchon: “Carrying in his kit a copy of the Duino Elegies,
just off the presses when he embarked for Südwest, a gift from Mother at the
boat, the odor of new ink dizzying his nights as the old freighter plunged
tropic after tropic … until the constellations like the new stars of Pain-land,
had become all unfamiliar and the earth’s seasons reversed” (101). The im-
agery here is of the night-sea journey, derived perhaps from Leo Frobenius,
whose account of African mythology so influenced Jung’s conception of the
nekyia in Symbols of Transformation.
Blicero’s journey takes him to the Kalahari, back into “the hinterland, up
in an outstretch of broken mountains,” evoked as “An impassable waste of
rock blasted at by the sun … miles of canyons twisting nowhere, drifted at
the bottoms with white sand turning a cold, queenly blue as the afternoons
lengthened” (101). This is one of many variations in the novel on what we
might call the geographical nekyia, creating topoi which catalyze the im-
agery of the waste regions of the netherworld. Here Blicero encounters an
African boy named Enzian, who emerges from the darkness one night, want-
80 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

ing “to fuck” (102). He calls Blicero Ndjambi Karunga, “the Herero name of
God” (102). He does so because for him, “Ndjami Karunga is what happens
when they couple, that’s all: God is creator and destroyer, sun and darkness,
all sets of opposites brought together, including black and white, male and
female … and he becomes, in his innocence, Ndjambi Karunga’s child”
Weisenburger’s summary of “Luttig, Pynchon’s principal source on the
Herero,” is illuminating: Ndjambi Karunga is “the divine creator of all Her-
ero people, according to their myths. What is more interesting in this context
of homosexual love is that the god is also bisexual” (79). He is both “‘the
god of life,’” and “ ‘the master of death,’” and hence therefore “the Herero
version of Lord Death Blicero”—i.e., “lord of the ‘other world’ of the dead,
as well as lord of this world” (79). Pynchon’s Herero Hades, therefore, com-
bines the opposites of male and female, and creation and destruction, since,
as he puts it, “every true god must be both organizer and destroyer” (101).
Some comic relief follows in an hilarious episode about Slothrop’s visit
to an old flame named Darlene, and the old landlady who treats him to a bi-
zarre variety of “wine jellies” in the flat where Darlene lives. Then, after an
extraordinarily beautiful interlude about Christmas Eve, when Roger and
Jessica stumble upon a gorgeous old church in the English countryside, Pyn-
chon returns to the mythology of the maze and the underworld, in an episode
devoted to Pointsman’s ambitious, megalomaniacal dream of winning the
Nobel Prize for his work on the connection between Slothrop’s erections and
the V-2 rocket strikes. Just a few days after Slothrop’s surreal descent into
the sewers under the Roseland Ballroom, induced by the sodium amytal ad-
ministered at St. Veronica’s, the hospital was demolished, and Dr. Spectro
killed. Haunted by Spectro’s death, Pointsman worries that he will be next,
since five out of seven owners of Pavlov’s “Book” have died.
The myths of the maze and the underworld emerge in the dream that be-
gins the episode, in which Pointsman leaves a large assembly room after a
“round light” descends from a sky full of bombers. It is dusk, and he takes
the path “to the left” (139), which Weisenburger notes (citing Borges and
Jung) is the way leading into the center of a labyrinth, and into the depths of
the unconscious world of the dream (98). The imagery of the dream fuses the
two myths: the “landscape to the right” leads past “ancient walnut trees, a
hill, a wooden fence, hollow-eyed horses in a field, a cemetery” (139)—a
cluster of necrotypes, including the arboreal, threshold, and equine motifs
Gravity’s Rainbow 81

commonly associated with the descent. Pointsman’s “task” in these dreams is

to “cross” “under the trees,” and “through the shadows,” then move “into the
fallow field just below the graveyard,” “where the gypsies live” (140). In this
dream, however, Pointsman sets out “leftward,” accompanied by a woman he
doesn’t know but is identified as his “wife,” and to whom he says “‘This is
the most sinister time of evening,’” before crashing awake, when Thomas
Gwenhidwy (the other remaining survivor of the original seven who share
Pavlov’s Book) pounds on the door of his room to give him “the news about
poor Spectro” (140).
At St. Veronica’s, where Spectro has been killed by the V-2 strike,
“ghosts crowd beneath the eaves,” all “English ghosts” that “gather, thicker
as the days pass” (140). The sound of the rocket coming in after its explosion
is also a “ghost calling to ghosts it newly made” (141). Among those ghosts,
of course, is Spectro, who whispers the word “‘Foxes,’” which comes to
Pointsman “across astral spaces” (141). He is however afraid, or unwilling,
to ask Carroll Eventyr, “‘The White Visitation’s resident medium,” to con-
tact his dead colleague (141). He is also afraid that he will suffer “‘The
mummy’s curse’” upon those who share Pavlov’s Book, as Lord Carnavon
did after Howard Carter opened King Tut’s tomb (Weisenburger 99).
All of these details juxtapose the myth of the nekyia with the elaborately
sustained comparison between Pointsman’s work and the penetration of the
labyrinth that follows the death of Spectro. Knowing that Slothrop had been
at St. Veronica’s a few days before the rocket strike, and that Darlene lived
just a few blocks away, Pointsman is convinced that there is indeed a con-
nection between Slothrop’s erections and the V-2 rocket. He decides then to
abandon his conditioning experiments on the dogs, and to focus on Slothrop
instead. His old dreams about penetrating the labyrinthine mysteries of Pav-
lov’s new science resurface: Pointsman will pass through the “door” that he
has “imagined so often in lonely Thesean brushings down his polished corri-
dor of years,” to encounter once again the “Minotaur” he used to believe was
“waiting for him” in the sanctum sanctorum of the laboratory. Whereas be-
fore the Minotaur prevailed, with a “routinized nudge of horn,” or a “flip of
hoof,” this time there will be “Minotaur blood,” and “cries from far inside
himself whose manliness and violence surprise him” (144).
The slaying of the Minotaur seems to involve the revelation of those ar-
chetypal forms that govern and shape our lives (in the form of Pavlovian
labyrinths of stimulus and response), evoked by Pynchon as “the identifying
code beyond voicing,” and as the “underlying structure” disclosed by a
82 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

“meeting of eyes” (145). Such revelations are characteristic of the nekyia,

which, as James Hillman has suggested, moves towards the manifestation of
those Platonic ideas (eidola) associated with Hades, and his domain of invis-
Pointsman’s dream about pursuing a dog (provocatively named
“Reichssieger von Thanatz Alpdrucken, that most elusive of Nazi hounds”)
reiterates the juxtaposition of the myths of the nekyia and the labyrinth (145).
In the dream, Pointsman chases the dog through a “Londonized Germany,”
along “twilit canalsides strewn with debris of war,” using a “map of a sacri-
ficial city” that resembles “a cortex human and canine” (145)—an image
which associates the labyrinth of the brain with the descent to the under-
world. Pointsman follows the dog down “into a shelter lying steel-clad miles
below the city,” and then on as the dog leads him “at last” to “some hillside
at the end of a long afternoon of dispatches from Armageddon” (145). It is
here on the hillside that “the dog can turn and the amber eyes gaze into Ned
Pointsman’s own” (145)—a conclusion of his oneiric descent which impli-
cates the ocular necrotype long associated with the myth. It is then, at the
climax of the dream, that the “walls of the chamber turn a blood glow, or-
ange, then white and begin to slip, to flow like wax, what there is of laby-
rinth collapsing in rings outward, hero and horror, engineer and Ariadne con-
sumed, molten inside the light of himself, the mad exploding of himself”
These long abandoned dreams of scientific conquest resurface now, as
Pointsman realizes Slothrop may provide the key to the mysteries of the Pav-
lovian maze, so that he might “get to have a go at the Minotaur after all”
(146). Pointsman concludes by rationalizing his inhuman experiments and
megalomaniacal ambitions: he isn’t the Minotaur; Slothrop is, since, as
Pointsman writes in his journal, the American Lieutenant whose erections
coincide with rocket strikes that come several days afterwards is “‘physio-
logically, historically, a monster’” (147)—one Pointsman now sets out to
“control” and to slay. Let the “Vicar de la Nuit” worry about the “rightness”
of his decision (146).
Subsequent episodes return to the occult nekyia, with depictions of two
séances: one in London at the White Visitation, and the next in Berlin, at Pe-
ter Sachsa’s apartment. In the first, the medium Carroll Eventyr tries to
“reach across to Terence Overbaby, St. Blaise’s wingman,” in an effort to
clarify the “many versions of the Angel” the airmen “saw rising over Lübeck
Gravity’s Rainbow 83

that Palm Sunday” (152–53). Pynchon’s evocation of the Angel is stunning,

and rivals the epiphanies of Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Merrill’s Changing
Light (153). The vision of the Angel generates a “storm that sweeps now
among them all, both sides of Death” (154)—including Peter Sascha’s,
whose séance table in Berlin when he was alive is described as “a deep pool
in the forest,” beneath the surface of which “things were rolling, slipping,
beginning to rise” (154). Among those who attend Sachsa’s séances are
“Lieutenant Weissmann, recently back from South-West Africa, and the
Herero aide he’d brought with him” (155). The Lieutenant we know from V.;
and the Herero aide brings with him a sense of “visitation by the dead,” for
“The dead have talked with him, come and sat, shared his milk, told stories
of ancestors, or of spirits from other parts of the veld” (155). For the Hereros,
the interface between the two worlds is permeable: they “carry on business
every day with the ancestors. The dead are as real as the living” (156).
The séance in Berlin is less cultural than political, chemical, and geo-
logical. On this “Occasion,” the “elite” of the “corporate Nazi crowd” are
gathered to “get in touch with the late foreign minister Walter Rathenau,”
recently assassinated. He is a kind of “corporate Bismarck,” the “prophet and
architect of the cartelized state,” who sees “the war in progress as a world
revolution, out of which would rise neither Red communism nor an unhin-
dered Right, but a rational structure in which business would be the true, the
rightful authority” (167)—a Jewish Dick Cheney, let’s say. His messages are
directed primarily to one Generaldirektor Smaragd, of the IG Farben cartel,
involved in the chemistry of colors, dyes, and synthesized molecules. His
name suggests the alchemical text known as the Tabula Smaragdina, or Em-
erald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus—perhaps alluding to Thomas Mann’s
last masterpiece, Doctor Faustus. But his color, it turns out, is not green but
“mauve,” which is synthesized from chemical molecules in coal.
The coal itself is vividly evoked in language associated with the nekyia:
“‘Imagine coal,’” the dead shade of Rathenau suggests, “‘down in the earth,
dead black, no light, the very substance of death. Death ancient, prehistoric,
species we will never see again. Growing older, blacker, deeper, in layers of
perpetual night’” (169). The dyes distilled from the “thousand different mol-
ecules” of the “preterite dung” down in the tar pits yield “‘mauve, the first
new color on Earth, leaping to Earth’s light from its grave miles and aeons
below’” (169). Mauve, furthermore, is “‘the sign of revealing. Of unfold-
ing’” (169). The revelation, it seems, is of the fundamental structures of the
molecular world, with a particular interest in “‘the persistence, then, of struc-
84 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

tures favoring death. Death converted into more death. Perfecting its reign,
just as the buried coal grows denser, and overlaid with more strata—epoch
on top of epoch, city on top of ruined city. This is the sign of Death the im-
personator’” (169–70). The creation of new chemicals from these primordial
materials involves a movement “‘from death to death-transfigured,” since
“polymerizing is not resurrection’” (169).
This passage then yields a powerful re-figuration of the nekyia, recast in
the language of chemistry and geology. It is not entirely unique in postmod-
ern literature: witness James Merrill’s remarkable account of the shade of
W.H. Auden descending to the center of the earth in The Changing Light at
Sandover, or the even more remarkable fusion of geology, anthropology, and
myth in The Anathemata of David Jones. And like these works, Pynchon’s
nekyia catalyzes the diction and iconography of form associated with the
revelations of the nekyia: the shade of Rathenau, speaking through the me-
dium Peter Sachsa, says it is “possible to see the whole shape at once” from
the world of the dead; to see the “pattern” of the molecules synthesized from
the coal-tars (168). Such language—the “whole shape,” the “pattern”—is
entirely consistent with the revelations at the climax of the nekyia, through-
out the Modernist literature of the twentieth century. For the “signs” and
“symptoms” disclosed during the séance point towards “the same form, the
same structure,” found in “the hearts of certain molecules” (170)—an image
which again reminds one of the mysteries of the cell in Merrill’s Changing
Light. Indeed, both Merrill and Pynchon bring the nekyia up to date by in-
corporating the culture of science into powerfully original variations of the
In the final episode of the first part of Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon picks
up on allusions to the Kabbalistic nekyia in earlier sections. These allusions
mingle with the remarkable Christmas scene at Jessica’s sister’s flat, during
which one of her nieces (Penelope) stares at an old “crocheted shawl” hang-
ing on the back of her father’s chair, and sees his ghost. He says “‘I only
want to visit you,’” but she fears he has come to “possess” her, since “De-
monic possessions” are apparently not unknown in the house (178–79). The
vision of the dead father has religious implications, particularly at Christmas
time, for it suggests a world in which god the father is dead, or at least ab-
sent. The little girl’s father was “taken when she was half her present age,
and returned now not as the man she knew, but only the shell” (179). This
vision then modulates to an extraordinary re-figuration of the Kabbalistic
Gravity’s Rainbow 85

nekyia, in which the living are the dead, their souls “either rotted away” or
“picked at by the needle mouths of death-by-government” (179)—a central
theme in all of Pynchon’s novels. Here, he calls this a “process by which liv-
ing souls unwillingly become the demons known to the main sequence of
Western magic as the Qlippoth, Shells of the Dead …. It is also what the pre-
sent dispensation often does to decent men and women entirely on this side
of the grave” (179).
The Kabbalistic myth to which this passage refers concerns what is
known as Shevirah, the breaking of those vessels meant to contain the ema-
nation of divine energy at the beginning of the Creation. Too weak to contain
the light, they shatter into a shower of sparks that falls into the darkness of
the abyss, where the archons of the deep imprison them, and use their ener-
gies to create the material world. Each of our souls is such a spark, fallen into
the underworld of matter, only to be redeemed when a Messiah is sent from
the Heavenly Father to initiate the return journey, or ascent from the under-
world, which involves reconstructing the vessels broken at the beginning.
This process is called Tikkun.1 Pynchon beautifully summarizes the Kabbal-
istic nekyia (and its rhythms of descent and return) in an earlier passage de-
voted to the cells of the Central Nervous System, which are in “exile” on the
surface of the body: the cells are compared to “Fallen sparks. Fragments of
vessels broken at the Creation. And someday, somehow, before the end, a
gathering back to home. A messenger from the Kingdom, arriving at the last
moment” (151).
Hence, the conflation of the Christian and Jewish nekyias in the final
episode of Part One: our souls are sparks of divinity, imprisoned in the shells
of the body by the demons of governments ruled by international conspira-
cies and cartels, and awaiting the call to cast off those shells, recover our
souls, and begin the long journey home. As Weisenburger notes, “the Qlip-
poth, the ‘shells of the dead,’” are the “most abysmal” of those vessels shat-
tered at the time of the creation, and fallen into the darkness of the material
world (103). While imprisoned here below, they become demonic “emissar-
ies from the world of the dead who stalk the familiar world” (Weisenburger
120)—like poor Penelope’s father’s ghost, sitting in the rocking chair at
Christmas, awaiting the Messiah who will “banish the Qlippoth and restore
being to its whole state” (Weisenburger 119).2 These references anticipate
powerful adaptations of the Kabbalistic nekyia in Part Two of Gravity’s
Rainbow, entitled “Un Perm au Casino Hermann Goering.”
86 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

Part 2: Un Perm’ au Casino Hermann Goering

Part 2 begins with key motifs long associated with the nekyia: seduction
and divestiture. We might also include conspiracy, since, in Greek myth, Ha-
des and Zeus conspire in the abduction of Persephone, and Aristaeus the bee
keeper sees to the death of Eurydice by snake bite; in Egyptian myth, Set and
72 cohorts conspire to kill Osiris; and in Mesoamerican myth, the Lords of
Xibalba conspire to lure the Hunahpu twins to their death at the ball game. In
Pynchon’s novel, Slothrop begins to suspect that he has been set up, and is
under surveillance, after he rescues Katje from the octopus Pointsmen had
been conditioning at the White Visitation, with the intention of using it in his
ongoing study of Slothrop’s mysterious erections. Later in the Casino that
night, Katje arranges a midnight tryst with Slothrop in her room, and her se-
duction of him brings the imagery of the White Goddess and the nekyia back
into the novel.
The imagery of the descent is anticipated by “The Ballad of Tantivy
Mucker-Maffick,” which Slothrop sings at the Casino, evoking “the moun-
tains where ridge-runners dwell,” a poison brew “mulled with the hammers
of Hell,” and a journey to the “Uttermost Isle” (193)—references which
Weisenburger associates with episodes in the Nordic nekyia devoted to Thor
(127). Here, the myth catalyzes the revelation of form, disclosing those hid-
den patterns shaping Slothrop’s destiny: his “Puritan reflex of seeking other
orders behind the visible, also known as paranoia,” begins to take hold as
soon as he rescues Katje from the octopus named Grigori (190). He suspects
that “Structure and detail” may “come later, but the conniving all around him
now he feels instantly, in his heart” (190). In spite, or because of, his
“Slothropian paranoia,” it seems clear that Teddy Bloat has been sent to the
Riviera along with the innocent American with the clairvoyant erections by
“Supreme Headquarters” in London, from which, Tantivy finally tells
Slothrop, Bloat has been “‘receiving messages in code’” (195). Even Tantivy
begins to suspect that he too is “only useful” to Bloat “in a way” he “can’t
see,” and that there is “a peculiar structure” operating beneath the scene “that
no one admitted too” (195–96).
The italics are in the text, and they serve to emphasize the vocabularly of
form catalyzed by Slothrop’s nekyia, a diction which is reiterated when he
goes to Katje’s room at midnight, imagining voices saying “Welcome Mister
Slothrop Welcome to Our Structure We Hope You Will Enjoy Your Visit
Here” (196). The “Structure” that emerges will have something to do with
Gravity’s Rainbow 87

Pointsmen’s interest in Slothrop’s conditioning as a child, when Imipolex G

was used to stimulate his erections. And the myth that confers shape and sig-
nificance upon Pynchon’s unfolding of this plot is again that of the nekyia,
and the White Goddess who presides over Slothrop’s descent. Although her
“tiara is gone” when she greets Slothrop, “her hair is a new snowfall,” her
“suite is washed in moonlight,” and “the sea below and behind” her when
she stands at the window is illuminated by a “blanched scar of moon”
(197)—details which reinforce Katje’s affiliation with the White Goddess of
death and rebirth (Weisenburger 129).
The allusion is sustained and connected to the myth of the labyrinth
when Slothrop “opens her closet, and in moonlight reflected from the mirror
finds a crowded maze of satins, taffetas, lawn and pongee, dark fur collars
and trimming, buttons, sashes passementerie, soft, confusing, womanly tun-
nel-systems that must stretch back for miles—he could be lost inside of half
a minute … lace glimmers, eyelets wink, a crepe scarf brushes his face”
(197). The detail is characteristic of Pynchon’s style, as is the fusion of the
myths of the nekyia, the goddess, and the labyrinth in the passage. For the
mirror maze into which Katje will lead Slothrop is also an underworld, a
dark tunnel (like the vagina) that goes miles beneath the surface of the closet,
and in which Slothrop will indeed lose himself. When Katje strips down after
their first kiss, her “skin is whiter than the white garment she rises from.
Born again … out the window he can almost see the spot where the devil-
fish crawled in from the rocks” (198)—as if she were Aprhodite born from
the severed genitals of Uranos, cast out to sea by his son, Kronos; or as if she
were Persephone or Andromeda, rescued from the sea monster (a devil-fish)
by Perseus; or, as Weisenburger suggests, as if he were Theseus, naively
drawn into the labyrinth from which he will never escape (129).
If that is the case, then perhaps Katje’s bizarre metamorphosis, when
they begin to make love, evokes the Minotaur lurking in the underworld of
the maze. His nekyia begins with divestiture, a necrotype sustained through-
out the course of this episode:

Slothrop undoing belt, buttons, shoelaces, hopping one foot at a time, oboy oboy,
but the moonlight only whitens her back, and there is still a dark side, her ventral
side, her face, that he can no longer see, a terrible beastlike change coming over
muzzle and lower jaw, black pupils growing to cover the entire eye space till whites
are gone and there’s only the red animal reflection when the light comes to strike no
telling when the light— (199)
88 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

This passage reiterates Katje’s association with the White Goddess, and with
the Minotaura let’s say. It also powerfully evokes the ocular necrotype long
associated with the goddess who presides over the underworld, as in the
Sumerian myth of Inanna’s descent. Indeed, Katje’s pupils dilate completely,
eliminating all light from the world into which she takes Slothrop.
Ornithological necrotypes enter the text soon afterwards, when the lovers
wake up and chase each other around the room, spraying seltzer, splashing
brandy, and swatting each other with down pillows, the feathers of which fly
about and “cling to their skins as they chase around the bedroom,” as if trans-
formed into birds (200)—as are the souls in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the
Egytian Books of the Dead. It seems therefore appropriate that Katje’s
“Magic!” renders Slothrop invisible, when she “tosses the tablecloth over
him,” and warns him to “Watch closely, while I make one American lieuten-
ant disappear’” (200)—which metaphorically she will do, when he wakes up
to find his clothes being stolen, along with all of his identity papers in the
pages that follow. It seems also that Katje is ironically a mother goddess of
sorts, presiding over the hero’s death and rebirth, for the world beneath the
tablecloth is “red as a womb,” where Slothrop lies with his “cock nestled in
the warm cusp between her buttocks” (201). His waking, furthermore, reiter-
ates the basic rhythms of the nekyia over which she presides, which is struc-
tured by “some teeming cycle of departure and return” (201). Here that cycle
is signified by another heraldic initial: not the “V” of Pynchon’s first novel,
but by the “S” so important to this one. It is a letter which figures the spiral
of descent, and therefore is appropriately the first letter in Slothrop’s name,
as well as the letter intimately evoked by the couple that lies curled together
in the red womb beneath the table cloth: “Katje lies, quick and warm, S’d
against the S of himself, beginning to stir” (201). This is the first instance of
what Weisenburger calls “sigmoid” images in the novel, signs of “disease
and disjunction” (130) appropriately initiating Slothrop’s Continental nekyia
in Part 2 of the novel.
The descent prefigured by the letter “S” (which also, of course stands for
sex, and the erotic nekyia) is catalyzed by the completion of Slothrop’s di-
vestiture: after stripping down for sex with Katje, and after disappearing un-
der the red tablecloth, Slothrop wakes to find that “every stitch of clothing he
owns is gone, including his Hawaiian shirt. What the fuck. Groaning, he
rummages in the desk. Empty. Closets empty. Leave papers, ID, everything,
taken” (203). This leaves him in a very vulnerable position indeed: not only
Gravity’s Rainbow 89

is he naked, he has also lost his identity, and his papers, leaving him defense-
less and alone.
His reinvestiture occurs when he goes to Bloat’s room and puts on a
British uniform, before going “down the corridors” of the Casino that lead to
the “Himmler-Spielsaal” (204)—i.e., the Nazi gambling room, now empty
and lined with “Empire chairs” that seem “no longer quite outward and visi-
ble signs of a game of chance” (205). Slothrop senses that “There is another
enterprise here, more real than that, less merciful, and systematically hidden”
(205). The “hooks” that hang on “long chains” suspended from the ceiling
seem to be “the paraphernalia of an order whose presence among the ordi-
nary debris of waking he has only begun to suspect” (205). He imagines a
“manlike figure beginning to form among the brown and bright cream shad-
ows” of the gaming hall (205), a figure Weisenburger suggests is a “man-
drake root, a sign of secular crucifixion that will reappear in part 4” (131).
The language (“outward and visible sign”) and imagery (the mandrake root)
are Biblical, and suggest to Slothrop that “everything in this room is really
being used for something different. Meaning things to Them it has never
meant to us. Never. Two orders of being” (205).
The diction here again evokes the archetypal forms revealed by the
nekyia: “signs,” “structures,” “orders of being” all serve as synonyms for
what Hillman called eidola—Platonic forms that govern and shape our lives
associated with Hades, Lord of the Underworld. For Slothrop, the second
order of being is “THE WORLD OVER THERE,” in the “Forbid-den Wing”
of the Himmler Spielsaal (205), where the game seems to have been one of
execution. The gaming room is therefore an inferno, walking into which
Slothrop feels as if he is “entering the Forbidden itself—here are the same
long rooms, rooms of old paralysis and evil distillery, of condensations and
residues you are afraid to smell from forgotten corruptions, rooms full of
upright gray-feathered statues with wings spread” (205)—an image which
once again evokes the ornithological necrotype, though here secularized and
applied to Nazi torture chambers.
Retreating from the “Presence” in the Spielsaal, which is both “feared
and wanted,” Slothrop’s descent in this episode concludes with two attributes
critical to understanding the full range of meanings associated with the
nekyia: that of ricorso and revelation. Going back outside to walk by the sea,
Slothrop sees “Ghosts of fishermen, glassworkers, fur traders, renegade
preachers, hilltop patriarchs and valley politicians” that bring the shades of
the ancestral dead into the text, along with the return to origins. Slothrop
90 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

suddenly thinks back to the year 1630, when the “first American Slothrop”
came over the sea with Governor Winthrop on the “Arbella, flagship of a
great Puritan flotilla that year” (206). Then, in a remarkable example of what
Weisenbuger calls “hysteron proteron” (131), and which I would call ricorso,
Slothrop imagines that voyage (a night-sea necrotype) backwards, the wind
sucking the fleet “east again,” back to England, “heaving in reverse,” with
the result that “Presto change-o! Tyrone Slothrop’s English again” (207), his
nekyia having catalyzed his return to origins, by evoking the underworld as
an ancestral vault.
Along with the ricorso catalyzed by the nekyia is the revelation of a mys-
terious text, a motif we might call the textual necrotype, because it is so often
found in the long history of the myth (beginning with the Egyptian Books of
the Dead, and moving up from there to the Golden Ass of Apuleius). The text
disclosed by the nekyia here is at Slothrop’s feet. When Slothrop walks back
to the Casino, “big globular raindrops, thick as honey” begin to fall, splatter-
ing on the pavement “into giant asterisks on the pavement, inviting him to
look down at the bottom of the text of the day, where footnotes will explain
all. He isn’t about to look. Nobody ever said a day has to be juggled into any
kind of sense at day’s end” (207). Slothrop doesn’t want to read the text
splattered at his feet because he fears it will reveal the malignant plot of the
enterprise that is using him. But the notion that the nekyia catalyzes the reve-
lation of form, by providing the answer to all the mysteries that bedevil and
bless our individual destinies, is central to the myth, from the time Odysseus
and Aeneas saw their future while in Hades, onward to Dante and Milton.
Such revelations here come at the “day’s end,” when our journeys are over—
too late perhaps to see the “sense” of things.
When Katje wakes up the next morning she calls Slothrop a “pig,” a zo-
omorphic necrotype sustained throughout this section of the novel, and evok-
ing Circe, who turns men into pigs in the Odyssey. Circe is often referred to
as a witch; but she is also, a psychopomp, like Hermes (who appears on her
island), a guide of souls who provides Odysseus with the directions to
“Persesphone’s Grove,” and gives him detailed instructions on how to sum-
mon the souls of the dead when he gets there (Homer 246). Hence, it is inter-
esting to find Katje consistently connected to the sea in this section, and
compared to a “rain witch” (224). Surely she is a psychopomp, presiding
over the revelations that come fast and furious in this final episode at the Ca-
sino, before she disappears and resurfaces at the White Visitation in London.
Gravity’s Rainbow 91

In a sense, Pynchon has reversed the gender roles of the myth (as D.H. Law-
rence did in The Rainbow): Katje is the aggressive seductress, not Hades,
who initiates Slothrop’s descent.
The fundamental forms that govern this clandestine world of invisibles
are slowly disclosed in the last days and nights of this idyll by the sea, during
which Katje presides over Slothrop’s work on the physics and chemistry of
the V-2 rocket. Every perusal of the scientific manuals stimulates a powerful
erection, and leads to sex with Katje, while Dodson-Truck looks on, having
been sent by Pointsman to spy on the mysteries of Slothrop’s “magical pe-
nis” (as Weisenburger puts it), and its connection to the rocket. As noted
above, the revelation of those fundamental forms that govern the world is a
key motif of the nekyia. In this portion of the novel, the language and ico-
nography of form combines the diction and imagery of myth and science.
The heraldic initial returns as “‘the Old Norse rune for ‘S’” in the manuals
Slothrop pours over, a symbol of “sôl, which means ‘sun.’ The Old High
German name for it is sigil,’” Dodson-Truck explains (209). Dodson-Truck
also mentions another geometric figure for this most fundamental form, dis-
closed here during Slothrop’s stay at the Nazi Casino: “a circle with a dot in
the center’” (209)—also a Jungian mandala, or symbol of the wholeness of
the Self.
The letters “S” and “V,” as we have seen, figure the rhythms of the
nekyia, and hence serve as symbols of the myth most central to Pynchon’s
novels. So too does the circle, which Joseph Campbell used as the most pri-
mordial of all geometric necrotypes, configuring the entire cycle of descent
and return (The Hero)—and as Northrop Frye did in his study of Biblical
narrative (The Great Code). Pynchon’s favorite geometric figure in this sec-
tion is the “parabola,” the “purified shape latent in the sky, that shape of no
surprise, no second chances, no return” (212). It is the shape of the rainbow
of the novel’s title, and of course of the trajectory of the V-2 rocket, which,
as Dodson-Truck again instructs Slothrop, embraces the “two lobes” of as-
cent and descent, of “ab-hauen” and “hauen,” revolving around the “rocket’s
intended azimuth” (209). It is a phallic rhythm as well, a rise and fall, so that,
as Katje recognizes, the “great airless arch” of the rocket’s parabola repre-
sents “certain secret lusts that drive the planet and herself, and Those who
use her—over its peak and down, plunging, burning, toward a terminal or-
gasm” (226). Hence, the parabola and the heraldic letters “S” and “V,” along
with the circle, are hologlyphs—images that combine the opposites of the
92 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

entire creation into a single symbol, often disclosed at the climax of the
nekyia, as in this last day at the Casino.
The diction throughout this final episode also evokes those fundamental
forms revealed by the rhythms of the nekyia: like his “word-smitten” Puritan
ancestors, Slothrop begins to apprehend the “shape and design” of Points-
man’s surveillance of his erotic peregrinations, the “pattern” into which the
events at the Casino begin to fall (210). And he recognizes that there are cer-
tain “German-Baroque perplexities of shape” in the “Himmler-Spielsaal”
where ritual executions were performed, and where he encounters Katje
standing in a rainbow-colored skirt by the roulette wheel (another geometric
figure associated with the cycles of the nekyia, over which she presides).
Here Slothrop senses that “all in his life of what has looked free or random,
is discovered to’ve been under some Control, all the time, the same as a fixed
roulette wheel” (212). This disclosure of the key to one’s destiny, of the ul-
timate structure of fate, is central to the revelations catalyzed by the nekyia.
For Slothrop, this involves his conditioning as a child, and the problem of
“The Penis He Thought Was His Own,” which Dodson-Truck confesses he
has been sent to observe, and which as we know is subject to the chemicals
used in the V-2 rocket which stimulated Slothrop’s erections as a baby (219).
These revelations coincide with a sublime epiphany, when Dodson-
Truck and Slothrop leave the Casino for a walk at sunset along the strand.
Their inebriation intensifies the brilliant colors of “a 19th century wilderness
sunset,” and catalyzes one of the most remarkable hierophanies in the history
of the novel. Magnificent “robed figures,” rising “hundreds of miles tall” on
the horizon, “their faces, serene, unattached, like the Buddha’s, bending over
the sea, impassive, indeed, as the Angel that stood over Lübeck during the
Palm Sunday raid, come that day neither to destroy nor to protect, but to bear
witness to a game of seduction” (217). We cannot therefore call these figures
Angels of Death, for they transcend the polarities of creation and destruction.
They are “watchmen of the world’s edge,” language which evokes the tradi-
tional metaphors of angelic theophany.3 Nevertheless, their appearance is
associated with “the night-going rake Lord Death,” because the raid on
Lübeck precipitated the rocket strikes of the A4s, and then the V-2s (217).
The epiphany of the Angel brings the séances at the White Visitation
back into the episode, during which Carroll Eventyr attempted to “confirm
the Lübeck angel,” he and his “control Peter Sachsa both, floundering in the
swamp between the worlds” (220). This transition leads to the story of Sach-
Gravity’s Rainbow 93

sa’s death, a kind of political / occult nekyia interpolated into the story of
Slothrop’s last day at the Casino. For Sachsa’s death seems to be “part” of
the plan too. He, like Slothrop, is lead into the underworld by a woman: Leni
Pökler, who has “swept with her wings another life,” and upon whose back,
it seems, Sachsa is “being taken” into the streets of Berlin, where he will be
killed; “taken forward into an aether-wind whose smell … no not that smell
last encountered just before his birth … the void long before he ought to be
remembering” (221). Like Katje, Leni is a kind of White Goddess, associated
with “spectra colder than those of the astrologer’s Moon,” and who, he fears
after his death, had intentionally goaded him into to the street, literally be-
coming “the death of him” (223).
Katje too, it seems, is a kind of death goddess, a sort of Persephone, or
perhaps Ariadne, leading Slothrop into the labyrinthine underworld of con-
spiracies intent on discovering and controlling the technical secrets of the V-
2 rocket, with which his erections are associated. She seems to know about
“the whole thing,” at least more than he does (224). And her knowledge, like
her sexuality, is ineluctably thanatological: after a particularly violent fuck,
that “terrible Face That Is No Face” returns when Slothrop ponders the mys-
teries of her profile, gazing upon the “anonymous curve of cheek, convexity
of mouth, a noseless marks of the Other Order of Being, of Katje’s being—
the lifeless nonface that is the only face of hers he really knows, or will ever
remember” (225). And when they take their last walk along the Riviera, an
“end of the day stroll along the esplanade,” the affiliation between Katje and
the nekyia continue: “their breaths are torn into phantoms out to sea,” and
her eyes are “rimmed in black” (227). He feels as if she is “already gone,” as
they stand together “among black curly skeletons of iron benches, on the
empty curve of this esplanade” (227). The ocular necrotype follows, when
Slothrop looks into “her eyes, and is puzzled to find tears coming up to fill
each one, soaking in among her lashes, mascara bleeding out in fine black
swirls … translucent stones, trembling in their sockets” (228). When he
looks away, “The harbor has broken out in whitecaps, so brilliant they can’t
be gathering their light from this drab sky. Here it is again, that identical-
looking Other World,” in which everything seems “so perfectly placed”
Katje’s departure the next morning is one of the saddest moments in the
novel, and a rare moment of tenderness in Pynchon’s oeuvre. And it brings
Slothrop’s journey into the complexities of the “Other World” which is her
domain, where the erotic, political, psychological, and religious facets of the
94 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

nekyia come together. The sense of an invisible order, of a world in which

everything is “perfectly placed,” fits into a “pattern,” and a “design,” and
where the secrets of the “whole thing” are revealed, is a characteristic climax
of the myth.
Katje resurfaces in the next episode, at The White Visitation, the scene
of one of the most infamous re-figurations of the nekyia in all of postmod-
ernism: Brigadier Pudding’s ritual coprophagia at the feet of Katje in the
depths of the building. The laboratory is “also a maze,” an analogy reiterated
by the song one of the rats sings, about being “lost, in a maze” (232). The
rats, like all “the animals, the plants, the minerals, even other kinds of men,”
are victims of the “rationalized forms of death—death in the service of the
one species cursed with the knowledge that it will die” (233). Pudding’s de-
scent to the basement is also evoked using the imagery of the labyrinth: he
“slips from his quarters down the back stairs,” passes “along a gallery” to a
“small entresol (point of maximum danger) into a lumber room,” then “down
a set of metal steps” to the “D Wing, where the madmen of the ‘30s persist,”
and on through “half a dozen offices or anterooms before reaching his desti-
nation” (233–34).
Seven rooms are mentioned, and each “contains a single unpleasantness
for him: a test he must pass” (234): these include a hypodermic outfit; an
empty red tin of Savarin coffee, which Pudding reads as Severin, the “name
of the self-abasing male victim in Sacher-Masoch’s book Venus im Pelz”
(Fowler 143); a file-drawer of case histories left open with a copy of Krafft-
Ebing partly visible; a human skull; a malacca cane; and in the sixth ante-
chamber, the corpse of a “tattered tommy up on White Sheet Ridge” hanging
from the rafters, “uniform burned in Maxim holes black-rimmed as the eyes
of Cleo” (234–35). Weisenburger suggests that this passage through the
seven chambers is a “satirical inversion of the Kabbalistic ascent to the Mer-
kabah,” the throne / chariot of God (144). While the main theme of these vi-
sions “is the soul’s ascent from earth and its return home through the hostile
antechambers and into God’s fullness,” Pynchon “satirically inverts this
process,” having Pudding descend “into a private hell,” dominated by his
memories of the battle at Passchendaele (145).
In the seventh cell Katje waits for him, “Domina Nocturna ... shining
mother and last love” (235). She is “an avatar of the Shekinah, the mother of
material being and of dissolute death” (Weisenburger 145). Her name comes
from Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology, which discusses “night women, shining
Gravity’s Rainbow 95

mothers, dominae nocturnae” (qtd. in Weisenburger: 146). These were origi-

nally “demonic elvish beings,” who, “Like the Valkyries,” were “thought to
hover over battlefields to take off souls of the dead” (Weisenburger 146).
And indeed, as the ritual in the basement unfolds, this is the role Katje plays:
Pudding first saw her on the battlefield at Passchendaele, where she took
dead soldiers as her bridegrooms (236–37).
Katje is naked underneath a black uniform, and her eyes have been
elaborately made up: she “has spent an hour at her vanity mirror with mas-
cara, liner, shadow, and pencil, lotions and rouges, brushes and photographs
of the reigning beauties of thirty or forty years ago” (235). She will then
flagellate Pudding with the malacca cane, while he strips and kisses her
boots, before taking the “last mystery” of Katje’s turds into his mouth,
“thinking of a Negro penis” while “The stink of shit floods his nose ... the
smell of Passchendaele, of the Salient. Mixed with mud, and the putrefaction
of corpses, it was the sovereign smell of their first meeting, and her emblem”
(238). Hence Pudding’s pathology combines coprophagic bisexuality with
memories of the disastrous Battle of the Ypres Salient at Passchendaele,
where 300,000 young Englishmen were killed or wounded fighting for “five
miles of Belgian mud” (Fowler 144).
The underworld here is the unconscious of the male patriarchy, the dark
current of the military industrial complex Pynchon holds responsible for our
present apocalyptic conditions. It is an underworld imagined in Sumerian and
Kabbalistic terms. Pudding’s ritual descent takes him through the seven
chambers of the underworld to an encounter with the mother goddess of
death, “blessed Metatron .... keeper of the Secret .... guardian of the throne”
(234). Douglas Fowler points out the allusions to “some Chapel Perilous
housing the Grail of Redeeming Pain,” and notes that “Seven is a magic
number and so it is in the seventh chamber that Pudding will find his Queen
of the Night” (143). But even more explicit is the allusion to the descent of
the Sumerian goddess Inanna through the seven gateways of the kur to
Ereshkigal, the goddess of the underworld who “fastened on Inanna the eye
of death” and turned her into a “corpse, / A piece of rotting meat” to be
“hung from a hook on the wall” (Wolkstein and Kramer 60). Pynchon’s Pud-
ding also is stripped down through seven chambers to encounter a rotting
corpse before facing Katje’s eye of death and sex. As, we shall see the
Sumerian configurations of the underworld goddess of death continue later in
the novel.
96 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

After this most shocking of postmodern variations on the nekyia, the

novel returns to Monaco, and the Casino Hermann Goering, where Slothrop
is being briefed on the intricacies of the V-2 rocket. As he reads various
technical manuals, his “image of the plot against him” continues to grow,
and along with it the gradual revelation of those invisible forces behind “the
conspiracy” (240). Such revelations of the hidden structure of things is cen-
tral to the myth, which in this episode turns once again to the occult nekyia,
with a focus on the journey of the soul after death. Oddly enough, Slothrop
begins to “find his way into one particular state of consciousness,” a kind of
“reverie” in which “it seems he has touched, and stayed touching, for a
while, a soul we know” (240). That soul is the one “that has more than once
spoken through research-facility medium Carroll Eventyr: the late Roland
Feldspath again, long-co-opted expert on control systems, guidance equa-
tions, feedback situations for this Aeronautical Establishment and that”
(240–41). These “control systems” are those governing the developing tech-
nologies of the V-2 rocket, and by extension therefore the driving forces be-
hind the conspiracy againt Slothrop. Like Odysseus in Hades, warned by his
mother about the suitors conspiring to steal his wife and property back home
on Ithaca, Slothrop, in this episode, moves closer to understanding the plot
against him by communing with the souls of the dead, however indirectly.
Roland whispers to Slothrop “from eight kilometers, the savage height,
stationed as he has been along one of the Last Parabolas” (the highest height
reached by the rocket before Brennschluss, and its descent). He is “working
as one of the invisible Interdictors of the stratosphere now, bureaucratized
hopelessly on that side as ever on this” (241). If anyone manages to “reach
across” to him (as Eventyr does during the séances, and Slothrop in his rev-
eries), Feldspath must “show them what he knows about Control. That’s one
of his death’s secret missions” (241). And, it also seems, there are “monsters
of the Aether” associated with that “Control,” Minotaurs in the labyrinthine
underworld for Slothrop to contend with (241). “Control” of course suggests
a pattern behind all earthly and supernatural events, a formal “plot” or “con-
spiracy” disclosed by the occult nekyia ever more fully as the novel pro-
At this point, it seems that the “Discipline of Control” is “secret and ter-
rible,” and is responsible for creating “the whole German Inflation” of the
1920s with the intention of driving “young enthusiasts of the Cybernetic
Tradition into Control work” (241). As we will soon learn, that “Control
Gravity’s Rainbow 97

work,” here below, is essentially driven by international oil cartels, like Shell
Oil, which, since it has “no country, no side in any war, no specific face or
heritage,” profits from all the nations involved in the war (246). Pynchon’s
notion of the oil company “tapping instead out of that global stratum, most
deeply laid, from which all the appearances of corporate ownership really
spring” (246), is an uncanny prefiguration of our current situation, which
(movies like “Fahrenheit 451” would have us believe) is controlled by com-
panies like Halliburton, whose profit margins dramatically increase in pro-
portion to the number of lives in the war.
Feldspath’s ‘knowledge’ of such hierarchies of power, and his disclosure
of that knowledge, through séance or reverie, is explicitly associated with the
imagery of the nekyia. His journey to the other side is compared to a descent
into “valleys thick with autumn,” and to a trip into a kind of urban labyrinth,
passing “across lots and into the back streets, which grow ever more myste-
rious and badly paved and more deeply platted, lot giving way to lot seven
times and often more” (242)—introducing the mythical number again, asso-
ciated with the seven doorways of the Sumerian nekyia, and the seven cham-
bers of Merkabah mysticism connected to Brigadier General Pudding’s pene-
tration of the labyrinth beneath the White Visitation. Feldspath’s imaginal
journey then moves “around angles of hedge,” and on “out of the region of
streets itself and into the countryside, into the quilted dark fields and the
wood, the beginning of the true forest, where a bit of the ordeal ahead starts
to show” (242). Farther on into the underworld of the forest (as in the story
of Hansel and Gretel), “Destruction” lurks, “oh, and demons,” hiding “there,
deep in the woods, with other beasts vaulting among the earthworks of your
safety” (242). These are both the devils of hell, and the Minotaurs waiting in
the heart of the labyrinth, which Slothrop imagines as “the jaws and teeth of
some Creature, some Presence so large that nobody else can see it—there!
that’s that monster I was telling you about” (244).
Feldspath’s death seems part of the conspiracy, since he only gains his
knowledge of the intricate connections between the “Presence,” “Monster,”
or “Control systems” of the conspiracy after his post-mortem journey, which
is powerfully evoked by Pynchon. No one, it seems, makes that

connection, at least while alive: it took death to show it to Roland Feldspath, death
with its very good chances for being Too Late, and a host of other souls feeling
themselves, even now, Rocketlike, driving outward toward the stone-blue lights of
the Vacuum under a Control they cannot quite name … the illumination out here is
98 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

surprisingly mild, mild as heavenly robes, a feeling of population and invisible

force, fragments of “voices,” glimpses into another order of being …. (242)

Once again, the nekyia catalyzes the revelation of that “order of being,” the
fundamental forms and patterns that govern life, the “Control” behind the
“plot” of our lives, and of the nightmare of history. Although Slothrop
emerges from his reveries without “any clear symbol or scheme,” his intima-
tions lead gradually to a focus on Imipolex G, the chemical used as an “Insu-
lation device” for the rocket (245), and the chemical by which his erections
were conditioned as a child.
Episode 6 of Part 2 follows Slothrop to a “party thronged with under-
world types,” where the various deals of “underworld commerce” go down
(Weisenburger 152–53): drugs, zoot-suits, weapons, all up for sale on a black
market presided over by a huge dude named “Blodgett Waxwing, well-
known escapee from the Caserne Martier in Paris, the worst stockade in the
ETO” (249). “AWOL on and off since the Battle of the Bulge,” Waxwing
has a “death rap” hanging “over his head” (250), and his escape is from a
prison that “housed many of the European theater’s most flagrant and dan-
gerous black marketers and criminals,” a prison the name of which evokes
the world of the dead—if in fact as Weisenburger points out the name—
“Caserne Mortier”—has been misspelled in all three editions of Gravity’s
Rainbow (154). Waxwing’s name also alludes to the first line of John
Shade’s poem in Nabokov’s Pale Fire: “I was the shadow of the waxwing
slain / By the false azure of the windowpane” (33). Nabokov’s novel has
much to do with the nekyia, and communication with the spirits of the dead.4
Waxwing gives Slothrop a packet of papers for safe keeping, having to
do with an elaborate deal in the works, hilariously summarized by Pynchon:

The story here tonight is a typical WWII romantic intrigue, just another evening at
Raoul’s place, involving a future opium shipment’s being used by Tamara as secu-
rity against a loan from Italo, who in turn owes Waxwing for a Sherman tank his
friend Theophile is trying the smuggle into Palestine but must raise a few thousand
pounds for purposes of bribing across the border, and so has put the tank up as col-
lateral to borrow from Tamara, who is using part of her loan from Italo to pay him.

The labyrinthine deal goes bad when the opium deal goes bust, with the re-
sult that Tamara is ripped off, and pissed enough to crash the party with the
tank, and fire a dud into the living room. After Slothrop pulls her out of the
Gravity’s Rainbow 99

tank, Waxwing provides him with some crucial revelations about the plot
against him: the “octopus” on the beach was indeed a set up, and Slothrop
will need to get out of the Casino and head for Nice (252). He directs
Slothrop to “an address on Rue Rossini,” and gives him the zoot suit prom-
ised him for keeping the papers (252). As so often in the long history of the
nekyia, these revelations lead to a transition signified by clothing symbolism:
when an old suit of clothes is cast off, divestiture yields to reinvestiture (but
never before in a zoot suit).
Slothrop’s escape from the Casino at Monaco, in a stolen “black
Citroën,” takes him “down the Corniche through the mountains fishtailing
and rubber softly screeching at the sun-warmed abysses” into the Place Gari-
baldi in Nice (256). From there he walks to the “address Waxwing had given
him. It turns out to be an ancient four-story hotel,” where “the great vortex of
deployment from Europe to Asia,” as the front shifts eastwards, “hoots past,”
like a tornado, “leaving many souls each night to cling a bit longer to the
tranquilities” of Nice, “so close the drain-hole of Marseilles, this next-to-last
stop on the paper cyclone that sweeps them back from Germany” (256). The
power of the “vortex” sucks these souls eventually back into the inferno of
the war. Slothrop’s hotel is presided over by “an old motherly femme de
chambre,” who wears “red-and-white striped socks on enormous feet that
give her the look of a helpful critter from one of the otherworlds” (257). She
directs Slothrop to his room “upstairs and then gives him either the V-for-
victory sign or some spell from distant countryside against the evil eye that
sours milk” (257). Her associations, therefore, are with the vertiginous swirl
of the cyclone that sucks souls into the underworld, and with the other-
worldly goddess of the “evil eye” (257)—whose “sign” is the hieroglyphic
initial of both V. and Gravity’s Rainbow.
Here Slothrop grieves the loss of “Katje and Tantivy,” whose departure
and death have initiated his escape from the demonic Casino. And here
Slothrop gets phony papers, a “Carte d’identité, passage to Zürich, Switzer-
land” (258), where he hopes to score information about Imipolex G from one
of the big chemical companies. There Slothrop checks into the “Hotel Nim-
bus, in an obscure street in the Niederdorf,” and sets about on his search for
“Information” (261). Wandering the streets among the “mad, down from
their fancy asylums on weekend furlough,” wearing a zoot suit “white as the
cemetery mountains here,” Slothrop finally finds “one Mario Schweitar,”
who emerges from “the endless dark corridors” of the city, and who tells
Slothrop that “L. Jamf” (who conditioned Slothrop’s infantile cock with ap-
100 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

plications of Imipolex G) is dead, and buried “Up in the mountains, toward

the Uetliberg” (264).
Zürich is the city of exiles, and of Modernism’s ancestral dead—the
Odeon on the lake is haunted by the shades of “Lenin, Trotsky, James Joyce,
Dr. Einstein” (266). (One might add that Jung is buried in Küsnacht on the
North Shore, Thomas Mann in Kilchberg on the South, and Joyce’s memo-
rial is up in the mountains overlooking the city. After carrying messages to
Geneva from an Argentinian revolutionary named Squalidozzi—who speaks
of the “smokiest labyrinths” of Buenas Aires, and who acknowledges that his
countrymen (like Borges) are “obsessed with building labyrinths” (267–
68)—Slothrop goes to the Uetliberg to sleep on Jamf’s grave, and to pay
Mario Schweitar for the information about Imipolex G. Sleeping near the
windy “crypt,” Slothrop is “afraid of a visit from Jamf, whose German-
scientist mind would be battered by Death to only the most brute reflexes, no
way to appeal to the dumb and grinning evil of the shell that was left” (273).
But “There’s no visit. It seems Jamf is only dead” (272), as Slothrop turns to
go back down to the city below, which, “bathed now in partial light, is a ne-
cropolis of church spires and weathercocks, white castle-keep towers, broad
buildings with mansard roofs and windows glimmering by the thousands”
(272). Even though Jamf is dead, the “information” traditionally disclosed by
the necromantic rituals of the myth is forthcoming: Slothrop goes back to the
“crypt” to light a fire and read through Jamf’s papers—to learn more, per-
haps, than he wants to know (273).
In the final episode of Part 2, during a Whitsuntide picnic after the decla-
ration of victory in Trafalgar Square, Pointsman realizes he has lost Slothrop,
and begins to hear voices. Several key allusions in this last section bring sev-
eral threads of the narrative into relationship with the nekyia. First, Slothrop
is said to be “chasing” the secrets of the rocket “like a grail” (279), an allu-
sion to the Arthurian nekyia that will be sustained in Part 3 to come; and the
Schwarzkommando are said to have been “summoned, in the way demons
may be gathered in, called up to the light of day by the now defunct Opera-
tion Black Wing” of the White Visitation (279). The necromantic conjuration
of the “black rocket troops” is compared to the process by which the re-
pressed contents of the unconscious eventually manifest in “real and living
men” and women (280). Hence, the Schwarzkommando are incarnations of
our repressed “feelings about blackness,” which are “tied to feelings about
shit, and feelings about shit to feelings about putrefaction and death” (280)—
Gravity’s Rainbow 101

hence the drug induced descent down the toilet bowl in the earlier episode;
hence Bridagdier General Pudding’s revolting humiliation in the basement of
the White Visitation; and hence the associations between the Schwarzkom-
mando the demons of the underworld in episodes to follow.

