A Christmas Reading From Thomas Pynchon

I’ve always liked this passage from Thomas Pynchon’s great novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

The setting: it is the grim winter of 1944, just before Christmas. The military situation in Europe is not good, and WWII seems as if it will never end. London is under attack by V-2 rockets and V-1 cruise missiles (as they would be called today.) Roger and Jessica, two of the main characters, are driving in a rural area in England and come upon a church where carols are being sung. They decide to go inside.

They walked through the tracks of all the others in the snow, she gravely on his arm, wind blowing her hair to snarls, heels slipping once on ice. “To hear the music,” he explained.

Tonight’s scratch choir was all male, epauletted shoulders visible under the wide necks of white robes, and many faces nearly as white with the exhaustion of soaked and muddy fields, midwatches, cables strummed by the nervous balloons sunfishing in the clouds, tents whose lights inside shone nuclear at twilight, soullike, through the cross-hatched walls, turning canvas to fine gauze, while the wind drummed there…..The children are away dreaming, but the Empire has no place for dreams and it’s Adults Only in here tonight, here in this refuge with the lamps burning deep, in pre-Cambrian exhalation, savory as food cooking, heavy as soot. And 60 miles up the rockets hanging the measureless instant over the black North Sea before the fall, ever faster, to orange heat, Christmas star, in helpless plunge to Earth. Lower in the sky the flying bombs are out too, roaring like the Adversary, seeking whom they may devour. It’s a long walk home tonight. Listen to this mock-angel singing, let your communion be at least in listening, even if they are not spokesmen for your exact hopes, your exact, darkest terror, listen. There must have been evensong here long before the news of Christ. Surely for as long as there have been nights bad as this one–something to raise the possibility of another night that could actually, with love and cockcrows, light the path home, banish the Adversary, destroy the boundaries between our lands, our bodies, our stories, all false, about who we are: for the one night, leaving only the clear way home and the memory of the infant you saw, almost too frail, there’s too much shit in these streets, camels and other beasts stir heavily outside, each hoof a chance to wipe him out…….But on the way home tonight, you wish you’d picked him up, held him a bit. Just held him, very close to your heart, his cheek by the hollow of your shoulder, full of sleep. As if it were you who could, somehow, save him. For the moment not caring who you’re supposed to be registered as. For the moment, anyway, no longer who the Caesars say you are.

O Jesu parvule
Nach dir is mir so weh…

So this pickup group, these exiles and horny kids, sullen civilians called up in their middle age…….give you this evensong, climaxing now with its rising fragment of some ancient scale, voices overlapping three and fourfold, filling the entire hollow of the church–no counterfeit baby, no announcement of the Kingdom, not even a try at warming or lighting this terrible night, only, damn us, our scruffy obligatory little cry, our maximum reach outward–praise be to God!–for you to take back to your war-address, your war-identity, across the snow’s footprints and tire tracks finally to the path you must create by yourself, alone in the dark. Whether you want it or not, whatever seas you have crossed, the way home…

8 thoughts on “A Christmas Reading From Thomas Pynchon”

  1. “… our stories, all false, about who we are …”

    The repudiation of Christianity and the foundation of our civilization, while admitting that even bare survival is impossible, or barely so, without it.

    Against our current totalitarians even this vestigial Christianity is no longer available.

  2. LG, sounds like you are reading “… our stories, all false, about who we are …” as negative toward Christianity. I don’t read it that way…the line sounds to me like it’s referring to the masks that people wear in their public identities.

  3. I actually read it as saying all the stories humans tell each other are false and divisive *except* for the Christian story…

  4. I think that’s a closer reading to what Pynchon entails, there’s a school of analysis that suggests this whole oevre is a metaphor for deep state politics in the 20th century,

  5. from one such tract, an excerpt

    A century later, in 1630, William Pynchon brought his family and considerable capital to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As a patentee he helped found both Roxbury and Springfield, along with such other notable founding fathers as Miles Morgan, the ancestor of the financier J.P. Morgan. William Pynchon stayed for twenty years until he was forced to leave for writing a religious tract, The Meritorious Price Of Our Redemption, which argued against the prevailing orthodoxy of the Puritans, and which was banned and burned in Boston.

    centuries later, he was related to an old line brokerage firm, Pynchon and co,

  6. there’s a school of analysis that suggests this whole oevre is a metaphor for deep state politics in the 20th century

    That sounds about right. The book is paranoid stream of consciousness describing a vague international conspiracy consisting of the rockets, the intelligence community, multi-national corporate cartels, and their apparent links to the main character, in equally vague Freudian and mathematical ways. If Franz Kafka, Jackson Pollak, and Buckminster Fuller spent the weekend at the Villa Diodati taking up Lord Byron’s challenge, something like Gravity’s Rainbow is what they might come up with.

    One bizarrely interesting part of the book is how the main character’s sex life corresponds to the rocket strikes, analogous to the supersonic aspect of the rocket striking before it could be heard. Outwardly appearing to violate the rules of cause and effect, but beneath the surface revealing some kind of hidden coordination. Pynchon loosely based that on post-war bomb assessments that showed London targets during the Blitz were random but calculable, after the fact of course, according to the Poisson distribution.

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