Part 3: In the Zone

Moving into the “Zone” of Part Three, Slothrop enters a kind of ancestral
vault, a crypt where he senses the presence of the dead “stronger now as bor-
ders fall away and the Zone envelops him, his own WASPs in buckled black,
who heard God clamoring to them in every turn of a leaf or cow loose among
apple orchards in autumn” (286). Here, Slothrop imagines, “Signs will find
him […] and ancestors will reassert themselves” (286). From Homer and
Virgil, on to Dante and Milton, the underworld has been a place where one
encounters the ancestral and historical dead. In this first episode of Part
Three, Pynchon conflates the idea of the “crypt” with secret texts, signs, and
symbols, which he descends ever more deeply into the Zone to read. The
Zone is occupied Europe after the end of the war. And, as Steven Weisen-
burger has shown, Slothrop’s Continental peregrinations inscribe a huge V
on the map, the heraldic initial of the nekyia: from London south to Monaco,
then up to the Brocken, Berlin, Swinemünde, and Peenemünde (where the
ultimate mysteries of Slothrop’s connection to the V-2 rocket will be re-
vealed). Slothrop is “skidded out onto the Zone like a planchette of a Ouija
board, and what shows up inside the empty circle in his brain might string
together into a message” (287)—a metaphor which links his communications
with the dead with the combined mysteries of poeisis and hermeneusis.
The revelations catalyzed by the descent have initially to do with the pa-
pers from the chemical company about Lazlo Jamf, which Slothrop scored in
Zürich, and began to read on Jamf’s grave. The documents disclose the intri-
cacies of the “institutional labyrinth” of “corporate cartels” responsible for
the production of, and experimentation with, such chemicals as Imiplox G
(Weisenburger 180). Slothrop finds data connecting Jamf to his ancestral
firm, the “Slothrop Paper Company” (289). When he does so, a faint memory
of the chemicals applied to his penis when he was an infant swells up “from
before his conscious memory begins, a soft and chemical smell, threatening,
haunting, not a smell to be found out in the world—it is the breath of the
Forbidden Wing … essence of all the still figures waiting for him inside, dar-
102 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

ing him to enter and find a secret he cannot survive” (290)—imagery which
links his quest for origins with the descent into the underworld of the uncon-
scious. The smell of the “Forbidden Wing” is of a “forbidden room, at the
bottom edge of his memory” (291)—it is the smell, he suddenly realizes
(“down here, back here in the warm dark, among early shapes”) of “Imipolex
G” (291). It seems Jamf has paid Slothrop’s father for the use of his son by
covering his tuition at Harvard (290)!
Such revelations, as we have seen, are conventionally catalyzed by the
myth of the nekyia: they have to do with one’s origins and destiny, of one’s
beginning and one’s end. The language throughout this section equates the
underworld with the unconscious, the depths of memory into which Slothrop
descends, in search of himself: the “Forbidden Wing,” with its “forbidden
room, at the bottom edge of his memory,” where “the Worst Thing” lurks,
and “the secret he cannot survive” waits for him, “down here, back here in
the dark” (290–91)—all of these images evoke the myth of descent into the
dark chambers of the unconscious, where the archetypal complexes that
shape our lives reside. It is a mnemonic nekyia.
When Slothrop gets off the train, after reading the documents linking
Jamf to the Slothrop Paper Company, another woman will emerge as his
psychopomp, a guide into the mysteries of the labyrinthine Zone. Arriving in
Nordhausen, he “wanders into the roofless part of town,” where “Old people
in black are bat-flittering among the walls” (294). He hears a “girl singing
[….] One of those sad little Parisian sounding tunes in 3/4,” and she takes
him to her “roofless room” in the middle of the ruined city, which is reduced
to a “maze of walls, where moss creeps, water oozes, roaches seek purchase”
Our Ariadne of Nordhausen is named Geli Tripping. Her Russian lover,
Tchitcherine is away, but when, after making love, Slothrop hears he may
appear at any moment, he panics and threatens to leave. Geli keeps him by
teasing tidbits of information about “Rocket Number 00000,” the “one rocket
out of 6000 that carried Imipolex G” (297). She also mentions the “Schwarz-
gerät,” also called the S-Gerät,” and tells him that she “posed once for a
rocket insignia [….] A pretty young witch straddling an A4” (297). Slothrop
wonders if she is “a real witch,” and she says she has been going “up to the
Brocken” on “every Walpurgisnacht since” her “first period” (297)—an allu-
sion to a famous episode in Faust, in which Goethe draws from folklore,
Classical, and Biblical sources to fashion a remarkable variation on the
Gravity’s Rainbow 103

nekyia. And to some extent Geli is Gretchen, and Slothrop Faust, making
deals with Mephisto in exchange for information about the rocket. The “S-
Gerät,” it seems, is “for sale,” and once again Slothrop comes to feel he is
caught in a conspiracy, thinking “it’s a plot it’s a plot, it’s Pavlovian condi-
tioning” (299), after Geli’s owl pounces on him when they make love a sec-
ond time (Slothrop’s erection having been stimulated by Geli’s news about
the rocket’s “Imipolex G device”) (297). “You are a witch,” he says after-
wards, settling down “under the counterpane with the long-legged sorceress,”
in whose “bare and open arms” he soon falls asleep (299). Such are the con-
solations of the Zone into which he has wandered.
Episode 2 of Part 3 is a marvelous variation on the nekyia, combining
Teutonic and Herero motifs with “the technological mythology of rocketry”
(Weisenburger 185). It involves a descent into, and return from the ancient
salt mines near Nordhausen, which have been converted into the “Mittel-
werke” where the A-4 and V-2 rockets were built. Pynchon’s variation
makes explicit reference to the nekyia, beginning with a character named
“Nick De Profundis, the company lounge lizard,” who is “selling A4 souve-
nirs” at the site (300). Nick’s name is “From the Latin ‘de profundis,’ ‘out of
the depths,’” from “Psalm 130: ‘De profundis clamavi ad te Domine’ (Out of
the depths have I cried to thee, O Lord)” (Weisenburger 185)—which in turn
alludes to Jonah’s prayer: “out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest
my voice” (2:2).
Another peculiarly named guide named “‘Micro’ Graham” then appears
as a guide into the labyrinth of “Stollen where the gullible visitors stray”
(300). The “Stollen” are an elaborate network of tunnels underneath the
mountain connecting various operations of the rocket works. “Micro knows
the secret doors to the rock passages that lead through to Dora, the prison
camp next to the Mittelwerke,” and he provides “basic instruction on what to
do in case of any encounter with the dead” (300). For many of the prisoners,
“Death came like the American Army, and liberated them spiritually. So
they’re apt to be on a spiritual rampage now” (300). Slothrop’s passage,
however, turns quickly to a hallucinatory vision of the future of space travel
made possible by the rockets: he is given a “Raumwaffe spacesuit,” and sees
“little Space-Jockeys (Raum-Jockeier)” who zoom around the “Raketen-
Stadt, astride ‘horses’” with “demented eyes” (301). Then come the “Space
Helmets” that “appear to be fashioned from skulls. At least the upper dome
of this unpleasant headgear is certainly the skull of some manlike creature
104 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

built to a larger scale,” with “eye sockets” that are “fitted with quartz lenses”
(301)—imagery which evokes both the equine and ocular necrotypes.
These lenses make it possible to watch the “wall paintings” transform
into three dimensional “dioramas on the theme of ‘The Promise of Space
Travel,’” before Slothrop descends further “down the last limb of our trajec-
tory into the Raketen-Stadt” (302). The city of “this salt underground” is not
constructed of the “solid geometries” and “symmetries” traditionally associ-
ated with the revelations of the nekyia. Rather, the plan of the “Rocket City”
has been “set up To Avoid Symmetry, Allow Complexity, Introduce Terror”
(302). The imaginal sci-fi nekyia “ends at Stollen Number Zero, Power and
Light” (302)—imaginal, it seems, because Micro Graham’s evocation of the
special attractions of the salt tunnels is for potential tourists, whom he stands
hawking at the entrance to the tunnel, where Slothrop’s actual journey be-
gins. The notion that the nekyia moves towards the revelation of the order of
things (whether symmetrical or assymetrical), and that it catalyzes a pro-
phetic vision of the future, is central to the archetypal traditions of the myth,
from Homer, to Virgil, and on to Dante: Odysseus is warned about his future
by his mother Antikleia; Aeneas is given a vision of future Romans in their
next incarnations by his father Anchises; and prophetic proclamations are
scattered all through Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Pynchon’s nekyia, however, is a ludic, revisionary approach to the myth,
a descent into the industrial underworld of the rocket works. The entrance to
the tunnel evokes the geometrical necrotype of the “parabola,” a key to the
mysteries of the rocket’s trajectory, and to the rise and fall of the penis
Slothrop “Thought Was His Own.” As Slothrop slips in past “the white-
topped guard towers,” he sees a sign that reads “PLEEZ NO SQUEEZ-A DA
OXYGEN UNIT, EH? how long, how long you sfacim-a dis country”
(303)—which, as Weisenburger notes, is from “the Italian noun ‘sfacimento’
(‘wreck’ or ‘ruin’). Thus, ‘How long you been wreckin’ dis country. Note
also the pun on Dis, Dante’s underground hell” (188). Dis, of course, is also
the name of Virgil’s underworld City of the Dead, in Book 6 of the Aeneid.
Slothrop’s nekyia takes him “In under parabola and parable, straight into the
mountain, sunlight gone, into the cold, the dark, the long echoes of the Mit-
telwerke” (303).
Here, the allusions turn towards the Nordic myth of what Pynchon calls
“Tannhäuserism,” referring to those of us who “love to be taken under moun-
tains, and not always with horny expectations—Venus, Frau Holda, her sex-
Gravity’s Rainbow 105

ual delights—no, many come actually for the gnomes, the critters smaller
than you, for the sepulchral way time stretches along your hooded strolls
down here” (304). This sepulchral descent leads ultimately to “the comfort of
a closed space, where everyone is in complete agreement about death” (304).
It is both the womb and tomb of the earth / love goddesses Pynchon alludes
to (Venus, Frau Holda), whose delights the Medieval hero—such as Tann-
häuser in Wagner’s opera—descend to savor (Weisenburger 188).
Slothrop’s descent catalyzes what we might well call the alphabetic ne-
crotype: heraldic initials which, like the letters “U” and “V,” signify the
rhythms of descent and return. For Pynchon’s vision of the “basic layout of
the plant” below the mountain is fictional, an archetypal configuration in the
form of “the letters SS each stretched lengthwise a bit,” yielding two tunnels
in the “shape” of “an elongated SS” (304). The “shape of the tunnels here”
also seems to signify the “double integral sign” invented by Leibniz, most
useful for the architect who finds “volumes under surfaces whose equations
were known—masses, moments, centers of gravity” (305). The calculations
enabled by the “double integral” also refer to the “dynamic space of the liv-
ing Rocket,” and enable the architect and the engineer to “operate on a rate
of change so that time falls away: change is stilled,” and the “moving vehicle
is frozen, in space, to become architecture, and timeless” (305). The double
integral of the “SS,” so envisioned, suggests realm (Pythagorean, Euclidean,
and Platonic) of forms—changeless, eternal, absolute principles of the mind
upon which the created universe is modeled, as a building is upon a blue-
print. The “SS” is also a kind of hologlpyh, embracing the opposites of the
entire creation in a single symbol. Here, it signifies both the “specific shape
whose center of gravity is the Brennschluss Point” where the rocket turns
from ascent to descent, and the “shape of lovers curled asleep, which is
where Slothrop wishes he were now—all the way back with Katje” (307).
Additionally, the “elaborate dance of design” signified by the “SS” dou-
ble integral refers to the “precautions” programmed into the “moving coil,
transformers, electrolyte cell, bridge of diodes” associated with the “accel-
eration” and deceleration of the rocket’s rise and fall (306). Another “mean-
ing of the shape of the tunnels down here in the Mittlewerke,” we soon learn,
“may be the ancient rune that stands for the yew tree, Death,” so that the
“double integral” comes to stand for “the method of finding hidden centers”
programmed into the human “subconscious” (306). Sleeping lovers in death-
like embrace; Nordic runes signifying death and the tree of life; double inte-
grals used to calculate the rise and fall of the rocket’s acceleration; the elon-
106 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

gated tunnels of the underworld where weapons of mass destruction are

made—the heraldic initials soon come to embrace the opposites of creation
and destruction programmed into the archetypal forms that confer shape and
signficance upon the world and all its creatures. Such revelations of the ulti-
mate shape of things are consistently catalyzed by Pynchon’s ludic variation
on the myth of the nekyia.
Slothrop’s descent takes him down through “portages of darkness,” past
“entrances to cross-tunnels,” into a “terminal evening” in the “dead of win-
ter” (306–07). It is a night-sea journey into the land of the dead, as mysteri-
ous as that of the “legendary ship Marie-Celeste” (308), which was “discov-
ered virtually abandoned” in November of 1872 (Weisenburger 190). Down
below in the tunnels, it seems as if “there is no more History,” in a world
haunted by “barn-swallow souls, fashioned of brown twilight,” that “rise to-
ward the white ceilings … they are unique to the Zone, they answer to the
new Uncertainty. Ghosts used to be either likenesses of the dead or wraiths
of the living. But here in the Zone categories have been blurred badly” (308).
“Down here,” it seems that “some still live, some have died, but many, many
have forgotten which they are,” and are therefore reduced to “images of the
Uncertainty” (308). These are nervous ghosts, suffering from “urban fan-
tods,” states of high anxiety associated with that “Uncertainty” which
Heisenberg’s famous principle established as an essential quality of the new
As Slothrop continues his descent through the labyrinthine tunnels of the
Mittelwerke, elements of Nordic myth come back into the text, updated by
the industrial technology of the rocket works. Like Elis in E.T.A. Hoffman’s
“Mines of Falun,” Slothrop moves into a world inhabited by alluring maid-
ens, “giggling and reaching to drape around his neck lush garlands of silvery
B nuts and flange fittings, scarlet resistors and bright yellow-capacitators
strung like little sausages, scraps of gasketry, miles of aluminum shavings as
curly-bouncy ‘n’ bright as Shirley Temple’s head” (309). Thus reinvested, he
imagines them leading him “into an empty Stollen, where they all commence
a fabulous orgy” (309). Then, as his fantasy fades, and he passes beneath
“steel lamps” with “scorched skullcap reflectors,” Slothrop hears “voices
distinctly unbalanced, come welling up” from Stollen 41, which is “50 feet
deep, to accommodate the finished rocket” (309). Looking “down into this
long pit,” Slothrop sees a “crowd of Americans and Russians gathered
around a huge oak beer-barrel” (309)—as if he were Rip van Winkle lost in
Gravity’s Rainbow 107

world removed from time, where Dutch ancestors carry barrels of Hollander
gin up into the mountains near Tarrytown on the Hudson. “A gnome-size
German civilian” stands at the keg, “dispensing steins of what looks to be
mostly head” (309).
Slothrop’s descent turns distinctly ludic from this point on: “Despite the
clear and present miasma of evil in Stollen 41, he starts looking for some
way to go down there and maybe score some of that lunch” (310). The “only
way down is by a cable, hooked to an overhead hoist” (310). There’s a merry
prankster at the controls, a “fat cracker Pfc.,” who convinces Slothrop to
climb on, and let go, terrified by the “50 feet of twilit space” that “appears
underneath him,” and into which he is plunged precipitously, when the Pfc.
cuts the motor (310). Hence, Slothrop arrives at the bottom shaft of the tun-
nel dangling “upside down and hanging by the foot, in among the funseekers
around the beer keg” (311). In in their midst is a fat American called Major
Marvy, who remembers Slothrop from the top of the train he was thrown off
by Enzian, after a tirade of racial slurs. Marvy looks “even less engaging” in
the “subterranean light” of Stollen 41, as he sicks his men on that “limey
sonofabitch” Slothrop appears to be, still dressed in his British uniform
(312). Thus begins an hilarious send up of a Hollywood chase seen, as
Slothrop runs back up the various tunnels of the Mittelwerke, and gets on a
train run by “an elderly man in a tweed suit” who looks like an “oversize elf”
(313). Together they elude Marvy’s madmen, and hijack a Mercedes outside
the tunnel of the rocket works, to escape into the Harz Mountains above
Nordhausen (317).
Their escape leads them to the next station of Slothrop’s passion play: a
“forested dome with a small dilapidated castle on top, hundreds of doves,
white teardrops, dripping from its battlements” (318). The ornithological and
oreographic necrotypes converge here, in this presentation of the castle on
the mountain top, haunted by the “Mass liquid cooing” of the doves, who
“fly in and out of broken windows,” fanning “dust motes” with their wings,
and covering the castle with “dove shit” (318). In a remote laboratory at the
top of the castle, Slothrop is lead into “a mad Nazi scientist lab,” where a
man named Zwitter sits, “eyeglass lenses thick as the windows of a bathy-
sphere, the fluorescent hydras, eels, and rays of control equations swimming
seas behind them” (318)—a metaphor which adds the night-sea necrotype to
the scene. Here, further revelations of the mysteries of the rocket works will
proceed: for it seems that Glimpf, the “oversize elf” in the “tweed coat” who
rescued Slothrop from Major Marvey, and his assistant Zwitter, have been
108 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

given shelter here by either the Russians or the Americans, both of whom are
after the secrets of the V-2 rocket, that will lay the foundation for the space
program in both countries.
Enzian’s story, in the next episode, provides Pynchon with the opportu-
nity to articulate a poetics of narrative, based on the polarities of the nekyia.
It is the circular narrative of the hero journey cycle, which is reiterated
throughout the course of Enzian’s life: first, when he was born, “Before his
conscious memories began,” when “something took him, in and out of his
mother’s circular village far out in the Kakau Veld, at the borders of the land
of death, a departure and return” (327). His second nekyia is historical, when
“his mother” again left her village, taking “him with her to join Samuel Ma-
herero’s great trek across the Kalahari” (327), during which his mother died,
along with “hundreds of souls,” so that Enzian “woke among the dead”
(328). He was then taken back to “the edge of his mother’s village, to walk in
alone,” thus completing his second cycle of departure and return (328). His
third reiteration of the “pattern” was initiated when he was taken by Weiss-
man back to Germany, and on to Bleicheröde, where he and the Schwarz-
kommando now live “down in abandoned mine shafts” (319). It is an event
he sees in terms of the nekyia: “Enzian found the name Bleicheröde close
enough to ‘Blicker,’ the nickname the early Germans gave to Death. They
saw him white: bleaching and blankness. The name was later Latinized to
‘Dominus Blicero,’ which Weismann takes as his SS code name” (327).
Hence, Enzian has been abducted to the underworld like Persephone by the
German equivalent of Hades, the Greek Lord of the Dead.
But unlike Persephone, there will be “No return” for Enzian (328). His
only reunion with his tribe can be that achieved by death, and by the cam-
paign of racial suicide his people in the underground mine shafts have de-
termined upon as the only expedient left in their rebellion against the Ger-
mans. All of his companions are souls “dead to the tribe,” so-called “Empty
Ones,” “Revolutionaries of the Zero,” “Zone-Hereros” exiled in the North
(321). In their exile, however, they reinact the Herero myth of the solar
nekyia, according to which the North is both “death’s region,” and the land
of the ancestral dead (327). According to that myth, “one-armed,” “one-
legged and one-eyed” warriors who live in the North, where the sun sets,

spear it to death until its blood runs out over the horizon and sky. But under the
earth, in the night, the sun is born again, to come back each dawn, new and the
same. But we, Zone-Hereros, under the earth, how long will we wait in this north,
Gravity’s Rainbow 109

this locus of death? Is it to be reborn? or have we really been buried for the last
time, buried facing north like the rest of our dead, and like all the holy cattle ever
sacrificed to the ancestors? (327)

Tribal destiny, it seems, “obeys” the “pattern” of the solar nekyia. Enzian’s
“northward journey” is therefore “both ‘a return’ and a trek into Death’s
kingdom,” since the “‘land over the sea’ or the ‘region of the north’” is both
the “‘underworld,’” the “‘place where new life is created,’” the place where
“the first ancestor appeared,” and the place “to which all Hereros hope to
return after death” (Luttig, qtd. in Weisenburger: 200). Hence the logic of
Enzian and his Schwarzkommando’s campaign of racial suicide: since “‘the
dead are capable of bringing about evil and death more effectively than the
living,’” the whole tribe may go “into an avenging battle from the Other
Side” (Weisenburger 194). Enzian’s last journey is therefore a “return” to the
ancestral dead, a voyage which he conceives in terms of the night-sea necro-
type: “it has a stern, an intense beauty, it is music, a symphony of the North,
an Arctic voyage, past headlands of very green ice, to the feet of icebergs,
kneeling in the grip of this incredible music, washed in seas blue as blue dye,
an endless North” (332).
If Enzian sees his journey in terms of the “patterns” of Herero myth, his
friend Joseph Ombindi sees his from the perspective of the Arthurian nekyia.
Ombindi is an evocative name. Weisenburger points out that it “derives from
the Herero ‘ombinda,’ a noun meaning ‘wild pig’” (197). But it also has San-
skrit roots, since a “bindu” is the point of emergence, where the energy of the
divine pours into the world. Meditation on the so-called seed syllable, “Om,”
returns us to this place of origins, and reconnects us with the divine. It is the
“radiating source of energy” at the “still point of the universe” (Zimmer, Ar-
tistic Form 64, 123). A similar word occurs in Joyce’s Ulysses, where “om-
phalos” suggests the navel of the world. Pynchon’s plural (Ombindi) sug-
gests that center is everywhere: wherever one stands, or sits, in deep medita-
tion, is the place of origins and destination, of Alpha and Omega, of the be-
ginning and the end. Cast in the terms of Pynchon’s myth making, it is the
central point of the “mandala” of the Herero villages, and the “Center with-
out time,” the “Final Zero” towards which the tribe aspires, the point “where
every departure is a return to the same place, the only place” (323).
For Joseph Ombindi, this point of origins and destiny is the Grail. He
looks “back toward an innocence he’s really only heard about, can’t himself
believe in—the gathered purity of opposites, the village built like a mandala”
110 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

(325). At the still point in the center of this mandala is both the goddess—
buried like a wild pig up to her neck, holding the “luminous ghosts of her
four stillborn children” inside her womb, like a “seed in the Earth” (320)—
and the Grail of the Arthurian nekyia. For Ombindi will “profess and pro-
claim” his vision of tribal mandala as “an image of the grail, slipping through
the room, radiant, though the jokers around the table be sneeking Whoopee
Cushions into the Siege Perilous, under the very descending arse of the grail-
seeker, and though the grails themselves come in plastic these days, a dime a
dozen, penny a gross” (325). However Pythonesque Pynchon’s presentation
of the Grail may be, it does (as we shall see) link several quests and episodes
in Gravity’s Rainbow together, all revolving around the central mysteries of
the V-2 rocket.
We return to Slothrop’s quest in the next episode, which begins “before
dawn” with “Geli Tripping, standing on top of the Brocken, the very plexus
of German evil,” a few days after the Walpurgisnacht on “May Day’s Eve”
(334). Some “relics of the latest Black Sabbath still remain: Kriegsbier emp-
ties, lace undergarments, spent rifle cartridges, Swastika-banners of ripped
red satin, tattooing-needles and splashes of blue ink” (334). Geli explains
that the ink is used for ‘the devil’s kiss’” (334), a prick of the needle that sig-
nified a new witch’s “‘faith and homage to the evil one alone’” (Grimm, qtd.
in Weisenburger: 202). Slothrop’s ascent initiates what we might call the
ancestral nekyia, as he thinks back to “one genuine Salem Witch” several
“centuries’ couplings” back on the “Slothrop family tree” (334)—which is,
as Weisenburger documents, Pynchon’s own (202). After “running mad over
the Berkshire countryside, “stealing babies, riding cows at twilight, sacrific-
ing chickens up on Snodd’s Mountain,” the witch was “busted” for “witchery
and she got death” (334).
The imagery of the nekyia continues in this episode on top of the Brock-
en when Geli and Slothrop cast “two gigantic shadows, thrown miles over-
land,” as the sun rises behind them (335). Slothrop calls it “‘the Spectre,’”
and it reminds him of a similar phenomenon “around Greylock in the Berk-
shires too. Around these parts it is known as the Brockengespenst” (335),
i.e., the Spook of the Brocken. He thinks of it as “God-shadows,” and as the
“Titans” who lived under the mountains of the Harz: “only their deep images
are left, haloed shells lying prone above the fogs men move in” (335)—an
image which suggests the shells of the Qlippoth alluded to earlier in the nov-
el, images of the demonic archons who rule the Kabbalistic underworld of
Gravity’s Rainbow 111

the material domain we live in. Pynchon also calls the shadows “Brock-
engespenstphänomen,” which are “confined to dawn’s slender interface”
(335)—Brocken Spook Phenomena, who, like Hamlet Sr.’s ghost, will dis-
appear with the dawn.
Only to be replaced, it seems, by the “Furies” of Major Marvy and his
men, who are in hot pursuit of Slothrop. Furies are of course the avenging
shades of the Greek Hades, sent after perpetrators of blood crimes. They are
replaced by the Eumenides in the play of that name by Aeschylus. Perhaps
the blood crimes here are those perpetrated by Pynchon’s witch hunting an-
cestor, William Slothrop, who sentenced two witches to death by hanging
some 20 years before the Salem Witch Trials began (Weisenburger 202).
However that may be, Marvy and his men chase Slothrop in a reconnaissance
plane after he escapses in a hot air balloon, bound for Berlin. The escape in
the balloon balances the myth of the nekyia with that of celestial ascent, di-
chotomies signified in the novel by the parabola and the rainbow. Slothrop’s
ascent takes him into a “wan sphere of light, without coordinates,” and into a
cloud where “Binary decisions have lost meaning” (340). Far below he sees
the “green patchwork” of the “countryside” at twilight, and the “intricate an-
gled pattern of another roofless town” at sundown, as “the earth’s shadow
races across Germany at 650 miles an hour” (341). The “patchwork” of the
countryside, and the “intricate angled pattern” of the town seen from above,
yield a diction and iconography of form, as characteristic of the myth of the
nekyia as it is of celestial ascent. Slothrop’s journey to the top of the
Brocken, therefore, begins and ends with the huge shadows of dawn and
dusk, thus embracing the diurnal polarites of the myth—descent and return.
Episode 5 of Part 3 focuses on Vaslav Tchitcherine, “Slothrop’s Soviet
antagonist” (Weisenburger 205), and Enzian’s half-brother. Tchitcherine’s
nekyia takes him from Moscow southeastwards to the Soviet province of
Kyrgystan, and focuses on the colonial problem of Muscovite domination in
that region. It therefore parallels the German imperialism in South West Af-
rica, the subject of a key chapter in V. and in earlier sections in Gravity’s
Rainbow devoted to the Hereros. Tchitcherine’s immediate purpose in the
“Zone” of demilitarized Northern Germany is to “annihilate the Schwarz-
kommando and his mythical half-brother Enzian” (342).
Episode 5, however, tells the story of Tchitcherine’s journey to the
“bear’s corner” in the “Seven Rivers country” of Kyrgystan, where the “si-
lent Kirghiz” ride and there are “endless tremors in the earth” (343). Tchitch-
erine’s job is to introduce a “New Turkis Alphabet” to a predominately Is-
112 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

lamic population not receptive to replacing the Arabic of the Koran (343).
The landscape itself is as brutal as its history, which includes massacres of
the Kirghiz and other indigenous peoples of the region (such as the Georgi-
ans) during the time of Muscovite expansion in the 19th century. Tchitcherine
sees the place as “the end of the world,” as one of the “worst marsh bivouacs
of his soul” (344), and indeed as a “purgatory” from which he longs for “re-
lease” (349). He is a “soldier” very “far away from home,” and apparently
“under some official curse,” about which numerous rumors circulate (348).
For it seems his affair with a prominent woman in Moscow, curiously
evoked as a “Horse-fucking Catherine, ermined and brilliant, brought up to
date” (348), and his friendship with an organic chemist specializing in
“opium alkaloids” (350), like “Oneirine, and Methoneirine” (353), and led to
his exile in the bear’s corner.
The names of the drugs would imply the dream-like states they induce,
and which Tchitcherine indulges in with Chu Piang, a Chinese janitor in the
center where Tchitcherine teaches the new alphabet to the native population.
He “transliterates the opening sura of the holy Koran into the proposed
NTA,” and thus arouses the ire of the “Arabists,” who are “truly a frenzied
bunch” (359). Most of the population is “Islamic, and Arabic script is the
script of Islam, it is the script in which the word of Allah came down on the
Night of Power, the script of the Koran” (359). Tchitcherine’s nekyia, there-
fore, is associated with the combined mysteries of poeisis and hermeneusis,
of the production and interpretation of a sacred text.
A similar configuration is implied by the nekyia that concludes the epi-
sode, when Tchitcherine and his friend Dzaqyp Qulan ride way out into the
countryside, “over some low hills and down into the village they’ve been
looking for,” where a”singing-duel” is in progress (361). They have come to
hear “A very old aqyn—a wandering Kazakh singer” tell his story about the
“Kirghiz Light” (363). The old man’s song is in the shamanic tradition of
Central and Northern Asia, so fruitfully explored by Mircea Eliade. The old
“Aqyn’s Song” is about a visionary journey to the “edge of the world,” to a
“far distant” land called “the place of the Kirghiz Light” (363). There he
hears “The first qobyz, and the first song” (363). Here the “Asian silence”
reigns, and there is no other way to know God than through “the Kirghiz
Light,” the “voice” of which “is deafness,” the “light” of which is “blind-
ness,” and the “face” of which “cannot be borne” (364). It is “older than
darkness, / Where even Allah cannot reach,” and it is encountered “north,”
Gravity’s Rainbow 113

after a “six-day ride, / Through the steep and death-gray canyons, / Then
across the stony desert / To the mountain whose peak is a white dzurt” (364).
The topography of the old shaman’s song evokes the equestrian and
oreographic necrotypes, and the place of revelation associated with it. After
hearing the song, Tchitcherine follows directions, riding “on into the can-
yons” and farther “north,” towards a “white mountain-top,” where he is
stunned by the Kirghiz Light, lying “12 hours” in the desert, above a “prehis-
toric city greater than Bablyon lying in stifled mineral sleep a kilometer be-
low his back” (364). It is a vision which he will “hardly be able to remem-
ber,” and from which he does not return reborn (364–65).
The next episode takes us to Berlin, where Slothrop lies sick in “an
empty cellar, across the street from a wrecked church,” with the “ghosts of
horses still taking their early-morning turns through the peacetime park,” and
with the “sound of his country fading away …. Fading like the WASP
ghosts” of his ancestors (364–65). He has recently encountered Enzian and
the Schwarzkommado “by the reedy edge of a marsh south of the capital,”
where, in “a rotting swamp odor,” they are busy digging out an A4 rocket
from “its grave” (366–67). Enzian compares the rocket to his people, both
“at the mercy of small things,” which can reduce either to “an Aggregat of
pieces of dead matter, no longer anything that can move, or that has a Des-
tiny with a shape” (368). As they talk, the “marshes streak away,” “Negative
shadows flicker behind the white edges of everything,” and, “Toward dusk,
the black birds descend, millions of them, to sit in the branches of trees
nearby” (369).
Returning to his ruined cellar, lost in the “fever-dreams” of his delirium,
and at the “minimum points on his mental health chart, when the sun is gone
so totally it might as well be for good, Slothrop’s dumb idling heart sez: The
Schwarzgerät is no Grail, Ace, that’s not what the G in Imipolex G stands
for. And you are no knightly hero” (370). Instead, he is lost “in a sucking
marshland of sin,” or, like Tannhäuser, he has put himself “on someone
else’s voyage—some Frau Holda, some Venus in some mountain—playing
her, its, game … you know that in some irreducible way it’s an evil game”
(370). The fusion of Nordic and Arthurian myth in this passage through the
“fever-dreams” of his illness is sustained throughout the course of the novel,
bringing together the imagery of the Great Goddess—and the nekyia over
which she presides—and various motifs associated the Grail quest. Setting
that myth against the backdrop of the ruins of Berlin recalls Hans Jürgen Sy-
berberg’s intriguing film version of Wagner’s Parsifal, in which the Grail
114 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

Brotherhood is depicted as the SS, preserving the sacred blood of the Aryan
race, and defending it against a very Jewish Klingsor.
In both Syberberg and Pynchon, the Waste Land of the Arthurian nekyia
is post-war Germany, and here specifically Berlin, into which Slothrop wan-
ders one night, when he is out “raiding a vegetable garden in the park” (370).
Following the scent of marijuana—‘“yes it it is it’s a REEFER!”—Slothrop
comes upon one Emil Bummer, curled up “in the hollow of an upended
trunk, long roots fringing the scene like a leprechaun outpost” (371). This
introduction of motifs from the fairy tale nekyia leads Slothrop into an oth-
erworld populated by leprechauns, “Troll scouting parties, and “dryads” at
play “in the open spaces” (371–73). During this passage, Slothrop is once
again stripped down and reinvested in the clothing of his next identity in the
Zone, that of the “Rocketman” (372), complete with a “Wagnerian” helmet
in the shape of the “nose assembly of the Rocket” (371). Wandering off with
Emil and his two lady friends (Trudi and Magda), the “mindless quartet”
walks by “Mutilated statues” and the ruins of the Reichstag, which the stoned
Slothrop hilariously sees as “that giant ape!” King Kong, squatting to shit
“right in the street!” (374). But the next hallucination is less amusing, when
Slothrop mistakes “human bodies, dug from beneath today’s rubble,” for big
loaves of raw dough, which he then imagines as “rising,” “transubstantiated,”
to provide a cannibalistic Eucharist come next “Xmas” (374). The episode
closes with Pig Bodine (AWOL from “the U.S. destroyer John E. Badass”)
talking Slothrop into going to Potsdam to bring back six kilos of hash he has
“buried” back in May (375–76).
Slothrop’s journey to retrieve the buried stash takes him across the city
of Berlin to a “villa at 2 Kaiserstraße, in Neubabelsberg, the old movie capi-
tal of Germany,” across the Havel river from Potsdam (377). Berlin is both a
waste land and an underworld: its air is heavy “with the odor of death ines-
capable. Thousands of corpses fallen back in the spring still lie underneath
these mountains of debris” (378). The wind blows the “essence of human
decay” into the air (380), as Slothrop thinks back to the pre-war city he knew
from “that National Geographic,” which he remembers as a “necropolism of
blank alabaster in the staring sun” (378). Traversing the city, Emil tells
Slothrop about the death of Roosevelt, speaking in a voice that seems to
come “from some quite peculiar direction, let us say from directly under-
neath, as the wide necropolis begins now to draw inward, to neck down and
stretch into a Corridor” (380). The corridor takes him “toward where Roose-
Gravity’s Rainbow 115

velt is lying,” his black cape in the picture taken at Yalta “beautifully” con-
veying “the sense of Death’s wings” (380).
They arrive at a café at “the Evil hour, when the white woman with the
ring of keys comes out of her mountain and may appear” (381). She may
appear as “the ugly woman with long teeth who found you in that dream and
said nothing,” or as “the beautiful maiden offering the Wonderflower”
(381)—the key to open the mountain where she hides a treasure (Weisen-
burger 220). As such, she is another manifestation of the goddess who pre-
sides over the descent to the underworld beneath the mountains. After Emil
shows Slothrop the map leading to the buried hash, he will feel as if “the Evil
Hour has worked its sorcery,” and that “the mountain has closed again thun-
dering behind” him, trapping him in the underworld (383)—as it seems it
will by the end of his journey.
By “midafternoon” he is “through “Zehlendorf,” and “ready to cross”
into the Russian sector (383). But the sentries under the “wood archway”
recognize Tchitcherine’s boots, which he is still wearing after Geli gave
them to him, and it seems as if they are “weaving a net to catch him” (383).
But they let him go, and he continues “Two miles down the road” to a “foot-
path under the bridge” over the canal (385). The river crossing is a standard
necrotype, and is here achieved when Slothrop steals “a narrow flat-
bottomed little rig,” and sets off at “sunset” across “the canal, debarking on
the opposite bank,” and heading south, “running zigzags” all along the way
(385). He seems to be avoiding the Soviets, so much so that he feels “Invisi-
ble,” like the “invisible youth” or “armored changeling” on whose feet fern
seeds have fallen (385), thus transporting him into the otherworld of faerie
folklore (Weisenburger 223). If “They” do see him, “his image is shunted
immediately out to the boondocks of the brain where it remains in exile with
other critters of the night” (385).
The villa at “2 Kaiserstraße” is in the middle of “150 houses in Neuba-
belsberg” that “have been sealed off as a compound for the Allied delegates”
(386). The scene looks like a “Hollywood premiere,” and Slothrop seems
successfully to pass as a celebrity. But when he sees the house where the
dope is stashed, he curses “Seaman Bodine for a bungler, villain, and agent
of death,” because a sign hangs from it saying “THE WHITE HOUSE”
(387). He perseveres, and “finds a way down” to the shore of the “Griebnitz
See,” which is “dark, starlit, strung with wire, alive with roving sentries”
(388). The lights of Potsdam “twinkle across the black water,” and Slothrop
finds “Bodine’s hash […] buried along one side of the house, under a certain
116 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

juniper bush” (388). Footsteps approach after he digs it up, and he thinks
himself “invisible, invisible,” when who but Mickey Rooney should appear
(388). The two stand staring eye to eye, speechless, and then Slothrop slips
away, “back around the villa and down to the shore” (388). When he does so,
he is caught by Tchitcherine, who jabs him in the arm with a hypodermic
needle, plunging Slothrop downwards towards “the pit of Death” (389).
The pit Slothrop descends into turns out (in Episode 10) to be psycho-
logical: the underworld is the unconscious, into which he is propelled by the
“Sodium Amytal session” supervised by Tchitcherine. The session has
plunged Slothrop “Deep, deep—further than politics, than sex or infantile
terrors … a plunge into the nuclear blackness” of his mind. Tchitcherine ob-
serves that “Black runs all through the transcript” of the session, during
which “new coinages” of words in German “seem to be made uncon-
sciously,” leading him to wonder if there is a “single root, deeper than any-
one has probed, from which Slothrop’s Black-words only appear to flower
separately” (397). Slothrop’s descent, therefore, is into a linguistic, Lacanian
unconscious, where the energies of a kind of alchemical poeisis are cata-
lyzed, “bringing in the mathematics of combination, taking together estab-
lished nouns to get new ones, the insanely, endlessly diddling play of a
chemist whose molecules are words” (397). Breaking molecular compounds
down to those elements from which new molecules can be formed is an es-
sential metaphor of the Modernist nekyia, here applied to the reduction of the
compound nouns of the German language to that single root from which
Slothrop’s coinages (“Blackwoman, Blackrocket, Blackdream”) flower
(397). By the same token, Slothrop’s nekyia catalyzes the reciprocal energies
of hermeneusis, as Tchitcherine recognizes when he says that Slothrop’s
search for the “mysterious Schwarzgerät,” the “Blackrocket” numbered
“00000,” is like reading a sacred text, in which every “single scrap of A4
hardware or intelligence” is a “sacred relic, every scrap of manual a verse of
Scripture” (397).
Slothrop’s nekyia returns from the poetic and the hermeneutic to the
erotic in the next episode, in which he meets “Margherita Erdmann,” who is
presented as a variation on Slothrop’s “Blackwoman” coinage (399). Waking
up from his sodium amytal session, “Slothrop finds himself in a dilapidated
old studio,” amidst “palm-crowded nightclubs, papier-maché Wagnerian bat-
tlements,” and “tenement courtyards in stark Expressionist white/black”
(399). Prowling around the “old shell” of the film studio, he “comes down a
Gravity’s Rainbow 117

metal staircase through shredded webs, angry spiders and their dried prey,
rust crunching under his soles,” to the “bottom” of the building, where he
“feels a sudden tug at his cape” (399). There’s a black widow in this web,
Margherita Erdmann, dressed “in a black Parisian frock, with a purple-and-
yellow iris at her breast” (399). Her eyes are “soft as black ash” (399). Wei-
senburger suggests that her iris has the “power of a Wunderblume, a talisman
associated with Venus and capable of unlocking secret treasures” (231), and
a “key to open Dame Holda’s mountain” in “Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology”
If that is the case, the underworld Margherita presides over is distinctly
sado-masochistic. She leads Slothrop to “what’s left of a torture chamber” in
the studio where she starred in “vaguely pornographic horror films” directed
by “the great Gerhardt von Göll” (400). There are “dead torches cold and
lopsided in their sconces,” and “wood chains” left over from the set of “Alp-
drücken” (400). As Slothrop obediently fastens “tin manacles to her wrists
and ankles,” she speaks of “the mirrors, the miles of Baroque ornament,” and
the “long corridors” von Göll became obsessed with, suffering from a condi-
tion the French call “‘Corridor metaphysics’” (400). These references bring
the imagery of the labyrinth and the underworld together, both in association
with the catoptric necrotype. Greta’s male lead was played by Max Schlep-
zig, whose identity card Slothrop has been given by Säure Bummer earlier in
the novel, hence providing him with a new identity in the Zone (401).
The film leads us into the next episode, which begins with the concep-
tion of Ilse, Leni Pökler’s child. Franz Pökler had left the “Ufa theatre on the
Friedrichstraße that night with an erection, thinking like everybody else only
about getting home, fucking somebody, fucking her into some submission”
(404). “How many shadow, children,” the narrator wonders, “would be fa-
thered on Erdmann that night?” (404). Many years later, Pökler sits remem-
bering that night, while waiting for “Ilse, for his movie child, to return to
Zwölfkinder, as she has every summer” (404), during the years when Pökler
has been sent north to work on the V-2 rocket. Zwölfkinder is Pynchon’s
fictional name for a theme park dominated by fairy tale motifs (perhaps like
the one overlooking Heidelberg today). This particular night it is haunted by
“Child phantoms,” the “resonant spooks” of some “sixty thousand” souls
who passed that way (404–05). All of the attractions Pynchon evokes are in
some way connected to the folklore of the nekyia, such as the “dog with sau-
cer eyes in front of the town hall, the beard of the goat on the bridge, the
mouth of the troll below,” and the image of the “plaster witch” leaning near
118 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

her oven, “Hansel in perpetual arrest,” and Gretel’s eyes locked “wide open”
Here Pökler sits remembering Leni, “arguing with his own ghost from
ten years ago,” on the night Ilse was conceived (405). Leni constantly at-
tacked her husband, whom she accused him of being “used to kill people,”
blindly following orders with “Kadavergehorsamkeit,” obedient “like a
corpse” (407). His commander was, and remains, Major Weissmann, “a
brand new military type, part salesman, part scientist” (407). When Leni fi-
nally left him, Franz had fallen “apart. Pieces spilled into the Hinterhof,
down the drains, away in the wind” (408). His only refuge is in his work on
the rocket, along with his friend Mondaugen (who, we know from V., has a
long association with Major Weissmann). Mondaugen sees himself as a “ra-
dio transmitter of some kind,” espousing an “electro-mysticism,” in which
“the triode was as basic as the cross in Christianity. Think of the ego,” he
says to Pökler, as “the self that suffers a personal history bound to time, as
the grid. The deeper and true Self is the flow between cathode and plate”
(410). Our lives are therefore “waveforms constantly changing with time,
now positive, now negative. Only at moments of great serenity is it possible
to find the pure, the informationless state of signal zero” (410). Pökler’s re-
sponse amusingly evokes the language of the Arthurian nekyia: “‘In the
name of the cathode, the anode and the holy grid?’” he asks (410).
Pökler’s nekyia drives him ever closer towards his “zero signal, his true
course” (412), when he is transferred from Berlin to “Peenemünde in 1937”
to work on the rocket (411). His nights in the North are “cold and wo-
manless,” haunted by “nightmares,” and by shadows “on the window shade”
at dawn (412). So intense is his isolation that he begins to long for death,
knowing that in his “extinction” he can be “free of his loneliness and his
failure” (412). Hence, he moves “across the Zero between the two desires,
personal identity and impersonal salvation” (412). His would seem to be the
death wish which preoccupied Freud in has late psychology, and which
drives nearly all of the characters in Gravity’s Rainbow. The underworld
Pökler feels the rocket “beckoning him” into (412) is the “emptiness,” the
“zero signal,” the “vacuum of his life” (414)—relieved only by a series of
arranged visits from a girl he is told is his daughter Ilse, but whom, as the
years pass, he begins to suspect is a stand-in arranged by Major Weissmann
to keep him working on a special project associated with the rocket.
Gravity’s Rainbow 119

Ilse’s arrival initiates a powerful and disturbing version of the erotic

nekyia, into the middle of which Pynchon inserts the famous story of August
Kekulé’s discovery of the structure of the benzene ring, revealed to him in
1865, in “the great Dream that revolutionized chemistry” (417). The dream
involves what I call the oneric nekyia, a descent into the unconscious that
catalyzes the revelation of the archetypes, those fundamental forms of nature
and psyche that govern and shape our lives. Pynchon’s diction emphasizes
the formal structures of the unconscious, noting that in order for the “right
material” to “find its way to the right dreamer, everyone, everything involved
must be exactly in place in the pattern” (417). Those patterns are the arche-
types of the collective unconscious, as formulated by “Jung,” who gave “us
the idea of an ancestral pool in which everybody shares the same dream ma-
terial” (417). In other words, the revelations of the oneiric nekyia come from
the domain of the dead, the ancestral crypt, which, Pynchon suggests, is
ruled by “bureaucracies of the other side” (417). “Why,” he therefore asks,
“shouldn’t the IG go to séances” like the ones we saw earlier in the novel
(417)? For in those séances, the “archetypes” are revealed by the spirits of
the dead ancestors, such archetypes as “the cosmic Serpent” Kekulé saw in
his dream, which also looks like the “Tree o’ Creation!” (417).
The archetypal forms of the natural world disclosed by Kekulé’s dream
are the molecular structures of such fundamental chemical compounds as the
benzene ring. Kekulé’s search is for the “symbolic shape,” the “rational for-
mulas,” the “hidden shapes he knew were there,” and which he conceives of
in terms that combine architecture and chemistry (418). Before “the great
Dream,” he “knew there were six carbon atoms with a hydrogen attached to
each one” in the benzene molecule, “but he could not see the shape” (418).
Once the “hidden” and “symbolic shape” of the molecule is revealed by the
ancestral dead speaking the language of “archetypes” in the dream, Kekulé
sees it “as a blueprint, a basis for new compounds, new arrangements, so that
there would be a field of aromatic chemistry to ally itself with secular
power” (418). Pynchon’s language here is explicitly Jungian, and Platonic,
and entirely consistent with the Modernist refigurations of the nekyia, which
always moves towards the revelation of those fundamental ideas that govern
nature and psyche. Those ideas are presented using a key metaphor from the
Platonic Doctrine of Forms, according to which all that exists in the material
world is a botched copy of the “blueprint” of the creation, existing in the in-
tellectual realm.
120 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

The Modernist nekyia typically involves the revelation of those forms as

a return to origins—which I call ricorso—for the purposes of recreation and
renewal. It is an alchemical process of the reduction of the world to those
primary elements from which what Pynchon calls “new arrangements” can
be generated (418). Kekulé’s dream of “the Great Serpent holding its own
tail in its mouth, the dreaming Serpent which surrounds the World,” makes
such re-creation possible (419). The ouroboros of this dream is an archetypal
symbol of the eternal structures of the mind, which govern and shape the
natural world—one found in Egyptian hieroglyphs of the Books of the Dead,
as well as in the Nordic myth Pynchon refers to, according to which a huge
serpent coiled upon itself encloses and demarcates the boundaries of the
world. The problem for Pynchon is that the Serpent’s proclamation that

‘The World is a closed thing, cyclical, resonant, eternally returning,’ is to be deliv-

ered into a system whose only aim is to violate the Cycle. Taking and not giving
back, demanding that ‘productivity’ and ‘earnings’ keep on increasing with time, the
System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep
its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity—
most of the World, animal, vegetable and mineral, is laid waste in the process. (419)

The language here combines that of Nietzsche (the doctrine of eternal recur-
rence, and the Will to Power) with the Hermetic tradition (the ouroboros and
the chain of being). And it presents a glimpse of the “System” ruled by the
mysterious group Pynchon simply refers to as “Them” throughout the course
of the novel. They are the demonic archons of the Gnostic deep, presiding
over the material world, which they rule, “dragging innocent souls all along
the chain of life” (419). “Living inside the System,” Pynchon suggests, “is
like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide,” a
maniac he calls the “Lord of the Night,” waiting “beside the door of the bus”
with “insane, committed eyes” (419)—imagery that combines the night-sea,
threshold, and ocular necrotypes.
This formulation of the archetypes of the collective unconscious, dis-
closed in the dream by the “pool” of the ancestral dead, leads Pynchon’s
Laszlo Jamf (the same who conditioned Slothrop’s erections with Imipolex
G) to ask a fascinating, if paranoid question, one I am not sure Jung asked:
“‘but who,’ lifting his open hands on each beat, like a bandleader, ‘who sent,
the Dream?’” (420). “‘Who sent this new serpent to our ruinous garden,”
Jamf continues, “already too fouled, too crowded to qualify as any locus of
innocence—unless innocence be our age’s neutral, our silent passing into the
Gravity’s Rainbow 121

machineries of indifference—something Kekulé’s Serpent had come to—not

to destroy but to define to us the loss of” (420). Perhaps, one might conclude,
“the Lord of the Night” (419) driving the System’s bus is the responsible
agent who sent the dream to Kekulé from the “bureaucracies of the other
side” (417).
Pynchon’s fascinating refiguration of the myth of the Fall as a scientific
allegory looks back to Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which the serpent is an in-
strument of scientific knowledge, and forward to James Merrill’s Changing
Light at Sandover, in which the Biblical myth is also revisioned using the
language of chemistry (Cain and Abel representing the positive and negative
charges within the atom). Here, the Serpent whispers to Kekulé that the
“molecules” given to us in the natural world, in “certain combinations and
not others, “‘can be changed, and new molecules assembled from the debris
of the given’” (420). The problem throughout Gravity’s Rainbow is that this
knowledge becomes a tool in the struggle for power, and essentially an in-
strument of Death, “the Lord of the Night,” since polymerization of new
chemical compounds facilitates the construction of the V-2 rocket. Again,
Pynchon’s vision would appear to be Gnostic, of a material world created
and governed by the demonic forces of the “System.”
Hence, Leni is right when, as Franz remembers her having done, she
evoked the “new planet Pluto” as her “sign,” the planet named after the Latin
Lord of the Underworld, evoked by Leni as a “grim phoenix which creates
its own holocaust … deliberate resurrection” (422). Franz Pökler’s work on
the rocket therefore proceeds under the same sign, as he recognizes when he
notes that “Behind this job-like-any-other job seems to lie something void
something terminal, something growing closer, each day, to manifestation”
(422). And, as is characteristic of the myth of the nekyia, work on the
“Rocket” evokes the fatalities that govern our lives, something of “Schicksal,
of growing toward a shape predestined and perhaps a little otherworldly”
(422). This passage connects work on the Rocket with the revelation of
“shape,” “pattern,” “symbol,” “archetype,” “formula,” and fate convention-
ally catalyzed by the nekyia.
After this long interpolation refiguring the myth with reference to chem-
istry and rocket science, Pynchon returns to his obsession: the erotic nekyia,
in the context of the will to power. At Peenemünde, Pökler is cruelly re-
warded for his work on the rocket by Major Weissmann—who appeared ear-
lier in the novel as Blicero, the Teutonic Lord of the Dead, at play with
Hansel and Gretel, children of the oven. In this Episode, Weissmann is re-
122 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

sponsible for sending a girl named Ilse—whom Pökler begins to doubt is

actually his daughter—to accompany him on a two-week furlough, which
Father and Daughter spend at Zwölfkinder. His doubts come on the second
visit, when Pökler asks her about her fantasy of living on the moon, about
which she would tell him bedtime stories that “transferred” him “silently to a
world that wasn’t this one after all: a map without any national borders, inse-
cure and exhilarating, in which flight was natural as breathing” (417).
Ilse continues to be associated with otherworldly journeys during a sub-
sequent visit—but not with the lunar nekyia—when she leads her ‘father’
past the “Wheel, myths, jungle animals,” and “clowns” of Zwölfkinder down
to the “Antarctic Panorama,” where “Two or three boys, hardly older than
she wandered through the imitation wilderness, bundled up in sealskins, con-
structing cairns and planting flags in August humidity” (426). As in V., Pyn-
chon here associates the Antarctic with the underworld, for it is a place
where cairns (Neolithic monuments of the dead like the ones Godolphin
finds in Vheissu) are under construction. But when Franz asks Ilse if she
wants “to live at the South Pole” now, instead of “on the Moon,” she seems
to have forgotten the childhood fantasy of her first visit (427). That slip gen-
erates sufficient uncertainty about her identity for Pökler to initiate a shock-
ing affair with Ilse, that begins at Zwölfkinder, “after hours of amazing in-
cest,” when the “paternal plow found its way into filial furrow,” and then
leads them across the North Sea to Denmark (428).
As the summer trysts continue, “A daughter a year, each one about a
year older” sent him by Major Weissmann (429), Pökler begins to realize
that Blicero is the Lord of the Night governing his destiny. By providing
special favors, Weissman seems to be “saving him for something: some
unique destiny” (430), one which will be shockingly disclosed later in the
novel. A pattern begins to unfold beneath the surface of the summer trips to
Zwölfkinder. After the sixth summer, “In ‘43,” Pökler returns to a
Peenemünde devastated by a “British air raid” (430). He finds a “strange
gradient of death and wreckage, south to north, in which the poorest and
most helpless got it worst—as, indeed, the gradient was to run east to west,
in London a year later when the rockets began to fall” (430). There are
“phantoms moving in morning fog still not burned off” (430). It is an inferno
of lust, incest, and cruelty presided over by Weissmann, the “sadist” whose
“responsibility” is to come “up with new game-variationss, building toward
maximum cruelty in which Pökler would be unlaid to nerves vessels and ten-
Gravity’s Rainbow 123

dons, every last convolution of brain flattened out in the radiance of the
black candles, nowhere to shelter, entirely his master’s possession” (431).
We should recall, at this point, the earlier Episode by the “Kinderofen” with
Katje and Gottfried, when Blicero/Weissmann suspects Katje has called the
British strike down as means of escaping from his power. Hence, the Major’s
cruelty with Pökler is consistent and characteristic of his role as Teutonic
Lord of the Dead.
So it seems appropriate that, after the rockets begin to blow up shortly
after lift off, “before reaching the target,” that Weissmann sends Pökler out
“to sit in the Polish meadows at the exact spot where the Rocket was sup-
posed to come down” (431). It is a spot analogous to T.S. Eliot’s “still point
of the turning world,” but demonically refigured as “the very center down
there, in the holy X,” where Pökler sits waiting for the Rocket to fall, as if he
were “crucified” (431). It is his “Ground Zero,” where he has been sent by
Weissmann to “sit exactly on the target with indifferent shallow trenches for
shelter,” the “single point” were the two “foci” of the “Ellipse of Uncer-
tainty” converge (432). Like the parabola and the double SS of the integral of
calculus and the Mittelwerke at Nordhausen, the still point and the ellipse
here serve as geometrical necrotypes, symbolic of the fundamental forms that
govern the created world. In Hinduism, as we have noted, the still point is
called the bindu, place of origin and destination, of creation and destruction,
where, as Pynchon puts it, the “last mysteries” are to be disclosed in the
“penetralia of the moment” (433).
After the Rocket explodes, falling “a hundred feet away from the Zero
point,” Pökler is “transferred to the underground factory at Nordhausen,”
where, once again, he will be reunited with his ‘daughter’ one last time
(433). In this final section of the very long Episode devoted to Pökler,
Weissmann, and Ilse, the myths of the labyrinth and nekyia converge. Pökler
finds out that Ilse has been confined at the Dora camp next to the Rocket
works underground at Nordhausen, and that “she had been prisoner only a
few meters away from him, beaten, perhaps violated” (435). The discovery
leads him to curse both himself and Weissmann, whose “cruelty was no less
resourceful than Pökler’s own engineering skill, the gift of Daedalus that al-
lowed him to put as much labyrinth as required between himself and the in-
conveniences of caring” (435). Here the labyrinth is polysemous, simultane-
ously representing the complexities of rocket technology, the maze of corri-
dors formed by the double S of the Mittelwerke that separate ‘father’ and
daughter, and the psychological defense mechanisms that shield Pökler from
124 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

what Pynchon poignantly refers to as “the inconviences of caring”—both

about his lost wife Leni, and their child, Ilse.
During their last meeting at Zwölfkinder, Pokler thinks back to the por-
nographic film starring Margherita Erdmann which sent him home with a
“hardon” to conceive Ilse (436). Von Göllerei’s film, called “Alpdrucken,”
had used “clever Gnostic symbolism in the lighting scheme to the two shad-
ows, Cain’s and Abel’s,” cast by all the actors in the film (436). Ilse has per-
sisted “beyond film’s end, and so have the shadows of the shadows. In the
Zone, all will be moving under the Old Dispensation, inside the Cainists’
light and space” (436). The Zone therefore is a Gnostic underworld, appar-
ently ruled by a Manichaean dualism of good and evil, but dominated by
Cain—who, as Ricardo Quinones emphasized, was instrumental in the foun-
dation sacrifice of Abel, and the builder of cities generated by that sacrifice.
Ilse’s shadow in this passage seems to be the ghost of Gottfried, Blicero’s
child of the oven, here appearing as “the slender boy who flickered across
her path, so blond, so white he was nearly invisible in the hot haze that had
come to settle over Zwölfkinder” (436).
Returning to the Mittelwerke, where Ilse suspects that Franz talks “to the
elves” back “under” his “mountain” (437), where “a city of elves” is em-
ployed in “producing toy moon-rockets,” Pökler tries to “get into the Dora
camp and find Ilse” (438). And here he begins to suspect that “this time the
game was really over, that the war had caught them all, given new life-death
priorities and no more leisure for torturing a minor engineer” with appari-
tions of his lost daughter (438). And the point behind Weissmann’s cruel
game begins to emerge: “He wanted a modification worked into one rocket,
only one. Its serial number had been removed, and five zeros painted in”
(439). This is the same “Schwarzgerät” that Slothrop is trying to find, and it
seems to have been Pökler’s “special destiny” to design the “modification” to
be disclosed later in the novel (439). At the end of the episode, with the Al-
lies closing in on the Mittelwerke, Weissman sends Pökler a note that “She
has been released. She will meet you there. He understood this was payment
for the retrofit work he’d done on the 00000” (439).
Hence, Pökler makes his way to the Dora camp, through “odors of shit,
death, sweat, sickness, mildew, piss” and the “naked corpses being carried
out now that America was so close, to be stacked in front of the crematori-
ums, the men’s penises hanging, their toes clustering white and round as
pearls … each face so perfect, so individual, the lips stretched back into
Gravity’s Rainbow 125

death-grins” (439). It is the inferno of the holocaust, the “invisible kingdom,”

on the other side of which, in the Mittelwerke, “All his vacuums, his laby-
rinths” had been (440). Here, where “it was darkest and smelled the worst,
Pökler found a woman lying, a random woman,” not Ilse, and he slips his
“gold wedding ring” onto her “bone hand” (440)—a grim reenactment of the
sacred marriage, which, as Mircea Eliade has shown, is often affliated with
the labyrinthine caves of the underworld (“La Terre-Mère” 75).
Episode 12 of Part 3 returns to Slothrop and Margherita Erdmann, who
have taken refuge in “a rickety wood house near the Spree, in the Russian
sector of Berlin” (440). There is a “burned-out Königstiger tank” guarding its
entrance, “bats nestling in the rafters,” the ceiling has been “blown away
when the King Tiger died,” and been replaced by “soggy and stained card-
board posters all of the same cloaked figure in the broad brimmed hat, with
its legend DER FEIND HÖRT ZU” (440–41). The “Enemy” who “Listens”
evokes the Norse God Wotan, who wore a broad-brimmed hat to cover his
left eye, blinded when he drank from the well of inspiration in the roots of
Yggdrasil. The setting is an appropriate objective correlative of Margherita
herself, who, as the episode proceeds, becomes increasingly psychopathic.
As in so many other episodes, this one is structured by the full circle of
the nekyia: departure and return. At the beginning of the episode, Slothrop
leaves the sleeping porn star behind, to “creep out in the cold city with his
five kilos,” promised to Säure in return for a million marks (441). His jour-
ney across the city, and subsequent return to Margherita’s cottage, evokes a
variety of necrotypes—ocular, canine, and diurnal to begin with. In the de-
bris of the city Slothrop sees a “steel eyeglass frame, dog collar (eyes at the
edges of the twisting trail watching for sign, for blazing,” and “the black and
amber eye from some stuffed animal” haunting the “strewn night” (442). Gas
leaks “into the death and after-rain smells,” and “the smooth faced Custodian
of the Night hovers behind neutral eyes and smile,” a sinister companion to
the “Enemy” with the broad-brimmed hat who listens, while the Custodian
Säure is not at “The Chicago Bar,” where a kid in a “George Raft” suit
coughs “in uncontrolled dying spasms,” so instead Slothrop “takes a trail he
thinks Säure led them along the other night, keeps losing it, wandering into
windowless mazes, tangles of barbed wire holidayed by the deathstorms last
May” (442). Traversing the labyrinth of the city is like descending into the
underworld of post war Berlin, a world in which even the faces in the Satur-
day Evening Post seem “downright sinister,” like “travelers lost at the edge
126 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

of the Evening” (443). When at last Slothrop finds “Säure’s cellar,” it is

“dark” and “empty” (443). Poking around in the mess left behind either by “a
bust or a gang war,” Slothrop feels the “stare” of a “chesspiece two inches
high. A white knight” with “a horses’s skull: eye-sockets are hollow far
down into the base,” where Slothrop finds a message and map “showing how
to get where” Säure is (443). The staring eye-sockets in the skull of the
chesspiece evoke both the equestrian and ocular necrotypes long associated
with the myth, while also reminding us that Slothrop is a pawn in the larger
game, presided over by demonic figures like the Enemy, the Lord, and the
Custodian of the Night.
Säure’s new domicile therefore combines the imagery of the labyrinth
and the underworld. It is on the “Jacobstraße,” in a “quarter” of “slums” that
have “survived the street-fighting intact, along with its interior darkness, a
masonry of shadows that will persist whether the sun is up or down” (443).
Säure is in “Number 12,” which is “an entire block of tenements dating from
before the Inflation, five or six stories and mansarde, five or six Hinterhöfe
nested one inside the other” (443–44). The name of the street and the number
both evoke the Biblical nekyia in the Old Testament, which is structured by a
sequence of patriarchal descents (Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Joseph, Jonah)
that Northrop Frye used the sine wave to chart in The Great Code (171).
A sine wave is composed of a connected sequence of parabolas, the cen-
tral geometric necrotype in Gravity’s Rainbow. Hence, it is interesting to see
Slothrop pass through through “the first archway,” and see the “Streetlight”
throw “his caped shadow forward into a succession of these arches, each la-
beled with a faded paint name, Erster-Hof, Zweiter-Hof, Dritter-Hof u.s.w.,
shaped like the entrance to the Mittelwerke, parabolic, but more like an open
mouth and gullet, joints of cartilage receding, waiting, waiting to swallow …
above the mouth two squared eyes, organdy whites, irises pitch black, stare
him down” (444). These guardians of the labyrinthine tenement combine the
ocular and threshold necrotypes with a conventional image of hell in Medie-
val illuminations—the palace of Dis (derived from Book 6 of Virgil’s Ae-
neid), with its portcullis and gates in the form of the mouth of a devouring
monster. In The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, there are three such gullets,
ready to devour the sinners passing through its gates, huge eyes enflamed
with delight (Plates 47, 48, 99). Slothrop wisely pauses before crossing this
threshold: “paint peels from the Face, burned, diseased, long time dying and
how can Slothrop just walk down into such a schizoid throat?” (444). As
Gravity’s Rainbow 127

with all of the other thresholds in the novel, this one prefigures the hero’s
ultimate demise, for, unlike Christ, who harrowed hell and returned, Slothrop
will eventually disappear into the Zone, and not come back.
When Slothrop finally finds Säure sleeping on the floor of the tenement,
in the center of the labyrinth he has just traversed, he finds no money to pay
him off for the score. Instead, he finds a debate about Beethoven and Rossini
that encompasses the entire history of music, in a manner that recalls Thomas
Mann’s Doctor Faustus. But many other Modernist and Postmodernist works
informed by the myth of the nekyia include such summary recapitulations of
European culture, from origins to destination, from Alpha to Omega. Like-
wise, in many of these works the nekyia is combined with the myth of the
apocalypse, as for example in D.H. Lawrence’s last book Apocalypse. Grav-
ity’s Rainbow of course falls into this category, and in this episode the killing
of Anton Webern puts an end to the “German dialectic” in music, to “what’d
been going on since Bach, an expansion of music’s polymorphous perversity
till all notes were truly equal” (448). Such revelations of the larger picture of
things, catalyzed by the nekyia, and coinciding with a return to origins (ri-
corso) for the purposes of renewal and recreation, is a central characteristic
of Modernist culture, High Classical to Post.5
Pynchon’s recapitulation of music history is brilliant, and to some extent
illuminates his own poetics. For certain musical forms may serve as analo-
gies for narrative structure: forms such as the sonata (which poets like Shel-
ley and Whitman used so effectively), the fugue (which Joyce uses in the
“Sirens” chapter of Ulysses), and “Ritornelli” (which Pynchon uses in Mason
& Dixon), may confer formal structure upon sprawling narratives. The hero
journey, for example, with its departure and return, is most closely approxi-
mated by sonata form, with its exposition and recapitulation. In this episode
of Gravity’s Rainbow, the parabola surfaces again as a geometrical figure,
this time of musical form, when Gustav raves on “to a blinking American
lieutenant-colonel, ‘A parabola! A trap! You were never immune over there
from the simple-minded German symphonic arc, tonic to dominant, back
again to tonic. Grandeur! Gesellschaft!’” (450). To which the lieutenant-
colonel hilariously replies: “‘Teutonic?’” sez the colonel. ‘Dominant? The
war’s over fella. What kind of talk is that?’” (450).
When Slothrop escapes Säure’s pad during a drug bust conducted by the
colonel, he returns to Greta’s cottage, bringing the nekyia of the episode full
circle. But the coda turns nasty, as the aging porn star slowly drags Slothrop
down into the psychopathic morass of her inner life. “She is,” Slothrop notes,
128 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

“prey to interior winds he never felt” (451). She is afraid to look at her face
in the mirror, having been told as a child “‘not to look in the mirror too of-
ten,’” lest she “‘see the Devil behind the glass’” (452). The image combines
the catoptric with the threshold necrotypes, for at night Greta imagines
“‘that’s where they’” come into the room to torment and call her names
(451–52). Her hallucinations and hysteria (she cries and trembles all day
long and won’t be left alone) frighten Slothrop, who eventually concludes
that “Whatever it is with her, he’s catching it” (452). Reversing the conven-
tional roles of the myth, Greta plays the Persephone who catalyses his de-
scent to the underworld: “Out in the ruins he sees darkness now at the edges
of all the broken shapes, showing from behind them. Light nests in Mar-
gherita’s hair like black doves,” and, “Across the façade of the Titania-
palast, in red neon through a mist one night he saw, DIE SLOTHROP”
(453). Then, walking “One Sunday out at Wannsee,” he is terrified by “a
crowd of little kids in soldier hats folded from old army maps” who he thinks
are plotting “to drown and sacrifice him” (453)—imagery suggestive of the
night-sea necrotype, which is evoked later in this and subsequent episodes of
the novel.
In this episode the image appears in the second to two remarkable
dreams catalyzed in Greta’s domain, and under the stress of her company.
Both dreams exemplify what I call the oneiric nekyia, a descent into the
dream world of the unconscious. In the first, Slothrop dreams of his father,
who “has come to find him,” as he wanders “at sundown by the Mungahan-
nock, near a rotting paper mill, abandoned back in the nineties. A heron rises
in silhouette against luminous and dying orange” (451). The reunion with the
father recalls Biblical and Classical variations on the nekyia, while the diur-
nal, fluvian, and ornithological necrotypes associated with the time and set-
ting of the dream are equally archetypal. Ancestral and historical resonances
of the myth follow, when Slothrop’s father tells him “‘the president died
three months ago,’” a shock since he loved FDR as a kid (451). The death of
the father, and of the father figure, in this dream, as Slothrop lies sleeping
beside Greta, may of course also be interpreted as a manifestation of the
Oedipal complex. But it is the mythical resonance of the dream, at the arche-
typal level of the nekyia that I wish to emphasize. The dream ends with
nightfall: “the sky is dark, the heron gone, the empty skeleton of the mill and
the dark increase of the river saying it is time to go … then his father is gone
too, no time to say good-bye” (451).
Gravity’s Rainbow 129

If this first dream is about the death of fathers, the second would seem to
be about the death of mothers—if, as Pynchon surely intends us to do, Greta
may be seen in archetypal terms as a goddess of death and rebirth. The dream
is a poem in three parts: in the first, a woman has sex with as many animals
as she can find, dogs, “Cats and minks, hyenas and rabbits” (454). She is a
kind of Pasiphae figure. In the second part, Greta is pregnant. Reaching “the
end of her term,” “Her husband, a dumb easygoing screen door salesman,”
takes her “out on the river, an American river, in a rowboat, hauling the oars”
like Charon crossing the river Styx. In the third dream, she is at the “bottom
of the river. She has drowned. But all forms of life fill her womb” (454). She
is carried “down through these green river depths,” but then brought “back
up,” thus completing the rhythms of descent and return associated with the
nekyia (454).
Her journey is presided over by a kind of Hades figure, variously evoked
as “Old Squalidozzi, ploughman of the deep,” and as “a classically bearded
Neptune figure with an old serene face” (454)—perhaps the father figure
reborn from his death by the riverside in the first dream. When he brings her
back up, we are told that “From out of her body streams a flood now of dif-
ferent creatures, octopuses, reindeer, kangaroos, ‘Who can say all the life /
That left her womb that day?’“ (447). Squalidozzi “bears her back toward the
surface” as she gives birth, and then leaves her by a “sunlit green lake or
pond, grassy at the banks, shaded by willows” (455), as if she were Ophelia
or a Lady of the Lake right out of the Arthurian nekyia. There beside the
banks “‘Her corpse found sleep in the water’” (455). Out of her death, that is
to say, comes her “earth mother fecundity” (Fowler 196), and her drowning
in this scene anticipates her daughter Bianca’s presumed drowning at the end
of the Anubis episode.
The journey up the “Spree-Oder Canal,” with Margherita and Slothrop
setting out by “barge,” at the beginning of the next episode, will take us to
the good-ship Anubis. Slothrop wants “to see what Geli Tripping’s clew will
lead him to in the way of the Schwarzgerät,” while Margherita is looking for
her daughter, Bianca (464). Geli’s “clew” may well recall the gift of Ariad-
ne’s thread that leads Theseus into and out of the labyrinth (Weisenburger
258). Margherita’s journey, however, seems to allude to the myth of Demeter
and Persephone, who is abducted by Hades, the Lord of the Dead. When they
arrive at the little spa town of Bad Karma, she is “spooked” by a woman
“wearing a black cloak,” whose “smile” and “very white face” turn Mar-
gherita “to stone,” and send “chills” up and down Slothrop’s “back and
130 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

flanks” (466). The ocular necrotype is emphatic in Pynchon’s description of

the woman’s face: “all the malaise of Europe dead and gone gathered here in
the eyes black as her clothing, black and lightless. She knows them” (466).
“‘By the well,’” Greta whispers, “‘at sundown that woman in black’” (466).
Then she runs off “into the shadowed arches of the Kurhaus,” disappearing
into the “empty arcade,” “nowhere in sight” when Slothrop runs after her
This “woman by the spring,” “leaning over the waters” of the well, by
which she stands at sunset, may only be “another woman of the ruins,” as
Slothrop surmises, when he confronts her (466). But her location is an un-
canny evocation of a key episode in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, when,
after losing her daughter to Hades, Demeter comes to “the Maiden’s Well,”
outside the palace of Keleos, “ruler of fragrant Eleusis, and sits there, “with
grief in her heart” (Foley 6). It seems therefore appropriate that when
Slothrop finds Greta at last, later on that night, the first thing she tells him is
that “‘She’s coming [….] Bianca, my child’” (467). Likewise, it seems ap-
propriate that, once we get on board the Anubis, we find out that Bianca’s
father is named Miklos Thanatz, after “the Greek god Thanatos (Death)”
(Weisenburger 258). If Thanatz is Lord of the Dead, his wife Greta, from
whom he is separated much of the year, must then be a Goddess of Death.
That Thanatz is the suspected lover of Bianca, his daughter by Greta, also
suggests the Demeter-Hades-Persephone configuration of the Greek under-
world, since, as Kerényi tells us, “Zeus mated with Persephone’s mother—
and later with Persephone herself” (Gods 230), and Hades was a subterra-
nean form of Zeus (Gods 230).
The name of the boat Bianca is on, the Anubis—an “ocean-going yacht”
with “a gilded winged jackal under the bowsprit” (467)—alludes to the
Egyptian nekyia. The jackal is the “only being aboard that can see through
the fog”; it stares above the “Springtime corpses” churning below in the
wreckage of the river (476). Anubis, of course, is the jackal headed deity of
the Egyptians who conducts the dead to their judgment. Osiris, the lord and
judge of the dead, rides his barge down the Nile to the underworld, as Joseph
does when thrown into prison by the Pharaoh. When, in Pynchon’s novel,
Slothrop tries to climb on board the Anubis, “some joker pulls the ladder up,”
and he “falls in the river. Head first: the Rocketman helmet” pulls him
straight down, and the “churning screws” of the engine “suck at” his cape
(467). Then, when he tries to climb up a rope, some women threaten to cut
Gravity’s Rainbow 131

the line, forcing Slothrop to crawl in through a porthole, from which “two
slender wrists in silver and sapphire” emerge, to grab his ankles and pull him
The ship evokes the night-sea necrotype; the porthole the threshold ne-
crotype; and once inside the stateroom, the divestiture necrotype so long as-
sociated with the myth comes into the text, marking a crucial transition in
Slothrop’s nekyia. As always, his journey is presided over by the feminine:
here, one “Stefania Procalowska,” the “wife of the owner of the Anubis”
(468). “‘Somebody’s evening clothes ought to fit you,’” she says (468); so
Slothrop “strips off the rest of the Rocketman rig,” and puts on the tux,
which fits “perfectly” (469). His reinvestiture ought to be a warning, remind-
ing him that his descent is deepening, but he chooses to ignore it. But when
Stefania tells the story of Greta and her husband Thanatz, who toured the
front to entertain the troups with “a lesbian couple, a dog, a trunk of leather
costumes and implements,” stopping at “rocket sites” in Holland towards the
end of the war, Slothrop begins to sense “The hand of Providence” creeping
“among the stars,” and giving him “the finger” (469).
Further intimations of the pattern shaping his fate emerge when a woman
on board tells a story about Greta finding “Oneirine” at the end of a long day
by the Thames: “A fall of hours, less extravagant than Lucifer’s, but in the
same way part of a deliberate pattern. Greta was meant to find Oneirine.
Each plot carries its signature. Some are God’s, some masquerade as God’s”
(471). Once again, the diction here—“Providence,” “pattern,” “plot”—
evokes those fundamental structures governing life and art disclosed during
the course of the nekyia, which in this passage is associated with the world of
dreams induced by the aptly named drug, Oneirine.
When Slothrop sees Greta’s daughter on board, is “a knockout,” so much
so that “He can see the obit in Time magazine—Died, Rocketman, pushing
30, in the Zone, of lust” (471). The joke reinforces the imagery of the nekyia
in the episode, and prefigures Slothrop’s eventual disappearance in the Zone
at the end of the novel. His first encounter with Greta’s husband also adds to
the complex imagery associated with the myth: after hearing the story about
Greta and Oneirine, “Slothrop looks around and finds Miklos Thanatz, full
beard, eyebrows feathering out like trailing edges of hawks’ wings, drinking
absinthe out of a souvenir stein on which, in colors made ghastly by the car-
nival lights on deck, bony and giggling Death is about to surprise two lovers
in bed” (472)—another ominous, if ludic, prefiguration of events soon to
come. The image establishes the linkage of Thanatz and death, anticipates
132 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

the action of the episode (Death will indeed surprise Slothrop by taking the
young Bianca from him after he makes love to her), and alludes again to
Osiris, whose son Horus is a hawk-headed deity.
In the midst of the wild orgies on the Anubis, Thanatz tells Slothrop
about his first eyewitness account of the early German experiments with the
rocket. Like Osiris, with whom Isis has intercourse while he is dead (by pro-
viding him with a wooden phallus to replace his penis, which was swallowed
by a fish), Thanatz describes the rocket’s “virile roar” and “cruel, hard,
thrusting into the virgin blue robes of the sky” as “Oh, so phallic” (472).
Also like Osiris, he is preoccupied not only with sex and death, but also with
judgment: “‘We are weighed in the balance and found wanting,’” he says to
Slothrop over a glass of absinthe, “‘and the Butcher has had His thumb in the
scales’” (472). The imagery of the Last Judgment as a balancing of the
scales, in which the weight of the heart is measured against the feather of the
truth (Maat) is, of course, a favorite scene in the Egyptian Books of the
Further allusions to the nekyia occur in the subsequent episode, when
Bianca comes to make love to Slothrop in his room. He is just waking up
from a dream about Llandudno, “where Lewis Carroll wrote that Alice in
Wonderland” (476)—a reference that parallels Bianca’s adolescent, albeit
sinister descent to the world below on the Anubis. Slothrop has been talking
to the White Rabbit in his dream, “but on the way up to waking he loses it
all,” and finds himself staring at the machinery of the ship overhead, in a
room that is “noisy as hell” (476). When Bianca sneaks in, she begs Slothrop
not to tell her mother: “‘She’ll kill me,’” she says (476)—another foreshad-
owing of sinister events to come. Their sex is intense, and includes the odd
fantasy of Slothrop being “inside his own cock. If you can imagine such a
thing. Yes, inside the metropolitan organ entirely” (477). He is then pro-
jected “out the eye at tower’s summit and into her with a singular detonation
of touch. Announcing the void, what could it be but the kingly voice of the
Aggregat itself?” (478).
Afterwards, Bianca lies still beside him, “her heart, buffeting, a chicka-
dee in the snow,” so sweetly touching that “Slothrop thinks he might cry”
(478). She talks to him “about hiding out,” something she, as a child, knows
how to do: they can escape, get off the boat together, disappear into “invisi-
bility” (478)—as sadly she will in fact do, leaving Slothrop behind in the
realm of the living. At this point, however, Slothrop feels himself to be
Gravity’s Rainbow 133

“among the Zone’s lost. The Pope’s staff is always going to remain barren”
(478)—a reference to the legend of Tannhäuser’s year spent “underground
with Venus” (Weisenburger 214). The imagery of the Nordic nekyia is then
combined with that of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Looking
back at Bianca as he climbs the ladder back up onto the deck of the Anubis,
“The last instant their eyes were in touch already behind him,” Slothrop’s
heart breaks, as he thinks back to a girl he apparently lost during his boyhood
in the Berkshires, “Lost, again and again” (479). Perhaps it was the girl
“down at the end of a lunchwagon counter,” whom Slothrop lost, and then
“kept losing her—it was an American requirement—out the windows of the
Greyhound” bus rolling through the mountains (479).
Slothrop’s memory of the girl left behind seems to owe something to
Jean Cocteau’s marvelous film, Orphée, in which the poet loses his wife
(previously retrieved from the underworld) when he looks back at her in the
rearview mirror of his car. In this passage, Bianca slips into a dream of her
own “personal horror,” during a train ride towards “the edge of something,”
leading on “past the edge, into the silver-salt dark closing ponderably slow at
her mind’s flank” (479). It is a descent from which there will apparently be
no return, since, the “closer” Slothrop comes, the more “it hurts to bring her
back. But there is this Eurydice-obsession, this bringing back out of …
though how much easier just to leave her there, in fetid carbide and dead-
canary soups of breath and come out and have comfort enough to try only for
a reasonable facsimile” (480). Not only her last lover, Bianca seems also to
associate Slothrop with her father, since, “Of all her putative fathers” she “is
closest, this last possible moment below decks here behind the ravening
jackal,” to the Rocketman who “came in blinding color” (480). Part Eury-
dice, part Persephone, both roles equate Bianca with the land of the dead—as
does her name, and the color of her hair, so white she might be one of the
many White Goddesses sprinkled throughout the course of the novel.
The ludic fusion of the Teutonic, Egyptian, and Greek nekyias during
this episode is characteristic of Pynchon’s poetics, as it is of postmodernism
in general. So also is the inclusion of Kabbalistic motifs, in the Episode that
follows, in which the Japanese Ensign Morituri tells Slothrop his story about
Greta at Bad Karma before the War. Morituri’s name links him to the nekyia,
of which his story is a powerful variation. He had met Greta and her lover
Sigmund at the spa, famous for its mud baths, during an “oneiric season” at
Bad Karma, then “crowded with sleepwalkers” (483)—perhaps an allusion to
Hermann Broch’s great novel of that title. Greta had begun to disappear at
134 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

the same time that “stories about the children” began to appear in the “local
newspapers” (483). Ensign Morituri finds out what happened to them one
day, when he begins to follow Greta. She becomes suspicious, so that, “At
the weekly ball in the Kursaal he felt, for the first time, a reticence among
them all. Like Ereshkigal in the Sumerian kur (surely a pun Pynchon would
be capable of!), Greta’s eyes, that “he was accustomed to seeing covered
with sunglasses,” are “naked now, burning terribly,” and they “never took
her gaze from” Morituri, while the “Kur-Orchestra played selections from
The Merry Widow” (486). It is as if “the three of them” (Sigmund, Greta, and
the Ensign) were “at the edge of a deepness none could sound,” in a “citied
fear of death” haunted by “Margherita’s scrutable eyes” (485). Throughout
the passage, Pynchon evokes the ocular necrotype of Greta’s “black eyes
among those huddled jewels and nodding old generals” (485).
The image prefigures the nekyia of the next evening, when “Morituri fol-
lowed her out for the last time. Down the worn paths, under the accustomed
trees, past the German goldfish pool that reminded him of home” (485).
Caddies on the golf links stand “at allegorical attention in the glow of the
sunset,” as “Twilight came down on Bad Karma that night pallied and vio-
lent: the horizon was a Biblical disaster” (485). The diurnal necrotype yields
then to the aquatic imagery so often affiliated with the archetypal feminine,
as Goddess of death and rebirth. Greta comes to “the edge of the black mud
pool: that underground presence, old as Earth, partly enclosed back at the
Spa and a name given to” (485). Here she finds the night’s “offering,” a boy
with hair like “cold snow” (485). In this scene, Greta identifies herself with
“the Kabbalistic ‘Shekinah,’ the feminine aspect of God” (Fowler 196), as
she speaks to her offering: “‘You have been in exile too long,’” she says to
the boy. “‘Come home, with me,’ she cried, ‘back to your people [….] Little
piece of Jewish shit. Don’t try to run away from me’” (486). “‘You know
who I am too,’” she continues. “‘My home is the form of Light [....] I wander
all the Diaspora looking for strayed children. I am Israel. I am the Shekhinah,
queen, daughter, bride, and mother of God. And I will take you back, you
fragment of smashed vessel, even if I must pull you by your nasty little cir-
cumcised penis’” (486).
As Weisenburger points out, “The Shekinah is the earthly presence of
Yahweh, usually the last of his ten emanations, or Sephiroth, and it is a femi-
nine presence” (264). Her job would be to complete the soul’s nekyia, its
descent into the material world, by calling it back to its home, symbolized by
Gravity’s Rainbow 135

the Kingdom of Israel, from which it has been exiled by the Diaspora. She is
depicted wearing black (hence the woman in black Greta sees beside the well
at Bad Karma), but the “righteous man or Messiah would strip off these
somber robes to reveal her rainbow radiance” (264). But it is her “dark side”
that Pynchon emphasizes in this scene. Hence, she sometimes appears “as the
moon, a lightless receiver of light. As such, she is especially susceptible to
domination from demonic powers from the Other Side, when she appears as
the tree of death, symbol of punishment and retribution” (Weisenburger
265). In that role, “Greta appears to the boy exactly as this demonic emissary
from the other side. She is the Shekinah as destroyer, not as the rainbow
symbol of Yahweh’s covenant” (265). In that sense also “the boy is a ‘frag-
ment’ of a ‘smashed vessel’ seeking to reconstitute itself” (Weisenburger
265). The twin poles of shevirah and tikkun, of the smashing and reconstruc-
tion of the sacred vessels, represent the two poles of the Kabbalistic nekyia:
descent and return.
The image of rebirth therefore follows, in association with Greta, when
Ensign Morituri tells Slothrop that when he climbed out of the river onto the
Anubis, she had seen him as

“One of those children—preserved, nourished by the mud, the radium, growing

taller and stronger while slowly, viscous and slow, the currents bore him along un-
derground, year by year, until at last, grown to manhood, he came to the river, came
up out of the black radiance of herself to find her again, Shekinah, bride, queen,
daughter. And mother. Motherly as sheltering mud and glowing pitchblende.” (487)

Slothrop’s emergence from the mud of the river would therefore complete
this extraordinary variation on the nekyia, bringing his journey full circle:
from the Mother, to the underworld of the muddy river, and back to her
again: “‘You came up out of the river,’” Greta says to him at the end of the
Episode; “‘Then They made you.’” (490). It doesn’t help the paranoid schiz-
ophrenic (as we now realize she is) for Slothrop to say, “‘Well, that’s cause I
fell in, Greta’” (490)—like “Jonah,” emerging from the Belly of the Whale
Shekinah, Ereshkigal, Inanna, Demeter, Persephone, Gretel—Greta her-
self acknowledges (in the next Episode) that she “had more identities than
she knew what to do with” (482); but they all emerge from, and return to the
underworld. In fact, each of the seven or so vignettes Greta recalls in this
Episode are structured by the narrative and imagery of the nekyia. The first
takes us to the White Sands of New Mexico, site of early experiments on the
136 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

atomic bomb, where Greta played a “cowgirl” riding “an American horse
named Snake” (490). Another “One of the veils she has shed,” in the second
vignette, was an insomniac sleepwalker who found a corpse in nighttime
Berlin which she takes in her arms in order to hear the secrets of the dead:
“We live very far beneath the black mud,” it tells her, “Days of traveling [....]
It’s so dark that things glow. We have flight. There’s no sex. But there are
fantasies” (491).
Her third identity is “the dizzy debutante Lotte Lüstig,” who travels
“downriver in a bathtub with rich playboy Max Schlepzig” (491). She is sur-
rounded by “figures darkened and deformed, resembling apes,” as they ap-
proach the “rapids,” “impossible to see, but real, and inevitable” (492). It
seems the crew has abandoned ship as the bathtub rushes towards the rapids,
and a corpse knocks against the “snow-white cockle shell” of the boat, “so
stiffened and so mute” (492). The fluvian and zoomorphic necrotypes of this
vignette yield to the forest journey of the next, in which “Thanatz and Gre-
tel” find “an old road no one used anymore” out by one of the rocket sites,
and follow it towards a place “long deserted” (493). A spill of gravel blocks
their path, washed “downhill toward a river,” where “An old automobile, a
Hannomag Storm,” hangs “nose-down, one door smashed open,” its “laven-
der-gray metal shell” long since “picked clean as the skeleton of a deer”
(493)—evoking the stag long associated with pagan mythologies of the god-
dess and the nekyia in Old Europe (Gimbutas Chapter 13). Greta is fright-
ened by “the presence that had done this” to the car, and by “the splintered
glass, the hard mortality in the shadows of the front seat” (493). It seems
they have been “walking through the ruin of a great city, not an ancient ruin,
but brought down inside their lifetime”; but their progress is blocked by
“something” standing “between them and whatever lay around the curve:
invisible, impalpable … some monitor. Saying, ‘Not one step farther. That’s
all. Not one. Go back now’” (493). Surely this monstrous threshold guardian
is death itself, which blocks the way around the curve ahead, which leads
into the underworld.
The last of the vignettes in this Episode is another extended variation on
the nekyia, one that combines Nordic, alchemical, folkloric, and Arthurian
motifs. This journey is presided over by Blicero, Teutonic Lord of the Dead.
He seems to have “grown on, into another animal … a werewolf … but with
no humanity left in the eyes” (494). He is “taking” Greta and Thanatz “along
with him,” into his “‘Ur-Heimat,’” the “‘Kingdom of Lord Blicero. A white
Gravity’s Rainbow 137

land’” in one of the “mythical regions” of his domain (494). It is the night-
sea journey of “A German Odyssey,” sailing “Lower Saxony, island to is-
land,” from one “firing site” to the next (494). Greta says she was excited,
her “cunt” swelling “with blood at the danger, the chances for our annihila-
tion” (494).
Their destination is equally mythical: abducted by Blicero, as Perseph-
one was by Hades, Greta is “taken away: driven in a Hispano-Suiza” to “a
petrochemical plant” with “black and broken towers,” and “flame that always
burned at the top of one stack,” simply called “The Castle” (494). Here, Bli-
cero’s “wrinkled wolf-eyes had gone even beyond these domestic moments
of telepathy, on into its animal north, to a persistence on the hard edge of
death” (494). While one of the associations of the Castle may be with the
sixteenth major arcana of the Tarot Deck (Weisenburger 267), Pynchon em-
phasizes its alchemical and Arthurian contexts. Here, Greta meets “Gener-
aldirektor Smaragd,” the “notorious spiritualist” who appeared earlier in the
novel, and whose name evokes the “Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegis-
tus,” one of the foundational documents of the Hermetic tradition, in which
the emerald is a symbol of the philosopher’s stone. “Through the windows of
the board room” Greta sees “A meeting of nobles” assembled “at a round
conference table, with something in the center” (495). At first it looks like
“ectoplasm,” something “forced” to “materialize on the table” during the
“séance” in progress—for the Castle is a gateway to the domain of the dead
The round table is that of the Arthurian nekyia, for Blicero has taken
Greta “across a frontier,” into his “native space” (495). On the table sits “a
heavy chalice of methyl methacrylate, a replica of the Sangraal” (495)—the
Holy Grail which traditionally contains the blood of Christ, but here seems to
be the alchemical vessel in which Imipolex G is distilled. The Grail is a cru-
cible of sorts, a “tower reactor” in which various alchemical reactions pro-
duce the “plastic” that comes “hissing out through an extruder at the bottom
of the tower, into cooling channels” (495). The image recalls Wolfram von
Eschenbach’s Grail stone, from which baptismal water flows forth, in his
great poem Parzival, which is permeated by alchemical imagery. Pynchon’s
Grail exudes the chemical in tubing compared to “Plastic serpents” emerging
from the base of the crucible, the sight of which turns everyone on.
Greta is then “dragged” off into “a warehouse area,” stretched out “on an
inflatable plastic mattress,” stripped down, and dressed up “in an exotic cos-
tume of some black polymer, very tight at the waist, open at the crotch”
138 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

(496). The imagery combines the abduction of Persephone with the divesti-
ture necrotypes of Sumerian and Gnostic nekyias: when Greta puts the new
garment on, made from Imipolex G, she is aroused as never “before or
since,” and she feels “an abyss” open up between her feet (496), one that will
lead to her “own personal silence,” when, the next day, she walks naked and
alone “outside the factory,” everyone having disappeared—as they do in
Parzival, after the hero fails to ask the question that would heal the Maimed
King and redeem the Waste Land surrounding the Grail Castle in Wolfram’s
In the next Episode of the novel, Slothrop goes overboard, in the middle
of a storm, as “the Anubis drives northward” (498). He has “lost Bianca,”
and now that “Margherita has wept to him across the stringless lyre and bitter
chasm of the ship’s toilet, of her last days with Blicero, he knows as well as
he has to that it’s the S-Gerät after all that’s following him, it and the pale
plastic ubiquity of Laszlo Jamf” (498). Such revelations are characteristic of
the nekyia, which traditionally proceeds by stages towards full disclosure of
the archetypal forms governing and shaping our lives. But the revelations
come at a high price, as Slothrop feels that “some kind of space he cannot go
against has opened behind” him, “bridges that might have led back are down
now for good” (499). And his journey into the depths of the Zone has also
exacted an emotional cost, “a general loss of emotion, a numbness he ought
to be alarmed at, but can’t quite” (499).
The external landscape, therefore, is an objective correlative of
Slothrop’s condition, as the Anubis slips “by Stettin’s great ruin in silence,”
drifting by a “few last broken derricks and charred warehouses so wet you
can almost smell them, and a beginning of marshland you can smell, where
no one lives” (499). It is a Virgilian, Dantesque Waste Land of the soul, into
which he is transported on a Ship of Fools. As one of them, Countess Bibes-
cue, lies in her bunk dreaming about Bucharest during “the January terror,
the Iron Guard on the radio screaming Long Live Death, and the bodies of
Jews and Leftists hung on the hooks of the city slaughter-houses,” Slothrop
thinks he sees Bianca “lose her footing on the slimy deck, just as the Anubis
starts a hard roll to port” (500). He then lunges after her as “she vanishes un-
der the chalky lifeline,” and he himself falls “over the side,” into the
“whipped white desolation that passes for the Oder Haff tonight” (500). The
imagery is consistent with the night-sea necrotype, evoked throughout the
Gravity’s Rainbow 139

passage on the Anubis, which begins and ends with Slothrop falling into the
He is rescued by a “fishing smack” carrying cargo on the black market,
skippered by “Frau Gnahb,” the “terror of the high seas” (500). They are on
their way to Swinemunde. Der Springer is on board, “the white knight of the
black market” whom Säure Bummer had given Slothrop a “chesspiece” to
identify himself with, and who is said to have the S-Gerät up for sale (501).
Springer, it turns out, is none other than Gerhardt von Göll, the director of
the pornographic films Greta (whose name has the same letters as the S-
Gerät Slothrop is searching for) starred in. His language evokes the diction of
form catalyzed by the nekyia: he tells Slothrop how “‘everything fits. One
sees how it fits, ja? learns patterns, adjusts to rhythms’” (502). He is a mega-
lomaniac, who can assert that “’we move through a cosmic design of dark-
ness and light, and in all humility I am one of the very few who can compre-
hend it in toto’” (503)—i.e., the ultimate paranoid schizophrenic. Neverthe-
less, the disclosure of the “cosmic design,” of the “patterns” into which eve-
rything “fits,” is entirely consistent with the revelation of form catalyzed by
the nekyia. Even von Göll’s song, called “Bright Days (Fox-Trot),” evokes
“the / Good Lord’s grand design,” which only he—Lord of the Black Mar-
ket—professes to understand (504).
The boat they travel upriver on also evokes the imagery of the nekyia,
perhaps seen through the lenses of Goethe and the Middle Ages. There are
monkeys scattering around all over the ship, whose skipper, Frau Gnahb, is
an intimidating maniac capable of staring down and insulting one of the most
ferocious of the chimps, whom she calls “‘Deine Mutter,’” as if she were one
of the hags in the “Witches’ Kitchen” episode in Faust. In the “Sea Chanty”
she sings, Frau Gnahb says “‘I’m the Pirate Queen of the Baltic run, and no-
body fucks with me— / And those who’ve tried are bones and skulls, and lie
beneath the sea,’” and she brags that she has “‘sent a hundred souls to hell in
one relentless swoop’” (506)—i.e., she is another “destroying goddess” in
the novel, which Von Göll had unsuccessfully tried to assure Slothrop Greta
was not (503). Her destination is the secular hell of Peenemünde, where the
V-2 rockets were launched, on the “isle of Usedom” (507). They arrive at the
evil hour, “Rocket Noon,” when the V-2 was launched. Even the map of the
place evokes the imagery of the nekyia: “it’s a skull or a corroded face in
profile, facing southwest: a small marshy lake for the eye socket,” set on an
island of the dead (509).
140 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

Pulling into the port, Slothrop sees only “Low, burned-out buildings
now, ash images of camouflage nets burned onto the concrete,” and he imag-
ines someone “watching so civil and mild over the modeltop” (509). It is a

face all in these chromo sunset colors, eyes inside blackrim lenses which, like flar-
ing nets, now are seen to have served as camouflage for who but the Bicycle Rider
in the sky, the black and fatal Edwardian silhouette on the luminous breast of the
sky, of today’s Rocket Noon, two circular explosions inside the rush hour, in the
death-scene of the sky’s light. How the rider twirls up there, terminal and serene. In
the Tarot he is known as the Fool, but around the Zone here they call him Slick.

However obscure this apparition may be—Weisenburger adduces a “constel-

lation called Reiter” in Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, which also appears in the
“Tenth Elegy,” and the Norse god Odin, who rode the eight-legged horse
Sleipnir across the sky on stormy nights (271)—it is clearly associated with
the underworld into which Slothrop is penetrating ever more deeply. Its eyes
evoke the ocular necrotype; it is “terminal and serene”; “black and fatal”; it
“nets” evoke the tangled web of Fate; and it appears in the “death-scene” of
the “sky’s light” (509). It seems to stand at the entrance to the city like the
Medusa in Dante’s Inferno, threshold guardian of the circles of the violent.
Peenemünde is of course a ghostly place: it is haunted by “ash images” and
by the Rider in the sky; and its “Barracks have had their roofs blown away:
spinal and ribwise and sunwhite bones of these creatures that must have held
in their time half the Jonahs of falling Europe” (510)—of which we know
Slothrop is one. At the end of the Episode, Der Springer is arrested for ques-
tioning by Tchitcherine’s men, while Slothrop escapes unnoticed among the
Episode 20, therefore, is a kind of climax to the novel, when, at last,
Slothrop raids the rocket site at Peenemünde to rescue Von Göll from the
Russians. As Weisenburger notes, Pynchon’s passage is a “parody of the
‘Holy Center’ in traditional mythology, which Mircea Eliade described as
‘the zone of the sacred, the zone of absolute reality [….] It also exists as a
meeting place for all three cosmic regions: hell, earth, and heaven’” (272). I
would call such a Holy Center a temenos, the sacred space of revelation and
transformation, and, as such, the conventional destination of the nekyia.
While parodic, Slothrop’s penetration of the mysteries of Peenemünde is ac-
companied by traditional motifs of the nekyia. He begins his trip to the rock-
et site in the “last of the twilight,” and “Night is down by the time they get
Gravity’s Rainbow 141

started” (514). There is the “sharp sickle of moon” in the night sky, casting
“bonelight” upon his “nervous passage” (515). The “assembly building is
something like a hundred feet high—it blocks out the stars” (515). It is a
“great Ellipse,” where Greta had seen “rust-colored eminences” with their
“faces hooded, smooth cowlings of Nothing … each time Thanatz brought
the whip down on her skin, she was taken, off on another penetration toward
the Center: each lash, a little farther in” to the “boneblack trestling of water
towers above” (518). Slothrop, however, sees “the turning windmills” of the
tower as the “spoke-blurs of the terrible Rider himself” (518).
Slothrop’s “thinning, his “scattering” in the Zone, his “numbness, his
glozing neutrality” as he reaches the “Holy Center” indicates that he is one of
the lost, one of the damned, and that his “Preterition” is “sure” (518). Never-
theless, he sees the sacred center in mythological terms as an “Egg the flying
Rocket hatched from,” as the “navel of the 50-meter radio sky” (519). When
they emerge from the pine forests surrounding the site, Slothrop moves
“down again, into the Egg,” at the bottom of which there is “a long pit
shaped like a shallow V,” probably a “cooling duct” (519). Both omphalos
and world egg, the rocket site is also a temenos, a place of revelation and
transformation, and Slothrop’s rescue of Von Göll a parody of Christ’s Har-
rowing of Hell. The revelations, as usual, have to do with the electronics of
the Rocket’s circuitry, the “narrow mazeway” of its guidance system, which
was the special expertise of Slothrop’s hapless sidekick in this scene, Klaus
Närrisch (526).
Närrisch is left behind when Slothrop climbs on board the boat with Von
Göll and Otto to escape the island. Like John Dillinger, he is a “doomed
man” waiting in “deathrow steel” for the end to come, when the Russians
catch up to him (524–25). His final musings evoke the vocabulary of form
catalyzed by the nekyia, as he lies hiding in a “concrete drainage pipe,”
thinking of the last movie he saw, “Der Müde Tod,” in which “weary Death”
appears to lead “the two lovers away hand in hand through the forget-me-
nots” (525). As an expert on the “guidance system,” he thinks about the
“Wien bridge,” an electronic device “used in the automatic steering of the
rocket” (Weisenburger 274). It seems the system involved the convergence
of two frequencies, A and B, having to do with the rocket’s velocity. Its
Brennschluss point, the apogee of its rise, occurs when the two frequencies
meet, the “constant A” having been “carried as they must once packed far
overland at night the Grail” (526). As in the Arthurian nekyia, the climax of
the descent coincides with the Apocalypse, of which “the fatal, the terrible
142 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

sign” appears to Närrisch on the “Last Day,” as he lies huddled in the drain-
pipe waiting for the end (526).
As noted before, the myth of the nekyia may be taken as an allegory for
the combined mysteries of poeisis and hermeneusis—for the journey under-
taken by the writer, who composes the text, and the reader who interprets it.
Hence, in those works in which the myth appears, one typically finds both a
text within the text, and a reader within the text. This is the case in the next
Episode of the novel, when Enzian, Andreas, and Christian journey through
Hamburg in an attempt to stop an abortion. They ride by motorcycle past
“Blasted drydocks, charcoals ribs of warehouses, cylindrical chunks of sub-
marine that never got assembled,” and on “into the darkness,” until they
reach what seem to be the ruins of “this ex-refinery, Jamf Ölfabricken Werke
AG” (529). To his astonishment, Enzian realizes that the refinery “is not a
ruin at all. It is in perfect working order” (529). The preservation of the
chemical plant seems to be “part of a plan both sides—‘sides?’—had agreed
on” (529), forcing Enzian to realize that the focus of his quest needs to be
“reconfigured,” and the Rocket replaced by the chemical refinery:

Say we are supposed to be the Kabbalists out here, say that’s our real Destiny, to be
the scholar-magicians of the Zone, with somewhere in it a Text, to be picked to
pieces, annotated, explicated, and masturbated till it’s all squeezed limp of its last
drop … well we assumed—natürlich!—that this Holy Text had to be the Rocket
[…] our Torah. What else? Its symmetries, its latencies, the cuteness of it enchanted
and seduced us while the real Text persisted, somewhere else, in its darkness, our
darkness [….] (529)

Enzian comes to realize that he is “riding through” the “Real Text,” when he
drives into the refinery of the “IG” plant, as if “each shock wave plotted in
advance to bring precisely tonight’s wreck into being thus decoding the Text,
thus coding, recoding, redecoding the holy Text” which was originally the
Rocket, and now the Refinery of the AG chemical plant (529).
Approaching the refinery, therefore, Enzian feels that he is “zeroing in
on [the] incalculable plot,” and that the “ruinous plant” is there “waiting for
its Kabbalists and new alchemists to discover the Key, teach the mysteries to
others” (530). Pynchon’s choice of the word “mysteries” in this context is
interesting, for it is the word used by Classical scholars to refer to the initia-
tion rites of the Hellenic and Hellenistic era, most of which—such as the
Eleusinian, Egyptian, and Mithraic mysteries—involved ritual reenactments
of the nekyia. Here the ruined refinery recalls the great castles of the under-
Gravity’s Rainbow 143

world in Virgil and Dante, and serves as a kind of temenos, where mysteries
of the sacred text are revealed. Here, Enzian glimpses “in the seemingly ru-
ined landscape, signs of transnational economic interests (cartels) just wait-
ing to leap back into operation” after the War (Weisenburger 275). In the
midst of the ruins sits Pavel (father of the aborted child), whose “gasoline
fume-induced hallucination” seems to offer a closer glimpse of that “imma-
nent design” (Weisenburger 275).
And so once again the nekyia proceeds towards the revelation of the
formal structures shaping human history, the archetype, “design,” and “plot”
beneath the surface of things. Pavel’s hallucinations, however, are hilariously
ludic, evoking the spirits of the faerie kingdom, dressed in the costumes of
chemical cartels and Irish folklore: there is the “Moss Creature, here, bright-
est green you can imagine,” the “Water Giant, mile-high visitor made all of
flowing water who likes to dance,” and “Fungus Pygmies who breed in the
tanks at the interface between fuel and water-bottom” (532). These latter call
out to Pavel, saying they’ve missed him, and then gather “their little heads
into a symmetrical cauliflower pattern” (532). Pynchon calls them “Leuna-
halluzionen” after the gas Pavel inhales, and compares their faces to Irish
faeries of the otherworld, and to the spirits of the dead evoked in Herero ritu-
als in the Kalahari desert (532). Indeed, Pavel has returned to the ancestral
underworld of the Herero, by slipping “into the North,” and “inhaling the
breath of the first ancestor,” which has “taken him over into the terrible land”
(533). The gasoline fumes are therefore the “breath of Mukuru,” god of the
Herero people, and of the Schwarzkommando led by Enzian (535)— a truly
remarkable fusion of technology and myth.
In Episode 22, Slothrop will board the Anubis for the last time, like a pi-
rate, to retrieve a package for Springer in the engine room. The scene opens
ominously with Frau Gnahb bending over Slothrop wearing a “pompadour in
mourning for all her Hanseatic dead, underneath iron fleets, under waves of
the Baltic keel-edged and gray, dead under the fleets of waves, the prairies of
the sea” (534). After breakfast, they spy the “tiny white ghost of a ship,” and
see “In fine gold lettering, behind the golden jackal on the wraith-white
brow,” the name of the ship that Slothrop “already knows”: “Lazy and spec-
tral pitches the Anubis” (537–38). He is able to board only after Frau Gnahb
rams the Anubis, and Slothrop climbs up a ladder Otto has managed to attach
to the ship. But when he “touches the deck, all the lights go out,” impeding
his descent to the engine room, which is “down one more deck” (539). A
threshold battle of sorts then ensues, as Slothrop is beaten up, by Thanatz or
144 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

Morituri? He doesn’t know, but is forced through the steel hatch into the en-
gine room below.
There he stumbles in the darkness upon “a figure hanging from the over-
head” (540), who may or may not be Slothrop’s lost Eurydice, whom he will
fail “to bring up from hell” (Weisenburger 277). Whether or not it is Bianca,
the girl is dead, and the ship’s belly another abyss for our modern day Jonah
to endure: “Icy little thighs in wet silk swing against his face. They smell of
the sea. Her turns away, only to be lashed across the cheek by long wet hair.
No matter which way he tries to move now … cold nipples … the deep cleft
of her buttocks, perfume and shit and the smell of brine … and the smell of
… of …” (540). The dangling body dances “dead-white and scarlet at the
edges of his sight,” details which suggest the “red taffeta” dress Bianca was
wearing when she came to him in the earlier episode (Weisenburger 279).
Here, Slothrop grabs the paper bag Springer sent him after, in return for pas-
sage to Cuxhaven, and the new papers Slothrop will need to follow through
on his plan to “contact the Operation Backfire people” who “seem to be the
only English connection to the Rocket anymore” (535).
In the next Episode, 23, a text and reader of a different sort are pre-
sented, back at The White Visitation, where Katje finds films of herself and
the octopus Grigori, and another film made by Osbie Feel, a mock western of
sorts that Katje decodes as a message urging her to escape. She goes first to
Osbie’s flat to find out where Prentice might be. Since he had rescued her
from Peenemünde to use in the plot to track Slothrop’s erections, she seems
to assume that he can help her, now that the War has ended and operations at
The White Visitation seem to be at an end. All Osbie can tell her is that “ ‘In
the Parliament of Life, the time comes, simply, for a division. We are now in
the corridors we have chosen, moving toward the Floor’” (545).
That “Floor” seems to be some lower circle of the Inferno, into which we
descend with Pirate and Katje in the next episode, which begins with a spuri-
ous epigraph from the Gospel of Thomas, that reads “‘Dear Mom, I put a
couple of people in Hell today’” (546). Pynchon’s note that the “Fragment”
is from the “Oxyrhynchus papyrus” is Borgesian, since the quotation is fic-
tional, but the text real. The papyri “were named for the Nile river village
where they were discovered, near the turn of the century,” and “include say-
ings contained in the Gospel of Thomas, a coptic Gnostic manuscript uncov-
ered at Nag Hamadi” (Weisenburger 282). Pynchon’s attribution, therefore,
would seem to reinforce the informing presence of Gnosticism throughout
Gravity’s Rainbow 145

Gravity’s Rainbow, most frequently adduced by allusions to the Kabbalistic

Those Gnostic motifs are central to the episode the Fragment introduces,
in which “Katje and Pirate make an allegorical tour of a rather pleasant hell,
an inversion of Dante’s Inferno” (Weisenburger 281). The trip however is
not altogether pleasant, and indeed becomes quite terrifying in its own way.
The first line of the Episode translates the line from Dante that T.S. Eliot
used in The Waste Land: “Who would have thought so many would be here”
(546) is Pynchon’s version of Dante’s “ch’io non averei creduto / che morte
tanta n’avesse disfatta” (Inferno 3: 56–57), rendered by Eliot as “I had not
thought death had undone so many” (The Waste Land 1: 63). Pynchon’s In-
ferno is predictably ludic, and, at first, “horizontally arranged” (Weisen-
burger 281), as Katje and Pirate explore the “disquieting structure” of what
seems to be “an extensive museum, a place of many levels, and new wings
that generate like living tissue—though if it all does grow towards some end
shape, those who are here inside can’t see it. Some of the halls are to be en-
tered at one’s peril, and monitors are standing at all the approaches to make
this clear” (546).
As in Dante—as indeed throughout the course of modern variations on
the myths—the nekyia and the labyrinth are conflated. Pirate is given “one
end of a candy clew” when he arrives, and determines to “follow it” through
the “labyrinthine path” of the underworld (546)—a completely original take
on Ariadne’s thread, here rendered as “a ball of taffy” that gets thicker every
time the “clew” gets tangled up with one of the other novices in the Inferno
(547). Pirate’s thread leds him to “the offices of all the Committees” who
rule the worlds below, and above (547)—particularly the “little corrugated
shack” where the “DEVIL’S ADVOCATE’S” committee is housed, presided
over by a Jesuit in the lineage of “Teilhard de Chardin” (548). The subject of
his sermon (overheard by Pirate) is appropriate to the Inferno: the absence of
human freedom, in a world governed by “Them,” members of the “Firm,”
who are essentially presented as the archons of the abyss who imprison souls
in the material world, which the Gnostics saw as hell.
Our Jesuit is “here to say that critical mass cannot be ignored. Once the
technical means of control have reached a certain size, a certain degree of
being connected one to another, the chances for freedom are over for good.
The word has ceased to have a meaning” (548). The term “Critical Mass” is
prophetic, referring to “the smallest amount of fissionable material necessary
to sustain a nuclear chain reaction” (Weisenburger 283). Pynchon’s pro-
146 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

phetic Jesuit (Hiroshima is still a few months off) then proposes the terrify-
ing idea that the powers (let’s call them archons) responsible for the creation
of the “Cosmic Bomb” may be on the verge of achieving immortality: “‘It is
possible that They will not die. That it is now within the state of Their art to
go on forever—though we, of course, will keep dying as we always have.
Death has been the source of Their power’” (548). Such revelations of the
ruling principles of the universe are, as we have frequently noted, character-
istic of the climax of the nekyia. Here, those ruling powers are demonic, and
need to be fought back against. Because, our Jesuit argues, “‘We have to car-
ry on under the possibility that we die only because They want us to: because
They need our terror for Their survival,’” it therefore becomes necessary “‘to
demand, from those for whom we die, our own immortality’” (548–49).
“‘They may not be dying in bed any more,’” he continues, “‘but maybe They
can still die from violence. If not, at least we can learn to withhold from
Them our fear of Death. For every kind of vampire, there is a cross’” (549).
This strategy of rebellion against the Gnostic demons of the deep would
have redemptive power of completing the soul’s nekyia, by enabling it to
return to the spiritual domain from which it descended at birth. “‘To believe
that each of Them will personally die is also to believe that Their system will
die—that some chance of renewal, some dialectic, is still operating in His-
tory. To affirm Their mortality is to affirm Return’” (549). The fact that this
redemptive message of hope is delivered in hell, entering which one pre-
sumably must “ABANDON EVERY HOPE,” as Dante puts it (3:9); and the
fact that the sermon is given by a Jesuit (usually villainous in Pynchon’s
Protestant novels), make this apparently positive message difficult to inter-
pret. My view, however, is that the sermon follows the outlines of the Gnos-
tic nekyia, according to which the soul is trapped in the material world by the
demonic archons of the material world, only to be liberated when a messen-
ger comes to recall the soul, and initiate its “Return” to the heavenly domain
of its origins.6
The souls subsequently encountered seem more appropriately trapped in
the Inferno, with no way out, and essentially at the mercy of the archons of
the deep. Sir Stephen Dodson-Truck, for example (whom we last saw with
Slothrop watching the Angels rise on the horizon of the Mediterranean), tells
Pirate that he is “‘involved with the “Nature of Freedom” drill you know,
wondering if any action of mine is truly my own, or if I always do only what
They want me to do … regardless of what I believe, you see … I’ve been
Gravity’s Rainbow 147

given the old Radio-Control-Implanted-In-The-Head-At-Birth problem to

mull over’” (551). Like Slothrop, whose erections were conditioned as a ba-
by, the powers that be have predetermined his fate, governing and observing
all of his actions, even those he thought most free. Listening to Dodson-
Truck, Pirate begins to realize that he has been “assigned here” to the
“Group” of people who kill each other,” and that he “has always been one of
them” (551).
Another text within the text then follows, when Pirate sits down with a
group of “convalescent souls gathered for another long night of cinema with-
out schedule,” to watch a “government newsreel” entitled “FROM CLOAK-
AND-DAGGER TO CROAK-AND-STAGGER” (551). The setting of the
newsreel is infernal: “someplace so far into the East End that no one except
those who lived there had ever heard of it … bomb-tilted ballroom floor of
the ruin sloping uphill behind like a mountain meadow” (551). In front of the
ruin is a devil of sorts, right out of one of Dante’s circles, “a half-naked,
verminous and hairy creature, approximately human, terribly pale, writhing
behind the crumbled remains of plate glass, tearing at sores on his face and
abdomen, drawing blood, scratching and picking with dirt-black fingernails”
(552). Its name is “Lucifer Amp,” and the place “Smithfield Market” (552),
an “execution site” and home of “the Bartholomew Fair” (Weisenburger
284). It seems that Lucifer “used to work for the Special Operations Execu-
tive,” which Pirate is told is a joke, since “‘No one has ever left the Firm
alive, no one in history—and no one ever will’” (552). Pirate then seems
trapped “down here,” since the “Firm know perfectly well that” he has come,
and will expect a “full report” (552).
It is that this point that he seems to realize “where he is, now” (553), in
Hell, and that “It will be possible, after all, to die in obscurity, without hav-
ing helped a soul: without love, despised, never trusted, never vindicated—to
stay down among the Preterite, his poor honor lost, impossible to locate or
redeem” (553), i.e., one of the damned. The realization prompts a confession
of sorts, and a life review. He cries for Scorpia Mossmoon, “for people he
had to betray in the course of business for the Firm, Englishmen and foreign-
ers, for Ion so naïve, for Gongylakis, for the Monkey Girl and the pimps in
Rome, for Bruce who got burned,” “for a girl back in the Midlands name
Virginia, and for their child who never came to pass … for his dead mother,
and his dying father, for the innocent and the fools who are going to trust
him,” and for “the future he can see, because it makes him feel so desperate
and cold” (553).
148 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

A catalogue of sins is characteristic of the descent into hell. Similar cata-

logues occur in Homer and Virgil. Pirate’s catalogue is followed by Katje’s
concern for the “dead” she has been “allowed to bring” with her, for “the
ones who owe their deadness directly to” her (554). Pirate would rather hear
about her “ancestor,” “Franz van der Groov,” responsible for the extinction
of the dodo bird; but Katje is most preoccupied with the fate of her “little
brother,” a homosexual who fell under the spell of Degrelle, and then “joined
Rex, the ‘realm of total souls’” (556). It seems he probably died in one of the
rocket strikes in Antwerp. Her catalogue of the dead is much briefer than
Pirate’s, whose “much longer chronicle” seems primarily a list of sexual in-
discretions (556), and his circle therefore primariy that of the lustful.
After these catalogues—which are also life reviews, reminiscent of the
near-death narratives of the modern world studied by Grof, Moody, and
Kenneth Ring—the orientation of Pynchon’s hell shifts from the horizontal
to the vertical. Pirate “turns his face upward, and looks through all the faintly
superimposed levels above, the milieux of every sort of criminal soul” (557).
The levels extend “further than Pirate or Katje can see,” as Pirate “lifts his
long, his guilty, his permanently enslaved face to the illusion of sky, to the
reality of pressure and weight from overhead, the hardness and absolute cru-
elty of it” (557). Katje nestles her face “into the easy lowland between his
shoulder and pectoral, a look on her face of truce, of horror come to a détente
with” (557)—oddly at peace “as a sunset proceeds,” illuminating the sky
with a “forgelike flow in the west,” while anxious pedestrians stare in a “tiny
storefront window at the dim goldsmith behind his fire” (557). The imagery
is both infernal and alchemical, and holds out a sense of hope, of transforma-
tion in the face of the terminal darkness of the night ahead: “the light looks
like it’s going to go away forever this time” (557). They both seem lost
among the damned, locked in a “swarm” of “dancing Preterition” (558)—an
archetypal image of the Dance of Death that concludes the episode.
The next episode finds Slothrop wandering among the hordes of “scuf-
fling migrations” unleashed in Germany at the end of the war (560). He is in
a new outfit: “Tchitcherine’s uniform,” with “all the insignia” stripped off
(560). Information about the underworld comes through Slothrop’s dream of
his dead friend Tantivy Mucker-Maffick dancing in a “space of lawn ... with
a village band and many of the women dressed in white .... it seems to be
underground, not exactly a grave or a crypt, nothing sinister, crowded with
relatives and friends” (561). Tantivy sees “strange chalices on the tables,”
Gravity’s Rainbow 149

and colors that “carry an underbreath of blood spilled and turned black”
(561). He feels Slothrop that he feels lonely, and that “just after it happens,
sometimes, you’ll sort of hang around for a while,” looking “after a friend
who’s here” (561).
When he wakes up, Slothrop continues to wander through a landscape of
“haunted” farms until he meets a kid named Ludwig, who “may not be com-
pletely Right in the Head,” and who is looking for his lost lemming (563).
Ludwig leads Slothrop “into detachments of Soviet tankers, into heaps of
ruins high crested as the sea, that collapse around and, given a chance, on top
of you the minute you step in, also into sucking marshes where the reeds pull
away in your fingers when you try to grab them, and the smell is of a protein
disaster” (563). The landscape is conventionally dismal, and conjures up “the
ghost of Slothrop’s first American ancestor, William,” who fled to the Berk-
shires and wrote heretical pamphlets “about the Preterite, the many God
passes over when he chooses a few for salvation. William argued for the ho-
liness of these ‘second Sheep,’ without whom there’d be no elect” (565). The
memory of his ancestral past leads Slothrop to wonder if there might not be a
way back home for him, one that would bring his hero journey into the Zone
full circle. With all “the fences” in the Zone down after the War, “one road”
might be as “good as another, the whole space of the Zone cleared, depolar-
ized, and somewhere inside the waste of it a single set of coordinates from
which to proceed, without elect, without preterite, without even nationality to
fuck it up” (566). Return from the underworld of the Zone would also there-
fore be a form of redemption, one catalyzed by the voice of Slothrop’s ances-
But, alas, he still has a long way to go; his descent is far from complete.
Ludwig leads Slothrop “Down an alleyway near the Michaelskirche,” and
then “down several flights to a subbasement” of the church, where he runs
smack into Major Marvy, who is tending a black market business in furs. But
he also realizes that “there’s a great future in these V-weapons” (568), and he
takes Slothrop out to see the “remains of an A4 battery” (569). The rocket
“site is a charred patch becoming green with new weeds, inside a copse of
beech and some alder,” plus “a ghostly crowd of late dandelions, gray heads
nodding together waiting for the luminous wind that will break them toward
the sea” (569). Everything has “been stripped” from the site, but Slothrop
sees the “Schwarzkommando mandala KEZVH” in “Red, white, and blue”
on the “dusty deck of the control car” (570). Marvy sees it too, forcing
Slothrop to hold the mandala up like a “cross” to a “vampire,” and to lie by
150 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

saying that his “only interest is in dealing with the problem of these black
devils” (570)—a trick that leads Marvy to give him directions to the
Schwarzkommando camp.
On the way, Slothrop has to force himself to remember the goal of his
quest: the mystery of “Imipolex G, all that Jamf a-and that S-Gerät” (571).
The “Zone-Hereros” are after those secrets too, and are being led by “Mu-
kuru” to the rocket numbered “OOOOO” (572). They know that “Blicero
took” Greta “to a factory where it was either put together, or a part of it was
made, from some plastic called Imipolex G” (572). Blicero, as we remember,
is named after the Teutonic Lord of the Dead, and Mukuru is, in part, his
Herero counterpart, for he is their first ancestor, and his Northern domain is
the tribal version of the underworld. Slothrop warns the Schwarzkommando
about Marvy’s plans to raid their compound, and, in reward, they explain to
him the mysteries of their mandala. Such revelations are characteristic of the
nekyia, and the mandala is itself a hologlyph—a symbol that combines the
opposites of the entire creation in a single image:

Andreas sets it on the ground, turns it till the K points northwest. “Klar,” touching
each letter, “Entlüftung, these are the female letters. North letters. In our villages the
women lived in huts on the northern half of the circle, the men on the south. The vil-
lage itself was a mandala. Klar is fertilization and birth, Entlüftung is the breath, the
soul, Zündung and Vorstufe are the male signs, the activities, fire and preparation or
building. And in the center, here Hauptstufe. It is the pen where we kept the sacred
cattle. The souls of the ancestors. All the same here. Birth, soul, fire, building. Male
and female, together. (572).

This kind of geometric necrotype, composed of four letters with sacred sig-
nificance, recalls Solomon’s Seal in the Kabbalistic tradition, interlocking
triangles of which (downward pointed the female symbol of incarnation; up-
ward the male symbol of transfiguration) are set with a circle (representing a
complete cycle of the soul’s desent into and return from the material world),
and inscribed in the center with the four letters of the Tetragrammaton (from
which the entire creation comes, and to which it returns. In the Herero man-
dala, the center is also the underworld, the place where the “souls of the an-
cestors” live (572).
The revelations that proceed in the subsequent sections of the novel re-
turn to the technical mysteries of the “Rocket-cartel” that the Russian
Tchitcherine begins to see emerging in the Zone, its “structure cutting across
every agency human and paper that ever touched it. Even to Russia” (576).
Gravity’s Rainbow 151

Its “structure” involves “arrangements Stalin won’t admit,” so that, in

Tchitcherine’s mind, “a State begins to take form in the stateless German
night, a State that spans oceans and surface politics, sovereign as the Interna-
tional or the Church of Rome and the Rocket is its soul” (576). He carries
this visionwithin him as a “personal doom ... always to be held at the edges
of revelations,” like his vision of the Kirghiz Light (576). The diction of this
passage (“structure,” “arrangements,” “form”) evokes those ideas of order
that confer shape and significance upon life and art, the revelation of which
is characteristically catalyzed by the nekyia. Here, the most archetypal of
forms is that of the “State,” the emerging Rocket cartel.
Similar diction emerges in the next episode, when Slothrop wanders into
Cuxhaven: “borne, afloat on the water-leas. Like signals set out for lost trav-
elers, shapes keep repeating for him, Zonal shapes he will allow to enter but
won’t interpret” (577). Among these shapes are the “stairstep gables that
front so many of these ancient north-German buildings,” which to Slothrop’s
eye “hold shape” on the horizon (577). He sees them as “stone Treppengiebel
shapes, whole and shattered,” while “in their shadows children with hair like
hay are playing Himmel and Hölle, jumping village pavements from heaven
to hell to heaven by increments, sometimes letting Slothrop have a turn”
(577). The game the children play is a German form of hopscotch (Weisen-
burger 297), and particularly appropriate to the novel as a whole, given its
manifold reiterations of the nekyia, and its obsession with the Rocket’s as-
cent and descent. As is the case with Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch, the
myth of descent and return is used throughout to link various episodes to-
gether, thus providing narrative coherence to what otherwise may appear to
be a random sequence of events.7
Slothrop will perform a mock harrowing of hell in this episode, during
which he is lured by the children, who emerge in the twilight “pale as souls,”
into playing the role of “Plechazunga, the Pig Hero, who, sometime back in
the 10th century, routed a Viking invasion, appearing suddenly out of a thun-
derbolt and chasing a score of screaming Norsemen back into the sea” (577).
In the “last of his disguises or alter egos before Part 4, when he fragments”
(Weisenburger 297), Slothrop climbs into the pig suit, and is then routed
with the others in the black market when the cops appear and start smashing
things up, “the way they must’ve handled anti-Nazi street actions before the
War” (580). Slothrop escapes the scene when “one of the girls from the café
shows up” and “tugs him along” to her home (582). Still in his “pig dis-
guise,” she “leads him over low stone walls, along drainage ditches and into
152 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

culverts, southwesterly to the outskirts of the town,” where he escapes

through the “ogival opening” of the “city gate” into the “open country”
(583). In another bizarre re-figuration of the nekyia, Slothrop is befriended
by a pig named Frieda, who leads him on a long journey to
“ZWÖLFKINDER,” where he meets Franz Pökler, whom he tells about his
“kind of personal tie-in with Imipolex G” (585). Pökler then responds by
telling Slothrop “something of his Ilse and her summer returns, enough for
Slothrop to be taken again by the nape and pushed against Bianca’s dead
flesh” (586). She is still with him, “nearly invisible as a glass of gray lemon-
ade in a twilit room” (586–87).
After a long episode devoted to Pökler’s memories of Lazlo Jamf’s lec-
tures about what Weisenburger calls his “fascist theories of chemical phys-
ics” (300)—which involves “the ionic bond-where electrons are not shared,
but captured. Seized! and held! Polarized plus and minus, these atoms, no
ambiguities” (587)—Pynchon returns to ludically dazzling refigurations of
the nekyia, in a chapter devoted to Slothrop’s uncle, Lyle Bland, who con-
spired with his father to sell his nephew to Lazlo Jamf for his experiments
with Imipolex G. In this episode, Uncle Lyle attends a meeting of chemical
interests in a Masonic hall in St. Louis. The hall is crammed with pinball
machines which have all been reprogrammed to tilt.
Pynchon’s description of the game from the ball’s perspective yields a
characteristically ludic variation on the nekyia as a kind of Gnostic allegory
of the soul’s journey. For these pinballs are “sentient all right,” “poor spheri-
cal soul[s]” that are all too well aware of the threat of electrocution and death
(594–95). The balls are “beings from the planetoid Katspiel, of veryvery el-
liptical orbit—which is to say it passed by Earth only once, a long time ago,”
leaving “these kind round beings in eternal exile, with no chance of ever be-
ing gathered back home, doomed to masquerade as ball bearings, as steelies
in a thousand marble games” (594). Their journey therefore is the “familiar”
Gnostic version of the soul’s descent from the heavens into the tormented
prison of the material world. Their nekyia involves the “division between
return and one-shot visitation,” since it seems that Katspiel, their planet of
origin, has left “the sun’s field forever,” and hence left the pin ball souls “in
eternal exile” (594).
Pynchon’s pinball nekyia anticipates The Who’s rock opera, Tommy, and
it is in the same vein of ludic postmodernism that includes the game playing
approaches to the myth found in the works of Calvino (Tarot Deck), Merrill
Gravity’s Rainbow 153

(Ouija Board), and Cortázar (Hopscotch Court). Pynchon’s pinballs face

“Folies-Bergeres maenads, moving in for the kill, big lipstick smiles around
blazing choppers, some Offenbach gallop” (perhaps out of Orphée aux En-
fers) as musical accompaniment to the “agony of this sad spherical perma-
nent AWOL,” trying to survive its journey “down the towering coils” and the
“deep holes” of the game (594). The maenads of the myth are the women
who dismember and decapitate Orpheus after he returns from his unsuccess-
ful attempt to bring his wife Eurydice back from Hades. Here, they are ludi-
cally refigured as “murder-witness coquettes” with “ruffled buttocks bump-
ing backward more violently, the skirts flipping redder and deeper each time,
covering more of the field, eddying to blood, to furnace finale” as the poor
“solenoid” pinball cringes “before the girls’ destroying kooch-dance” (595).
Hence, the reference to Offenbach’s opera buffe is sustained throughout the
passage, echoing the many previous allusions to the Orphic nekyia in the
Lyle Bland’s job, it seems, is to reprogram the machines so they don’t
tilt anymore (kind of metaphor for the conquest of death), and he is rewarded
by being “made a Mason” (597)—with fatal results, for his initiation into the
mysteries of the order lead to his death. Pynchon’s comment on the “theory
going round that the U.S.A. was and still is a gigantic Masonic plot under the
ultimate control of the group known as the Illuminati” is consistent with the
“global conspiracy” of the Rocket-cartel that he forges in the novel as a
whole (597). The paranoid theory looks back to the postal and historical con-
spiracies of V. and Lot 49, and it anticipates the role played by the Jesuits in
Mason & Dixon. And, as noted before, the revelation of the forces that gov-
ern and shape our lives represents the ultimate climax of the myth of the
nekyia—from Homer and Virgil, to Dante and Pynchon.
Uncle Lyle’s nekyia is catalyzed by his initiation into the Masonic order,
which involves ancient rituals “more or less faithfully carried down over the
millennia,” so that “the magic is still there,” at least for “the right sensitive
head” (598). Uncle Lyle proves to be one of the sensitives, after he awakens
one day from a nap with “his heart pounding terribly, knowing he’d just been
somewhere, but unable to account for the passage of time” (598). Then “im-
ages” gather in the “Girandole mirror” of his room that he “couldn’t bring
himself to face” (599). And at last he rises “up out of his body, about a foot,
face-up,” terrified because he knows this is “only a first step,” and that the
next will be “to roll over in mid-air and look back” (599). When he does so,
a month or two later, he is “off on a journey” into another world (599).
154 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

“Odd-looking people” with “Strange Faraway Smiles” then begin appearing

at his home, to instruct him “in techniques of voyage” (599).
Uncle Lyle’s out-of-body experiences (which recall the work of Robert
Monroe) are evoked using the language of the geographical and geological
nekyias. First, Pynchon alludes to “journeys taken northward on very blue,
fire-blue seas, chilled, crowded by floes, to the final walls of ice,” such as
those taken by “Sir John Franklin and Salomon Andree, whose “cairns and
bones” are lost in the “polar silence” (599). Bland’s out-of-body experiences
lead him to imagine “that he has been journeying underneath history: that
history is Earth’s mind, and that there are layers, set very deep, layers of his-
tory analogous to layers of coal and oil in Earth’s body” (600). He returns
from these descents “raving about presences he has found out there, mem-
bers of an astral IG, whose mission—as indeed Rathenau implied through the
medium of Peter Sachsa—is past secular good and evil” (600). The revela-
tions of Bland’s Masonically induced nekyia, therefore, seem also to involve
the “global conspiracy” of international cartels envisaged by Rathenau, and
disclosed through the medium of the White Visitation (Carroll Eventyr) ear-
lier in the novel.
Pynchon then adds Kabbalistic details to his portrayal of Bland’s out-of-
body journeys, and combines them with the geological and chemical motifs
recurrent throughout the novel. Uncle Lyle discovers that “Earth is a living
critter,” with a mind of its own, and that

Gravity, taken so for granted, is really something eerie, Masonic, extrasensory in

Earth’s mindbody … having hugged to its holy center the wastes of dead species,
gathered, packed, transmuted, realigned, and rewoven molecules to be taken up
again by the coal-tar Kabbalists of the other side, the ones Bland on his voyages has
noted, taken off, boiled, teased apart, explicated to every last permutation of useful
magic, centuries past exhaustion still finding new molecular pieces, combining and
recombining them into new synthetics—“Forget them, they are no better than the
Qlippoth, the shells of the dead, you must not waste your time with them ….” (600)

While the “dead species,” “Kabbalists of the other side,” and “shells of the
dead” all evoke the layers beneath the earth as a kind of geological under-
world, the “combining and recombining” of “rewoven molecules” into “new
synthetics” is a distinctly Pynchonesque fusion of Kabbalistic myth and sci-
ence. According to Kabbalistic tradition, everything in the universe is created
by combining the letters of the Hebrew alphabet with the Tetragrammaton
(the four sacred letters JHVH). All things come from what Pynchon calls
Gravity’s Rainbow 155

“the permuted names of God,” which “cannot be spoken” (600–01). The Tet-
ragrammaton, therefore, is a hologlyph—the one word in which the entire
creation is enclosed.
In Kabbala, the combinations and permutations of the sacred letters of
the Hebrew alphabet, using calculations derived from the numerical equiva-
lents for the words, is called gematria. Pynchon adapts these ideas to his
chemical concerns, suggesting that “for each psi-synthetic taken from Earth’s
soul there is a molecule, secular, more or less ordinary, and named, over
here” (600). This presentation of the “Kabbalists of the other side” forging
new compounds in the smithy of Earth’s soul bears an uncanny resemblance
to the Angels and spirits in James Merrill’s Changing Light at Sandover, in
whose research lab experiments are undertaken to immortalize the human
soul by shielding it from nuclear radiation. Pynchon’s paranoiac vision of a
world ruled by invisible energies from beyond the grave is nearly duplicated
in Merrill’s great trilogy. For both poets (surely the term can be applied to
Pynchon as well), the refiguration of the nekyia serves as a metaphor for the
creative mysteries of creation (whether it be of world, soul, or poem), dis-
closed during the course of the journey.
In this episode, Lyle Bland’s out-of-body excursions lead eventually to
his death, one night, when he says to his family “ ‘I have found […] that
each time out, I have been traveling farther and farther. Tonight, I am going
out for good. That is, I am not coming back’” (601). He dies “Around 9:30,”
when his son Buddy “left to see The Bride of Frankenstein, and Mrs. Bland
covered the serene face with a dusty chintz drape she’d received from a
cousin who had never understood her taste” (601). As parodic as Pynchon’s
refiguration of the nekyia is, it nevertheless retains the power to reveal, or at
least suggest, those fundamental elements of the creation—here figured by
the molecules forged in the underworld—from which all things come, and to
which they return.
The next episode returns to Slothrop, and to Major Marvy, on a windy
night by the North Sea. “Doctors Muffage and Spontoon” have been sent in
pursuit of Slothrop by Pointsman, and the chase leads eventually to a place
called Putzi’s, which is “a sprawling, half-fortified manor house dating from
the last century,” perched above the moonlit beach “like a raft atop a giant
comber of a sandhill,” and looking out across the water “toward Helgoland”
(612)—which is a “tiny North Sea island off the Schleswig-Holstein coast,
which the ancient Teutons regarded as the home of dead souls” (Weisen-
burger 313). As its name suggests, the place will be hellish, at least for Major
156 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

Marvy, whose path crosses with Slothrop’s when the two men go “down to
the baths” in the basement (613). Slothrop is taken down by a woman who
calls herself Solange, who appears like “a child brought to visit the weird pig
in his cave” (613). Marvy is led down by Seaman Bodine, who “shows him
how to get downstairs to the whorehouse” beside the steam baths (615).
The descent, of course, involves ritual divestitures, as Slothrop takes off
his pig suit and Major Marvy his uniform. Marvy chooses a dark-skinned
whore named Manuela, and “follows her trick into heat, bright steam,” where
“Other souls move, sigh, groan unseen among the sheets of fog, dimensions
in here under the earth meaningless” (616). Marvy’s sadistic racism is em-
phasized in this inferno of lust, as he relishes Manuela’s “sweet and nigger
submissiveness,” and thinks that he can “hold her head under the water till
she drowns,” or “bend her hand back, yeah, break her fingers like that cunt in
Frankfort the other week. Pistol whip, bite till the blood comes” (617). The
imagery is Dantesque, and prepares us for Marvy’s punishment, when
Putzi’s is raided by MP’s hot on Slothrop’s trail, and Marvy jumps out of the
bath and puts on the “pig costume” (617)—a fatal mistake! Muffage and
Spontoon catch up with their “elusive swine,” and take Marvy (whom they
think is Slothrop) out to an ambulance, which they drive down to the sea-
shore, where they dope then castrate the fat bastard (as Pointsman had com-
missioned them to do to Slothrop). Slothrop, meanwhile, curls up with So-
lange back in bed at Putzi’s, dreaming of Bianca, while Solange (who turns
out to be Leni Pökler) dreams of her daughter Ilse, “riding lost through the
Zone on a long freight train that never seems to come to rest” (620). Hence,
the paths of five nekyias cross here: Leni’s, Marvy’s, Slothrop’s, Bianca’s,
and Ilse’s, effectively recapitulating the narrative interlace of the novel’s
labyrinth, before the final episode of Section 3—in which Tchitcherine wan-
ders in search of the S-Gerät, and of his black half brother Enzian. Both are
lost in the Zone, which has the “peace of a burial ground. Among the prehis-
toric German tribes, that’s what this country was: the territory of the dead”

Part 4: The Counterforce

Part 4 of Gravity’s Rainbow, will, as Weisenburger remarks, bring the

“long descent of Part 3” to a conclusion (321). It does so, in the first episode
by combining elements of Orphic and Christian nekyias. Wandering alone
Gravity’s Rainbow 157

“down the trail to a mountain stream” one morning, Slothrop retrieves his
harmonica, which he has miraculously recovered from its descent into the
toilet bowl of the Roseland Ballroom (634). Pynchon’s remark that “There
are harpmen and dulcimer players in all the rivers, wherever water moves,”
and his translation of the last tercet of one of Rilke’s Sonnets, underscores
the sustained allusions to the Orphic nekyia scattered throughout the novel
(634). Slothrop seems to have moved farther into the underworld at this
point, able to “make audible the spirits of lost harpmen,” and “closer to being
a spiritual medium than he’s been yet,” holed up in a “lean-to he’d put up”
like a “bagpiper’s ghost” (635). As in the myth of Orpheus, his playing lures
“shrikes and capercaille, badgers and maromots” out the forest, when he lies
down “naked, ants crawling up his legs, butterflies lighting on his shoulders,
watching the life on the mountain” (635).
It should be noted here that this passage combines fluvian, oreographic,
and lepidopteric necrotypes with the imagery of divestiture characteristic of
the nekyia. For river crossings, divestiture, and mountain journeys have long
been associated with the nekyia, as far back as Sumerian and Egyptian myth.
And, as Marija Gimbutas has shown so beautifully, the image of the butterfly
is central to the iconography of death and rebirth associated with the Minoan
mythology of the labyrinth (Language 270–79). To these details Pynchon
adds the ornithological necrotype: Slothrop’s descent into the labyrinthine
underworld of the Zone would only come full circle if he managed to make
his way back to America, where his journey began; to do so he must shed
“the albatross of self now and then, idly, half conscious as picking his nose—
but the one ghost-feather his fingers always brush by is America. Poor ass-
hole, he can’t let her go” (635).
As so often in Pynchon’s endlessly inventive variations on the nekyia,
this one in the first episode of Section 4 catalyzes the combined energies of
poeisis and hermeneusis. The former is symbolized by Slothrop’s music
(whether by bagpipe or harp). The latter becomes increasingly intense during
this mountain idyll, as “Omens grow clearer, more specific. He watches
flights of birds and patterns in the ashes of his fire, he reads the guts of trout
he’s caught and cleaned, scraps of lost paper, graffiti on the broken walls
where facing has been shot away to reveal the brick underneath—broken in
specific shapes that may also be read” (636). The operative verb here is
“read,” and the text includes images long associated with the nekyia, such as
birdflight, fire, and the prophetic power of internal organs. And, like Oedipa
in the bathroom at the Scope, Slothrop sees signs on the walls of “a public
158 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

shithouse stinking and ripe with typhoid” (636). The text here includes “ini-
tials, dates, hasty pictures of penises and mouths open to receive them,
Werewolf stencils of the dark man with the high shoulders and the Homburg
hat, an official slogan: WILLST DU V-2, DANN ARBEITE” (636). On the
other wall is another cryptographic text that reads “WILLST DU V-4,
DANN ARBEITE,” and, most importantly, “another message” that reads
Slothrop then is both writer and reader within the text, the energies of
both poeisis and hermeneusis intensified by his nekyia. Inspired by the graf-
fiti in the shithouse, Slothrop uses a “piece of rock” to scratch his sign: the
circle within a circle demarcated by four lines, which he realizes is “the A4
rocket, seen from below” (636–37). It is also, of course, a Jungian mandala, a
symbol of the Self, towards which the individuation process slowly moves.
For Jung, therefore, the nekyia was an allegory not just of poeisis and her-
meneusis, but of psychogenesis. Slothrop recognizes “other four-fold expres-
sions” found throughout the Zone: “variations on Frans Van der Groov’s
cosmic windmill—swastikas, gymnastic symbols FFFF in a circle symmetri-
cally upside down and backward, Frish Fromm Frölich Frei over neat door-
ways in quiet streets, and crossroads, where you can sit and listen in to traffic
from the Other Side, hearing about the future” (637)—prophetic visions of
the future from otherworldly sources being a key component of the nekyia,
from Homer and Virgil onwards to Pynchon.
All of these mandalas represent what I would call geometrical necro-
types, the revelation of which is catalyzed by the descent to the underworld.
They are hologlyphs, symbols that combine the opposites of the creation into
a single image. Our neophyte also sees the quadrated mandala in the “sand
colored churchtops” that “rear up on Slothrop’s horizons, apses out to four
sides like rocket fins guiding the streamlined spires … chiseled in sandstone
he finds waiting the mark of consecration, a cross in a circle” (637). And
then, in an extraordinary passage, Slothrop becomes a mandala in the flesh
(as of course we all are): “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” (637).
Christ-like at the crossroads: the sacred heart bleeding at the point where the
nave crosses the transept, with the dome of the heavens above, the oculus
positioned at the exact point of the solar plexus.
Gravity’s Rainbow 159

Slothrop’s gesture catalyzes a remarkable excursion on the origins and

harvesting of the mandrake root, derived from Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology
(Weisenburger 328–29). It is a myth permeated by motifs from the nekyia,
primarily canine: “Black hounds and fanged little hunters slick as weasels”
gather at the place of the hanging. When the “fat-hunched gnadige Frau
Death” appears, the hanged man “gets an erection, a tremendous darkpurple
swelling, and just as his neck breaks, he actually comes in his ragged loin-
wrapping creamy as the skin of saint under the purple cloak of Lent, and one
drop of sperm succeeds in rolling” down his “dead leg” (637). The drop of
sperm “drips to earth at the exact center of the crossroad where, in the work-
ings of the night, it changes into a mandrake root” (637). The root can only
be harvested by a “Magician,” with the help of a “coal-black dog,” to whose
tail the root of the mandrake is tied, and then torn up as the root emits “its
piercing and fatal scream” (637). When it does so, the “dog drops dead be-
fore he’s halfway to breakfast,” and the “Magician takes the root tenderly
home” (637).
So, Slothrop has become what Pynchon calls one of the “Idiopathic Ar-
chetypes” (638), part Christ on the cross, part hanged man of the Tarot, part
mandrake root—which, as Weisenburger notes, is “laid in a casket” to be
consulted “every new-moon. When questioned, she reveals future and secret
things touching welfare and increase” (328). Hence, in this final transfigura-
tion, Slothrop becomes an acute reader of signs: “Crosses, swastikas, Zone-
mandalas, how can they not speak to Slothrop?” (638). Sitting in “Säure
Bummer’s kitchen,” he had read “soup recipes” and found “in every bone
and cabbage leaf paraphrases of himself” (638). Back in the Berkshires, he
had gathered refuse from the road during Winter’s “white necropolizing,”
and read in the rubbish messages, making “it all fit, seeing clearly in each an
entry in a record, a history: his own, his winter’s, his country’s” (638). And
here, at last, “in the Zone,” Slothrop becomes “a crossroad,” and sees “a very
thick rainbow” like a “cock driven out of the pubic clouds into Earth, green
wet-valleyed Earth” (638). We aren’t told how Slothrop reads this sign, even
though the sight of it reduces him to tears (the second to fall in the novel:
Katje’s eyes were the first). Perhaps, as Weisenburger suggests, the rainbow
“recalls Krishna, Vishnu’s priapic avatar of fertility and dance” (321). More
cogently, the rainbow symbolizes the rocket’s descent, and therefore antici-
pates the conclusion of the novel, when it is poised to fall on the Orpheus
theatre in LA. Ultimately, the rainbow is polysemous—as indeed are all
160 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

mythic images, which must, by definition, unite the opposites of creation and
destruction, of life and death, of male and female, into a single image.
In the first vignette of section 6 of Part 4, Slothop and a team of three
others set out to rescue “the Radiant Hour,” which has apparently been ab-
ducted by sinister forces—among which we should perhaps include “a vil-
lain, serious as death. It is this typical American teenager’s own Father, try-
ing episode after episode to kill his son” (687). The abduction necrotype is
therefore fused with the Oedipal complex, in a way that recalls Karl Keré-
nyi’s suggestion that Persephone is abducted by her own father: Zeus in his
underworldly form. Slothrop’s imaginal descent in this episode will take him
down to a “City of the Future” which Pynchon calls “the Raketen Stadt”
(687), modeled on Fritz Lang’s classic film, “Metropolis.” Slothrop’s job is
to “rescue the Radiant Hour, which has been abstracted from the day’s 24 by
colleagues of the Father, for sinister reasons of their own” (687). The “Radi-
ant Hour is being held captive here” among a “system of buildings that
move, by right angles, along the grooves of the Raketen-Stadt’s streetgrid,”
which can be raised or lowered, “to desired heights or levels underground,
like a submarine” (687–88).
In preparation for the descent to retrieve the captive hour, a “Rescue
team” is formed, which consists of our American teenager Slothrop; “Myrtle
Miraculous,” wearing “a shoulderpadded maroon dress,” and sporting “a
tough frown fer draggin’ her outa Slumberland”; a “Negro in a pearl-gray
zoot and Inverness cape name of Maximillian”; Marcel, “a mechanical
chessplayer dating back to the Second Empire, actually built a century ago
for the great conjuror Robert-Houdin, very serious-looking French refugee
kid” (688). This group of four gives us another mandala, a quaternity cen-
tered upon the fifth, central point of the Radiant Hour. Pynchon calls them
“the Foundering Four,” and notes that they have stood “in good stead on
many, many go rounds with the Paternal Peril” (688). Thus, we have a varia-
tion on the figure Sir Thomas Browne called the Quincunx, adding a couple
(the Paternal Peril and the Radiant Hour) in the center of the square.
Each of the four is “gifted while at the same time flawed by his gift—
unfit by it for human living” (689). In Jungian terms, they all have a daimon
(an inner principle governing development), and a shadow (a weak or infe-
rior function); and they all revolve around the central mystery of the parental
couple, whose union represents the totality of the Self, symbolized by the
sacred marriage, or hieros gamos, which is the goal of the alchemical opus of
Gravity’s Rainbow 161

the individuation process. But can one “feel much confidence in these idiots
as they go up against Pernicious Pop each day?” (689). However that may
be, decisions do “emerge, from a chaos of peeves, whims, hallucinations and
all-round assholery” (689). In a ludic variation of the investiture necrotype,
the Foundering Four “suit up,” in preparation for their descent “through the
heavy marbling of skies one Titanic-Night at a time” (690). Before they de-
part, however, Slothrop must be rescued from his own descent into “Icebox-
land,” in search of a Mawxie, the “Pause that Refreshes” (690–91). His
“Pernicious Pop,” the omnipresent “Paternal Peril” of his childhood years—
who, we should remember, sold him to Lazlo Jamf when he was a baby for
the conditioning of his infantile penis—closes the door, trapping “young Ty-
rone […] among miles down-the-sky shelves and food mountains or food
cities,” before Myrtle rescues him (691).
The descent that follows, in quest of the Radiant Hour, takes the Foun-
dering Four down into the depths of the Raketen Stadt. They request “omni-
directional top-speed clearance,” but instead are reduced to “Slow Crawl,
Suburban Vectors, lowest traffic status in the Raketen-Stadt,” until Myrtle
waves her magic wand, and the team zips “along the corridor-streets […] like
some long-necked sea monster” (692)—an image which evokes the night-sea
necrotype. The monster transports the team to a “dingy yellow amphitheatre,
seat after seat plunging down in rows and tiers endless miles, down to the
great arena” at the bottom of the city (692). It is “miles downward” to the
stage where “the nightly spectacles” proceed, “an appreciable part of the
darkside hours life of the Rocket-capital” (693). Here, instead of the myster-
ies of the Oedipal complex, we find a homosexual tryst in process, when
Marcel passes a “message for one of the spectators. ‘I’m sure you wouldn’t
want Them to know about the summer of 1945. Meet me in the Male Trans-
vestites’ Toilet, level L16/39C, station Metatron, quadrant Fire, stall
Malkuth. You know what time. The usual Hour. Don’t be late’” (693).
The passage therefore combines Freudian, Proustian, and Kabbalistic
motifs. The Radiant Hour is, as Weisenburger has suggested, associated with
the Great Goddess of the Nordic mythology, here abducted by the sinister
Father, hell bent on killing his son. Slothrop’s nekyia is a harrowing of hell,
and would rescue her from the Satanic principle of time, into which she has
fallen, like Anima mundi or Sophia, into the darkness of the deep. The
Proustian allusions focus on the degradation of Charlus, whose homosexual
sado-masochism is gradually revealed as the grand opus descends into the
erotic depths at the heart of its mystery. And the Kabbalistic iconography
162 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

revolves around Metatron, the fire quadrant, and Malkuth, recalling Pyn-
chon’s inversion of Merkabah mysticism earlier in the novel, in the passage
devoted to Brigadier General Pudding’s ritual coprophagia in the depths of
the White Visitation. All allusions converge when the message intended for
the homosexual transvestite seems to reach the murderous father, leading
Slothrop to wonder “if they’ll come in person or if Pop’ll send a hit man to
try for a first round KO” (694). The psychology is “too finely labyrinthine”
to know for sure whether the Father combines the opposites within himself
(as a transvestite), hence figuring an archetypal symbol of wholeness the
Jungians would recognize as a hermaphrodite; or whether he is simply the
Oedipal father in drag.
In a subsequent section of Episode 6 of this last part of the novel,
Slothrop’s wanderings take him into the streets of a “Northern Zone town,”
which he reaches by “a strange harbor, from the sea, on a foggy day”
(706)—the day, as it turns out, that the atom bomb was dropped on Hi-
roshima. The streets of the Zone are various and labyrinthine, with names
like “Semlower Straße, in Stralsund,” “Hafenstraße in Greifswald,” “the
Sluterstraße in the old part of Rostock … or the Wandfärberstraße in Lüne-
burg” (706). The streets are ghostly, haunted by the presence of “soldiers,
dead now, who sat or stood, and listened” to sermons preached inside the
bombed out buildings by “army chaplains” (706). Many of them “died before
they got back inside a garrison-church,” where “Clergymen, working for the
army, stood up and talked to the men who were going to die about God,
death, nothingness, redemption, salvation” (706). Slothrop wanders through
the streets “playing a harmonica,” passing “a row of faces” on a bus with
“drowned-man green” faces (707).
On one of the mornings in one of these amorphous, foggy towns of the
Northern Zone, he finds a scrap of newsprint announcing the explosion of the
atom bomb—an event which Pynchon associates with another death goddess,
this time “the pale Virgin rising in the east, shoulders, breasts, 17° 36’ down
to her maidenhead at the horizon. A few doomed Japanese knew of her as
some Western deity” (707). The “wirephoto” that accompanies the headline
looks like a “giant white cock, dangling in the sky straight downward out of
a white pubic bush,” an image which Pynchon associates with “the Cross”
and “a Tree” (707)—perhaps the Kabbalistic tree of the Sephiroth. The syn-
cretic revelation of the dark face of a destructive god, which combines Freu-
Gravity’s Rainbow 163

dian, Christian, astrological, and Kabbalistic motifs, is characteristic of Pyn-

chon’s ludic handling the nekyia throughout the novel.
As always, the nekyia catalyzes the revelation of form, by disclosure of
the governing forces of the universe, of destiny, of history. This remains the
case in the next episode of Part 4, which returns to the story of the Russian
Tchitcherine, who, as Pynchon puts it, is entangled in the “terrible politics of
the Grail” (715). The Grail is essentially the V-2 rocket, but Tchitcherine’s
quest is dominated by his obsession with his half brother Enzian, whose
Schwarzkommando is in pursuit of the mysteries of the rocket for reasons
other than those of the Russians. This Episode (number 7 in Part 4) is another
variation on what we might call the narcotic nekyia, so prevalent throughout
the course of Gravity’s Rainbow. It too, however, moves inevitably towards
the revelation of those governing principles of fate, destiny, and history that
operate just below the surface of things. For Tchitcherine, this revelation be-
gins with his sense of the “predestined shape” of “History,” which for him
implicates the “secular” dynamics of the “Marxist dialectics” (715).
The drug of choice in this episode is called “Oneirine theosophate,” ap-
parently administered by a coalition of Russian and American spies on the
trail of the rocket’s secrets. The name of the drug, of course, implicates the
oneiric nekyia—a descent into the unconscious, as dislosed in the form of a
hallucinatory dream. But the drug also has profound theologial implications,
since the name indicates “the Presence of God,” as Tchitcherine’s friend
Wimpe puts it (716). The revelation of the mysteries of God—the ultimate
power governing the forces of destiny, history, and the creation—is, of
course, the traditional climax of those ritual descents to the underworld
which the Classical mysteries of the ancient world were founded upon (such
as the Eleusinian, Mithraic, Orphic, and Isis mysteries of the Hellenistic era).
Indeed, James Hillman’s equation of Hades and eidos, in his elucidation of
the connection between the dream and the underworld, evokes the unity of
the God of the Underworld and those fundamental forms of Platonic doctrine
which serves as the basic principles of the intellectual and imaginal realms.
Jung called these fundamental forms “archetypes,” and also associated
their revelation with the oneiric nekyia. In this episode of the novel, Pynchon
calls them “mantic archetypes,” referring to “Certain themes” that recur in
the narrative hallucinations catalyzed by the drug. And, like Hillman, Pyn-
chon notes that certain “analogies with the ghost life” and the “mantic arche-
types” that recur in the hallucinations lead the researchers in the field to call
them “Oneirine hauntings” (716–17). For our purposes, it is important to
164 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

note that these hauntings “show a definite narrative continuity” (717)—i.e.,

they give shape and significance, form and meaning, to the hallucinations
catalyzed by the drug, hallucinations associated with the “presence of the
dead” (717). Most fundamentally, the hauntings lead to the “discovery that
everything is connected, everything in the Creation” (718). That is to say, the
oneirine nekyia moves inevitably towards the revelation of the principle of
order underlying the chaotic surface of destiny and history.
This is the case with “TCHITCHERINE’S HAUNTING,” the name of
the subsection devoted to the Russian’s narcotic nekyia, when the team ad-
ministers the drug (717). Instead of the revelation of God, however, the ses-
sion will lead Tchitcherine to the recognition that the powers governing his
fate are those of the Stalinists operating out of Moscow. His session moves,
therefore, beyond the “paranoid suspicions” and “unappeasable fears” of his
personal subconscious, towards the “very heart of History,” its “inmost
heart,” which seems to be driven by what Nietzsche called “der Wille zur
Macht” (the Will to Power). And the inquisition that proceeds while Tchitch-
erine is under the influence of the drug is compared to the Islamic nekyia,
when the Russian remembers that “In Central Asia he was told of the func-
tions of Moslem angels. One is to examine the recently dead. After the last
mourner has gone, angels come to the grave and interrogate the dead one in
his faith” (719). Tchitcherine’s “faith,” alas, seems all too secular, since he is
instructed at the end of the session to “report to TsAGI” when he gets back to
“Moscow,” where “another assignment” awaits him (720)—apparently a re-
turn to “Central Asia,” where he had gone in search of the Kirghiz light ear-
lier in the novel, and where the Russian rocket scientists were stationed after
the War (Weisenburger 358).
The eighth episode of Part 4 alludes to Kirghiz Light, which, like “The
escape route of the Anubis,” “The Herero country of death,” and the apparent
firing of the last V-2 Rocket (the so-called Schwarzgerät, numbered 00000),
is in the Northern Zone. Hence the invocation of the Nordic nekyia (Thor’s
journey to Utgard) that underlies the bizarre parody of the Harrowing of Hell
that occurs in the episode, when Roger Mexico and Seaman Bodine go to a
dinner party called “the Krupp wingding” (725), an informal affair “at the
home of Stefan Utgarthloki, and his wife, “Frau Utgarthloki” (726). Nobody
knows her first name, but she is evoked as another Goddess of the Under-
world, the “blonde image of your mother dead,” with “eyebrows too dark
and whites too white, some zero indifference that in the end is truly evil”
Gravity’s Rainbow 165

(726). She is like the ghost of Tyrone’s mother: “Nalline Slothrop just before
her first martini is right here, in spirit, at this Kruppfest” (726). And Slothrop
too is a ghostly presence, like a “plucked albatross. Plucked, hell—stripped.
Scattered all over the Zone,” only a few “feathers” left (726)—imagery
which evokes the divestiture, ornithological, and night-sea necrotypes (given
the implicit allusion to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”).
As the banquet proceeds, other necrotypes emerge. A violinist known as
“Captain Horror,” and his colleague André Omnopon, an “accomplice in sui-
cidally depressing everybody inside 100 meters’ radius whenever they drop
in” (725), provide the music for the evening. Pig Bodine is regally invested
for the affair in a “zoot suit of unbelievable proportions” and “amazing tropi-
cal-parrot combinations of yellow, green, lavender, vermillion” (724). It is a
“subversive garment, all right” (724), appropriate to the disgusting repartee
that he and Roger unleash on the party, in revenge for the loss of Jessica,
who is returning to her husband Jeremy, apparently with the blessing of the
members of the Counterforce gathered at the table. The viola is said to sound
like a “ghost, grainy-brown, translucent, sighing in and out of the other
Voices” (727), as the company marches into dinner like a “priestly proces-
sion, full of secret gestures and understandings” (728)—an apparent nod to
the Grail processions of the Middle Ages. Or are we meant to think of the
decapitation necrotype in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, since, when Pig
Bodine looks down at the end of the table, he sees a “stone barbecue pit”
with “Roger’s head, being held by four or six hands upside down, the lips
being torn away from the teeth and the high gums already draining white as a
skull” (728)? Both Roger and Bodine have “green” auras in the scene, a
color Pynchon associates with a deadly battle “in a North Atlantic gale,” in
the “winter of ’42 [….] not since then has Seamen Bodine felt so high in the
good chances of death” (729)—a remark which links the episode with the
night-sea necrotype. There is also a ghost present, in addition to Tyrone: that
of “Brigadier Pudding,” whom the medium Carroll Eventyr, of the White
Visitation,” has brought into the séances he conducts for the Counterforce.
His presence would seem to explain the repulsive culinary repartee Bodine
and Roger engage in to drive the guests from the table—their peculiar ver-
sion of the Harrowing of Hell.
The subsequent episode returns us to Enzian and the Schwarzkommando,
who are on the long “trek” Northwards, dragging pieces of the V-2 Rocket to
“Test Stand VII, the holy place” (739). This episode adds fascinating items
to the Herero cosmology of the nekyia, evoked by the “toruses of Rocket
166 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

range that are parabolic in section” (740). Weisenburger’s note on the word
“toruses” is most suggestive, and enriches our understanding of what Pyn-
chon calls the “Rocket state-cosmology” associated with the parabola of the
rainbow and the trajectory of the V-2 (741). “The etymology of the word,”
Weisenburger points out, “is similarly striking: in Hindu art, Shiva, the red
god of destruction and waste, is frequently represented beneath a blazing To-
rana, a fiery arch (one half of a geometrical torus) symbolic of death and dis-
solution” (365)—the other half of the arch is underground, a critical point in
Pynchon’s construction of the Herero cosmology of the underworld, for the
torus of the rainbow and the trajectory of the rocket is

not, as we might imagine, bounded below by the line of the Earth it “rises from” and
the Earth it “strikes” No But Then You Never Really Thought It Was Did You Of
Course It Begins Infinitely Below the Earth And Goes On Infinitely Back Into The
Earth it’s only the peak that we are allowed to see, the break up through the surface,
out of the other silent world [….] (740)

Pynchon seems to associate this vast world beneath the surface of the
Earth, into which the symmetrical curved arch of the torus extends, as an
“Aether sea to bear us world-to-world” (741). The image is curiously evoca-
tive of the archaic Greek cosmology of the underworld, according to which
there exists “a whole celestial hemisphere curved below our earth […] a
pneumatic region of air and wind […] dense cold air without light” (Hillman,
Dream 38–39). It is a region of “cold dead depths,” a “space beyond earth’s
atmosphere” originally conceived of by the Greeks as “the very bottom of
Hades, its furthest chasm […] personified as the son of ether and earth”
(Hillman, Dream 38).
As the trek of the exiled Hereroes continues, Pynchon turns from the
Hellenic to the Hermetic implications of the nekyia, using the myth as a met-
aphor for the creative mysteries of poeisis and hermeneusis. Since “the
Rocket has to be many things, it must answer to a number of different shapes
in the dreams of those who touch it,” including those of the so-called “here-
tics” (741). These include

Gnostics who have been taken in a rush of wind and fire to chambers of the Rocket-
throne … Kabbalists who study the Rocket as Torah, letter by letter—rivets, burner
cup and brass rose, its text theirs to permute and combine into new revelations, al-
ways unfolding … Manichaeans who see two rockets, good and evil, who speak to-
gether in the sacred idiolalia of the Primal Twins (some say their names are Enzian
Gravity’s Rainbow 167

and Blicero) of a good Rocket to take us to the stars, an evil Rocket for the World’s
suicide, the two perpetually in struggle. (741)

This fine passage reiterates the sustained allusions to the Gnostic nekyia,
which recur throughout the course of the novel. According to that vision, this
life itself is the underworld, into which the soul has been imprisoned, and
from which it is longing for release (hence the Herero drive towards mass
suicide). And, in all the variations on Gnosticism listed in the passage above,
the nekyia is associated with the production and interpretation of a text—in
this case, the text of the Rocket itself. It is a task that proceeds through the
haunted terrain of the Zone, as Enzian and his Schwarzkommado pass the
body of “Mieczislav Omuzire” on the side of the road (744), and lament the
possible death of “the Okando child” as well (746). Such deaths, however,
seen from the point of view of the Gnostic nekyia, are actually to be cele-
brated, for they liberate the soul, which is imprisoned “in the bodies of new-
borns” (747).
The world of Gravity’s Rainbow, it seems, is a Gnostic world, presided
over by those demonic archons who capture and retain the human soul in the
inferno of physical incarnation. The novel ends with final allusions to the
Gnostic nekyia, and to the myth of Orpheus, in the last episode, when
Slothrop is “broken down,” and “scattered” across the Zone (752). Like Or-
pheus dismembered by the Maenads, he seems to leave “fragments” of him-
self behind, fragments which “have grown into consistent personae of their
own. If so, there’s no telling which of the Zone’s present-day population are
offshoots of his original scattering” (757). The imagery here is Orphic, but
also suggests the myth of Osiris, Lord of the Grain and of the Resurrection in
Egypt, whose body is scattered up and down the Nile by Set and his con-
spirators. It is also a primordial myth of agricultural peoples all over the
world—that of the corn decapitated, or the deity dismembered, in order to
sow the seeds from which new life comes.
The most immediate association, however, is Kabbalistic, since Pyn-
chon’s final vision of Enzian and the Schwarzkommando’s trek northwards
reiterates the myth of shevirah and tikkun, of the shattering and reconstruc-
tion of the Sephiroth—those sacred vessels created by God (the En-Sof) to
contain the explosive outpouring his energies, which cracked under the
strain. The fiery shards of the vessels then fell through the darkness and be-
came the souls of a humanity imprisoned in the inferno of the material world.
To assist our efforts to reconstruct the shattered vessels, and return to the
168 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

primordial unity, God sends a series of Messiahs to remind us of our origins,

and they recall us from the underworld of life and death. Pynchon summa-
rizes the myth in his portrayal of Enzian and his people, dragging the 00001
V-2 Rocket northwards, returning to their place of origin, and reestablishing
their connection with God: he evokes the trek as “a Diaspora running back-
wards, seeds of exile flying inward in a modest preview of gravitational col-
lapse, of the Messiah gathering in the fallen sparks” (752). The fall of the
soul into the underworld of matter, therefore, will be reversed by its ascent
and return to place of origins—the myth of the nekyia will yield to that of
celestial ascent, as it does in the final pages of the novel devoted to Blicero’s
sacrifice of Gottfried, who is tucked into the nose of the V-2 Rocket.
Slothrop’s scattering, however, and the imagery of the broken vessels,
serve also as metaphors for the novel itself, and for the creative dynamics of
poeisis and hermeneusis. A work as vastly encyclopaedic as Gravity’s Rain-
bow must necessarily seem a heap of broken images. But from the scattered
shards of the labyrinthine plot, a certain unity emerges. It is a unity largely
conferred upon the text by the recurrent variations of its most central myth,
the one that gives shape and significance to the whole—that of the nekyia,
the descent to, and return from, the underworld. It is a journey all concerned
must undertake: author, characters, and readers alike. We all go down in the
Though Pynchon’s wildly playful, ludic handling of the Hades complex,
or “Eurydice-obsession” as Slothrop calls it, clearly goes far beyond many of
his Modernist precursors (with the exception of Joyce), it nevertheless comes
right out of their tradition. The polyvalent diversity of allusions brought to-
gether in the text to revolve around the central vortex of the underworld re-
calls Lawrence, Mann, Joyce, Pound, Eliot, and Yeats, all of whom used a
complex range of allusions to a variety of mythological systems in order
shape their material. Furthermore, Pynchon also makes Hades not only the
locus of infernal torments, but also the granary where the archetypal patterns
giving shape to the narrative are stored. In Gravity’s Rainbow, the patterns
can either be the delusive systems of paranoia, the actual plottings of an in-
ternational conspiracy of the Elite, or a random “anti-paranoia, where noth-
ing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long”
(434)—including, perhaps the reader.
This is fundamentally then, and most urgently, a novel about the quest
for meaning, and the role the myth of the nekyia plays in that quest. It
Gravity’s Rainbow 169

stretches the boundaries between the bizarre details of daily life (its anarchy
and futility no where more effectively conveyed), and the mythic structures
giving them shape and significance (and offering the hope for a redeemed
wasteland). The primary difference between Pynchon and his Modernist pre-
cursors is his extensive reliance on the imagery of science and technology,
but even Joyce had made moves in that direction in his catechism chapter of
Ulysses. One cannot cite differences of tone or irony, for both Joyce and
Mann manipulated their mythic materials with extraordinarily wry wit and
even grotesque parody. Modernism was in essence a fusion of “myth and
irony .... a poetics that gave up nothing of literature’s bardic daring despite
the doubts and subversions of enlightened thought” (Hartman 145). Nor can
one urge the earnest seriousness of Yeats or Eliot as differentiating their
work from Pynchon’s: Gravity’s Rainbow, like the Four Quartets, ends with
the suggestion that the final revelation will come only with annihilation. For
Pynchon, as for Eliot, the Dove and the Bomb are one.

Charles Poncé provides a very useful synopsis of the myth, which always involves the
rhythms of descent and return associated with the nekyia.
See references to articles by Quispell and Scholem in my Works Cited for commentary
and synopsis of the Gnostic nekyia, and the Kabbalistic mythology it drew from.
See Henry Corbin’s Avicenna and the Visionary Recital, reissued under the awkward ti-
tle of Alone with the Alone.
See my article in The Yearbook of Comparative Literature.
See my books, Figuring Poesis, Ricorso and Revelation, and The Modernist Nekyia.
See Hans Jonas on “The Hymn of the Pearl,” which exemplififes the Gnostic version of
the nekyia.
On Cortázar’s handling of the nekyia, see my Figuring Poesis (100–110).
Chapter Four: Mason & Dixon

Mason & Dixon makes use of the mythologies of the maze and the under-
world that so permeate his earlier work. For Pynchon, the nekyia typically
activates a dynamic interplay between poeisis and hermeneusis, as his char-
acters (like Oedipa and Slothrop) struggle to interpret the languages of a se-
cret code, which they discover during their descents into a wild variety of
underworlds—toilets, salt mines, sewer systems, and suburban housing de-
velopments. The narrative of the newest novel is based on a sequence of
small descents, contained within the three larger cycles of descent and return
that take Mason and Dixon from England, to South Africa, and back to Eng-
land (“One: Latitudes and Departures”); from England to America and back
(“Two: America”); and from England to Northern Ireland and Norway
(“Three: Last Transit”). These nekyias are contained within the frame of the
narrative: Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke tells the stories of his encounters with
Mason and Dixon to his sister’s family during the “Christmastide of 1786”
(6). The frame becomes elaborate, almost Chaucerian, as other narrators
(Frau Luise Redzinger, Wade LeSpark, or the French pastry chef, M.
Allègre) take over during the course of Cherrycoke’s recital, so that he him-
self becomes a listener (and sometimes protagonist) in the tale he is telling.
Pynchon articulates the basic plan of his novel in one of the frame tale
conversations that interrupts Cherrycoke’s stories about the surveyors. In this
interruption, Pynchon uses a musical analogy for the cycle of the nekyia that
structures the novel as a whole: he calls his book “‘a novel in Musick, whose
Hero instead of proceeding down the road having one adventure after an-
other, with no end in view, comes through some Catastrophe and back to
where she set out from’” (263). That “Catastrophe” represents the nadir of
the nekyia, as Aunt Euphy points out during the same interruption of the nar-
rative: “waving a Sheaf of Musick-Sheets,” she says that “all is become De-
parture, and sentimental Crisis,—the Sandwich-Filling it seems,—and at last,
Return to the Tonick, safe at Home, no need even to play loud at the end”
(263). She then proceeds to make the connection between the musical nekyia
and the story of “Mason and Dixon’s West Line,” which “in fact, shares this
modern Quality of Departure and Return, wherein, year upon Year, the Ri-
172 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

tornelli are not merely the same notes again and again, but variant each time”
(263). Revd Cherrycoke responds with remarks that relate the nekyia to the
solar journey that so obsessed the mythography of the 19th century: “‘As to
journey west,’ adds the Revd helpfully, ‘in the same sense as the Sun, is to
live, raise Children, grow older, and die, carried along by the Stream of the
Day,—whilst to turn Eastward, is somehow to resist time and age, to work
against the Wind, seek ever the dawn, even, as who can say, defy Death’”

One: Latitudes and Departures

Mason and Dixon’s first nekyia, however, takes them in another mythi-
cal direction, as they journey southwards, from England to Cape Town and
St. Helena, and then return north to London, to complete the cycle. Before
they undertake the journey, they go to consult a kind of Circe, a seeress of
the shipping yards, who plies her trade in a pub called “The Pearl of Suma-
tra” (24). They are led to her by an odd sort of Cerberus—a talking Norfick
Terrier named Fang, whom they encounter at twilight: “‘Why mayn’t there
be Oracles, for us, in our time?’” Mason asks Dixon, as the dog leads them to
“the Sybilline Maid” (28), “‘Gateways to Futurity? They can’t all have died
with the ancient Peoples’” (19).
As in Virgil, this Sybil’s domicile is an elaborate maze. The Company in
the pub moves steadily “away from the Street-Doors and toward the back of
the Establishment,” where a cockpit has been laid out (24). Beyond the pit,
there is “a rickety Labyrinth of Rooms for sleeping or debauchery, all reced-
ing like headlands into a mist” (24). Fang, “the Learnèd D.,” leads Mason
and Dixon “further back,” following the “assorted sounds of greater and
lesser Ecstasy,” that float “From the Labyrinth in back” (25). The maze is
linked to poeisis by the odd music emanating from its midst: “percussions
upon Flesh,” “some Duetto of Viol and Chinese Flute, the demented crowing
of fighting-cocks,” and “calls for Bitter and Three-Threads rising ever hope-
ful, like ariettas in the shadow’d Wilderness of Rooms” (25). The dog finally
halts in front of “Dark Hepsie, the Pythoness of the Point,” who sits “half out
of doors” beneath an “awning held by a gnaw’d split, ancient Euphroe be-
tween her and the sky” (25). “Euphroe” is a recondite nautical word, refer-
ring to “A crow foot deadeye,” derived from a word literally meaning
Mason & Dixon 173

“maiden” (O.E.D. 903). It therefore implies the kind of ocular ornithological

imagery frequently associated with the nekyia.
Mason has been driven by his melancholy to consult this oddly ludic
oracle. He is suffering from “Hyperthrenia, or ‘Excess in Mourning,’”
brought on by the death of his wife Rebekah two years earlier (25). Many of
Mason’s descents, throughout the novel, are Orphic quests for his lost wife,
and involve musical symbolism. In this first nekyia, “the Learnèd Dog has
led him to presume there exist safe-conduct Procedures for the realm of
Death,—that through this Dog-reveal’d Crone, he will be allow’d at last to
pass over, and find, and visit her, and come back, his Faith resurrected” (25).
If so, Mason would be the first character in literature to have his faith re-
stored by a talking dog and a dubious Sybil called “the Pythoness of the
Point” (25). Dubious because, as Dixon is the first to notice, the “Scryeress”
is not a crone at all, however “dog reveal’d” (26): rather, “beneath her layers
of careful Decrepitude” there sits “a shockingly young woman hard at work”
(26), one who has more than one way of turning a trick.
However dubious, Hepsie’s dire prophecy that Mason and Dixon will set
sail on Good Friday, and that the voyage may “ferry them against their will
over to a Life they may not return from” (27) hits the mark. Like Circe in
Homer, and the Cumaean Sybil in Virgil, Hepsie is both oracle and psycho-
pomp, guide of souls to the underworld which immediately follows. Mason
and Dixon set sail on the “Seahorse,” a Frigate that fought in the battle of
Quebec in 1759. They pass beyond the “Start-Point” at the mouth of the
Channel in the “Cold of approaching Night,” under the guidance of Captain
Smith, who “haunts his little Raider like a nearly unsensed ghost,” and who
has been living on board “in a tidy corner of Hell” since assuming his com-
mand (34). The trials and ordeals characteristic of the nekyia begin the next
day, when the French warship l’Grand approaches from Brest, and engages
the Seahorse in a violent battle—which Pynchon brings off as brilliantly as
Patrick O’Brian (whom he alludes to later).
Pynchon’s penchant for this kind of virtuoso performance is perhaps
characteristic of postmodernism in general. It is based on the power of
imagination to revision history and myth in vividly realistic detail, as here in
the account of the engagement of the Seahorse and l’Grand. It’s the magical
fusion of myth and realism with a dazzling, eccentric prose that accounts for
much of Pynchon’s power. The battle lasts an hour and a half, with masts
crashing and splintering all around. The ship shrieks like “a great Sea-animal
in pain, the textures of its Cries nearly those of the human Voice when under
174 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

great Stress” (38). Mason and Dixon are “Below-decks, reduced to nerves,
given into the emprise of Forces invisible yet possessing great Weight and
Speed, which contend in some Phantom realm they have had the bad luck to
blunder into” (39). It’s a vivid inferno, “as Blood creeps like Evening to
Dominion over all Surfaces, so grows the Ease of giving in to Panic Fear”
(39). The lazarette is piled “with bloody Men,” and “Above, on deck, corpses
are steaming, wreckage is ev’rywhere, shreds of charr’d sail and line clatter
in the Wind” (39). Mason and Dixon endure “intestinal agonies so as not to
be the first to foul his breeches in front of the others,” and Revd Cherrycoke
(who is telling the tale), says that “By the end of the Engagement I was left
with nothing but my Faith between me and absolute black Panic” (38). Yes,
this is an underworld into which Mason and Dixon have blundered, but it is
also one of the nightmares of history from which we all, like Stephen Daeda-
lus, are struggling to awake.
In this case, the nekyia seals the relationship between Mason and Dix-
on—otherwise an oddly matched couple—for “the Vapors rising from the
Wounds of dying Sailors” disperse all that “was not essential for each to un-
derstand” about the other (42). They emerge from the experience exhausted,
like “Wraiths in night-clothes,” trying to make sense of their ordeal, before
they set sail again for Cape Town (43).
South Africa proves to be a more ludic inferno, yet still “one of the colo-
nies of Hell,” as Mason puts it (71). The Dutch family Mason and Dixon live
with is also “a kind of Hell” (86), an inferno of terrible food and lust (Mason
is pursued throughout the episode by his hostess, Johanna, her three daugh-
ters, and a slave Johanna sicks on him to conceive a partially white and
therefore more valuable child). It is a hell haunted by the “Collective Ghost”
of slavery, the sin of which persists throughout the novel, from Cape Town
to Baltimore. “Temporally, as geographically,” Revd Wicks says, it is “the
End of the World” (78). Great storms blow in over Table Mountain, “striking
to a remarkable Hellish red all surfaces” when a cloud called the “Bull’s
Eye” appears (91). It is as if Mason and Dixon have journeyed to “another
Planet” (69).
But the town down under has its positive sides as well. It is a place of
dream, of wildly spiced foods in the Malay quarter, of a veritable cornucopia
of exotic fruits piled up in the market place, and of celestial observation. The
purpose of the trip is to track the Transit of Venus as it passes in front of the
sun. The planet is the celestial figure of nekyia, usually a “tiny Dot of light,
Mason & Dixon 175

going through phases like the Moon, ever against the black face of Eternity”
(92). During the transit, however, Venus is “a Goddess descended from light
to Matter” (92). Its synodical cycles and the eight solar years separating the
transits served as ancient symbols of the nekyia: the sixteen royal festivals of
ritual entombment and rebirth having been calculated by the Sumerians to
cohere with the descent and return of Inanna, planetary goddess later re-
named Venus by the Romans (Campbell, Atlas 2.1.80). In this sense, the
planet also represents the basic plan of Pynchon’s novel, which is structured
throughout by the rhythms of descent and return.
On the island of St. Helena (where Mason goes after leaving Cape
Town), the descent to the underworld is executed with the eccentric original-
ity so characteristic of Pynchon’s oeuvre. Mason encounters the ghost of his
wife Rebekah while walking from “the D———l’s Garden and the Gates of
Chaos” that flank the “Company Fort at Sandy Bay,” through the mountains
to the “‘The Other Side’” of St. Helena (158). A hypnotic German named
Dieter, “his Eyes enormous and magnetick, fixing the Astronomer where he
stood,” tells Mason that to get to the “other side” one must go through the
mountains, “cross all that width of Purgatory, before descending upon
James’s Town” (161). All of the people on “the Windward Side of St. He-
lena” have been abandoned by God, and live “spiritually ill,” “depraved”
(161). These ocular and oreographic motifs associate the nekyia with the in-
ferno. But the underworld of the “Windward Side” is also a temenos, a place
of “Translocation” (158) where all “are wond’rously Transform’d” (160).
It is on the other side of the island that Mason encounters the ghost of his
wife: “And here it is, upon the Windward Side, where no ship ever comes
willingly, that her visits begin. At some point, Mason realizes he has been
hearing her voice, clearly, clean of all intervention,” as she begins to speak to
him from “the silence of her grave” (163–64). The first of her “furloughs
from death” comes during a walk one morning into a mountain valley, when
Mason “enters the Wind, picks his way ‘cross Boot-slashing Rock up over
the ridgeline and down onto the floor of a ruin’d ebony forest, where among
fog-wisps and ancient black logging debris polish’d by the Wind, she accosts
him shiv’ring in his Cloak” (164). When Rebekah tells Mason to “Wait till
you’re over here,” he hesitates “to bring up the topick of Death,” or mention
his wife’s “having died” (165). Rebekah will continue to haunt Mason
throughout the novel, and her appearances all occur at the climax of the se-
ries of nekyias that structure the narrative.
176 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

The next of these occurs after Mason returns by ship to the leeward side
of St. Helena, where he visits “the Jenkin’s Ear Museum, dedicated to the
eponymous Organ whose timely Display brought England in against Spain in
the War of ‘39” (175). Robert Jenkin lost the “influential Ear” at cards to one
Nick Mournival, who had the organ “encasqu’d in a little Show-case of Crys-
tal and Silver, and pickl’d in Atlantick Brine” (175). Pynchon’s account of
the descent to consult the oracular ear amusingly revises the threshold im-
agery of the nekyia: “Mason is chagrin’d to find set in a low Wall a tiny Por-
tico and Gate, no more than three feet high, with a Sign one must stoop to
read,—‘Ear of Robt Jenkin, Esq., Within’” (176). He has to get down on his
“elbows and knees, to investigate the diminutive Doorway at close hand,—
the Door, after a light Push, swinging open without a Squeak” (176). “Ma-
son’s smooth descent” takes him to a “Ramp-way leading downward, with
just enough height to crawl” (176). One would have thought that after The
Crying of Lot 49, V., and Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon might have exhausted
all possible postmodernist variations of the nekyia—but that seems not to be
the case, nor can the motif ever be exhausted, so fundamental is it to the po-
etic imagination.
Mr. Mournival leads Mason down the ramp through a “strait and increas-
ingly malodorous space where they crouch, awash in monologue and vocal
Tricks”—an “openly deranged” form of poeisis catalyzed by the nekyia
(177). For diversion during the descent to the ear, Mournival flourishes a
“Chronoscope,” a prism of sorts into which Mason squints, for a fee, and
sees a ship: its name, “the brig Rebecca,” comes to him like “a Message from
across some darker Sea,” like the sea of death (177). The vision links the
nekyia with the night-sea journey, which, in Pynchon, concludes when the
bizarre couple arrives at the Ear, which “reposes in its Pickling-Jar of Swed-
ish lead Crystal, as if being withheld from Time’s Appetite for some Destiny
obscure to all” (178). The nekyia has been associated with the revelation of
one’s destiny since the epics of Homer and Virgil—but never, as far as I
know, with an oracular ear! (That kind of ludic eccentricity is as char-
acteristic of Pynchon as it is of much of postmodernism).
Mason’s descent to the “Ear” continues to evoke the archetypal imagery
of the nekyia, but with many Pynchonesque peculiarities. When they reach
the “under-ground Intimacy” of the interior, Mr. Mournival unlocks the
“Vitrine” in which the ear is stored, bathed in a “blue-green Radiance” (178–
79)—there’s light at the end of this tunnel, as there is the near-death narra-
Mason & Dixon 177

tives studied by Moody, Grof, Zaleski, and Ring. None, however, have an
“Organ” that rises “up out of its Pickle,” and offers itself in a “half-cur’d and
subterranean cold” for consultation (179). It is a “flirtatious Ear,” “vibrating,
waiting,” like a “shell-fish” of sorts (179). Mason’s “fondest Wish” is the
Orphic desire to bring Rebekah back from the dead (179); but instead, he
asks for the speedy return of Mr. Dixon from South Africa. Pynchon also
alludes to the Goethean nekyia, when he writes that “Helen of Troy, mutatis
mutandis, might have smirk’d,” in response to Mason’s request (179), since
in Faust, Part Two, Mephistopheles helps bring Helen back from Hades. Ma-
son’s hope that the ear may be omniscient is also characteristic of the
nekyia—ancient and modern, literary and thanatological—since in all of
these the descent yields a revelation of the hidden secrets of destiny. But
again, Pynchon’s twist is typically postmodernist: Mason feels that he is
“Calling into a Void” when he addresses the ear, and he suspects that “this
priapick Ear, is the Void, and the very anti-Oracle—revealing nothing, as it
absorbs ev’rything. One kneels and begs, one is humiliated, one crawls on”
Pynchon’s variation on the linkage between the nekyia and poeisis in this
passage is also, perhaps, typical of postmodernism. Poeisis in the form of
musical expression is a standard motif of the postmortem journey—from the
harps of Orpheus and heaven, to the singing of the Sirens and die Lorelei, to
the “‘music, not of this world but from unseen stars’” reported by a woman
who nearly froze to death (Zaleski 141). Birdsong is the most frequent sym-
bol of the supernatural powers of poeisis catalyzed by the nekyia. But in
Pynchon, the celestial harmonies are produced by the harmonica (in Grav-
ity’s Rainbow), or by “the Mandoline jingling a recessional Medley of Indian
airs” that Mason hears as he climbs out of the dark tunnel (179). Having
“squirm’d past the last obstacle,” he finds himself standing in “the neglected
Garden he glimps’d earlier,” bringing his nekyia full circle (180). But one
nekyia leads to another, for, standing in this “Transition between Two
Worlds,” Mason suddenly sees James Town as a realm of the “invisible,”
into which he must now pass, feeling, as he says when reunited with his col-
league Dixon, quite “maz’d” (180).
178 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

Two: America

In the long central section of Mason & Dixon, which takes us on a jour-
ney through pre-revolutionary America, there are numerous variations on the
nekyia, which again confers “shape and significance” upon a potentially ran-
dom, picaresque narrative. The mythical method thus provides coherence,
bringing diverse episodes together in a sequence of descents. The overall
impression of the narrative structure is of a spiral of descents and returns, of
numerous smaller cycles set within the larger circles of “Exile” and return,
“‘With London but the first station. Then came the Cape. Then St. Helena.
Now,—these Provinces,” as Mason himself puts it (314). As Northrop Frye
noted, this is also the fundamental structure of biblical narrative, which fol-
lows “a sequence of mythoi,” figured by the rising and falling of wave fre-
quencies (171), that move steadily forward to the climactic and ultimate cy-
cles of the Incarnation and the Apocalypse (175).
The “sequence of mythoi” that forms the skeleton of Mason and Dixon’s
nekyias in America proceeds in that atmosphere of paranoid conspiracy so
characteristic of Pynchon’s novels. Colonel Washington makes this clear
when he entertains the surveyors on the porch of his home in Virginia. After
Dixon “suggests a likeness, in the British Mind, between your Indians West
of the Allegheny Ridge, and their Scots beyond Hadrian’s Wall,” Washing-
ton responds by saying, “Why Sir [...] you might be describing a camp upon
Monongahela, and the Death-hollows all night from across the River” (282).
These historical analogies establish the theme of the nekyia for the entire
American section of the novel: as Washington says, the surveyors “stand at
the Boundary between the Settl’d and the Unpossess’d, just about to enter the
Deep Woods” (282). Not only the “Deep Woods” of fairytale and myth, but
also the urban haunts of places like Lancaster, New York, and Philadelphia
itself are portrayed using the diction and iconography of the descent to the
underworld. Paranoia permeates each episode, poisoning the atmosphere
with a suspicion that “Masonick” or “Sino-Jesuit” conspiracies are forming a
“small Army of Dark Engineers who could run the World” (288), an army
that communicates with the “Electrick Force” of a “Tellurick Leyden-Pile”
of “Dead Weights” buried below the earth (286). The weights store “quanti-
ties of simple Electrick Force, then hold smaller charges, easily shaped into
invisible Symbols, decipherable by Means surely available to those Philoso-
phes” (286).
Mason & Dixon 179

Dixon’s paranoia is important, for it establishes a connection between

the nekyia, poeisis, and hermeneusis sustained throughout the novel: the in-
visible forces of telluric electricity shape “Symbols” that must be “decipher-
able,” so that the sequence of descents in the novel moves gradually towards
that ultimate revelation characteristic of the nekyia.
The first of these episodes occurs in Chapter 29, when Mason visits the
“Veery Brothers” shop in Philadelphia (289). They are “professional effigy
makers,” whom “Mason, in unabating Search after the Grisly, must pay a
Visit” (289). The Veery effigies are “Likenesses almost from Another
World,” to be found haunting “any darken’d Room” where the “Free Masons
of one Lodge or another” gather for their “Collegia,” i.e., their “secret-
society meetings” (290). The ocular and labyrinthine icons of the nekyia
emerge when Mason visits one of these clandestine meetings, in the “Back
Room’s back room” of an ale house “somewhere between The Indian Queen
and The Duke of Gloucester” (290). As he waits “for his eyes to adjust,” Ma-
son makes “out first Two Figures, then three, and at length the Roomful,”
and all of the effigies are “directing, nowhere but into his own eyes, stares
unbearable with meaning he cannot grasp” (291). As the light sharpens “to-
ward Revelation,” Mason begins to suspect that “all the Effigies in the back
room bear Faces of Commissioners for the Boundary Line” (291). He sees
the same “waxen Faces that gaz’d at him with such midnight Intent” the next
day, at a “Meeting, on 1 December,” when the “Line Commissioners, from
both Provinces,” file in with “the same look” he’d seen in the eyes of the ef-
figies (291). Mason wonders about “the Figures in that far back room, were
they not Effigies at all, but real people, only pretending to be Effigies, yes
these very faces,—ahrrhh!” (291).
All of the town, however, initially seems like an inferno to Mason and
Dixon: they are kept awake at night by “the cries of Beasts from the city
Shambles—Philadelphia in the Dark, in an all-night Din Residents may have
got accustom’d to,” but which the surveyors experience as “the very Mill of
Hell” (292). One night, Mason is driven to escape the “Din,” “the infernal
deedle ee, deedle ee” of his dreams, and the “unexpectedly polyphonic” snor-
ing of Dixon, by walking down to the “Orchid Tavern by Dock Creek,”
where he immerses himself in the “perilous Text of Faction” that surrounds
him, as the habitués talk “Pennsylvania Politics” (293). The squabbling is
interrupted by a nocturnal apparition of Dr. Ben Franklin, on hand, incognito,
to exhibit the wonders of electricity. After a “short Arpeggio from the Cla-
vier, a Voice thro’ the Vapors announces” the beginning of “the fam’d Ley-
180 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

den-Jar Danse Macabre! with that Euclid of the Electrick, Philadelphia’s

own Poor Richard, in the part of Death’” (294).
This conception casts Franklin in the guise of the Grim Reaper, Lord, in
this case, of the invisible energies of electricity. A kind of divestiture antici-
pates the revelation of these chthonic mysteries, as Franklin throws “back his
hood, to reveal lenses tonight of a curious shade of Aquamarine, allowing his
eyes to be view’d” (294). He comes on the stage as “a hooded, Scythe-
bearing Figure in Skeleton’s Disguise,” and he uses the “Blade of his
Scythe” to complete the circuitry of two battery terminals (294): “the result-
ing Tableau is lit by terrifying stark Flashes of Blue white Light, amid the
harsh Sputter of the Fulminous Fluid, and the giggling, and indeed Scream-
ing, of the Participants, Snuff flying ev’rywhere and now and then igniting in
Billows of green Flame, amid infernal Columns of Smoak” (294). The dis-
play is followed by a thunderstorm: “the Door opens and the Wind and Rain
blow in,” while Dr. Franklin marches through, using his “Scythe” as
“Death’s Picklock” to force “felonious Entry, into the Anterooms of the Cre-
a-torr” (295)—an image implicating the threshold imagery of the nekyia with
the “infernal” display of electrical force.
Shortly after Mason’s descent to the electric ale house, it’s Dixon’s turn:
he goes to “The Flower-de-Luce, in Locust Street,” in an effort “to obtain the
latest Magnetick Intelligence of the Region that awaits them” (298). Here,
Dixon encounters Molly and Dolly (Franklin’s female friends), who serve as
prophetic psychopompoi—guides to the American underworlds that follow.
A “Coffee Draper” stands, wig shining “with a Nimbus in the strange secon-
dary light from the mirror behind him,” and prepares Dixon’s beverage: half
and half “Mount Kenya Double-A, with Java Highland” (298). When Dolly
unfurls a “large Map” upon the table, she tells Dixon that according to the
“latest Declination Figures,” the “easterly movement, in Pennsylvania” has
been steadily decelerating (299), an anomaly Dixon incautiously attributes to
“‘Something underground, moving Westward” (299). Dolly pulls him aside
and tells him her story, then prophetically anticipates his: she is a kind of
psychic, using her “Circumferentor Box” to “read what Shapes lay beneath
the Earth, all in the Needle’s Dance” (301). She calls her instrument a
“Cryptoscope, into Powers hidden and waiting the Needles of Intruders”—
like the “Creatures of the Fell” haunting the moors of her childhood (301).
Dixon has the reputation of a “Wizard, a Dowser of Iron,” and may look
forward, our prophetess assures him, to a visit with “Lord Lepton, to whose
Mason & Dixon 181

ill-reputed Plantation you must be drawn, upon your way West, resistlessly
as the Needle” (301). Like Circe in the Odyssey, she provides the Map of
Dixon’s nekyia, which will eventually take him to Lepton’s demonic planta-
There are several underworlds to be negotiated before Lord Lepton’s es-
tate, however. The next one takes Mason and Dixon to see the “Massacre
Site” in Lancaster, which they reach “10 January 1765, putting up at The
Cross Keys” (341). The “Tavern Sign” lets them know where they are: it de-
picts a rifle “notable for the Device upon its Stock, a Silver Star of five
Points, revers’d so that two point up and one down,—a sure sign of evil at
work, universally recogniz’d as the Horns of the D–––l” (342). The pentacle
signals the presence of the “Prince,” and he, it seems, rules over the infernal
episodes of American history—nightmares that fuel Mason’s insomnia while
he stays at the Cross Keys. He begins to pretend “Rebekah is there,” and
sneaks out before Dixon wakes up to see the “Site of last Year’s Massacre by
himself” (346). Once there, he smells what he calls “Lethe-Water,” and re-
flects that in America, “Time is the true River that runs ‘round Hell” (346).
The sight of chips in the walls “where blows with Rifle-Butts miss’d their
Marks,” and of “blood in Corners never cleans’d,” leads Mason to conclude
that “Not even the Dutchmen at the Cape behav’d this way” (347). We don’t
like to think of America as an inferno, but there it is: forgotten atrocities,
crimes against humanity.
The following nekyia in the novel is narrated by one of the characters in
the frame, Revd Wicks, who recounts the time when he spent a “Fortnight”
in “Niveal Confinement” with Mason and Dixon, snowbound in an Inn
(352). The framing device is further complicated when one of the characters
in the Revd’s tale (Frau Luise Redzinger) takes over, and tells her own story,
as the company rolls towards the Inn overnight. Both stories utilize the im-
agery of the maze and the underworld, thus linking them to the other epi-
sodes in the novel.
The digression begins as Wicks recounts the trip across the “rambunc-
tious Countryside” in a “Coach-ful of assorted Travelers” (353). They travel
“through the nocturnal fields” in the “‘otherworldly’” “‘Luminosity’” of
“pre-snowlight” (354), at a time when, “in Cisalleghenic America, appari-
tions continue” (354–55). The carriage stops “in the middle of a Night al-
ready grown heavy with imminent snow” to take on a woman of “unearthly
fairness,” who is accompanied by her daughter (354–55). Revd Wicks sees
182 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

the pair of women as his “own guides across the borderlands and into Mad-
ness” (355).
The mother is Frau Luise Redzinger, bound for Philadelphia, which a
Mr. Edgewise calls “Sodom-upon-Schuykill,” asking “‘What possible busi-
ness could be taking a Godly young woman down into that unheavenly
place?’” (355). Frau Redzinger is thus compelled to tell her tale to the com-
pany in the carriage. She says that her husband Peter, while “bringing hops in
to the cooling-pit” one day, “slipped in the dust, fell in the Pit, with the dried
hops nearly twenty feet deep” (357). Since “even the odor of the pollen is
deadly,” Peter’s interment in the hop pit “took him into a poison’d sleep,”
during which he was overcome by “an unbearable Luminosity,” and encoun-
tered “beings from somewhere else, ‘long, long from Pennsylvania’” (358).
Peter calls the finger he loses while being dragged out of the pit a “sacramen-
tal finger, his outward and bodily sign of the Other thing that had happened
to him down in that miserable suffocation” (358). As with all descents, Pe-
ter’s near-death experience has catalyzed the presence of beings of light, who
inhabit “Worlds alternative to this one” (359). Revd Wicks—who belongs to
what he calls the “true ‘Church,’ of the planet-wide Syncretism, among the
Deistic, the Oriental, Kabbalist, and the Savage, that is to be” (356)—calls
Peter’s nekyia “Another American Illumination,” one of those “Epiphanies”
that brightens the “Horizon of our Exile” here in the world below (258).
Since Peter’s “enlightenment by way of nearly drowning,” he has been
“wandering from one cabin to another, anywhere two or more Germans may
be gathered together, with his Tales of the Pit,” (359), as if he were a kind of
Joseph—in whose story, by the way, the symbolism of the grain (that dies to
be reborn) also plays a central role, as it did in the Eleusinian mysteries of
Persephone’s descent to Hades.
Shortly after telling her husband’s Tale of the Pit, the carriage arrives at
a labyrinthine and vaguely sinister Inn, an “immense log Structure” com-
posed of “courtyards and passageways” of “such complexity” that the eye is
lost in contemplating the intricacies of its “Arrangement” (362). The Inn has
“a long front porch, and two entrances, one into the Bar-room, the other into
the family Parlor, with Passage between them only after a complicated
search within, among Doors and Stair-cases more and less evident” (363).
The labyrinthine arrangement of thresholds presages the otherworldly at-
mosphere within. Guided by a “gnomic Squire” named Haligast, Mason and
Dixon “descend into” the barroom, a place of “either useful Prophecy or
Mason & Dixon 183

Bedlamite Entertainment” (366). Here they (and the reader) endure the sto-
ries of the French chef, M. Allègre, who recites “his Illiad of Inconvenience”
about a wild mechanical duck (370), before retiring for bed.
The labyrinthine complexity of the Inn reflects the increasing intricacy of
Pynchon’s frame tale. When it resumes, the two surveyors “Journey sepa-
rately, one north and one south” (393). Dixon rides along “the Rolling-roads”
(the erstwhile Ritchie Highway) to Annapolis, and then on into Williams-
burg, “a Maze-like Disposition of split-rail Fences,” where he will encounter
Thomas Jefferson, “a tall red-headed youth,” who copies down Dixon’s toast
“‘To the pursuit of Happiness,” and asks if he wouldn’t mind him using the
“Phrase sometime?” (394–95). Throughout his journey southwards, Dixon
dreams that he is “upon a dark Mission […] in the grip of Forces no one will
tell him of, serving Interests invisible” (394)—paranoia never far away in
Pynchon’s nekyias.
Mason, meanwhile, has traveled northwards, to “New York by way of
the Staten Island Ferry,” where he meets “a certain Amelia, a Milk-Maid of
Brooklyn” (399). When the “Clock strikes the Hour,” they run to catch “the
last Ferry back to her farm upon Long-Island,” a “bittersweet passage, Fer-
ries ev’rywhere upon that cold and cloud-torn Styx” (399). The Stygian pas-
sage takes them to a Brooklyn inhabited by “an assortment of Rogues,” a
Pirate with “diff’rently-sized Eye-balls” (401), and Amy’s uncle, “Captain
Volcanoe” (403). “Feeling not quite a Prisoner,” Mason is forced to fix the
thieves’ telescope, which remains strategically pointed “down toward the
Ship-Yards across the River,—commanding a View, in fact, of all the Dock-
ing along Water-Street, and, more obliquely, of the River-front, down to the
White-Hall Slip at the South end of the Island, unto Governor’s Island be-
yond, and the Buttermilk Channel. A Field-Marshal’s Dream” (403). For, as
it turns out, the thieves are radical revolutionaries preparing for war—
(indeed, one of the pleasures of Pynchon’s novel is its graceful incorporation
of historical and topographic details about Colonial America).
These two separate descents, one north and one south, converge again
when Mason and Dixon go together to Lepton Castle, a nekyia narrated by
another character in the frame, Mr. LeSpark—much to the irritation of his
wife, who lets him know how much she resents and begrudges “even the
least allusion to any Life of yours, before we met” (410). “‘Thus depriving
me,” LeSpark answers, “‘of all but, what’s it been now...ten years? twenty?’”
(410)—one can only assume that, wherever Pynchon is hiding out, he’s
learned something about marriage.
184 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

Mr. LeSpark’s narrative libation—about Lepton’s “iniquitous, Iron-

Plantation,” situated “out past the reach of civic Lanthorns,” and way on
“beyond, in the Forest, where the supernatural was less a matter of Publick-
Room trickery or Amusement” (411)—is laced with the iconography of the
nekyia. LeSpark remembers the approach to the Iron Plantation, rounding
“one particular unfolding of the Trail,—Hazel-branches parting, river noise
suddenly in the air, Dogs on route and at the Gallop” (411). All of these de-
tails are necrotypes: “the hazel was sacred to witches,” who used its wood
for divining rods (Walker, Dictionary 465); the dog, the river, and the horse
are all associated with the crossing into the other world in Classical myth;
and iron itself bears a special relationship to the kingdom of the faeries
(Briggs 234). Since iron ore is mined, then fashioned by fire, it is also asso-
ciated with the underworld—even with “proud Satan,” as Revd Wicks points
out, in his objection to the slaves who toil “In the shadows where the Forge’s
glow does not reach,” bringing the “day’s loads of Fuel” up the Chesapeake,
and then on to the Lepton iron works.
Mason and Dixon arrive at the Plantation “lost at nightfall,” when, “in
the last possible light,” they “come upon a cabin” and traverse “its ancient
doorsill” into what they fully expect to be “the sorrowing ruin” within (412).
Instead, their passage through the dark tunnel of the night forest takes them
into an interior where “Light shines ev’rywhere,—Chandelier Light, silver
Sconce and Sperm-Taper Light” (412). It is a passage reminiscent of fables
about the Faerie Queen and her rambunctious retinue, cavorting in a dazzling
palace beneath the ground, hidden within the hollow hills. The faerie king-
dom is typically highly erotic, so it seems appropriate that when the survey-
ors’ eyes grow accustomed to the dazzling light, they gaze up at the “Pla-
fond” (“a ceiling either flat or vaulted, enriched with paintings,” according to
the O.E.D) and see “a full spectrum of colors, depicting not the wing’d be-
ings of Heaven, but rather the Denizens of Hell, and quite busy at their
Pleasures, too” (412).
Musical metaphors of poeisis accompany the passage into the labyrin-
thine interior of the estate. Guided by the sounds of “Some twenty or thirty
musicians,” playing the “Oboick Reveries of the Besozzis,” or the “Imperial
Melismata of Quantz,” the hypnotized surveyors “pass through doorways,
cross anterooms filled with expensive surfaces and knick-knack intricacies,”
and come at last to “a grand Archway, above which, carv’d in glowing pink
Marble, naked Men, Women, and Animals writhe together in a single knot-
Mason & Dixon 185

ted Curve of Lustfulness” (413). While the reliefs carved upon this final
threshold recall the evocative frescoes of the Temple of Galta, which Octavio
Paz put in the center of his labyrinth, the “gigantic rococo Mirror, British
Chippendale to the innocent eye, engrossing easily the hundredth part of an
acre” (413) that Mason and Dixon encounter inside the magnificent ballroom
recalls the catoptrics of so many postmodernist nekyias.
Every underworld has its Lord, every labyrinth its Lady—in this case,
both are named Lepton. One of the “Castle’s Ghosts,” an “ominous shadow,”
says the surveyors have “fallen, willy-nilly, among a race who not only de-
vour Astronomers as a matter of habitual diet, but may also make of them
vile miniature ‘Sandwiches’” (414). The ghost leads them to Lady Lepton,
who appears accompanied by the sounds of the “Slave Orchestra” her hus-
band, the “melody maddened Iron-Nabob,” has assembled: “a Harpsichord
Virtuoso from New Orleans, a New York Viol-Master, Pipers direct from the
Forests of Africa” (415). Dixon finds Lady Lepton “dangerously interesting,”
and suddenly remembers that, as a boy, he had seen her before, “on a Lurk
among the Towers and Gateways,—and in the shadows of Autumn,” when
she rode so fast out onto the “Fell” that her “amazing hair blew straight back
behind her” (416). His uncle George thought her “a Witch” (416), but we can
identify her as the Lady of the Labyrinth by the lepidoptric symbolism of her
imagined divestiture: her “bare décolletage” produces the effect “of someone
trying to ascend into her natural undrap’d State, out of a Chrysalis spun of
the same invisible Silk as the Social Web, kept from emerging into her true
wing’d Self,—perhaps then to fly away,—by the gravity of her gown” (419).
Her husband is a more definitely demonic denizen of the underworld: the
“ill-famed, the drooling and sneering, multiply-bepoxed Lord Lepton, an in-
satiate gamester” (416). After tumbling to “ruin in one of the period’s more
extravagant Stock-Bubbles,” Lepton steps “off the Edge of the World,” and
goes to America, sailing “to far and fever-clouded Chesapeake, where he was
brought up-country, to dig and blast in the earth, fetch and stoke in the ser-
vice of the perpetual Fires, smell unriddably of Sulfur” (416). Finally, after
three “of these trans-Stygian Years,” Lepton becomes first a “Journeyman,”
and then, in two more, “his own Master” (416). Since then, Lepton has made
a fortune mining the “Pretty, magickal black Stone” from the “Charcoal
Hearths” upon his Pennsylvania “Plantation” (418).
The attendants of Lord and Lady Lepton are also suitably fallen crea-
tures, “black Majordomos and black Soubrettes,” like the “Bondmaiden”
who hands Dixon a drink: “‘Milord’s own punch receipt,” she says, “‘Knock
186 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

you on your white ass’” (419). As Dixon reflects that he “would have
brought me back one, but no one told me,” he suddenly seems to recognize
the Soubrette,” whom Lord Lepton has acquired from a Convent in Quebec,
“quite well known in certain Circles” for “helping its Novices descend, into
ever more exact forms of carnal Mortality,” making them all “quite gifted”
Whores, “eager practitioners of all Sins” (419).
The labyrinthine nature of the interior is reiterated when the dinner gong
rings, “Somewhere beyond the curve of a great staircase” (420). Mason and
Dixon join the guests, who “make speed toward yet another Wing of Castle
Lepton, converging at the entrance to a great dom’d room, the Roof being a
single stupendously siz’d Hemisphere of Glass” (420). We’re told that the
glass has been “taken from a Bubble, blown first to the size of a Barn by an
ingenious air-pump of Jesuit invention, then carefully let cool, and saw’d in
half. The sister Hemisphere is somewhere out in America, tho’ where ex-
actly, neither Lord nor Lady is eager to say” (420). Geometric and catoptric
motifs complete the picture: there is a large gaming room beneath the dome,
a “Paradise of Chance” with a huge “E-O Wheel,” and “Chandeliers secretly,
cunningly faceted so as to amplify the candle-light within” (421).
The nekyia continues after dinner, when the surveyor and the astronomer
make their way back to their bedroom, which has a “Turkish Scene” on the
wall, an “Etching” of “people fucking” (423), again reminiscent of the fres-
coes of Galta in The Monkey Grammarian. Strange proceedings follow in-
side the bedroom: using the “Secret techniques of mechanickal Art, rescued
from the Library at Alexandria” (423), Mason levitates a large iron Tub,
which he is able to rotate because “The Axis it’s on is Magnetick” (426).
While Mason rotates the “astonishing Magnet” inside the bedroom, a divesti-
ture of sorts proceeds in the hallway, as Dixon seduces, or is seduced by
Lady Lepton: Mason hears the sound of “Fabric tearing” as Dixon dismantles
her “infamous Musickal Bodice,” which has “Quills sewn into its fastening”
that ring “a row of bell-metal Reeds, each tun’d to a specifick Note” when
plucked (425)! Divestiture, abduction, and poeisis combine here, in the midst
of the infernal maze, to produce a memorably original variation on the
themes of the nekyia.
Threshold necrotypes ensue, when Mason attempts to escape from the
Castle, after Dixon emerges (“coprophagously a-agrin”) from “some false
Panel in a Wall” (427). Their escape is impeded first by a Slave standing at
“One corridor’s branching away from the Arabian Gardens,” and secondly
Mason & Dixon 187

by Mr. LeSpark himself (the narrator of this episode of the frame), who ap-
pears suddenly as Mason and Dixon “go poking in and out of one secret
Panel after the next” (427)—trapped in a labyrinth of secret doorways. Le-
Spark is holding a “Dutch rifle with a Five-pointed Star upon its Cheek-
Piece, inverted, in Silver highly polish’d” (428). Mason and Dixon recognize
the same “Polaris of Evil” they’ve seen before in South Africa, and inscribed
on the rifle at the Inn of Lancaster (428). It is an “inverted Star,” a “Crypto-
gram” etched on the “octagonal Barrel” of the rifle (428), the “very Insignia
of the Devil” (429). It seems to suggest a universal conspiracy by which all
the “Occurrences” in the novel are “invisibly connected,” as Mason puts it
(429)—very reminiscent of the Tristero postal conspiracy in Lot 49. The
“Pentacle” also recalls the peculiar variety of geometrical symbols revealed
by the postmodernist nekyia in general (Figuring Poeisis 163–67).
As it turns out, the rifle doesn’t belong to Mr. LeSpark, who simply al-
lows Mason and Dixon to proceed: “The last Door out opens to them,” and
they head for “the Arabian Gardens” (430). Gardens have long been associ-
ated with mazes, especially during the Baroque period in which Pynchon’s
novel is set. The Palace of Versailles, the Castle at Heidelberg, Hampton
Court, and the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg all had hedge mazes
(Bord 114–43). (Perhaps the best known labyrinth of postmodernism is “The
Garden of Forking Paths” by Borges). Revelations typically ensue in the
middle of the labyrinth, but none, so far as I know, which involve an electri-
cal eel from Surinam named “‘El Peligroso,’ or, ‘The Dangerous One’”
(431). Such is the case in Pynchon’s novel treatment of the myth. The eel is
curled up inside the tub, and the Professor in attendance delineates its pow-
ers: there is a sequence of “Disks which are Stack’d lengthwise along most
of his over-all length, each Disk being a king of Electrickal Plate” (432). The
eel’s head is charged positive, the tail negative, so that one has but to “touch
the Animal at both ends, to complete the circuit, and allow the Electrickal
Fluid to discharge” (432).
The Professor’s commentary unites the scientific with the aesthetic as-
pects of the postmodernist nekyia: though “the Mysteries of the Electrickal
Flux within him continue to defy the keenest minds of the Philosophickal
World, including a Task-Force of Italian Jesuits,” the Professor says, it may
at least be noted that “Departure and return have been design’d” into the life
of the “Cyclickal Creature” (432). The electrical and the magnetic forces at
the center of Pynchon’s book are both linked to the underworld by virtue of
their invisibility, and by the fact that they operate beneath the surface of
188 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

things. I believe it was Jacob Bronowski who first articulated the relationship
between science and the nekyia when he compared the realm of subnuclear
particles to the underworld (332). And indeed, one of the most important as-
pects of postmodernist myth making is its incorporation of the “new sci-
ences” of quantum mechanics, geology, anthropology, chemistry, micro-
biology, and astronomy. We see this happening in the work of David Jones,
James Merrill, Pynchon, and many others (several are discussed in the books
of Katherine Hayles).
Pynchon’s revelation of the mysteries of the electrical eel occur in the
middle of the Arabian Gardens on the Lepton estate, where Mason and Dix-
on find “Ev’ry Fop clear back to Philadelphia” in “Attendance” (433). They
are marvelously clad in the spectacular attire typically found in portrayals of
the Faerie Kingdom (as for example in the paintings of Dadd and Fuseli),
though with Pynchonesque frills: “bright glaucous Waistcoats, Suits of stag-
geringly tasteless Brocade, outlandishly dress’d Wigs, Shoes with heels
higher than the stems of Wine-glasses, Stockings unmatch’d in Colors in-
compatible, such as purple and green, strange opaque Spectacles in both the-
se shades and many others” (433). The glasses evoke the ocular symbolism
of the nekyia, but they are also very special, a unique “variety of Spectacles
Pyrotechnic” (432), worn to protect the eye during the display of the eel’s
electrical powers.
This display leaves Mason “bedazzl’d” (433), and propels him further on
a ludic, but also Gnostic nekyia. The Professor connects a wire attached to
the head and tail of the eel, igniting “a giant Spark, blindingly white, into
which the intrepid Operator thrusts one end of his Cigar, whilst sucking furi-
ously upon the other, bringing it away at last well a-glow” (433). The ocular
and threshold symbolism always associated with Pynchon’s nekyia follows,
in Mason’s journal entry about the experience: “‘I saw at the heart of the
Electrickal Fire,” he writes,

beyond color, beyond even Shape, an Aperture into another Dispensation of Space,
yea and Time, than what Astronomers and Surveyors are us’d to working with. It
bade me enter, or rather it welcom’d my Spirit,—yet my Body was very shy of com-
ing any nearer,—indeed wish’d the Vision gone. Throughout, the Creature in the
Tank regarded me with a personal stare, as of a Stranger claiming to know me from
some distant, no longer accessible Shore,—a mild and nostalgic look, masking, as I
fear’d, Blood or Jungle, with the luminous Deep of his great Spark all the while
beckoning. (434)
Mason & Dixon 189

This demonic presence within the sinister serenity of the eel’s depths is
called “the Other,—El Peligroso”; it threatens to emerge “from the great
Shade outside the sens’d World” (434)—images which trigger the kind of
Gnostic reflections frequently found in Pynchon, as in much of postmodern-
The serpent and the sea typically represent the material world into which
the soul has “fallen” (Jonas 116–18). But the “Stranger, or the “alien God,”
whom Gnosticism designated as “‘the Other,’ ‘the Unknown,’ ‘the Name-
less,’” or “‘the Hidden’” (Jonas 49), may also represent the soul, which,
“wandering in the labyrinth, / vainly seeks the way out” (‘im Labyrinth ir-
rend, / sucht vergebens sie den Ausweg’) (Quispel 211; my trans.). When he
remembers his origins, the stranger is overcome by the recognition of his
alienation, and by the recollection of his true home, in the “other world,” for
which he feels an overpowering nostalgia (Jonas 49–50). All of these motifs
apply to Mason’s journey into the heart of the electrical spark—and, indeed,
to the rest of his nekyia, since, throughout the novel he seems in search of his
dead wife Rebekah, who speaks to him from the other world—she is a kind
of Sophia, figured in Greek myth by Eurydice, a “Soul of the World” who is
yet not entirely of the world, since she lives in the “other.” Gnostic specula-
tion figured her as a “Lichtjungfrau,” a “Virgin of Light” who projects her
image (“Abbild”) into the darkness (“Finsternisse”) of the deep—an “Eido-
lon” which the demonic powers below use to create the material world
(Quispel 212).
Such are the herpetetic revelations which occur at the climax of the Lep-
ton episode, which Pynchon puts smack in the middle of his novel. It serves
as a kind of fulcrum or axis, around which the action revolves (or should we
say teeters?). As the surveyors continue their journey westwards, allusions to
the nekyia are reiterated. There is a rose-quartz crystal used for scrying
called “the Ghost,” looking into the “twin Heptagons” of which Mason sees a
pair of “Huge dark Eyes” (442). The surveying chains are called “the D——
—l’s Guts” (447), and there are numerous Stygian river crossings leading to
the Susquehanna, which Mason says is situated in “Suburbs Satanick” (462).
To cross the Susquehanna is to enter “a different Province entirely” (467),
for it is a “Boundary to another Country” (474). Leading up to the river,
there are “long Summer Maize fields, where one may be lost within minutes
of entering the vast unforgiving Thickets of Stalks” (470). Beyond it to the
west lie the Alleghenies, with their lure of coal in “underground mountain
ranges,” and of “mysterious Lead Mines in the Mountains” (468). Other
190 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

oreographic symbols of the nekyia arise from the labyrinthine thickets, like
the “Iron Hill, a famous and semi-magical Magnetick Anomaly, known to
Elf Communities near and far” (470). Mason ultimately begins to fear that
the “Western Slopes of Allegheny” may turn out to be as harrowing as “the
Windward Side” of St. Helena (475).
So also will the approach to the mountains be haunted by a variety of
otherworldly apparitions, many of which “Might haply ‘maze the Trav’ler
loxodromick” (473). Paranoia and poeisis converge—in a uniquely Pyn-
chonesque manner—as the nekyia continues, “Trans Susquehanna,” to the
“South Mountain, in among the ghosts” that lead Dixon to suspect that
“something invisible’s going on” (478). The “Vásquez Brothers’ Marimba
Quartet” play “The Anthem of the Expedition” as the team “moves into the
Unknown,” the “Chords and Arpeggias swaying upward to their sharp’d ver-
sions, then back down again, sets of Hammers, Hands, and Sleeves all mov-
ing together along the rank’d wood notes, nocturnal, energetic, remembranc-
ing, warning, impelling” (477). Dixon’s “phantastickal” suspicions involve a
“secret force of Jesuits,” which “transcalculates” the astronomical “Observa-
tions” of the surveyors “according to a system known to the Kabbalists of the
Second Century as Gematria, whereby Messages may be extracted from
lines of Text sacred and otherwise” (479).1 The “numbers nocturnally ob-
tain’d” may be “arrang’d into Lines, like those of a Text,” and then “manipu-
lated till a Message be reveal’d” (479).
These kabbalistic proceedings implicate the nekyia with both poeisis and
hermeneusis—what we might call ‘hermenopoetics,’ in which the acts of
reading and writing are simultaneous. The surveyors take “Observations,”
i.e., ‘read’ their surroundings to determine their position, to establish their
famous Mason and Dixon “Line” (of verse, text, and of geography). This
implicates both poeisis and hermeneusis, since the act of producing the text
coincides with the act of interpretation—an “Observation” is both at the
same time. But the text of those observations is then immediately ‘transcal-
culated’ by the Kabbalists to produce a new text—again, the act of producing
that text coincides with its interpretation.
This obsession with reading and producing the secret messages of a hid-
den text will intensify as Mason and Dixon continue westwards, as will the
fascination with German mysticism and things kabbalistic. When the team
arrives at Luise Redzinger’s farm, near the South Mountain, they find her
“craz’d Christless wreck of a Husband” returned from his wanderings in
Mason & Dixon 191

“some unexplor’d Region” of the “Spirit’s West” (480). Before Christ left,
he taught Peter “how to make Golems” (481), a procedure which also in-
volves the manipulation of the syllables of the Hebrew alphabet—an act of
poeisis, which golem making comes ultimately to symbolize, in the work of
modernist and postmodernists like Broch and Borges.2 In the next chapter,
Dixon comes to an inn called “The Rabbi of Prague, headquarters of a Kab-
balistick Faith,” whose members greet him by making the sign of “the He-
brew letter Shin” with their fingers, and who tell him that “‘The area just
beyond the next Ridge is believ’d to harbor a giant Golem’” (485). It has
been created by one of the “Lost Tribes of Israel,” and let loose in the “For-
est” to “learn of its own gift of Mobile Invisibility” (485)—a kind of wild
man of the woods. It is said that the Golem is best caught “when he’s
asleep,” and that he wanders the night chanting “‘the only words he
knows,—‘Eyeh asher Eyeh,’’” that is “I am that which I am” (486).
In Kabbalistic tradition, the Golem is typically associated with moun-
tains, as here in Pynchon’s underworld, because it is fashioned from the earth
of “the center of the world on Mt. Sion” (‘aus dem Zentrum der Welt aus
dem Berge Zion’) (Scholem 238). Pynchon’s conception of the “giant Go-
lem” as being “taller than the most ancient of the Trees” (485) is also in line
with Jewish tradition, according to which the Golem “stretches from one end
of the world to the other” (‘von einem Ende der Welt bis zum anderen aus-
gestreckt’), like a “monstrous primordial being of cosmogonic myths” (‘ein
ungeheures Urwesen kosmogonischer Mythen’) (Scholem 240). The Golem
is traditionally created in the same way God created the world, i.e., through
the manipulation of the sacred letters of the Hebrew alphabet (Scholem
245f.). When the first letter of the word “‘emeth” written on his forehead is
erased, he dies (Scholem 260). It is this linkage between the letters of the
alphabet and the creation of the Golem that lends itself to allegories of poe-
isis (divine and human). One Kabbalist from Languedoc, for example,
learned to “combine the letters of the alphabet according to the Kabbalistic
principles of combination, composition, and coinage, in order to shape a man
with JHWH Elohim Emeth written on his forehead” (‘die Alphabete nach den
kabbalistischen Prinzipen der Kombination, Zusammenfassung und Worte-
bildung zu kombinieren, und es wurde ihnen ein Mensch geschaffen, auf
dessen Stirne stand: JHWH Elohim Emeth’) (Scholem 261).
Other details of Pynchon’s Golem are perhaps apocryphal, like his play-
ful assertion that “In the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, you see, Jesus as a Boy
made small, as you’d say, toy Golems out of Clay,—Sparrows that flew,
192 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

Rabbits that hopp’d. Golem fabrication is integral to the life of Jesus, and
thence to Christianity” (486)—at least to the Christianity of the German mys-
tics who inhabit the region round “South Mountain,” where “the Invisible
will all at once appear” (486). Some of these “Germanickal Mystics” are an-
chorites who have stepped out of the pages of Nordic folklore, for (as Revd
Wicks informs us) they are said to “live in Trees,—not in the Branches, but
actually within the Trunks, those particularly of ancient creek-side Syca-
mores, which have, over time, become hollow’d out, like Caverns” (481).
Golem, gnome, elf, and tree-spirit—Pynchon’s underworld is diversely in-
habited by the creatures of myth and folklore, though with the author’s ca-
chet impressed upon the material: his Golem, “summon’d” by the “Verses”
of one Timothy Tox, a mysterious poet in the novel, is “An American Go-
lem,” a revolutionary who “takes a dim view of Oppression, and is ever
available to exert itself to the Contrary” (490).
Later, at the end of the novel, the Golem comes back, when Mason and
Dixon stop off to see Timothy Tox at “The Rabbi of Prague” during the re-
turn phase of their nekyia. Tox wants to enlist his Golem’s help to “deliver”
the inhabitants of Philadelphia, “that American Egypt” (684), but Mason is
concerned about what the Golem will eat and how they may attend to its
“sanitary Requirements” if they take it along with them (685). Dixon sug-
gests turning “the Creature to some useful work,” like “Pulling up the Trees
by their Roots,” but Mason remains unconvinced (685). He is ever the more
philosophical of the two men, fascinated by this “Creature made of Water
and Earth,—Clay, that is, and Minerals,—as if an Indian Mound of the West,
struck by Lightning, had risen, stood, and, newly awaken’d, with the Vis
Fulgoris surging among all its precisely fashioned Laminae, begun, purpose-
fully, to walk, An American Wonder” (685). As he ponders the mysteries of
the chimera, “just outside, in the Forest, articulate as Drumming, can be
heard the rhythmic approach of the Kabbalistic Colossus Mr. Tox has sum-
mon’d” (685). Tox has done so through the powers of poeisis, spontaneously
reciting a couplet: “As e’er, ‘mongst Wax, and Wigs, and Printer’s Ink /
Seepeth the creeping sly Suborner’s Stink’” (684)—referring to the concep-
tion of the Golem as a revolutionary. Like the Wild Man of the Woods, how-
ever, the Golem seems more at home in the underworld of the Forest, for, as
the caravan approaches civilization, less and “less Evidence for his Crea-
ture’s existence will they be given” (685).
Mason & Dixon 193

The Golem inhabits a Nether World which is also a “New World,” one
that needs to be interpreted, to be “read.” The “Company” gathered together
in The Rabbi of Prague enlighten Dixon about its mysteries: America is “a
secret Body of Knowledge,” one which has “been kept hidden” for centuries;
“Only now and then were selected persons allow’d Glimpses of the New
World” (487). It is also a world “meant to be studied with the same dedica-
tion as the Hebrew Kabbala would demand. Forms of the Land, the flow of
water, the occurrence of what us’d to be called Miracles, all are Text,—to be
attended to, manipulated, read, remember’d” (487). Further reflections reit-
erate the linkage between the revelations of the nekyia, and hermeneusis: the
members of the Kabbalistic “Company” take a lively interest in the “Line”
being drawn by Mason and Dixon, “‘inasmuch as it may be read, East to
West, much as a Line of Text upon a Page of the sacred Torah,—a Tellurian
Scripture, as some might say’” (487). The “Line” Mason and Dixon are busy
inscribing upon the page of the landscape will form “A Message of uncertain
length [....] A smaller Pantograph copy down here, of Occurrences in the
Higher World” (487). This remarkable sequence of analogies forms a climac-
tic revelation of the basic forms giving shape and significance to life, and
represents a fusion of poeisis and hermeneusis: Mason and Dixon are writing
a sacred line of text that is simultaneously being read, by those kabbalistic
hermeneuts in the know, who can decipher its “Message.” This world, the
New World of America, is the world “below,” an underworld which mirrors
the “Occurrences in the Higher World” (487).
This analogy is fundamentally hermetic, as Dixon recognizes, when he
says, in response to the revelations, “‘Another case of, ‘As above, so be-
low’’” (487)—the famous first aphorism from the Emerald Tablet of Hermes
Trismegistus, “one of the oldest Arabo-Latin texts” of alchemical tradition,
“translated into Latin some time around 1200” (Roberts 68). Pynchon’s nov-
el is also replete with the kinds of geometrical symbols characteristic of the
hermetic tradition, as of the revelatory climaxes of the postmodernist nekyia.
The men who tell the story of Mason and Dixon (DePugh, Revd Wicks, Mr.
Lespark) within the frame of the novel share a “fascination with Hell” in-
spired by the narrative, as Tenebrae, one of the ‘readers’ within the text (who
hears the tale being told) suggests (483). Her remarks come after some eru-
dite theoretical speculations about the size and shape of the underworld: is
“Hell a collapsing Sphere, Heaven an expanding one” (482)? If so, it must
ultimately collapse “to be almost a Point” (482). According to this concep-
tion, “Mason and Dixon are in Hell,” trying to inscribe “their Line eternal,
194 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

upon the inner surface of the smallest possible Spheroid that can be
imagin’d” (482), and thereby “themselves approaching a condition of pure
Geometry” (483). This approach requires the manipulation of the most “cu-
rious Infinitesimals,” indeed, an “Epsilonicks of Damnation,” as Revd Wicks
puts it (482–83). The cosmography which these “Epsilonicks” delineate is
catoptric, in as much as “to Philadelphia correspond both a vast Heavenly
City, and a crowded niche of Hell, each element of the one faithfully mir-
ror’d in the others” (482).
Such are the revelations catalyzed by the nekyia (revolutionary Golem,
mystical anchorites, kabbalistic messages, necrogeometrics) as Mason and
Dixon pitch their tents in the environs of South Mountain, which the narrator
calls “the last concentration of Apparitions,—as you might say, Shape-
’Morphers, and Soul-Snatchers, besides plain ‘Ghosts.’ Beyond lies Wilder-
ness, where quite another Presence reigns, undifferentiate,—Thatwhichever
precedeth Ghostliness” (491). As the journey westwards proceeds, the im-
agery of the nekyia continues to link the various episodes together, and it
continues to do so with reference to the mysteries of what we might call a
‘hermeneupoeisis.’ The next descent in the novel, for example, is preceded
by the nocturnal apparition of a creature called the “Black Dog” (494), a
suitable Cerberus to guard the entrance to the “remarkable Cavern beneath
the Earth” that soon follows (496). The Cavern is a “World beneath the
World,” a “Subterranean Cathedral” which Mason compares to “the abodes
of the Dead” (497). He sees it as a “Gothick Interior” with rocks shaped by
“the Pencil of Time” into the “imitation of Organ, Pillar, Columns and
Monuments of a Temple” (497). Dixon sees “ancient Inscriptions, Glyphs
unreadable,—Ogham, possibly” carved upon “ev’ry Surface” of the cave
(497). Both men concur, however, that the “writing” within the cave forms a
“Text,—and we are its readers, and its pages are the Days turning. Unscroll-
ing, as a Pilgrim’s itinerary map in Ancient Days” (497–98). That which has
been written—whether by the “Pencil of Time,” or by “Welsh Indians” using
an Ogham alphabet—must also be read, if only we can descend deeply
After the “crossing of the Conococheague,” Mason and Dixon continue
westward, fetching up “against the flank of the North Mountain” to camp
“among these Ghosts, and the Desolation” (499). Then they turn briefly
eastward, which allows Pynchon to “take up again the past,” since “Going
west has been all Futurity” (499). The narrative digressions that follow there-
Mason & Dixon 195

fore return to the lives of the surveyors back in England, before their depar-
tures to South Africa and America. And yet, even these remembrances are
informed by the imagery of the nekyia. Dixon, for example, speaks of his
youthful excursions into “Cockfield Fell,” an “open countryside” outside his
Northern village said to “harbor all the terrors imaginable” (504). Alongside
the Fell is the Castle of Lady Barnard, “the Old Hell Cat of Raby with her
black Coach and six” (505). Dixon falls “into a Fascination with the ‘Old
Hell-Cat’ herself” (505), who is said to walk the battlements of her Castle at
night “with a pair of brass knitting-needles, whilst awaiting her Coach”
(505). The needles “glow’d in the Dark, because they were Very Hot, hotter
than Coal-fire, more like the fires of Hell” (505). The yarn is made of “Wool
from a Hell-Sheep,” and the “two bright Lines” of the needles create “ever
varying” angles as she knits in the night.
What witch doesn’t sit knitting or weaving in the Northern night? These
are the archetypal images of the goddess of fate, in her intimate association
with death—knitting, horse, coachman, and carriage. The light she weaves
by is typically lunar, planetary symbol the triple goddess of birth, life, and
death. Dixon sneaks to the Castle one night and climbs “across Counter-
scarps, to and through Machicolations in the Moon-light,” to watch “the
Spectre” pacing the battlements:

Assembling itself from the Darkness about them appears the most uncommonly
beautiful Coach he’s ever seen. Its curves are the curves of a desirable Woman, its
Lacquering’s all a-flash, Bright as a wanton Eye. Its coal-color’d Arabs, scarcely
sighing, bring it in a glide to a spot near her Parapet, holding it then pois’d, hooves
stirring in the empty Air, above the Grounds invisible in the Darkness below,—
whilst the Coachman, with a face as white as his Livery is black, descends to the
Parapet to open her Door. (506)

This marvelous variation on the standard images of the folkloric

nekyia—the supernatural, horse drawn carriage; the ocular (“wanton Eye”)
and threshold symbolism, combined with the image of the morbid Coach-
men—are all given a Pynchonesque twist when the coachman apologizes for
being late: “‘Sorry, Milady,—” he says to the “Old Hell-Cat,” “traffick”
(505)! None of the folklore characters I know of, in ballad or tale narrating
supernatural journeys to otherworlds (such as “Tam Lin,” “Thomas the
Rhymer,” “Oisin,” or “Cinderella”) include such an excuse—although many
have the same magical associations between the nekyia and the wild-carriage
or horse ride.
196 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

Another more complex interruption of the narrative follows Dixon’s

memories of the “Hell-Cat” of Raby. The story—called “The Captive’s Tale”
(529)—involves an intricate, labyrinthine fusion of the main line of the nar-
rative with its framing device. It is a tale simultaneously written and told,
read and heard: written and told by the framing narrator, Revd Cherrycoke
Wicks; read and heard by the young (kissing) cousins who, inspired by the
telling, sneak off to find the tale written down, in a sequential publication
about a character called “The Ghastly Fop.” The Fop is a “Wraith” caught in
limbo between this world and “the World of Death,” a “Ghost” whose story
converges with Revd Wicks’s tale about Mason and Dixon’s encounter with
a young woman who has been abducted by Indians, taken to Quebec, and
sold to a Jesuit college (527). The complexities of this dual framing device
situate the telling and reception of tales at the heart of the novel’s concern
with the metaphorical dynamics of the nekyia—many of the motifs of which
are included in the tale of the Captive Maiden.
Her story begins when the “dark Men” come to abduct her from her
kitchen garden in Conestoga (511). The garden has “beehives” and a “Well,”
motifs familiar to those acquainted with the iconographies of the Great God-
dess and the nekyia—the journeys of Eve and Persephone, for example both
begin with seductions in the garden; the tales of Demeter, Rebecca, Tam Lin,
and the Ladies of the Lake and Fountain all include wells; and Aphrodite or
the Lady of the Labyrinth have a long association with the symbolism of
honey and bees. The fluvian, divestitory, ornithological, seasonal, and oreo-
graphic imagery of the nekyia follow: after the Indian party crosses the Sus-
quehanna, in “French-built Battoes,” and the Maiden steps on “to the West-
ern Shore, she felt she had made herself naked at last” (513). The Party pro-
ceeds “Over the Blue Mountain” and then beyond, into the dense forests of a
“longer Swell of the Mountains,” which is populated by “songbirds,” “deer,”
and “Enormous Flights of Ducks and Geese and Pigeons” (513). It is also a
“Snowy Owl Year,” the birds having moved “further South in search of
Food” (513). Pynchon calls them “white Visitors,” distinguished by their
“perpetual frown” from the “more amiably be-Phiz’d white Gyrfalcons”
These are lovely, elegiac details, worthy of an Audubon or a Bartram,
but they are also archetypal images of the birds typically associated with the
goddess, the maze, and the underworld—geese, ducks, owls, and falcons
(Gimbutas, Language 3–19; 190–95). Even the deer (as in Alejo Carpentier’s
Mason & Dixon 197

Lost Steps) is an archaic symbol of the “Birth-giving Goddess” (Gimbutas

113)—and hence it seems appropriate that the Captive Maiden of our tale
will eventually dress herself “in deerskin” (530). Pynchon clearly relates the-
se necrotypes to poeisis by noting that the days of the journey “went un-
scrolling” past, and that the Captive Maiden is a “Message” being carried by
the Indians, her “Express” mail service (513). The birdsong catalyzed by the
nekyia is emphatically poetic in Pynchon’s celebration of the Snowy Owls
“At the peaks of the Barns, the Tops of girdl’d gray Trees, Gleaners of Voles
soaring above the harvested Acres, with none of your ghostly hoo, hoo nei-
ther, but low embitter’d Croaking, utter’d in Syllables often at the Verge of
Human Speech” (513).
The time of the Captive Maiden’s journey connects her to Persephone’s
abduction by Hades: it is that of autumn into winter. The leaves flare with a
“slow, chill Combustion” when the Indian Party arrives at yet another “Shore
of some vast body of water that vanishes at the Horizon,” and then paddles
by “Bark-Canoe” toward a “miraculous Land at the other side” (513). After
paddling on up another “great River,” the Indians “arrive at last in Quebec,
the Winter” well upon them (514). The period of the Captive Maiden’s con-
finement in the “Jesuit College,” to which she is taken by the Indians, will
correspond exactly to the myth of Persephone’s abduction, since she will es-
cape with a young Chinese doctor in the springtime (531f.). Even her name is
relevant here: “Eliza Fields” sounds like Elysian Fields, domain of the
blessed dead. As soon as Eliza arrives at the Jesuit College, she is taken to
the refectory, where she sees a hundred bowls of “Raspberries, perfectly ripe,
set in front of each place” (514)—fruit of the underworld, like the pomegran-
ate seeds Hades tricks Persephone with. Not so Eliza—she rejects the rasp-
berries, “for who knows what unholy Power might account for this unsea-
sonable presence, in its unnatural Redness?” (514).
The Hades in Quebec to which the Indians abduct Eliza, though not Ely-
sian, exemplifies the ludic ingenuity of postmodernism. They arrive in mid-
winter, and take Eliza to a “Jesuit College” of labyrinthine complexity: it
ascends “three stories, with a Garret above, enclosing a broad central court-
yard,” although there may be “more Levels,” plus a “courtyard-within-a-
courtyard, or beneath it” (514). Eliza will later refer to the Palace as “Jesuit
Maze” (534): it has “a Crypto-Porticus, or several, leading to other buildings
in parts of the City quite remov’d” (514). Since Eliza arrives “so deep in the
Night,” she must be guided through the various thresholds “with the black
nidor of the Torches” (514)—as if she were indeed a celebrant in the Eleus-
198 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

inian mysteries, in which torches played such a central role (Harrison 126).
Inside the maze lie further complexities: “Scribes” living in “Cells of many
sizes” (514); astronomers on the roof taking observations; a lecture hall
where a priest called “the Wolf of Jesus” lectures on the “abhorrent magick”
of Feng Shui (522); and a bizarre instrument of “Jesuit Telegraphy” made of
“Kite-wires and Balloon-cables” (515).
The College contains a “University of Hell” (523), the “head-quarters for
all operations in North America” (515). It is a “Sino-Jesuit Affair” (532) pre-
sided over by Père de la Tube and his guests: “Father Zarpazo, the Wolf of
Jesus as he is known in his native land” (543); and Captain Zhang, a Feng
Shui Master from China. The Priests are “using the Boreal Phenomenon to
send Messages over the top of the World,” which they do with an elaborate
“Apparatus” that hovers over the Palace, like the floating island of the as-
tronomers in Gulliver’s Travels. The apparatus is “even more mysteriously
complex than that of a Naval Ship” (516). It uses a “Pyro-Elecktrical Fluid”
generated by “a great green Prism of Brazilian Tourmaline, a-snarl as Me-
dusa with plaited Copper Cabling running from it in all directions” (516).
The electricity projects “a gigantic Lattice-work of bright and very yellow
Lights, five across by seven down,” to accommodate the “twenty-six letters,
nine digits,” and “blank space for zero” needed to transmit the secret codes
(516). That the climactic revelations of the nekyia should fuse poeisis and
hermeneusis into a single image is entirely characteristic of postmodernist
myth making—but Pynchon’s ludic eccentricity is uniquely exemplified by
his having this enormous and sinister apparatus spell “out the Sequence I-D-
I-O-T-S in the Sky” above the “gaping faces” of the Jesuit novices (516).
Eliza, it seems, has been brought here to gratify the sexual needs of these
novices. Her abduction, like Persephone’s, is erotically motivated. She is
taken to Sister Blondelle and her two cronies (Sisters Grincheuse and Cro-
sier) to be prepared for her role as one of the “White Roses,” a “Bride of
Christ” to be “bargain’d for” by the members of the Jesuit “Hierarchy” (518).
The Sisters strip Eliza “absolutely naked” and then invest her with an elabo-
rate “Cilice,” an article of intimate apparel made from a “Hothouse Rose,
deep red, nearly black, whose supple, long Stem is expertly twisted into a
Breech-clout” (520). The catoptric and ocular symbolism of the nekyia soon
follows upon this divest-and-reinvestiture scene, when Eliza sneaks into a
room where “Shelf after Shelf” of wigs are stored (521). She reaches for one
to examine herself in the “Mirror” with; but when she returns it to its “Wig-
Mason & Dixon 199

Stand,” she finds herself fixed by the “socketed Stare” of a “human skull”
(521). Indeed, all of the wigs in the room rest upon “a staring Skull,” and we
may assume all eyes are upon Eliza (522).
But by not having eaten of the fruit of the underworld, Eliza ensures her
eventual escape, which she prepares for by dropping “her Habit, stealing
from the Indian Quarters a Boy’s Breech-Clout, Robe, and Leggings, finding
an unus’d Confessional Booth, sliding her unbound feet into soft Moccasins,
dressing in deer-skin” (530). This elaborate investiture prepares her for the
reversal of her nekyia, for her return (like Persephone) from the land of the
dead. Guided by Captain Zhang, she crosses the river below Quebec, as
“long black Feathers” from “some avian drama above” fall down “toward
where the Battoes once landed to take the City” (531). As they continue
south “into Six Nations territory,” the river begins to break up in the spring
thaw (531), and by the time they reach “the West Line” that leads to Mason
and Dixon’s camp, “the Green Halations about the Hillsides reduce to mate-
rial certainty” (534). This precisely indicated time frame relates Eliza’s
nekyia to Persephone’s, since both go down into the underworld of winter, to
return in the spring.
It is therefore appropriate that Dixon is “fully as fascinated as the
Chinaman, with her Deerskin Costume” when the couple appears in camp
(536), and that Mason is struck by Eliza’s “Point-for-Point” resemblance to
his wife Rebekah: “‘do you believe that the Dead return?’” he asks her (537).
“‘Is it Transmigration, Revd?’” he asks Cherrycoke Wicks, who “speculates
that the Resemblance so confounding Mason is less likely the Transmigra-
tion of a Soul, than the Resurrection of a Body” (537). Eliza’s soul, Wicks
continues, “must in any case have forgotten its previous life as Rebekah Ma-
son,” since “‘As in Plato’s Tale of Er, she’ll have drunk from Lethe and be-
gun anew’” (537).
The allusion to Plato’s story about the man who journeyed into “the
world beyond,” while lying ‘dead’ on the battlefield, and who then returned
to tell the story of what the suffering souls had “seen in their journey beneath
the earth” (Republic X 615e), establishes the philosophical background for
Eliza’s nekyia. Its mythological context is established by Eliza’s “Deerskin
Costume” (536), which evokes both Greek and Scottish tales about god-
desses who “could turn themselves into deer” (Gimbutas 113; Walker, Dic-
tionary 377). In Old Europe, the “stag’s tree-like antlers with their periodic
rejuvenation made him a symbol of regeneration,” which, by the Christian
200 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

era, became associated with the resurrection—the cross appearing between

the stag’s antlers to Sts. Hubert and Eustace (Biedermann 92).
Eliza’s uncanny resemblance to Rebekah precipitates a powerful dream
journey to the underworld, in which Mason sees himself and Rebekah travel-
ing by Coach to a house where she is seduced by “dimly sinister men and
women” (538). The dream is “a fore-view of Purgatory,” since Mason “can-
not follow” Rebekah as she is “perhaps willingly, taken into it, under it”
(538). Nor can Mason, like Orpheus, “sing his way in” to get his Eurydice
back (538). His purgatory is a realm of Jesuit conspiracy, populated by
“French agents of Death” (539), but it is also a realm of poeisis. In his
dream, Rebekah and “her Captors” whisper “together incessantly, in a lan-
guage they knew, and he did not, and what language could it be? not any
French as he’d ever heard it,—too fast and guttural and without grace” (539).
Whatever language it may be, it is clearly the language of the dead, who
speak “at incredible Speed, without pause for breath. For where breath has
ceas’d, what need for the little pauses of mortal speech, that pass among us
ever unnotic’d?” (539). The notion that the nekyia catalyzes a unique lan-
guage of the soul, an especially powerful and suggestive form of poetic
speech, is one to be found throughout the mythical and literary tradition—as
for example in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” Ambrose Bierce’s
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Dark-
ness. Soul language ultimately transcends speech, however, “over there
where Tongues are still’d” (541).
After Eliza’s uncanny return, Mason begins to encounter his dead wife
Rebekah everywhere, “her eyelids never blinking, for where all is Dust, Dust
shall be no more” (540). Pynchon’s paragraph on Mason’s melancholy
search for his dead wife “upon surfaces not so much ‘random’ as outlaw”
(540) recalls the tender, haunting style of many passages in Gravity’s Rain-
bow, an enriched pathos that complicates and deepens his penchant for play.
Like Eurydice—or like the Lucy of Wordsworth’s touching ballads—
Rebekah has passed through death into nature. Mason “confronts” her on the
surface of “Moving water,” on “rock Abysses and mountainsides, leaves in
the wind announcing a Storm,” in the “Shadows of wrought ironwork upon a
wall,” on “Indian warrior paths,” “in lanes overgrown of abandoned vil-
lages,” and “in the rusted ending of the sky’s light”—indeed, within all the
random surfaces of the natural world, Rebekah stands, “in the full eye of the
wind [...] waiting to speak to him” (540). These surfaces are indeed not ex-
Mason & Dixon 201

actly random, for all of them are frequently encountered in the iconography
of the nekyia: abyss, mountain, river, ghostly village, and sunset.
When Rebekah appears she calls herself “‘a Representation. This
Thing,’—she will not style it, ‘Death.’ ‘I am detain’d here, in this
Thing...that my Body all the while was capable of and leading me to, and
carried with it surely as the other Thing, the Thing our Bodies could do, to-
gether...,’ she will not style it, ‘Love,’”—for in the underworld, “no need for
either exists” (541).
After this extraordinary apparition, the surveying party ponders its
movement further westward, a journey again diverted by narrative flashbacks
and fascinating variations on the themes of the nekyia—just when you’d
thought Pynchon’s played his last card, he pulls another one from the deck,
Wild Card, Ace, or Joker. Captain Zhang, the Feng Shui master Eliza has
escaped the “Jesuit Maze” with, speaks of the lines of latitude and longitude
Mason and Dixon are drawing as “Channels mark’d for the transport of some
unseen Influence, one carefully assembl’d cairn, one Oölite Prism, one per-
fectly incis’d lead Plate, to the next” (547). A “cairn,” as previously noted, is
a memorial stone, or “a sepulchral monument over the grave of some person
of distinction” (O.E.D. 315). For Captain Zhang, our “far too bright-eyed
Geomancer” (546), the cairns and prisms mark the ley lines of some current
of telluric energy, emanating from the underworld beneath the surface of the
earth—Pluto’s cornucopia has always been a source of energy, traditionally
of the seeds of the fruits of the earth; here, it contains a geomantic field of
electrical energy.
Another member of the surveying party, one “Mr. Everybeet the Quartz-
scryer” (547), concurs with the Chinese geomancer. He speaks of “secret
Lead Mines” to be found “‘west of here, in the Hills ‘round Cheat and Mo-
nonghela’” (547). It is towards these mountains that our nekyia seems inevi-
tably drawn, as mystical—though far more ludic—in their own way as those
of Sumerian, Babylonian, Persian, Biblical, and Egyptian myths of the un-
derworld. According to Mr. Everybeet, “‘Perfect Spheres of Lead ore” are
contained in the “‘spherickal Caverns’” situated “‘inside those mountains,’”
which emanate “‘Tellurick Effects unfathomable’” (547). He compares the
cellular structure of the ore with the limestone of the “‘Egyptian pyramids,
whose ever-mystickal Purposes, beyond the simply funerary, are much spec-
ulated upon’” (547). While the ore western mountains “reveal a fine structure
of tiny Cells, each a Sphere with another nested concentrickally within,” the
Egyptian limestone contains “‘numberless ancient Shells, each made up of
202 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

square Chambers, arrang’d in perfect Spirals’” (547). These images of the

molecular underworld of the ore evoke the geometrical forms and labyrin-
thine structures characteristically revealed by the postmodernist nekyia. Eve-
rybeet’s description of the “secret Ore-diggings” explicitly alludes to both
myths: the mines are to be found “amid a maze of Hills and Hollows,” in
which the “Plutonian History” of a “largely unsens’d World” unfolds “far
below our feet” (548).
Further digressions divert our path to these mountains, however—the
narrative itself is a labyrinthine structure of frame tale and flashback, of
forthrights and meanders, of linear and circular movement combined (which
yields a sine wave or a spiral). Revd Wicks interrupts his story of the survey-
ors’ American journey to tell a tale taken from a “Fair Copy of the Field
Journals” (554). This episode involves what Ricardo Quinones calls “the spa-
tialization of time,” a postmodernist temporalization of the nekyia. It has to
do with Mason’s recollection of a journey to see the astronomer Bradley in
Oxford—a journey undertaken during “the missing Eleven Days” deleted by
the “Calendar Reform of ‘52” (554). These missing days form a “Vortex,” a
“rotating Loop,” a “Whirlpool in Time,” in the heart of which, by “some fa-
tal confidence,” Mason expects to find Rebekah (555–57). Oxford becomes
the underworld, a “Tempus Incognitus,” into which Mason descends (556).
At the middle of the maze is the Bodleyan—as in Nabokov, Borges, and Eco,
the revelatory climax of the nekyia occurs in a library, catalyzing the ener-
gies of hermeneusis. Mason goes “down among those Secret Shelves,” where
“all the Knowledge of Worlds civiliz’d and pagan, late and ancient, lay
open” to his questions (557–58). While reading “an abrupt passage of inde-
cipherable Latin” from a “lighted Page,” Mason hears the “Transhalation of
Souls” sucked into the vortex of time “rustling, ever beyond the circle of
light” (556, 558).
When Mason escapes the sinister depths of the carrels, climbing “up lad-
ders creaking in the absolute Dark, down corridors of high bookshelves,—
Presences lay ev’rywhere in Ambuscado” (559). But the “open air” of the
“Quadrangle” outside, “yellow in the Moonlight,” is just as haunted as the
depths of the library (559). “Beasts in the Dark” and “flights of dark Crea-
tures” prowl the “Gothickal Structures” of the city, as if the “Metropolis of
British Reason had been abandon’d to the Occupancy of all that Reason
would deny, Malevolent shapes flowing in the Streets” (559). It is a “Carni-
val of Fear” (560) that deters Mason from crossing “the Flow of Time” into
Mason & Dixon 203

the “Eye of that Vortex,” where he might have found his Rebekah (560). Re-
bekah, however, is not just Eurydice—she is also a kind of Sophia. She of-
fers “a distinct Message that the Keys and Seals of Gnosis within” the library
were “too dangerous” for her still living husband, who must “hold out for the
Promises of Holy Scripture, and forget about the Texts” he’d read in the li-
brary (560). The “Presences” swirling around Mason during his “vortickal
Emprise” are the “Wraiths of those who had mov’d ahead instantly to the
Fourteenth, haunting” him “not from the past but from the Future” (560).
The entire “Noctambulation of the City,” in fact, has proceeded in a temporal
underworld, during the limbo created by the eleven missing days of the cal-
endar (561)—but its promise of revelation is characteristic of the Gnostic
Two roads now diverge in the yellow woods of America, before we can
proceed to the mystical mountains at the West End of the Line: this time
Dixon goes north, and Mason south. Two digressions follow, when they “re-
turn to the North Mountain at the end of March” (575)—one about the tem-
pestuous courtship and custody battle of Tom Hynes and Catherine Wheat
(Chapter 59), and the next, an archetypal fable about a dragon-like creature
called “the Lambton Worm” (Chapter 60). This second story leads by free
association to a discussion about the serpent mounds in Avebury and Amer-
ica, which the Welshman, Captain Shelby, argues were built by the same
people—hence the Ogham alphabet we saw earlier inscribed on the walls of
a cavern. Shelby is a distinctly demonic character: with eyes rolling “fiend-
ishly,” and eyebrows Revd Wicks compares to Milton’s Satan, he is “what
Imps look like in their Middle Years” (596). As such, Captain Shelby serves
as a suitable guide during the next of the novel’s descents.
To begin it, Mason and Dixon go off in the early morning to “visit one of
the local Mounds with the possibly unstable Capt. Shelby as their Guide,”
lured by “promises of forbidden Knowledge in the Care of an inscrutable
Druid” (597). Passing through mist “gather’d in the hollows,” over crest and
“down to ford,” to follow “the creek through a gap in the hills to another
Stream,” the trio arrives at “Shelby’s ‘Mound’” (598). Mason suspects it
might be “under invisible Guard” (598); Dixon stoops to peer “into the open-
ing” of the “great Cone” and remarks upon its coiling layers of
“dirt...ashes...crush’d seashells” inside (599). Though not the “Philoso-
phickal Materials” (“Gold-leaf, Silver foil, Glass”) Mason associates with a
“Leyden Battery,” Captain Shelby concurs with Dixon that “‘alternating
Layers of different Substances are ever a Sign of the intention to Accumulate
204 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

Force’”—in this case, “‘Forces more Tellurick in nature, more attun’d, that
is, to Death and the slower Phenomena’” (599). The mound, therefore, is an-
other aperture leading to chthonic forces of the underworld.
It is also associated with poeisis, and inspires Captain Shelby to quote
lines from Timothy Tox’s “famous Pennsylvaniad”:

‘A “Force Intensifier,” as ‘tis styl’d,

A geomantic Engine in the Wild,
Whose Task is sending on what comes along,
As brisk as e’er, and sev’ral Times as strong.’ (600)

Shelby suggests that the Mound is “Welsh in origin,” and then takes Mason
and Dixon to a nearby hilltop encircled by “the Ruin of a Wall,” where he
stoops to brush away the dirt covering “a Line of brief Strokes […] inscrib’d
in a roughly dress’d Stone” (600). It is “‘a Writing call’d Ogham,’” Shelby
says, “‘invented by Hu Gadarn the Mighty, who led the first Cymrick Set-
tlers into Britain’” (600)! The suggestion that the inscription is “‘undisputa-
bly Old Welsh’” brings the rhythms of the nekyia into harmony with the
themes of ricorso and poeisis, since the revelations beside the mound involve
a circling back to the mythical beginnings of American life (“the first Cym-
rick Settlers”), and the discovery of the mysterious script of Celtic ances-
try—the Ogham script having been “developed for ease of writing on stone
or wood in the lands around the Irish Sea” (Cunliffe 202).
The revelations of the nekyia also bring poeisis and paranoia together.
When the trio returns to camp, Captain Zhang, the Chinese geomancer, ar-
ticulates his theory that the marker stones, mounds, and caverns leading
“Westward” are “capable of producing a Force” similar to that of the “Ley-
den Battery,” and that this force emanates from the “true inner shape, or
Dragon, of the Land” (600–01). He calls this force “Sha,” and compares it to
the energy coursing through the human body, called “Chee” (602–03). Zhang
also carries a device called a “Luo-Pan” to measure the telluric forces—it is
most likely a “Chinese geomancer’s compass” used to determine “the correct
site for every tomb, temple and house” (Michell 26–27). These are very
beautiful instruments, with an octagonal configuration inscribed with the
eight trigrams of the I Ching, enclosing a circle in the center, and further en-
closed by a dazzling labyrinth of Chinese ideograms (Michell 27). As usual,
Pynchon puts his own spin on this marvelous material: Captain Zhang as-
sumes that the Jesuits are using the instrument in “conspiracy with Extra-
Mason & Dixon 205

terrestrial Visitors, to mark the living Planet with certain Signs” (601). Pyn-
chon’s paranoia—and the pop hermeticism that goes with it—is also play-
fully applied to a global conspiracy, of a supernatural order, in postmodernist
works by James Merrill (The Changing Light at Sandover) and Umberto Eco
(Foucault’s Pendulum).3
The analogy established between “the Human Body and the planet
Earth” depends upon a ‘hollow earth’ paradigm, one which Mason finds un-
acceptable, but which Stig (one of the Scandinavian ax-men on the expedi-
tion) pipes up in favor of. He remembers a sailor way up north telling tales of
“a great dark Cavity” by the pole, “Funnel-shap’d, leading inside the
Earth...to another World” (603). Dixon is quite taken by the ‘hollow earth
enthusiasm’ (603), having been himself a “Geordie” who “descends into the
Earth” as a result of his “mining background” (603). Mason makes an impor-
tant point (with respect to the narrative structure of the novel) when he sar-
castically remarks that “‘When ‘tis not the Eleven Days missing from the
New Style, or the Cock Lane Ghost, yet abides the Hollow Earth, as a proven
lure and Sanctuary to all’” (603). This remark is self-reflexive, since it ar-
ticulates the basic plan of the novel by recapitulating some of the descents
that structure the narrative—we need only add the many others (St. Helena,
Philadelphia taverns, Raby Castle, the Lepton Plantation, New York City and
Long Island, Ore-diggings in hill and hollow, Jesuit College in Quebec, Rab-
bi of Prague Tavern, Hop pit, Massacre site at Lancaster, Cockfield Fell,
Ogham cavern and Indian Mound) to complete the sequence. Dixon uses the
related metaphor of the “serial curve” to evoke a similar sequence in his own
story, which, like Mason’s, is structured by the incremental repetition of de-
scents to the underworld (599).
In addition to the “serial curve,” Pynchon implies other geometrical met-
aphors for the shape of his narrative. The most fundamental is the zig-zag, or
meandering “Line” which Mason and Dixon are busy inscribing, and deviat-
ing from, on the earth. Although their journey westwards is directed by the
linear demands of the boundary separating Maryland and Pennsylvania, the
two surveyors are frequently diverted from their path, going north and south
on various angles from the main line, circling back eastwards on occasion,
and making little excursions from their base camp. The meander, the line,
and the circle are fundamental figures of the labyrinth and the cycle of de-
scent and return. If you combine the line and circle, you get something like a
loop, or a spiral—which, set in motion, forms a vortex.4 If you connect all
the dots of the meandering line together, you get a dazzling polygon of sorts,
206 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

with “hundreds of sides” (586). This is the shape most congenial to the “love
of complexity, here in America,” where there are “no previous Lines, no
fences, no streets to constrain polygony” (586). As Revd Wicks puts it, “in
America, ‘twas ever, Poh! to Simple Quadrilaterals” (586). The notion that a
“Goniolatry, or the Worship of Angles” (587) prevails among American sur-
veyors applies also to the innovative structures of the kind of postmodernist
fiction Pynchon is writing. All of these figures (line, loop, serial curve, vor-
tex, polygon, and circle) emerge during the course of the novel’s nekyias as
self-reflexive symbols of its structure—a structure perhaps most vividly rep-
resented by the “Lambton Worm,” which returns “after each excursion to
coil about the castle” (590); or by the spirals of the “Serpent-mound which is
at Avebury” (595).
After the excursion to Captain Shelby’s mound, Faustian motifs begin to
emerge in the novel, when the company begins to see a third surveyor hover-
ing around Mason and Dixon. This third or “Supernumary Figure” is often
seen “in the Company of an Animal that most describe as a Dog, though a
few are not so sure, for its Eyes glow as if all the Creature’s Interior be a
miniature of Hell” (605). The best time to see it is twilight, when the wind
blows “between this World and the Next,” and when the mysterious stranger
may be seen hovering “back at the edge of Visibility” (605). It soon becomes
apparent that the devil has joined in for the descent westwards: he is wearing
a “black Cloak, white Wig, black Hat, white Stock, black Breeches,” and he
is carrying a “three-leggèd Staff,” reminiscent of the staff the devil carries in
Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” (605). The members of the team call
him “the Old Gentleman,” and he is constantly engaged in the bartering of
souls (605). He is “‘Earth’s D———l,’” come up from “Hell, of late” to pur-
sue a legal career in Philadelphia (606)!
After the Devil joins the company, they proceed to the “Conoloways,”
where Mason dreams “of a City to the West of here” (608). His fears about
the journey prefigure the nadir of their nekyia:

“We trespass, each day ever more deeply, into a world of less restraint in
ev’rything,—no law, no convergence upon any idea of how life is to be,—an Inte-
rior that grows meanwhile ever more forested, more savage and perilous, until,—
perhaps at very Longitude of your ‘City,’—we must reach at last an Anti-City,—
some concentration of Fate,—some final condition of Abandonment,—wherein all
are unredeemably alone and at Hazard as deep as their souls may bear,—lost Crea-
tures that make the very Seneca seem Christian and merciful.” (609)
Mason & Dixon 207

I suppose some would see it as appropriate that this “Anti-City” is the

Pittsburgh of the future! During his dreams of the city, Mason begins to
speak in “another language,” as if in “Possession” by some “wand’ring
Soul,” some “alien Ghost” (609). As their journey continues, the company
passes by the crossing of the “last Market-Roads,” on to the “Summit of
Savage Mountain,” where a “Defile of Ghosts” has been “growing with the
Years, more desperate and savage,” and beyond which the rivers begin to
flow west (614).
In the two digressions that follow, Pynchon risks revisionary treatments
of Native American and Chinese myth—thereby pushing the performance
‘envelope’ of postmodernism to the limit, but pulling it off like Stevie Ray
Vaughan walking a tightrope. In the former, a farmer named Zepho Beck
turns into a “Giant Beaver” when the full moon comes round (Chapter 63);
and in the latter, two Chinese astronomers (named Hsi and Ho) fall from a
light blue kite into a “willow-fring’d Lake” Ho calls “the world of the Dead”
(626). There they find the seven daughters of the Lord Huang walking
through “the pale green Maze of the willows” (626)—daughters whom they
marry as a reward for predicting eclipses. Captain Zhang tells the tale, which
he follows up by suggesting that the Jesuits have removed “five and a Quar-
ter Degrees” of longitude from the “Chinese circle” (629)—a “slender Blade
of Planetary Surface” which may conceal “more than your Herodotus, aye
nor immortal Munchausen, might ever have dreamt. The Fountain of Youth,
the Seven Cities of Gold, the Other Eden, the Canyons of black Obsidian, the
eight Immortals, the Victory over Death, the Defeat of the Wrathful Deities”
(630). Mason and Dixon must therefore return eastward not knowing if
“they’ll ever take the West Line west of Allegheny” (631), or whether they
will ever reach a destination possibly dissolved into a limbo of “missing De-
grees” (630–31).
Their doubts persist even after they obtain permission to continue work
on the Line, moving westwards again with the help of a party of Mohawk
Indians. Rumors of a boundary line called the “Great Warrior Path” (647)
circulate among the party, bringing Mason and Dixon closer to the realiza-
tion that their work must inevitably reach its end. General references to the
underworld continue to pepper the narrative as we move towards the closure
of the journey. Mason hears the “Ghost of the woods” telling him “‘no fur-
ther’” in a “great fluvial Whisper” (634), and he is “paralyz’d” by terror
while standing “before the great Death-shade of the Forest between Savage
Mountain and Little Yochio Geni” (635). Its “ghostly Speech” is “final as
208 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

Stone,” and it informs the surveyors that “1767 will be their last year upon
the Line” (636). The ghostly population thickens after crossing two more
rivers: the “Cheat is the Rubicon, Monongahela is the Styx” (663). The spir-
its “on the other side of the River” include a wild variety of Indians, who
emerge from the woods like a “meaningless Darkness” that slowly eddies
“into a Face,” and who “slip back into the forest” like a birds taking wing
(647). The underworld beyond the river is also inhabited by “the Apparitions
of Phantoms” (647), and by the spirits of those killed during Braddock’s de-
feat: “the ghosts of ‘55 growing, hourly, more sensible and sovereign,—as
unaveng’d Fires foul the Dusk, unanswer’d mortal Cries travel the Forests at
the speed of Wind” (677).
The crossing of the final river itself is Dantesque, though with Pynchon’s
characteristic ludic twists. At the place “where Braddock’s Road meets the
Bank of the Yochio,” Mason and Dixon “go in search of the Ferryman, Mr.
Ice” (659). Mr. Ice shares many of the features of his archetype, Charon (de-
lineated by Terpening in his fine study): a “Smoking Lamp’s lit” on his
“Craft” (659); “Time” is “abolish’d” while he speaks, as if “The Dead are
being summon’d” (659); his “eyes” are “a-glimmer” (659), like Dante‘s fer-
ryman; and he is shrouded in an atmosphere of “Madness,” “daily Sadness,”
and “Grief too Solitary,” as he rows his customers back and forth over the
Yochio, accepting coin for the passage—in this case, a “sixpence” (661). But
the stories he tells during the crossing are not to be found in the Inferno:
Dante’s river is aswarm with corpses that clamor to get on board the ferry-
boat (a scene marvelously depicted by Delacroix, among many others); Pyn-
chon’s river is populated by a “great School of Ghost-fish” (660). Most of
the fish, Mr. Ice says, are “pale green,” with “two sets of Fins each side and a
Tail like a Dragon’s” (660). Some, however, are “‘big as a man or Woman,
pale as a floating Corpse” (660). The “‘Ghosters are accorded a respect com-
parable to that shewn the Dead,’” and they are perhaps created by “the very
Speed of the Flow” as the river “descends very rapidly” from “the Mountains
of Virginia” (660).
Soon after this final crossing, “Mortality at last touches the Expedition,”
when two of the ax men are “kill’d by the Fall of a single Tree” (672). The
event is recorded in couplets by the mythical Timothy Tox, who writes
“‘Geminity hath found a fleshless Face,— / No second Chance, ‘tis Death
that’s won the Race’” (673). The book-keeper, Mr. McClean, makes a
“Ghost-Entry” in his records all the next week, writing John Carpenter’s
Mason & Dixon 209

name by mistake (672). Mason sees the deaths as a “miserable Sign” that
Dixon refuses to ‘read’ (672), insisting that the party continue on to “that
final Bank,” the Ohio River (677). Beyond this bank, all is dream and specu-
lation, a great reservoir of the myth that will become our history. Mason and
Dixon both dream “of going on, unhinder’d,” led across “a great Bridge,
fashion’d of Iron, quite out of reach of British or for that matter French Arts,
soaring over to the far Shore” (677). Revd Cherrycoke also speculates upon a
final journey, out beyond the Ohio, towards the “otherworldly peaks” of the
“Western Mountains” (709), during which they meet (and avoid) a Mexican
adventurer who speaks of “the ancient City he has discover’d beneath the
Earth, where thousands of Mummies occupy the Streets in attitudes of living
Business, embalm’d with Gold divided so finely it flows like Gum” (708).
When Mason and Dixon return from their imagined last journey, “Country-
folk they meet again are surpris’d to see them, sometimes shock’d, as at
some return of the Dead” (710).
The Indians also provide an imaginal vision of the west the surveyors
will actually never see. When Mason asks them “‘Where is your Spirit Vil-
lage?’ The Indians all gesture, straight out the Line, West” (651). This is also
the land of their dead, who follow the setting sun into the night. Mason sits
listening in the camp as the Indians unfurl a marvelous yarn about the other
world: “‘Far, far to the North and West,” there “‘lies a Valley, not big, not
small...a place of Magick’” (654). “‘Volcanickal Activity,’” Mason surmises,
when the Indians tell him that “‘Smoke comes out of the Mountains,’” and
that “Springs of Fire run ev’rywhere’” in the valley (654). The volcano,
mountain, and valley are all standard topoi of the nekyia. But Pynchon’s
twist turns this underworld into a literal cornucopia. Huge plants grow in the
valley, gigantic “Vegetables”: “Corn. Each Kernel’s more than a Man can
lift. Big Turnip. Six-man crew to dig out but one. Big Squash. Big enough
for many families to eat their way into, and then live inside all Winter”
(654). There is also an enormous “Hemp-Plant,” which many tribes, “even
from far away,” make the long “Journey” to ascend (654). Whole caravans
climb the vertical “Stalks” and camp overnight, until “The first long-houses
began to appear upon the sturdier Branches” (654). Some of the “Travelers
were not careful with their campfires, starting larger fires” that produce “lots
of Smoak. Big Smoak” (654)! “‘Thee mean, Smoak?’” Dixon catches on, “‘O
sublime Succedaneum!’” (655). Mason becomes alarmed, remembering the
Cape, where Dixon’s indulgence in the weed so abstracted him that he had to
be reminded “of the date of the Transit, aye, even upon the Day itself” (655).
210 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

This marvelous version of “Jack and the Beanstalk” is fused with the
Biblical vision of the American Eden, where “Gardens Titanick” grow west
of the Line (656). Across the river Cheat, Mason and Dixon “discover Indian
Corn growing higher than a Weather-cock upon a Barn” (656). They find a
“gigantick Squash-Vine thicker than an ancient Tree-trunk, whose Flowers
they can jump into in the mornings and bathe in” (656). There are “Single
Tomatoes” as high as “Churches and shiny enough to see yourself in, warp’d
spherickal, red as Blood” (656), and a beet “of a Circumference requiring
more than one Entry-way” (657). One potato is stored in a “giant Root-
cellar,” and has to be “assaulted by Adze and Hatchet, and taken by hand-
carts to the Kitchen to be boil’d, bak’d, or fried” (657). The cornucopia is
tended by a “group of Farmers” who have “the look of serious Elves” in the
hire of “Others who are absent” (656). They store the “Seeds” in “Sheds es-
pecially built for them, each able to shelter one, at most two, for the Winter”
The scale and imagery again recall a Bartram, or an Audubon engraving,
which sets gigantic birds—Brown Pelican, Little Blue Heron, Snowy
Egret—in an American landscape as yet unimpaired by the abuse and exploi-
tation of its riches: “‘Guineas, Mason, Pistoles, and Spanish Dollars, splen-
dorously Vomited from Pluto’s own Gut! Without End! All generated from
thah’ one Line...?’” is how Dixon, who also calls their line “a conduit for
Evil,” puts it (701). In Pynchon’s vision, however, the underworld, situated
ever to the west of the Line, has also become a granary, Pluto’s cornucopia,
containing all the fruits of the earth—and the myths of the various native
In one final act of poeisis, at the conclusion of their “eight-Year Trav-
erse,” Dixon makes a “Map, fragrant, elegantly cartouch’d with Indians and
Instruments” (689). The map of the Line shows “Ev’ry place they ran it,
ev’ry House pass’d by, Road cross’d, the Ridge-lines and Creeks, Forests
and Glades, Water ev’rywhere, and the Dragon nearly invisible” (689). It is
the archetypal rendering of their nekyia, the first impression from which all
subsequent impressions of the journey may be derived, by the magic of
“Copper-Plate ‘Morphosis” (689). At the top of the map is “an eight-pointed
Star, surmounted by a Fleur-de-Lis,” an “ancient Shape,” one of the “many
Glyphs” Dixon uses for “A Surveyor’s North-Point” (688). Mason mistakes
it for a Masonick or Jesuit insignia, but for Dixon, it is an “Emblem” of his
“Allegiance to Earth’s Magnetism, Earth Herself if tha like” (689). For the
Mason & Dixon 211

ancients, the eight-pointed rosette was a symbol of Venus, whose diurnal and
synodical cycles of descent and return embodied the rhythms of the first
nekyia. Oddly enough, there are eight cycles of descent and return during
Mason and Dixon’s American nekyia—Lepton Castle, Philadelphia’s Inns,
the Gothic Cavern, the Indian Mound, the site of the massacre in Lancaster,
Luise and Peter Redzinger’s Hop Pit, Mr. Everybeet’s secret mines, New
York City and Long Island—so that Dixon’s “Flower of Light” may also
serve as an emblem of Pynchon’s marvelous novel.

Three: Last Transit

The tip of Dixon’s “Flower-de-Luce” (688) points northward, in the di-

rection of one of the novel’s most extraordinary variations on the mytholo-
gies the underworld. Pynchon’s reserves the long-prefigured discovery of the
secret mines below the surface of the earth to the final section of the book,
called “Last Transit,” after the surveyors return to England. Their return
completes the large, framing circle of the nekyia (England, America, Eng-
land), but leaves them with a frustrating sense of incompletion, since they
had never moved beyond the Ohio River to find the secret realms of the hol-
low earth of the west promised them by dubious prophets like Mr. Everybeet.
To find them, as it turns out, Dixon must go north, to Hammerfrost Island
and beyond, while Mason goes to Ireland.
Mason’s trip takes us to Donegal, where he fights “the black Flood” of a
peat bog at midnight, crossing a “River” with a team of cottagers, and “trav-
eling with a Herd of Ghosts, felt but invisible,” like the “Fairy Lights” that
flicker in the “Country Unknown” that surrounds them (723–24). They cut
“Peat Sods,” and pile stones “against the Burst,” until dawn finds “each
Shift-mate a wan Spectre in the Vaporous Bog” (724). One of these spectres
takes Mason off to dowse for “the Well of Saint Brendan” with the “Krees”
he’s brought back with him from Cape Town (725). Imagery of the nekyia
persists when Mason returns from Ireland on a ship carrying “hundreds of
Lamb carcasses” in its hold (735). They bang around so much at midnight
that Mason is driven from his bunk to run “screaming to undog the hatch into
the forward cargo space,” where he is “immediately caught, a careless inno-
cent at some Ball of the Dead, among a sliding, thick meat Battery” (735).
The lamb, of course, is the sacramental symbol par excellence, but these
lambs take Mason into a “category beyond Dead, in its pointless Humilia-
212 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

tion, its superfluous Defeat—stripp’d, the naked faces bruised and cut by the
repeated battering of the others in this, their final Flock” (736). The passage
is worse than “Purgatory [...] maybe even Hell” (736). Flaying, sacrifice, and
divestiture are fused in this brutal variation of the night-sea journey.
Dixon’s assignment, meanwhile, takes him to observe another transit of
Venus, as it crosses the sun in its eight-year synodical cycle. The two transits
of Venus frame the beginning and the end of the novel, thus enclosing the
whole within the mythical cycle of the planet’s nekyia—a structural device
rather similar to Octavio Paz’s poem Sunstone. The observations occur on
Hammerfrost Island, some seventy miles down the coast from the North
Cape of Norway (738). The landscape suggests the “terminal Geometry” of
the “World’s Other End” (738), and soon serves as the location for Dixon’s
final nekyia. A stranger with “Very large eyes,” eyes “too strange even for
Stig,” appears to take Dixon on a journey to the North Magnetick Pole (739).
The stranger identifies himself as Captain Douglas of the H.M.S. Emerald,
and his means of conveyance is one of the strangest in the history of the
nekyia: it is a kind of sledge made of caribou hide stretched on whalebone,
with “a Device of elaborately coil’d Wires, set upon Gimbels” attached to the
“Prow of the vehicle” (739). The device uses the magnetic energy of the pole
to drag the sled over the immense “Ice-Prairie,” haunted by “The phantoms,
the horrors” of an eternal day (739).
As they approach the pole, “the Earth’s Surface, all ‘round the Parallel,
began to curve sharply inward, leaving a great circum-polar Emptiness”
(739). Their track takes them “down-hill, ever downward, and thus, gradu-
ally, around the great Curve of its Rim” (739). The spiraling descent passes
through this “great northern Portal” into the “inner Surface of the Earth”
(739), thus answering a question about the hollow interior of the planet posed
during the American nekyia. Together, Captain Douglas and Dixon proceed
over ice and tundra, moving “ever-downhill, into a not-quite-total darkness,”
until they are “hundreds of miles below the Outer Surface,” now hanging
“upside down as bats in a belfry” (739). Like Dante’s Inferno, which is a
downward pointed cone with the concentric circles spiraling ever more nar-
rowly to the plain of ice at the bottom, the “Estuarial Towns” of Pynchon’s
“Terra Concava” wrap “from Outside to Inside as the water rushes away in
uncommonly long waterfalls, downward for hours, unbrak’d, till at last de-
bouching into an interior Lake of great size, upside down but perfectly se-
cured to its Lake-bed by Gravity as well as Centrifugal Force, and in which,
Mason & Dixon 213

upside-down swimmers glide at perfect ease, hanging over an Abyss thou-

sands of miles deep” (740).
But, as Mason suspects, this is “‘No Hell,’” and it has no “‘Single Ad-
ministrator of Evil,’” only some distant “‘Functionary,’” Dixon recalls, who
had asked him if he’d “‘take off as much of my Clothing as I’d feel comfort-
able with’” (742). The threshold, ocular, and divestiture motifs of Dixon’s
final nekyia converge upon the revelation of the secrets of this literal under-
world, towards which the novel has been moving from the beginning. Rather
than an inferno inhabited by devils, Pynchon’s underworld is populated by
little people with “the enlarged eyes” of folklore tradition: “Gnomes, Elves,
smaller folk, who live underground and possess what are, to huz, magickal
Powers” (740, 41). Sometimes the fairies from below find “their ways to the
borders of our world, following streams, spying upon us from the Fells when
the light of the Day’s tricky enough” (740). They also contrive to send us
“Messages” by way of our “Magnetic Compasses,” and they have “learn’d to
use the Tellurick Forces, including that of Magnetism” (740). In addition, the
little people below have “a Telescope of peculiar design” with which “one
could view any part of the Hollow Earth, even places directly across the In-
ner Void, thousands of miles distant” (741).
Pynchon’s fusion of folklore, Dante, and Jules Verne in this passage—
and indeed throughout Mason & Dixon—is typical of the ludic syncretism of
postmodernism, by which I mean the playful use of motifs from a variety of
traditions, periods, and genres, to revision our most fundamental myths, like
the maze and the descent to the underworld. Dixon’s Nordic nekyia even
carries Biblical associations, for, when he returns to his “Observatory,” he
opens the Book to the following passage, which Mason helps him complete
from memory: “Job, 26:5 through 7, ‘Dead things are formed from under the
waters, and the inhabitants thereof.’ ‘Hell is naked before him, and destruc-
tion hath no covering. ‘He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and
hangeth the earth upon nothing’” (742). If the underworld is down below,
however, and the earth “hangeth upon nothing,” it is also up above, as Hera-
clitus stipulated and Dixon remarks: “to journey anywhere, in this Terra
Concava, is ever to ascend. With its Corollary,—Outside, here upon the
Convexity,—to go anywhere is ever to descend’” (740).
Mason’s underworld is therefore to be found above as well as below—
for, as Tenebrae had pointed out, we live in a catoptric cosmos, in which the
heavens and the earth reflect the patterns of the other. In the last days of his
life, when his nekyia comes full circle, like “a musickal piece returning to its
214 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

Tonick Home” (762), Mason sits diligently “bow’d over a curious Mirror,”
recalculating “Mayer’s solar and lunar Data” (768). Kabbalistically invoked
by “Number, Logarithms, the manipulation of Numbers and Letters, emerg-
ing as it were from among the symbols,” Mason is visited by the “beings”
whom he also observes through his telescope (768). The evocation of these
“stinging Presences” and “Beings from the new Planet” concludes the novel
with one of the great passages of postmodernist prose—of which Pynchon
has contributed many throughout the course of his long and prolific career.
The beings are distinctly underworldly: observed “in the Glass,” they form a
“procession of luminous Phantoms, carrying bowls, bones, incense, drums”
(769). The phantoms inhabit a “malodorous Grotto of the Selves, a conscious
Denial of all that Reason holds true” (769). They are “not wise, or spiritually
advanced, or indeed capable of Human kindness, but ever and implacably
cruel, hiding, haunting, waiting” (769). They live in “the blood-scented de-
serts of the Night,” “Spheres of Darkness, Darkness impure” (769).
The ludic syncretism of postmodernism, it would seem, is also
apotropaic, warding off the terrors of oblivion that lie ever waiting for us at
the fringes of consciousness. However daunting the task, Mason continues
until his death to search for “the Phantom Shape, implicit in the Figures” he
uses to record his celestial observations. He finds in them the fundamental
forms that govern and shape life (the eidola): a “Construction,” a “great sin-
gle Engine,” a “Curious Design” (772). For the ultimate challenge of the
nekyia is to read that which has been written, as Mason tells Dr. Franklin on
his deathbed: “‘Sir, you have encounter’d Deists before, and know that our
Bible is Nature, wherein the Pentateuch, is the Sky. I have found there, writ-
ten ev’ry Night, in Astral Gematria, Messages of Great Urgency to our Time,
and to your Continent, Sir.” (772).

Gematria is the system whereby each letter of scripture is given a number, which is then
used to establish a “correspondence between the original word & another with the same nu-
merical value” (Poncé 170).
See my article (“The Golem and the Garland of Letters”) and those of others in the
special issue on the Golem in The Journal of the Fantastic in the Art
See my Figuring Poesis.
See the amusing figure of loops, lines, and circles Laurence Sterne uses in Tristram
Shandy to represent his digressive style of narration.
Chapter Five: Against the Day

Against the Day begins with a literal descent, as the air balloon called the
Inconvenience prepares to land in a field near the Chicago World’s Fair, with
its crew the Chums of Chance scrambling to avoid catastrophe, when a gas
valve is stuck open. Once safely on the ground, two of the Chums—Lindsay
and Miles—set off after dark to explore the Fair Grounds, and wander inad-
vertently into the dark side of the festivities, on the fringe of the “White
City” where the “official Fair” is in progress (22). After finding “a gap in the
fence, and an admissions gate with something of the makeshift about it,” the
two Chums pay a “scowling Asiatic midget of some sort” their “fifty-cent
pieces,” and then wander into the “separate, lampless world, out beyond
some obscure threshold” that divides this domain of “cultural darkness and
savagery” from the “alabaster Metropolis” of the city (22). A “half-light”
permeates the “shadows” of this “unmapped periphery,” veiling the faces
that move by grimacing, smiling, and staring directly “at Lindsay and Miles
as if somehow they knew them,” and have come to avenge some “offense
taken,” or to collect some unpayed debt accumulated by an earlier “adven-
ture in exotic corners of the world” (22). It is this “strange Limbo” the
Chums must now “negotiate their way through, expecting at any moment a
‘run-in’ with some enemy from an earlier day, before they might gain the
safety of the lights in the distance” (22).
Hence, it seems fitting that “Temptation, much to Lindsay’s chagrin,
lurked at every step,” and that “Pavilions here seemed almost to represent not
nations of the world but Deadly Sins” (22). For this “Limbo” is essentially an
Inferno of drugs, sex, and the bizarre counterworld to the White City, popu-
lated not by “innocent American visitors with their Kodaks and parasols,”
but by the preterite “savages” of the Waziris from Waziristan, the Tarahu-
mara Indians from Northern Mexico, the Tungus of Siberia, and American
blacks demonstrating “an ancient African method of divination,” which “al-
lows you to change your fate” (23)—for the underworld is not only an in-
ferno, it is also a temenos, or sacred space where the revelation of one’s des-
tiny occurs. It seems appropriate therefore that Miles outwits this shuckster
at his own game, snitching the “nine of diamonds” from the “sharper’s hat,”
216 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

and winning ten dollars as a result. The moment seems prophetic, and psy-
chic, as Miles explains: “Sometimes […] these peculiar feelings will sur-
round me, Lindsay … like electricity coming on—as if I can see everything
just as clear as day, how … how everything fits together, connects” (24).
Such revelations of the hidden shape of things, of that fundamental pattern of
destiny that governs our lives, are central to the traditional variations on the
Here the reference to electricity is important. It recalls the introduction of
the theme in the previous chapter, when Riley (one of the “Bindlestiffs of the
Blue A.C., a club of ascensionaries from Oregon” whom the Chums of
Chance “had often flown [with] on joint manoevers”) tells the Chums about
a weird “upriser off a cornfield by Decatur” in Illinois that propelled their
balloon upwards into frigid altitudes, so cold that “‘icicles o’ snot down to
our belt buckles” went “all blue from the light of that electric fluid, ’s whirl-
poolin round our heads’” (19). Zip remembers “strange voices,” and Penny
pipes up by asking if they have heard of “these … ‘sightings’ that keep get-
ting reported in” (19)—sightings which Zip describes “in a low, ominous
voice. ‘There’s lights, but there’s sound, too. Mostly in the upper altitudes,
where it gets that dark blue in the daytime? Voices calling out together. All
directions at once. Like a school choir, only no tune” (19). Electricity, of
course, is a manifestation of energies invisible to the naked eye, undercur-
rents, as it were, and hence serves as an appropriate metaphor in the context
of a novel much concerned with the nekyia.
When a newcomer named Lew Basnight joins the Chums of Chance on
their “surveillance runs” at the Fair, the allusions combine the nekyia with
the labyrinth, in a manner characteristic of many major works of postmod-
ernism. Lew, it seems, has “wandered into” the “detective business, by way
of a sin he was supposed to have committed,” but which he can’t remember
(37). He becomes known as “the Upstate-Downstate Beast,” and flees to es-
cape “among the skyscrapers of Chicago, leaving a note at work suggesting
he’d be back shortly” (37). When his wife Troth arrives to confront him with
the crime he cannot remember committing, and to tell him she is leaving
him, the couple wanders off into “the urban unmappable,” reaching “a re-
mote and unfamiliar part of the city—in fact, an enormous district whose
existence neither till now, had even suspected” (38). The streets of this urban
underworld are labyrinthine, and do not follow “the familiar grid pattern of
the rest of town—everything was on the skew, narrow lanes radiating star-
Against the Day 217

wise from small plazas, tramlines with hairpin turns that carried passengers
abruptly back the way they’d been coming,” and a confusion of street-signs
in “foreign languages” (38). Lew falls into a “waking swoon, which not so
much as propelled as allowed him entry into an urban setting, like the world
he had left but differing in particulars which were not slow to reveal them-
selves” (38).
In the middle of this otherworld Lew finds a group to whom he confesses
“whatever it is” he has done (39). Its leader, Drave, advises Lew that “‘Re-
morse without an object is a doorway to deliverance,’” and directs him to the
“Esthonia Hotel,” where Lew finds refuge, though only after filling out a
long section of application called “Reasons for Extended Residence,” which
is sent off “to some invisible desk up the other end of a pneumatic house-
tube” (39). The approval of his request gives Lew access to a most labyrin-
thine domicile, like something out of Poe or Piranesi. He gets onto “a tiny
electric elevator” with a man named Hershel, who guides Lew through the
maze: “they were obliged to step out into refuse-filled corridors, negotiate
iron ladders, cross dangerous catwalks not visible from the streets, only to
reboard the fiendish conveyance at another of its stops, at times traversing
not even vertically” (40). The passage serves as a metaphor for the under-
world of anarchism that Lew will shortly explore, working for the detective
agency called White City Investigations (43). The nekyia is both external and
internal: as Lew makes his way through the long Chicago winter, “a sub-
zero-degrees version of Hell” (41), he discovers a penchant for “Excursion”
(44), his psychic ability to slip into “invisibility” (43), to “step to the side of
the day” into another world, one “with its own, vast incomprehensible his-
tory, its perils and ecstasies, its potential for unannounced romance and early
funerals” (44).
One of his first ‘excursions’ takes Lew into a squalid “Negro bar down
on South State in the Thirties, the heart of the vaudeville and black enter-
tainment district” (47). Lew’s assignment is to locate the whereabouts of the
Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, who has come to Chicago in search of
“‘something new and interesting to kill,’” Hungarians perhaps, let loose in
the Chicago Stockyards he wonders if he might not rent, “‘for a weekend’s
amusement’” (46)! On this particular night, the Archduke has “dropped off
the map of greater Chicago,” leading Lew on a “lengthy search” through the
labyrinthine underworld of the inner city, checking in at “obvious favorites
like the Silver Dollar and Everleigh House,” until he finds him “at last in the
Boll Weevil Lounge” (47)—from which they barely escape after the Arch-
218 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

duke utters a series of rascist insults. After this escapade, Lew is sent off to
spy on workers’ meetings, in search of anarchistic conspiracies, “learning
enough of several Slavic tongues to be plausible down in the deadfalls where
the desperate malcontents convened, fingerless slaughterhouse veterans, ir-
regulars in the army of sorrow, prophesiers who had seen America as it
might be in visions America’s wardens could not tolerate” (51). These excur-
sions eventually lead to a new assignment, when Lew is sent off to work in a
new office in Denver, where there are “more Anarchists per square foot […]
than a man could begin to count” (51).
Pynchon’s narrative now turns to Merle Rideout, one of the characters
encountered by the Chums of Chance during their stopover in Chicago.
Merle is a friend of Professor Vanderjuice, whom Scarsdale Vibe is courting
for his knowledge of new research in electrical currents generated by the
earth. Merle’s primary interest is initiated during his time in Cleveland,
where a group of professors at the Case Institute are “planning an experiment
to see what effect, if any, the motion of the Earth had on the speed of light
through the luminiferous Æther” (58). Talking with Vanderjuice, Merle
learns about people like Lord Salisbury and Sir Oliver Lodge, for whom “the
Æther has always been a religious question,” Æther having been defined by
the latter as “‘one continuous substance filling all space, which can vibrate
light … be sheared into positive and negative electricity’” (58).1 A gaggle of
“scientific cranks,” it seems, have descended on Cleveland, “eager to bathe
in the radiance of the celebrated Æther-drift experiment in progress out at
Case” (59). Some of these end up as “regulars at the Oil Well Saloon,” where
devotees gather to discuss the “luminiferous Æther,” focusing on “Æther-
wind speed, Ætheric pressure,” and the condensation of “Minute droplets of
nothing at all,” that mix in with “the prevailing Ætheric medium,” until a
“saturation point is reached,” unleashing “storms in which not rain but pre-
cipitated nothingness sweeps a given area, cyclones and anticyclones of it,
abroad not only locally at the planetary surface but outside it, through cosmic
space as well” (60).
The conception of the Ætheric medium is ludically developed to include
the notion that light beams can split, bifurcating into positive and negative
manifestations of the same energy. Hence, a leading professor of the move-
ment comes to be identified with the notorious murderer, Blinky Morgan, on
an occasion when the light went “someplace else” while Blinky himself was
“invisible” (62). When Blinky “emerged from invisibility” at the exact mo-
Against the Day 219

ment when the Michelson and Morley research was underway, “the experi-
ment was fated to have a negative outcome,” and hence the “Æther was
doomed” (62). It was as if “the Æther whether it’s moving or standing still,
just doesn’t exist” (63). The dilemma of the existent non-existence of the
Æther is resolved by one “O.D. Chandrasekhar, who was here in Cleveland
all the way from Bombay, India” (63). O.D. asserts the “null result” of the
experiment “may as easily be read as proving the existence of the Æther,”
asserting that “The absence of a light-bearing medium is the emptiness of
what my religion calls akasa, which is the ground of basis of all that we im-
agine ‘exists’” (63).2
As playfully as Pynchon handles these matters, his conception of the
Æther as an invisible field of energy that embraces the polarities of positive
and negative charges, and from which all things come, adds a critical dimen-
sion to his conception of the nekyia in the novel. For this conception of the
Æther, in relation to the Hindu notions of akasa and ajîva, gets right to the
root of pre-Socratic doctrines from the Greeks, greatly enriching our under-
standing of the underworld in the novel. As James Hillman notes, the Greeks
imagined Æther as those “cold dead depths” at the “very bottom of Hades, its
furthest chasm personified as the son of ether and air” (Dream 38). It is a
“space beyond the earth’s atmosphere,” far removed from “the life and do-
ings of men on earth” (Dream 132). The notion also recalls the “apeiron” of
Anaximander, that “boundless” and invisible field of energy from which all
things come, and to which they return—regarded by Edward Edinger as the
prima material of the alchemists (10, 12).
As the novel proceeds, Merle Rideout will come to associate alchemy
and photography with emergence from the invisible. One day in Cleveland,
after the Æther experiments, and after Blinky’s execution, Merle discovers
an unexpected passion for photograpy: “Like anybody, of course, he had
wondered what happened during the mysteriously guarded transition from
plate to print, but never enough to step across any darkroom’s forbidden
doorsill to have a look” (64)—an image which evokes the threshold necro-
type. The connection between photography and the nekyia is then made
clear, when Pynchon notes that for Merle, “chemical reactions like this went
on down in some region too far out of anyone’s control” to engage the me-
chanic’s respect for “any straightforward chain of cause and effect you could
see or handle” (64). Merle then watches amazed in his friend Roswell
Bounce’s darkroom. He sees the chemicals mixed and poured, and an “image
220 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

appear. Come from nothing. Come in and out of the pale Invisible, down into
this otherwise explainable world” (64).
After this he is hooked, and takes up the alchemical art, eeking out a
meager living as a photographer while wandering around the Midwest with
his daughter Dahlia. It is a journey across “the Inner American Sea,” during
which towns rise up “like islands” (71). On one “of their last days in unbro-
ken country,” Merle points to a field of corn and “high Indian grass,” and
says “‘There’s your gold Dahlia, the real article’” (74). Her response brings
the hermetic nekyia into the novel, when Dahlia reflects that she knows
“roughly what an alchemist was, and that none of that shifty crew ever spoke
straight—their words always meant something else, sometimes even because
the ‘something else’ really was beyond words, maybe in the way departed
souls are beyond the world” (75). These reflections associate alchemy with
the nekyia, and prefigure the connection of both to photography, clearly es-
tablished when father and daughter find an old abandoned “farm outbuild-
ing” in Colorado, which he “fills up to the rafters with photographer’s, or, if
you like, alchemist’s stuff” (76).
When a curious “mine engineer” from the “Little Hellkite works over by
Telluride,” named Webb Traverse, enters the scene, the alchemical meta-
phors dominate the conversation. When Webb nods at a “jug of store-bought
quicksilver on the table,” Merle launches his way into a disquisition on the
“Alchemist’ work,” which involves stripping “away from mercury” every-
thing not essential,” until left only with

‘this unearthly pure form of it the cupel ain’t been made that can hold it, something
that would make this stuff here seem dull as traprock. Philosophic Mercury, ’s what
they called it, which you won’t find anyplace among the metals of metallurgy, the
elements of the periodic table, the catalogues of industry, though many say it’s
really more of a figure of speech, like the famous Philosopher’s Stone—supposed to
really mean God, or the Secret of Happiness, or Union with the All, so forth.’ (77)

Webb’s interest, however, seems purely mercenary, and indeed potentially

demonic. He is more curious about “the infernal side to the story,” and in the
possibility of making an “Anti-Stone,” which, Merle admits, there are
“probably as many lost souls out lookin for […] as regular alchemists” (78).
Such materials as those Webb sees in Merle’s alchemical darkroom could
produce the kind of “high explosive” of great interest to a mining engineer—
especially one who works for an operation called “Little Hellkite” (78, 79),
where Webb now sends Merle to look for a job.
Against the Day 221

On his way there, Merle is “visited by a strange feeling that ‘photogra-

phy’ and ‘alchemy’ were just two ways of getting at the same thing—
redeeming light from the inertia of precious metals,” and that his journey
with Dally has not been “the result of any idle drift but more of a secret im-
perative, like the force of gravity, from all the silver he’d been developing
out into the pictures he’d been taking over these years—as if silver were
alive, with a soul and a voice, and he’d been working for it much as it for
him” (80). As James Hillman has noted, the disclosure of those fundamental
structures of the soul that give shape and significance to life is the essential
feature of the descent to the underworld, in dream as in myth. Pynchon calls
this governing principle a “secret imperative,” one that transforms idle wan-
derings into the formal patterns of a meaningful destiny.
The narrative now moves to two chapters devoted to Webb Traverse and
his son Kit, focusing on the father’s fascination with dynamite and life as a
miner, family man, and Marxist terrorist—blowing up railroad bridges in his
spare time with Veikko, a mad Finnish anarchist. Webb’s underworld in-
volves a conspiracy against the corporation that sends him down into the
mines of Colorado every day, at a time “in Cripple and Victor, Leadville and
Creede, when men were finding their way to the unblastable seams of their
own secret natures, learning the true names of desire, which spoken, so they
dreamed, would open the way through the mountains to all that had been de-
nied them” (85–86).
Pynchon’s poignant writing about the complex relationships between
husband and wife—and more particularly, fathers and sons in this chapter—
marks a new and welcome development in his long career. Webb’s son,
“young Kit Traverse” (97), will rebel against his bewildered and slightly
paranoid father by accepting an offer from Foley Walker, “special assistant
to the famed financier Scarsdale Vibe” (99), to enter into a contract of “paid
conscription” (103), under the terms of which Kit’s education at Yale will be
funded by Vibe, and then paid off by working for him on the vast project of
mastery of the world via the development of electricity. The hook for Kit is a
“yearning […] a clarity of desire—to belong to that band of adventurers into
the Æther and its mysteries, to become, por vida, one of Doc Tesla’s boys”
(103). Foley serves as a kind of Mephistopheles, and the contract (“to sign up
with Foley’s plan for his life”), clearly Faustian. But it is also offers fulfill-
ment of Kit’s intuitive understanding of the underworld of electricity, an un-
derstanding based on an epiphany that occurs “one night out west of Rico,”
when “a window opened for him into the Invisible, and a voice, or something
222 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

like a voice, whispered unto him, saying, ‘Water falls, electricity flows—one
flow becomes another, and thence into light. So is altitude transformed, con-
tinuously to light’” (99). The epiphany is evoked in imagery characteristic of
the nekyia: the “ordinarily blinding glow of a lamp filament” into which Kit
stares becomes a portal to another world, light shining through “the crack of
a door left open, inviting him into a friendly house” (99); stepping through
that portal represents “a jump from one place to another with who knew what
perilous æther opening between and beneath” (99). The passage through that
portal and over that abyss leads to Kit’s challenging of his father Webb, who
sees the offer to study at Yale, with work for the “Vibe Corp.” to pay for the
tuition, as capitulation to the evil forces of capitalism: “‘They own you,’”
Webb warns his son (105)—just as Mephisto owned Faust. But his warning
falls on deaf ears, and Kit sets off for the East Coast, parting from his mother
Mayva in the very touching scene that closes the chapter on the Traverse
The final chapter of Part 1 shifts back to the Chums of Chance, and in-
volves a most extraordinary variation on the mythology of the nekyia. The
Chums are instructed to steer “southwest” on a journey that takes them above
the “uninhabited and little-known Indian Ocean islands of Amsterdam and
St. Paul, recently annexed by France” (108). The islands are “‘of bare black
rock, unpopulated, without vegetation,’” and their original “‘names are
lost,’” as they lapse “‘back into anonymity, each island rising from it only
another dark desert,’” as Miles explains to his crew mates: “no longer
named, one by one the islets vanished from the nautical charts, and one day
from the lighted world as well, to rejoin the Invisible” (107–08). The last
island where the Chums can “take on perishable supplies is called St.
Masque, where the crew encounters a “considerable population” of English
speaking people who are engaged in “some huge underground construction
venture,” the purpose of which, they cryptically explain, is to forge a passage
“Home” (108).
From St. Masque the Chums continue their flight on the Inconvenience,
and, “only hours after leaving behind these de-christened fragments in the
sea’s reasserted emptiness, they had raised the volcano, dark and ruinous,
which was their destination” (109). Their assignment is to “observe what
would happen at the point on the Earth antipodal to Colorado Springs, during
Dr. Tesla’s experiements there” (109). The experiments are performed on
July 4th, and coincide with those performed “on the other side of the world”
Against the Day 223

(110). The purpose of the experiment seems to be to determine whether the

electrical signals are “going around the planet, or through it, or was linear
progression not at all the point, with everything instead happening simulta-
neously at every part of the circuit?” (112).
It also begins to seem apparent that these questions about the invisible
flow of electrical signals informs the next stop on the itinerary, which the
Chums are directed to in a most extraordinary way, when eating a stew made
from oysters bought from a Japanese man in a “shellfish market in the teem-
ing narrow lanes of the old town in Surabaya, East Java” (113). When
Lindsey Noseworth chokes on the “Oyster Stew traditionally prepared each
Thursday as the Plat du Jour by Miles Blundell,” he spits up a “pearl of quite
uncommon size and iridescence, seeming indeed to glow from within, which
the boys, gathered about, recognized immediately as a communication from
the Chums of Chance Upper Hierarchy” (113). Placing the pearl into a “pe-
culiar looking optical contraption of prisms, lenses, Nernst lamps, and ad-
justment screws,” the boys are able to project a “photographic image” on
which a “printed message began to appear”—an image made possible, we
soon learn, by the process of “‘induced paramorphism,’” invented by the
Japanese, which transforms the “original aragonite” of “the nacreous layers
of the pearl” into “a different form of calcium carbonate—namely, to micro-
scopic crystals of the doubly-refracting calcite known as Iceland spar” (114).
Ordinary light passed through the mineral creates “an additional channel of
optical communication wherever in the layered structure of the pearl one of
the thousands of tiny, cunningly-arranged crystals might occur. When illu-
minated in a certain way, and the intricately refracted light projected upon a
suitable surface, any pearl so modified could thus be made to yield a mes-
sage” (114).
This fascinating invention, so characteristic of Pynchon’s playful genius,
brings Gnosticism into the novel in a way explicitly related to the mythology
of the nekyia. In “The Hymn of the Pearl,” the descent is initiated when a
pearl is swallowed by a sea serpent, and the hero undertakes the journey
from the realm of the spirit to retrieve it. The pearl represents to the soul of
the world, Anima mundi, or the Gnostic Sophia, fallen into, and trapped by,
the material world, symbolized by the sea and the dragon. Pynchon’s pearl
adds the dynamics of hermeneupoeisis to the image, since the Chums of
Chance must decipher the messages of the mysteriously produced and clan-
destinely distributed text, in order to determine the nature of their mission.
Their orders—the “secret information” encoded in the “paramorphic encryp-
224 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

tion” of the pearl—have been sent by the “Chums of Chance Upper Hierar-
chy” (113), a ludic variation on the celestial authorities of the Gnostic Hymn.
And their destination makes the allusions to the mythology of the underworld
explicit, in as much as “The message from Upper Hierarchy directed the
crew to get up buoyancy immediately and proceed by way of the Telluric
Interior to the north polar regions, where they were to intercept the schooner
Étienne-Louis Malus and attempt to persuade its commander, Dr. Alden
Vormance, to abandon the expedition he was currently engaged upon” (114).
Their journey into the “hollow Earth” (speculated upon by “Kepler, Hal-
ley, and Euler”) takes them across the “Antarctic” towards “the vast and
tenebrous interior which breathed hugely miles ahead of them” (115). They
feel the pull of “some vortex inside the planet” which melts the polar ice so
that “border towns” can be created where “dwellers in the interior” can come
“out to trade luminous fish, giant crystals with geomantic properties, unre-
fined ores of various useful metals, and mushrooms unknown to the fungolo-
gists of the surface world” (115). One of these vortices narrows into a “great
portal” that leads the Inconvenience and its crew down into “the planet’s in-
terior” (115). Their passage evokes mycological and arboreal necrotypes
long associated with the mythology of the underworld, as the crew flies
“blind, guided only by their sense of smell, among odors of sulfurous com-
bustion, fungus harvesting, and the resinous transpiration of the vast forests
of sprucelike conifers which began fitfully to emerge out of the mist” (115).
Gnostic motifs soon emerge, as the crew heads “Far below, through the
intraplanetary dusk” (116), and once again these motifs are combined with
the energies of poeisis and hermeneusis characterisitically catalyzed by the
nekyia. Passing above the “inner concavity” of the Earth’s core, the crew
begins to notice “phosphorescent chains and webs of settlement crossing
lightless patches of wilderness,” and begins to hear “traffic on the Tesla de-
vice,” their “wireless apparatus” (116). What at first seems only the “noise”
of “magneto-atmospheric disturbances which the boys had long grown used
to, perhaps here intensified by the vastly resonant space into which they were
moving ever deeper,” gradually congeals into the coherent emissions of
“human timbre and rhythms—not speech so much as music, as if the twilit
leagues passing below were linked by means of song” (116). Music and song
traditionally represent the supernatural speech of the underworld, the ener-
gies of poeisis catalyzed by the nekyia. Lindsay, the “Communications Offi-
cer” on board the Inconvenience, gradually deciphers the mysterious emis-
Against the Day 225

sion, and interprets the song as a call for help, for the dwellers of the deep
are apparently besieged by “a horde of hostile gnomes [….] diminutive com-
batants wearing pointed hats and carrying what proved to be electric cross-
bows, from which they periodically discharged bolts of intense greenish
light” (117).
Descending over the “battlefield,” the Chums see the “metallic turrets
and parapets of a sort of castle, where burned the crimson lights of distress”
(117). Miles is enthralled and “transfixed by the sight of a woman poised
upon a high balcony,” who is apparently besieged by “the increasingly de-
ranged attentions of the Legion of Gnomes,” as are the Chums themselves—
whose descent into the “royal court of Chthonica, Princess of Plutonia, and
the all-but-irresistable fascination that subterranean monarch would come to
exert, Circe-like, upon the minds of the crew of the Inconvenience,” has been
chronicled by the author in another episode of the series, entitled “The
Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth” (117). Pynchon’s use of the
possessive pronoun brings the self-reflexive narrative of postmodernist meta-
fiction front and center, since he refers to this novel as “my little intrater-
restrial scherzo” (117). Of more immediate concern for us, however, is the
traditional Gnostic motif of Sophia imprisoned or besieged by demons
(called archons) in the darkness of the deep. Her name in this fantastic pas-
sage (“Chthonica, Princess of Plutonia”) explicitly evokes the language of
the nekyia, which, in the Gnostic variation, calls upon the male hero to liber-
ate Anima mundi (the soul of human kind) from her bondage in the material
world. We are not told the story of her encounter with the Chums in Against
the Day—only that the Inconvenience slowly emerges from “Plutonia” and
passes through a “Northern portal” into the Arctic, where their pursuit of the
“Étienne-Louis Malus” will proceed, in part two of the novel (118).

Two: Iceland Spar

“Iceland Spar” is a mineral whose crystals yield the secret communica-

tions transmitted by the pearl in Part One. It begins with the Chums of
Chance on board the Inconvenience, amidst fleets of airships competing for
“electro-magnetic information, in an international race to measure and map
most accurately the field-coefficients at each point of that mysterious
mathematical lattice-work which was by then known to surround the Earth”
(121). The language here evokes the diction and iconography of form cata-
226 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

lyzed in a text which engages the myth of the nekyia—for the journey always
moves towards the revelation of those fundamental forms of the imaginal
psyche which govern and shape life, forms which I call eidola, following
James Hillman’s identification of Hades and Eidos. Here, the metaphors of
form are cartographic—mapping and measuring the “mathematical lattice-
work” of electro-magnetic fields surrounding the planet.
But when the Inconvenience continues its pursuit of the Étienne-Louis
Malus, the narrative turns to the Nordic nekyia, drawing its mythology from
the Eddas and Icelandic Sagas. At first it seems that the Étienne-Louis Malus
is “on an expedition to find a new source of Iceland spar pure as the legen-
dary crystals of Helgustadir” (126), but as the story unfolds, things become
more complicated, richly informed by Nordic mythology. When the ship ar-
rives at the “sheer green walls of ice” that form the “green headland” of an
Island where Constance Penhallow lives with her grandson Hunter, “tales of
Harald the Ruthless, son of King Sigurd” are evoked, tales from “the first
millennium” about his “sailing north, drawn by inexplicable desire, farther
away each sunset from all comfort, all kindness, to the awful brink, scant
oarstrokes away from falling into Ginnungagap the lightless abyss” (127).
Ginnungagap is “the end of the world,” but also its beginning, since, “in the
ancient Northmen’s language, ‘Gap’ meant not only this particular chasm,
the ice chaos from which arose, through the giant Ymir, the Earth and every-
thing in it, but also a wide-open human mouth, mortal, crying, screaming,
calling out, calling back” (128).
The current expedition of the Étienne-Louis Malus would seem to be fol-
lowing the footsteps of the legendary Harald Hårdråde, by whose time “the
once terrible void was scarcely a remnant, a vaporous residue of the world’s
creation and the high drama of the Ymir-Audumla era, no longer the inter-
section of Niflheim’s ice and Muspellheim’s fire but the debris from a ca-
lamitous birth” (128). The location of this mythic space of beginnings haunts
the crew of the Étienne-Louis Malus, since the expedition,

if not by its official remit bound all the way to Ginnungagap, must nonetheless ac-
knowledge its presence up there ahead in the fog, in the possible darkening of some
day’s water-sky to the reflection of a mythical Interior, the chance, in this day and
age, of sailing off the surface of the World, drawn into another, toroidal dispensa-
tion, more up to date topologically than any disk or spheroid. (128)
Against the Day 227

The diction and imagery of this passage brings the Nordic material up to date
by the inclusion of geometrical necrotypes (toroids and spheroids serving as
symbols of the mysterious dimensions of the “Interior” of the Earth, beneath
“the surface of the World”).
Pynchon suggests that Ginnungagap is essentially a portal that leads into
the underworld. The Icelanders are said to have “a long tradition of ghostli-
ness,” their mythology much concerned with “the sub-structure of reality”
(133). Indeed, Iceland is

one of several convergences among the worlds, found now and then lying behind
the apparent, like these subterranean passages beneath the surface, which lead
among caves of Iceland spar, blindly among crystals untouched, perhaps never to be
touched, by light. Down where the ‘Hidden People’ live, inside their private rock
dwellings, where humans who visit them can be closed in and never find a way out
again. (134)

Iceland spar “is what hides the ‘Hidden People,’” and facilitates their “cross-
ing over, between worlds,” which has been going on “for generations,” all
the way back to the first ancestors a thousand years ago (134).
We should not be surprised, therefore, that when the narrative returns to
the explorations of the Étienne-Louis Malus, Pynchon fashions a fascinating
variation on the Nordic nekyia, fusing motifs from Icelandic creation myths
and novels of the supernatural. The account of the expedition is taken from
“the Journals of Mr. Fleetwood Vibe,” on board the Malus when it sets its
“command post” up in the lee of what looks like a “Nunatak,” an Eskimo
term for “a mountain peak tall enough to rise above the wastes of ice and
snow that otherwise cover the terrain” (139). Using a pair of “ingenious gog-
gles, whose lenses proved to be matched pairs of Nicol prisms,” Dr. Counter-
fly (on board the Inconvenience) is able to see through the peak into its inte-
rior, and to recognize that it is an “artificial structure” built to contain a hor-
rible secret (139). The imagery here evokes the oreographic necrotype, for
mountains have been the location of the underworld all the way back to the
Egyptian Books of the Dead and the Sumero-Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh.
With the help of a “Special Ray Generator,” Counterfly projects an im-
age on a screen that enables the combined crews of the Inconvenience and
the Étienne-Louis Malus to “view the ‘nunatak’ in a different light” (141).
This “curious camera lucida” reveals what first seems a “blurry confusion of
yellowish green,” which, as the “frame of visibility” moves “ever down-
ward,” gradually coalesces “into a series of inscriptions, rushing by, that is
228 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

upward, too fast to read, even had the language been familiar” (141). Once
again, the nekyia has catalyzed the energies of poeisis and hermeneusis, for
the mysterious text revealed by the descent into the interior of the nunatak
must be deciphered. Professor St. Cosmo, commander of the Inconvenience,
believes the inscriptions to be “warnings […] perhaps regarding the site of
some sacred burial … a tomb of some sort” (141). Dr. Vormance, com-
mander of the Étienne-Louis Malus, takes St. Cosmo’s remarks to be an
“Uneasy reference […] to the recent misfortunes of certain Egyptologists
imprudent enough to have penetrated those realms of eternal rest” (141)—
thus making the references to the nekyia explicit, and foreshadowing the
curse that will fall upon the crew of the Étienne-Louis Malus.
With the help of the prisms of the camera lucida, the combined crews
watch with dread as a “Figure” emerges on the screen, reclining on its side
like “an odalisque of the snows,” and with a disconcerting, fateful gaze that
evokes the ocular necrotype: “Its eyes, for the most part, if eyes be what they
were, remained open, its gaze as yet undirected—though we were bound in a
common terror of that moment at which it might become aware of our inter-
est and smoothly pivot its awful head to stare us full in the face” (141). In
spite of the warnings offered by the crew of the Inconvenience, the Étienne-
Louis Malus determines at this point to go “all the way down” into the inte-
rior of the nunatak in order to recover the “Figure” they have seen projected
on the screen (141). Later, Pynchon’s narrator informs us, “Scholars of the
Eddas” will compare the “Figure” to “Buri, grandfather of Odin and the first
gods, frozen in the ice of Niflheim for uncounted ages, till being licked
awake by the tongue of the mythic cow Audumla” (142). Niflheim, we
should remember at this point, is the domain of the “Teutonic underground
Goddess Hel, ruler of the dead” (Walker, Encyclopedia 727). In Snorri Sturl-
ison Prose Edda, from about 1220, the frost giant Ymir is created when the
warm air from Muspellheim mixes with the cold from Niflheim. Melting ice
from Ginnungagap also takes the shape of the giant cow, Audumla, from
whom Ymir sucks rivers of milk. The cow then licks off blocks of ice to
form a man called Buri, who has a son called Bor, who marries a daughter of
another frost giant, and from this couple Odin, Vili, and Ve are born—the
former to become the primary deity of the Nordic pantheon (Hamilton 69–
It is logical therefore that the expedition to recover the mysterious Figure
is presented as a nekyia, a “descent into a crevasse,” during which the “in-
Against the Day 229

trepid innocents” of the Étienne-Louis Malus climb “down into those shad-
ows,” following (as Fleetwood Vibe puts it in his Journal) “the all-too-
regular slope of what we foolishly continued to call the ‘nunatak,’ down to
meet our destiny” (142). The revelation of one’s destiny at the climax of the
nekyia is an ancient motif, going back to Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Ae-
neid, and here ludically handled by Pynchon in a manner generally character-
istic of postmodernism. The destiny here concerns the “recovery” operation
that proceeds, as the crew of the Malus labors on into the “polar darkness,”
stalked by some “invisible” presence, and warned by a Tungus shaman they
encounter along the way about the creature down below, for whom “humans
are the only source of food” (142–43). Once recovered, the Figure terrifies
the crew after being stowed in the hull: “With its ‘eyes’ set closely side by
side like those of humans and other binocular predators, its gaze had re-
mained directed solely, personally, to each of us, no matter where we stood
or moved” (144). To make matters worse, Fleetwood Vibe tells us that dur-
ing the journey homewards, bearing the supernatural cargo, “something
down there, below our feet, below the waterline where it lay patient and
thawing, was terribly, and soon to be more terribly, amiss” (144).
Once moored in the harbor, alongside “Whitehall gigs,” a “delegation
from the Museum” comes to “take delivery of what we had brought” (145).
The crew fears the “Figure” has not been properly contained along the jour-
ney, and that “some fraction of the total must necessarily have escaped con-
finement,” or that worse, the creature is now “already at large” (145). In
fact, it seems to have spoken “as it made its escape,” and those who heard
what it said have been driven mad, and now “safely” stowed away “in the
upstate security of Matteawan, receiving the most modern care” (145). Its
speech is otherworldly: “Nothing voiced—all hisses, a serpent, vengeful,
relentless,” one witness remembers. “Others attested to languages long dead
to the world, though of course known to their reporters” (145). Whatever
language of the dead the Figure speaks, its escape seems to foreshadow un-
speakable disaster for the population upon which it will now feed—a meta-
phor, Pynchon’s narrator Fleetwood Vibe suggests, of the “present world
conditions under capitalism and the Trusts” which devoured the world in the
last decade of the 19th century, and continues to do so in the first decade of
the 21st: “we do use one another, often mortally, with the same disablement
of feeling, of conscience,” is how Vibe puts it; “each of us knowing that at
some point it will be our turn. Nowhere to run but into a hostile and lifeless
waste” (147).
230 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

In the next chapter, Pynchon conflates the myths of the nekyia and the
apocalypse, in a manner that recalls the Modernist masterpieces of Lawrence
(Apocalypse), Mann (Doctor Faustus), Eliot (Four Quartets), and Broch
(The Death of Virgil). But, as usual, Pynchon’s treatment of the myths is lu-
dic, in a manner characteristic of Postmodernism in general. After the “in-
cendiary Figure” is brought into the harbor by the Étienne-Louis, havoc is
unleashed upon the city, “events moving too fast even to take in, forget
about, examine, or analyze, or in fact do much of anything but run from, and
hope you could avoid getting killed” (151). A “Board of Overseers” of the
city’s “Museum of Museumology” become the “Archangels of municipal
vengeance,” but are essentially unable to prevent the apocalyptic disaster
unleashed upon the city (149–50). The Figure burns its way “out of its enclo-
sure” in the hold of the Étienne-Malus, and proceeds to engulph the city in
“Fire and blood” (152). Most flee the stricken city in universal panic, and
even those who take refuge near an “underground spring beneath the Cathe-
dral of the Prefiguration” remain at risk (152). They project “a three-
dimensional image in full color, not exactly of Christ but with the same
beard, robes, ability to emit light” to ward off, it would seem, the Anti-Christ
or Beast of the Apocalypse besieging the city (153).
During this “night and day of unconditional wrath,” the entire city ca-
pitulates to the “Destroyer,” setting up votive shrines and “propitiatory struc-
tures” in vain “hopes of being spared further suffering” (154). Pynchon’s
arsenal at this point yields an extraordinary variation on the canonical Whore
of Babylon from the Book of Revelation: he describes the city as a male vic-
tim “forced to submit, surrendering, inadmissibly, blindly feminine, into the
Hellfire embrace of ‘her’ beloved,” and thus remaining in that embrace as
“the catamite of Hell, the punk at the disposal of all the denizens thereof, the
bitch in men’s clothing” (154). Way “Downtown” in the inner city, “an
enormous rampart of silence” is constructed, a “limit of the known world,
beyond which lay a realm the rest of the city could not speak of, as if having
surrendered, as part of some Plutonian bargain, even the language to do so”
(154). Pynchon makes the conflation of the nekyia and apocalypse explicit in
this passage, by having the city “put up, at some transition point into the for-
bidden realm, another great Portal, inscribed I AM THE WAY INTO THE
It would then seem apparent that, “On the night in question, Hunter Pen-
hallow” (having journeyed thither on board the Étienne-Louis), passes
Against the Day 231

through this gateway into the infernal city, getting “abruptly lost in an unfa-
miliar part of town” (154) which Pynchon presents as a labyrinth—as Dante
too presents his Inferno as a maze to be traversed by Theseus-Jesus, in order
to slay the Minotaur-Satan frozen in the ice in its lower circle. The labyrinth
into which Hunter wanders is one with “streets no longer sequentially num-
bered, intersecting now at unexpected angles, narrowing into long featureless
alleyways to nowhere, running steeply up and down hills which had not been
noticed before” (154). The twisting ways of the labyrinthine streets eventu-
ally lead to “a sort of open courtyard, a ruined shell of rust-red and yellowish
debris towering ten or twelve stories overhead,” and “A sort of monumental
gateway, unaccountably more ancient and foreign than anything in the
known city,” passing through which Hunter enters a series of “inhabited
rooms,” until he stumbles upon a group of people “sitting clustered around a
fireplace,” who are planning their escape from the city (155).
Hunter is invited to come with them, and the escape too is presented in
terms evocative of the myth of the nekyia, and reminiscent of the opening
chapter of Gravity’s Rainbow. The group climbs “dumbly down a flight of
winding metal steps to an electric-lit platform,” where they board a bizarre
vehicle of “mass conveyance,” which picks up speed as it passes through an
urban, industrial underworld beneath the surface streets of the city above
(155). It moves among “factory spaces, power generators, massive installa-
tions of machinery whose purpose was less certain—sometimes wheels spun,
vapors burst from relief valves, whole other plants stood inert, in unlighted
mystery—entering at length a system of tunnels and, once deep inside, be-
ginning to accelerate,” carrying Hunter and his fellow passengers towards
some unspecified “refuge” (155).
The next chapter returns us to Webb’s son Kit Traverse, who has taken
up on the offer to study at Yale, his tuition funded by the somewhat nefarious
tycoon Scarsdale Vibe—whose mansion on Long Island sets the scene for
the next variation on the nekyia in the novel, when Kit visits it one weekend
at the invitation of his roommate, Colfax Vibe. The “Vibe mansion” seems
haunted by “unseen occupants” who appear at dusk, amidst the “dustless and
tidy shadows in permanent possession” of the home (160). One of these
shadows comes into Kit’s room “in the middle of the night,” as if “looking
for something” (160). On the next night—after “another breathless ten min-
utes with Dittany [cousin of Colfax] inside a striped palmetto tent during an-
other afternoon croquet party” (163)—Kit hears “piano music” coming from
a distant room, and follows the tune through “a darkening amber light,” until
232 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

he sees “a dark figure” down at “the end of one of the corridors,” receding
“into the invisible wearing one of those pith helmets explorers were said to
wear” (163). Indeed, Colfax tells Kit that he feels like a ghost in the home,
and that when he visits by himself, it seems as if there “had to be some portal
into another world” on the estate, and that he has become “possessed by the
dream of a passage through an invisible gate,” far from the city, where “the
invisible” can take “on substance” (164).
The ghost who haunts these halls turns out to be Fleetwood Vibe of the
Nordic expedition, and the “Explorer,” brother of Scarsdale, uncle to Colfax.
The story he tells Kit “about the Heavenly City” in Africa is a sinister varia-
tion on the nekyia (165). Fleetwood recounts having met “Yitzhak Zilber-
feld, a Zionist agent,” one night “in eastern Africa” (165). Yitzhak dreams
that one day he will come “around a bend in the trail, or over a ridge, and
abruptly be taken through the previously hidden passage, into the pure land,
into Zion” (166). After Fleetwood rescues Yitzhak from an “INSANE
ELEPHANT” (as a headline in the “Bush Gazette” puts it), the Zionist re-
wards him with the advice to “Buy Rand shares” (167)! Fleetwood’s fortune,
however, is shadowed by the nightmare of colonial atrocity, when he ven-
tures alone into the “green otherworld” of the interior,” into country “even
the local European insane knew was too dangerous,” in search of the “spirits
whose intercession he sought” (168). His journey then takes him to Mas-
sawa, Lourenco Marques, and on through the Transvaal (168). Crossing the
frontier, “he understood what he was supposed to be doing out here—he was
headed for Johannesburg to make his personal fortune, in that hell of chronic
phthisis, scabbed veldt [….] and stamp mills, which pounded in a hellish up-
roar audible for miles” (169).
Fleetwood resolves to “plunge in” to the inferno of the city, to “leap as
stoically as possible into the given fever and conduct himself as survival and
profit might direct in the way of intoxication, betrayal, brutality, risk (deep
descents into the abysses of the gold reef proving minor next the moral
plunges available, indeed beckoning at every hand)” (169). The climax of his
descent occurs after he boards “what the smokers of dagga called the Ape
Train,” and subsequently murders a “Kaffir he had caught stealing a dia-
mond,” whom he gives the choice either “to be shot or to step into a mine
shaft half a mile deep” (169). Standing at the “edge of the terrible steep
void,” Fleetwood understands too late that he might well have offered some
other alternative than the suicidal plunge—which Fleetwood imagines as
Against the Day 233

“relatively humane long descent into the abyss through the blue ground, the
side-tunnels whistling by faster and faster,” as if the Kaffir were “being taken
back into a dark womb” (170). Nevertheless, he is subsequently haunted by
“the unavoidable face of the dead man, dust-whitened, looming close,” look-
ing at him “through holes in a mask,” and warning him of “some grave im-
balance in the structure of the world” (170). Instead of being overcome by
remorse, Fleetwood is “bedazzled at having been shown the secret backlands
of wealth, and how sooner or later it depended on some act of murder, sel-
dom limited to once” (170)—i.e., upon what Ricardo Quinones would call a
foundation sacrifice, analogous to Cain’s murder of Abel. He likes to imag-
ine that “on the karmic ledger the Kaffir and the Jew balanced out. But in
fact, as Fleetwood was informed in these lucid dreams close to dawn, all the
gold in the Transvaal would not buy the remission of a single minute of
whatever waited for him,” whether “Purgatory? A higher law?” or “Kaffir
next of kin” chasing him “across the world” (170)—perhaps as far away as
the Vibe Mansion on Long Island.
The next iteration of the nekyia takes us back to Lew Basnight, the de-
tective from White City Investigations in Chicago, now translocated to Den-
ver, in the circles of the mining companies, and the anarchistic bombers they
are trying to track down—particularly the “notorious dynamiters of the San
Juans known as the Kieselguhr Kid” (171). At the beginning of his quest,
Lew realizes that he is most likely to “find this same structure of industrial
Hells wrapped in public silence” that he found in Chicago, only now his vi-
sion focuses on the “mine owners and workers alike, revealing the Plutonic
powers as they daily sent their legions of gnomes underground […] Powers
who always had more dwarves waiting, even eagerly, to be sent below”
(176). Both sides—the mine owners and the anarchists—are “organized,”
leaving Lew “stuck out here in Colorado, between the invisible forces, half
the time not knowing who hired him or who might be fixing to do him up”
(177). “Who were these birds—dynamiters pretending to work for the own-
ers while they planned more outrages,” Lew wonders, “greedy pikers playing
both sides and loyal only to U.S. currency?” (178). This notion of an under-
current of “interconnections” is characteristic of the revelations promised by
the nekyia, here having to do with a conspiratorial “webwork” that provides
shape and significance to otherwise random events.
Somewhere along the line, during his descent into the Plutonic mysteries
of the “mining country,” Lew develops what he calls his “Shameful Habit,”
which propels him into another kind of underworld altogether (182). The
234 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

habit involves an initially inadvertent ingestion of a mixture of “nitro com-

pounds and polymethylenes. Lethally tricky stuff” which Lew absorbs after
working with the “widely-respected mad scientist Dr. Oyswharf, a possible
unwitting supply source for Kieselguhr Kid-related bomb outrages” (182).
The compound is apparently psychedelic, for it transforms Lew’s perception
of wallpaper in the hotel at Los Fatzos, which he now sees as presenting

not a repeating pattern at all but a single view, in the French “panoramic” style, of a
land very far away indeed, perhaps not even on our planet as currently understood,
in which beings who resembled—though not compellingly—humans went about
their lives—in motion, understand beneath the gigantic looming of a nocturnal city
full of towers, domes, and spidery catwalks, themselves edged by an eerie illumina-
tion proceeding not entirely from municipal sources. (182)

The details of this hallucination combine the “nocturnal” with what we might
call the architectural or municipal necrotype, since it is characteristic of my-
thologies of the underworld—like those of Virgil, Dante, and Milton—to
present bizarre cityscapes and crumbling, sinister, labyrinthine domiciles and
prisons—such as those represented in the engravings of Piranesi and Escher.
Even Lew’s steak at dinner, when closely observed, seems to “suggest
not the animal origins a fellow might reasonably expect so much as the fur-
ther realms of crystallography, each section he made with his knife in fact
revealing new vistas, among the infinitely disposed axes and polyhedra, into
the hivelike activities of a race of very small though perfectly visible inhabi-
tants” (183). The imagery here combines the crystalline, geometric, and
apian necrotypes so frequented catalyzed by the descent to the underworld—
this latter reiterated in the song the little people sing, in which they refer to
themselves as “lit-tle bees” (183). The song itself manifests those energies of
poeisis catalyzed by the nekyia, and here symbolized by music, the super-
natural language of the soul. The song is composed of “miniature though
harmonically complex little choruses in tiny, speeded-up voices whose every
word chimed out with ever-more-polycrystalline luminosities of meaning”
(183). It is entirely characteristic of the myth that such revelations of mean-
ing, structure, and form be catalyzed by the descent, here induced by what
we learn is a compound of “cyclopropane plus dynamite,” known as “Cyc-
lomite” (183).
Lew’s “Cyclomite habit” helps him “build up an immunity to explo-
sions,” which he becomes aware of after witnessing his first “dynamite blast
[…] at a county fair in Kankee” (184). The acts at the fair keep the reader’s
Against the Day 235

focus on the mythology of the nekyia, for they include “motorcycle daredev-
ils snarling round and round half blind from their own exhaust smoke inside
a Wall of Death,” and another “attraction known as Dynamite Lazarus,”
which involves an “ordinary-looking workhand in cap and overalls” climbing
“inside a pine casket painted black, which a crew then solemnly proceeded to
stuff with a shedful of dynamite and attach a piece of vivid orange fuse”
(184). They light it up and run “like hell,” before the coffin with Lazarus in-
side explodes (184). Lew sees “the box begin to explode a split-second be-
fore the blast” (184). Shortly afterwards, he quits the Kieselguhr Kid case,
and rides off into a “small arroyo when the world turned all inside out,” and
his propulsion into the underworld takes an odd shape. Somebody, it
seems—unionist or anarchist it is hard to say—decides “to have a crack at
him,” throwing a bomb his way while he stands “quietly pissing” upstream
from his horse (184). Remembering a “carnival theory, which was to throw
yourself into the middle of the blast the second it went off, so that the shock-
wave would already be outside of and heading away from you, leaving you
safe inside the vacuum at the center,” Lew dives “at the sparks of the too-
short fuse, into that radiant throatway leading to who knew what, in the faith
that there would be something there and not just Zero and blackness” (185).
The explosion doesn’t kill Lew, but it does propel him “out of his body,”
and from there—as we will see—onwards to a different kind of otherworld.
“Wherever he was when he came to, it didn’t seem like Colorado anymore,
nor these creatures ministering to him your usual run of trail scum either—
more like visitors from elsewhere, and far away too” (185). During the blast,
he had hovered above his body until “he saw they were about to give up, pile
a few rocks over him and leave him there for the critters, which is what
obliged him to make a hasty jump back into his carcass—by now, he
couldn’t help noticing, strangely aglow” (185). His rescuers, it seems, are
two guys from England, Nigel and Neville, who are sporting “Trilby hats,
velvet knee-britches, fringe haircuts, gunbelts adorned with avalance lilies
and wild primrose. The Oscar Wilde influence, he guessed” (185). The odd
threesome then travels together, passing through the “Anasazi ruins up west
of Dolores Valley someplace,” which the Englishmen see as a “‘Red Indian
Stonehenge’” (186). There they sit down in a “mystic triangle” and bring out
a strange deck of cards, which turns out to be a Tarot deck. Nigel and Neville
lay the cards down, in response to Lew’s pertinent question: “‘What in hell’s
going on here’” (186). The answer seems appropriate: the “last card to turn
up in the layout” is “that Hanged Man again,” which Lew, the “Knight of
236 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

Swords,” contemplates as “Indian ghosts” sweep by “all night, as amused as

Indians ever got with the mysteries of the white man” (186).
A long journey southwards then ensues to “pick up the train in New
Mexico—Neville and Nigel being on the way back to their native England”
(186). They proceed by train to Galveston, Lew thinking all the way about
the Kieselguhr Kid, whose “spirit” hovers “just over the nearest ridgeline, the
embodiment of a past obligation that would not let him go but continued to
haunt, to insist” (187). Needing to bring back “some Wild West souvenirs, if
not an actual scalp or something,” Neville and Nigel settle on Lew, stowing
him away in the hold of a cargo ship, “inside a steamer trunk with a couple-
three discrete airholes bored into it” (188)—like Dynamite Lazarus in his
pine casket, emerging from which, at the end of a long night-sea journey
across the Atlantic, Lew will be reborn, his identity reconfigured by his dive
into the dynamite.
Pynchon now turns to the fate of Webb Traverse and his two sons, Frank
and Reef. After working “his way up to shift boss at the Little Hellkite work-
ings” (189), Webb is pursued and eventually murdered by two gunmen
working for the “Owner’s Association,” Deuce Kindred and his “sidekick,
Sloat Fresno” (195). That leaves Webb’s sons the task of finding out what
happened to their father, so they travel together “as far as Mortalidad, the
stop nearest Jeshimon” (208), and then part ways. Reef continues on “well
up into Utah,” passing “pillars of rock, worn over centuries by the unrelent-
ing winds to a kind of post-godhead,” until he comes to one of Pynchon’s
more sinister underworlds—the town of Jeshimon, the first glimpse of which
“was like a religious painting of hell” (210). It is “the worst town Reef ever
rode into,” its trail lined with corpses hanging from “every telegraph pole
[…] each body in a different stage of pickover and decay, all the way back to
a number of sun-beaten skeletons of some considerable age” (209). After
running out of telegraph poles, the genial townsfolk of Jeshimon fashion
“their arrangements out of adobe brick,” building “rude structures” that “so-
phisticated world travelers visiting the area were quick to identify […] with
those known in Persia as ‘Towers of Silence’—no stairs or ladders, high and
steep-sided enough to discourage mourners from climbing, no matter how
athletic or bent on honoring their dead” (210). Turkey vultures, “birds of
death,” land on perches “moulded for their convenience” to peck away at the
corpses hauled up on pulleys to the tops of the Towers (210). As “Reverend
Lube Carnal of the Second Lutheran (Missouri Synod) Church” explains, this
Against the Day 237

is how the townsfolk deal with the “evildoers from hundreds of miles
around,” who flock to Jeshimon to “commit sins” of their “own choosing or
even invention” (210). All the clergy can do for a fellow under these circum-
stances is to “‘knead you into shape for the ovens of the Next World’” (210).
The town offers “an ambience of limitless iniquity,” making it a “Lourdes of
the licentious,” its bars, like the “Scalped Indian Saloon,” provided the set-
ting for “a daylong exercise in transgression” (211).
This is the hell Reef must harrow in order to steal his father’s corpse, and
return it home for proper burial. The town’s Marshal, Wes Grimford wears a
“five pointed star” turned upside down, the two upward points representing
“the horns of the Devil” (212). Reef arrives in town just “in time to keep his
father’s carcass from the carrion birds, and then the big decision was whether
to ride on after Deuce and Sloat or bring Webb back up to San Miguel for a
decent burial” (212). The harrowing of the corpse occurs at dusk “at the base
of the tower in question,” when a mysterious Mexican sidles up to Reef and
shows him “a set of grappling hooks” stored in “a roofless ruin crammed
with all sorts of hardware gone to rust and dilapidation” (213). After the
“first star appeared”—which would be Venus, primordial symbol of descent
and return—Reef scales “the forbidden walls” and ascends “into a night
swelling like notes on a church organ”—for this is a sacred moment, one
which evokes both the atonement of father and son, and the “harrowing” of
hell, a word that combines the meanings of theft and terror (213). Catching a
glimpse of Marshal Grimsford and his deputies, “Reef and Webb—that’s
how it felt anyway, like his father was still alive and this was their last ad-
venture together—must flee without discussion” (213). Reef shoots a “car-
rion bird, maybe two, among the great unhurried black ascent of the others,”
slings “the corpse across his shoulders,” rappels “down the dark, blood-red-
wall,” steals a horse, and sets off into the night (214).
On the ride back to Telluride, the underworld gradually modulates from
inferno to temenos, becoming a sacred space of revelation and transforma-
tion, where the mysteries of the hero’s destiny—the form and shape of his
life—are disclosed. It is also during this ride back home that the energies of
hermeneusis will be catalyzed. As Reef rides through the darkness, carrying
his father’s corpse, he begins to find himself, realizing that it might well be
his destiny to “carry on the family business—you might say, become the
Kid,” by taking up his father’s anarchistic vocation (214). For the under-
world is also a crypt, a place where one encounters the ancestors, as in
Homer, Virgil, and Cicero, and from the spirits of the dead learn about one’s
238 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

own destiny and place in life. Hence, Reef begins “to feel some new pres-
ence inside him, growing, inflating—gravid with what it seemed he must
become” (214). As a result, he begins to “excuses to leave the trail now and
then and set off a stick or two from the case of dynamite he had stolen from
the stone powder-house at some mine” (214). Each explosion seems “like the
text of another sermon, preached in the voice of the thunder by some faceless
but unrelenting desert prophesier who was coming more and more to ride
herd on his thoughts” (214).
Every night during the ride, Reef lays down in “his bedroll with the
damaged and redolent corpse carefully unroped and laid on the ground be-
side him,” and the “ghosts of Aztlan” whistling above him, while he begins
to read outloud to his father from a “dime novel, one of the Chums of
Chance series, The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth” (214). The
volume becomes a kind of Book of the Dead, and its appearance in the narra-
tive at this point is as characteristic of the discovery of secret texts at the cli-
max of the nekyia, as it is of the playful poetics of postmodern self-
reflexivity. Reef soon finds that “he was reading out loud to his father’s
corpse, like a bedtime story, something to ease Webb’s passage into the
dreamland of his death” (214)—which is exactly the function of readings
from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In addition, there is an element of
judgement, as well as of guidance, that is activated by the ritualistic readings:
Reef begins to feel that the Chums in the novel “might be agents of a kind of
extrahuman justice, who could shepherd Webb through whatever waited for
him, even pass on to Reef wise advice, though he might not always be able to
make sense of it” (215). The dead father, it seems, needs this advice too, for,
like all of us after death, he doesn’t “know where the hell” he is (215).
For Reef, however—the living son of the dead father—the sense of re-
vealed destiny catalyzed by his nekyia continues on, even after laying Webb
to rest in the “Lone Tree Cemetery, the miners’ graveyard” in Telluride
(215). Although eventually reunited with his wife Stray, “back in Noche-
cita,” where she gives birth to their first son, Jesse, Reef continues to hear the
call of “Webb’s busy ghost” (218). It is a call to find the shape and signifi-
cance of things, pattern and structure beneath biography and history, the
meaning and form of life and death. For Reef, “God” seems to sit “across the
table of Fate,” compelling him to find out

why the life of his Father was taken, why the owners could not allow it to go on, not
up there, not in this country harrowed by crimes in the name of gold, swept over by
Against the Day 239

unquiet spirits from the Coeur d’Alene and Cripple and Telluride who came in the
rain and the blinding northers and lightning-glazed mountain faces, came forlornly
to stare, all those used and imperiled and run into exile, Webb’s dead, Webb’s casu-
alties, Webb’s own loser he could never have abandoned …. (218).

The power of Pynchon’s prose throughout this episode is empowered by the

myth of the nekyia, and all the great themes it generates—the encounter with
the ancestors, the atonement with the father, justice, and the revelation of
In the next chapter, we return to the fate of Lew Basnight, taken off to
Chunxton Crescent, in London, by Neville and Nigel, who, its seems, are
members of a secret society called “The T.W.I.T., or True Worshippers of
the Ineffable Tetractys” (219). This eccentric group is in “keen competition
with the Theosophical Society and its post-Blavatskian fragments, as well as
the Society for Psychical Research, the Order of the Golden Dawn, and other
arrangements for seekers of certitude” (219). Hence, it comes as no surprise,
that this episode invoke aspects of what we might call the Hermetic nekyia,
in this case most specifically focused on séances and the Tarot pack. The
“Grand Cohen of the London chapter of the T.W.I.T.,” named Nicholas
Nookshaft, is “a person in mystical robes appliquéd with astrological and
alchemical symbols,” who discourses to Lew about “‘Lateral world-sets,
other parts of the Creation, [that] lie all around us, each with its crossover
points or gates of transfer from one to another’” (221). One of these transi-
tional points is of course “death,” as Lew surmises, but it is “‘not the only
one,’” since, when Lew “‘went diving into that blast,’” he “‘found passage
between Worlds’” (221). The T.W.I.T. fellowship is preoccupied by these
“lateral” worlds (230), and Lew’s initiation into the mysterious of the order
will therefore naturally be structured by yet another extraordinary variation
on the myth of the nekyia. Indeed, Pynchon’s terminology gracefully ex-
pands on the metaphor, proposing the idea of a “lateral” as opposed to an
“under” world, hence adding to such formulations of the myth as Christa
Wolf’s “counterworld” (‘gegenwelt’) in her novel Medea.
The lateral world of the T.W.I.T. is essentially structured by the arche-
typal symbols of the Tarot pack, as is the “History” of England, ruled by a
“cadre of operatives” corresponding to “the twenty-two Major Arcana of the
Tarot deck” (222). These represent those “grim determinants” that confer
“shape and significance” upon the “chaos and anarchy” of contemporary his-
tory (as Eliot put it, in his definition of the “mythical method” in Joyce’s
240 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

Ulysses). The archetypal energies symbolized by the Arcana manifest them-

selves in human incarnations. Hence, as the Grand Cohen puts it, “‘There
must always be a Tower. There must always be a High Priestess, Temper-
ance, Fortune, so forth’” (223). Hence, we might add, there must always be a
“Hanged Man,” as Lew’s first reading of the cards with Nigel and Neville
suggested. And hence there must also be “number XV, The Devil,” who pre-
sides over the descent into the lateral world that follows, when the Grand
Cohen takes Kew to a séance at the home of Madame Natalia Eskimoff
She lives, appropriately, in a “dark, ancient block of flats south of the
river, rising in a ragged arrangement of voids and unlighted windows to what
in the daytime, Lew hoped, would not be as sinister as now” (227). The lady
who will preside over these excursions into the world of the dead is “tattoed
in exquisite symmetry” with “the Kabbalist Tree of Life, with the names of
the Sephiroth spelled out in Hebrew” (227). She is said to have “attended
some of the most celebrated séances of the day, the list of which was about
to include one arranged by the ubiquitous and outspoken Mr. W.T. Stead, at
which the medium Mrs. Burchell would witness in great detail the assassina-
tion of Alexander and Draga Obrenovich, the King and Queen of Serbia,
three months before it even happened” (228)—hence invovking the archaic
affiliation between the nekyia and prophetic visions of history, as in the Od-
yssey and the Aeneid. Like Mrs. Burchell, Madame Eskimoff is “known
among the T.W.I.T. as an ‘ecstatica,’ a classification enjoying apparently
somewhat more respect than a common medium” (228).
This evening’s séance is “recorded by means of a Parsons Short Auxeto-
phone,” and therefore combines the energies of poeisis and hermeneusis
catalyzed by the nekyia—since the séance will produce a text which must
then be deciphered and interpreted. The story begins with Clive Crouchmas,
a member of the T.W.I.T., who is “trying to get in touch with one of his
field-agents who had died in Constantinople unexpectedly, in the midst of
particularly demanding negotiations over the so-called ‘Baghdad’ railway
concession” (228). This involves the competition among “European powers”
to “obtain from the Ottomans the much-coveted” control of the “Smyrna-
Casaba line of the Eastern railway (229). The séance evokes several voices
of the dead, which converge upon a “‘control,’ a spirit on the other side act-
ing, for the departed soul one wished to contact, much in the same capacity
as a medium on this side acts on behalf of the living” (229). In this case,
Against the Day 241

“Madame Eskimoff’s control, speaking through her, was a rifleman named

Mahmoud who had died in Thrace back in the days of the Russo-Turkish
War” (229). He responds to Clive’s inquiries about his dead agent with de-
tails about the building of the Smyrna-Casaba line, which come to a climax
with “the voice of an explosion,” and the voice of a woman “singing in Turk-
ish to one of the Eastern modes. Amán, amán … Have pity” (229). Even
though for Madame Eskimoff and her fellow T.W.I.T.I.A.N.S., “‘Death is a
region of metaphor’” the group still has difficulty in sorthing out the “phan-
tom railways” from the historical ones prophesied by the séance (230).
Sitting down to tea to discuss the issue, an odd conception of a “lateral
world, set only infinitesimally to the side of the one we think we know,”
slowly emerges (230). This world seems contrary to the historical circum-
stances of the Victorian empire at the end of the century, during which the
“British people suffer beneath a Tory despotism of unimagined rigor and
cruelty” (231). Madame Eskimoff suggests that the real Victoria beneath this
imperial figure is in fact that “young girl on the first adhesive stamps of
1840, the year of the dim young Oxford’s assassination attempt” (231). Im-
agine a counter reality in which the young Queen was killed, “as if that fate-
ful day on Constitution Hill, Oxford’s shots had found their mark after all,
and the Victoria we think we know and revere is really a sort of ghostly
stand-in, for another who is impervious to the passage of Time in all its
forms, especially the well-known Aging and and Death” (231). Instead of the
“much-beloved though humorless dumpling of legend,” Eskimoff continues,
“suppose the ‘real’ Vic is elsewhere. Suppose the flowering young woman
herself is being kept captive, immune to Time, by some ruler of some un-
derworld, with periodic connubial visits from Albert allowed, neither of them
aging, in love, as passionately as the last terrible moment ascending to the
palace” (231). Hence, the Victorian Age is a misnomer for the “Ernest-
Augustine Age we really live in. And that the administrators of the all-
enveloping pantomime are precisely the twin professors Renfrew and
Werfner, acting somehow as poles of temporal flow between England and
Hannover” (231).
The fusion of conspiracy theory and the nekyias of the spiritualist
movement is familiar here, reminding us of the White Visitaton in Gravity’s
Rainbow. For my purposes, it is important to emphasize that Pynchon’s
variation on the myth here keeps our focus on the network of powers that
control History, those archetypal energies (here symbolized by the Tarot
deck) that confer shape and significance upon life—however sinister that
242 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

shape and significance may be. Lew’s quest to “discover a structure to the
darkness” continues in the next chapter, when Neville and Nigel take him to
what they jokingly call “The War Office,” located eastwards in Cheapside
(234). This turns out to be the secret laboratory of “Dr. Coombs De Bottle,”
hidden behind the façade of “a nondescript draper’s shop” (234). The lab is
reached via a labyrinthine sequence of thresholds, taking Lew through “a
narrow passageway next to the shop, leading back to a mews entirely invisi-
ble from the street, whose clamor back here had become abruptly inaudible,
as if a heavy door had closed” (234). He is then lead through a “roofed al-
leyway to a short flight of steps, which took them into regions somehow
colder and remote from the morning light,” until “at last they stood before an
entry scarred and dented all over as if by decades of assault” (234). The de-
tails of this progress towards the lab evoke the labyrinthine and threshold
necrotypes of the descent into a domain “invisible” and “inaudible” to the
world of the street.
Dr. De Bottle is reconstructing bombs in his laboratory, trying to find
clues about the identity of the “Gentleman Bomber of Headingly,” who
“‘throws bombs during cricket games,’” as Lew puts it (236). The search for
this anarchist subsequently takes Lew to meet Professor Renfrew in the
Laplacian pub in Cambridge (239). Like De Bottle, Renfrew wants to find
the Gentleman Bomber, and commissions Lew for the job—hence linking
this section of the novel with Lew’s life in Denver and Colorado, and con-
necting both with the international conspiracy at the root of the book as a
whole, which, as Renfrew puts it, seems to involve electricity, railroads, min-
ing, anarchism, and capitalism in a race to “control the planet” (242).
From Colorado and London, we now return to the Chums of Chance,
who now descend upon Venice, hovering over “the so-called Terre Perse, or
Lost Lands” (244). These are a group of “numerous inhabited islands “ that
have “sunk beneath the waves, so as to form a considerable undersea com-
munity of churches, shops, taverns, and palazzi for the picked bones and in-
comprehensible pursuits of the generations of Venetian dead” (244). This
“undersea” world of the “Venetian dead” lying “below the surface” includes
the “Isola degli Specchi, or, the Isle of Mirrors itself,” a “mirror works under
the water” that will be important to the current mission of the Chums (244).
This fascinating image conflates the imagery of the night-sea and catoptric
necrotypes, for the underworld is here conceived as a realm of reflection—as
a place where instruments of enhanced perception are made. The mirrors
Against the Day 243

made in this “undersea” world will be critical tools in the mission at hand,
which is to “locate the fabled Sfinciuno Itinerary, a map or chart of post-Polo
routes into Asia, believed by many to lead to the hidden city of Shambhala
itself” (248). The quest for this map will lead Chums into an underworld of
complex reflections produced and made perceptible by the “mirror works
under the water” on the “Isola degli Specchi” (246).
The Sfinciuno family dates back to 1297, when they, “along with quite a
few others among the Venetian rich and powerful of the day, had been dis-
qualified from ever sitting on the Great Council—and hence made ineligible
for the Dogedom of Venice” (247). The family devotes itself “to trade with
the East,” where they will make “their fortune” by establishing “a string of
Venetian colonies, each based around some out-of-the-way oasis, and to-
gether forming a route, alternative to the Silk Road, to the markets” of “Inner
Asia” (248). It is therefore the intention of the current avatar of the family,
the “Shadow Doge in Exile Domenico Sfinciuno,” to commission the Chums
to locate the map, and thereby “recover the lost route to our Asian destiny
usurped by the Polos and accursed Gradenigo” (248). The notion of an “al-
ternative” or “Shadow Doge” recalls the “lateral” worlds of Victorian history
simultaneously being explored by Lew Basnight and the members of the
T.W.I.T. in London. And the means by which this alternative map is recov-
ered introduce yet another extraordinary variation on the mythology and
metaphor of the nekyia.
For it may be that the “Sfinciuno Itinerary” may “turn out to be not a
geographical map at all but an account of some spiritual journey,” as Chick
Counterfly puts it, “Nothing but allegory and hidden symbolism” (248). For
there are “two distinct versions of ‘Asia’ out there,” Professor Svegli of the
University of Pisa explains to the bewildered Chum: “one an object of politi-
cal struggle among the Powers of the Earth—the other a timeless faith by
whose terms all such earthly struggle is illusion” (249). To complicate mat-
ters further, the map itself may be composed of “anti-landmarks” of an
“imaginary surface, the optical arrangements for whose eventual projection
onto the two-dimensional page proved to be very queer indeed” (249). This
map of the Itinerary can only be deciphered via the mechanism of mirrors
produced on the submerged, undersea Isola degli Specchi, which Professor
Svegli describes as a “sort of anamorphoscope, more properly no doubt a
paramorphoscope because it reveals worlds which are set to the side of the
one we have taken, until now to be the only world given us” (249)—a con-
ception that parallels the notion of the “lateral world” of the previous epi-
244 Thomas Pynchon and the Postmodern Mythology of the Underworld

sode. These anamorphoscopes are “mirrors, cylindrical or conical, usually,

which when placed on or otherwise near a deliberately distorted picture, and
viewed from the appropriate direction, would make the image appear ‘nor-
mal’ again” (249)—a conception that recalls the hermeneutic dynamics of
previous episodes in which a mysterious text was made intelligible by
equally mysterious means (such as the Japanese pearl, the “secret informa-
tion” of which Chick Counterfly had deciphered with the use of his “pa-
ramorphic encryption,” an “optical contraption of prisms, lenses, Nernst
lamps, and adjustment screws” (114)).
In this case, the map of the “Sfinciuno Itinerary” is only legible by the
use of the mirrors of the paramorphoscope, fashioned by the artisans of the
undersea Island of Mirrors, where they “grind and polish ever more exotic
surfaces, hyperboloidal and even stranger, eventually including what we
must term ‘imaginary’ shapes, though some preferred Clifford’s term, ‘in-
visible’” (249). These devices, furthermore, are fashioned from the same
“calcite or Iceland spar” of previous episodes (250), and they make it possi-
ble to read the hidden text of the “original fourteenth-and fifteenth-century”
map, which was “encrypted as one of these paramorphic distortions, meant to
be redeemed from the invisible with the aid of one particular configuration of
lenses and mirrors, whose exact specifications were known only to the car-
tographer and the otherwise hopelessly insane artisans who produced it”
(249). This formulation is a fascinating fusion of the dynamic energies of
both poeisis and hermeneusis, catalyzed by the metaphoric power of the
myth of the nekyia: the text produced by the artisans of the remote past must
be “redeemed from the invisible” by the mirrors of the paramorphoscope—
which in the end is a mechanism that makes reading the text possible. Fur-
thermore, what that reading enables is the revelation of the hidden structure
of a lost, lateral, or alternative reality, concealed beneath the surface of ap-
pearances, or “set to the side” of the world we know (249. As always, the
descent into this realm of invisibles catalyzes the revelation of those funda-
mental structures of the mind that confer shape and significance upon life—
structures here represented by the notion of an Itinerary.
Pynchon concludes this remarkable passage with another conventional
metaphor for the idea of an or