The Wordy Shitmates.

“Machines have already taken over, however, in Thomas Pynchon’s wildly satiric World War II novel, Gravity’s Rainbow.  The title refers to the downward trajectory of the V-2 rockets fired at London and Antwerp in the fall of 1944 following ‘Brentschluss’ (burnout), when, fuel gone, gravity took over.  But it might also refer to the downside of modern technology in general.


“The V-2 was only the second successful long-range rocket (1942’s smaller A-4, also German, came first) and as such became the basis for rockets that took men to the moon as well as for today’s ICBMs and the Cold War’s paralyzing threat of nuclear annihilation.  Pynchon’s protagonist, Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop, U.S. Army, in Berlin after Germany’s defeat, dons a rocket costume to avoid the Allied authorities, who, he has reason to believe, want him dead.  He becomes known as ‘Rocketman,’ a kind of supremely impotent superhero.


“In a sense, after World War II, we all became ‘rocketmen,’ defined by a new machine that brought the United States and the USSR as close together as rival gangsters aiming .38 specials at each other along a dank alley, despite the enormous geographical and cultural gulf between the two countries.  Rockets thereby determined politics, national boundaries, and the life and death of millions across the planet.

“Rockets did not influence the outcome of World War II, however.  They came too late and were still too unreliable, too difficult to aim.  But for Pynchon, machines were already more important than any soldier’s courage or any general’s clever military strategy.  Machines—tanks, submarines, fighters, bombers, battleships, etc.—made courage useless.  They determined military strategy.  World War II was not the cause but the culmination of our romance with machines and the profiteering of transnational corporations that produced them and did not rightly care which side triumphed.

“The only thing they cared about was what one of Pynchon’s characters calls ‘the System,’ the engineering, manufacturing, and selling of ever more powerful machines and that it continue onward—as indeed it did.

“The System meets not our ends but its own: ‘the politics was all just theatre, all just to keep people distracted’ while ‘not only most of humanity, but most of the World, animal, vegetable, mineral, is laid waste….Living inside the System is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide….’  To say the ‘home front becomes one giant factory’ after Pearl Harbor is to pretend that we had not long before given ourselves over to machines, that the West as an inextricably intertwined whole was not already one gigantic factory, requiring a war, and a really big war at that, to fully realize its capacity.”  […]

“The hero of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, U.S. Army Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop, is, like the author, a descendant of New England Puritans.  But as he discovers the tragic dimensions of a century given over to rampant capitalism and technology, which has brought humanity not to a new crest of greatness but to the brink of annihilation, he also discovers that he himself is ‘preterit,’ i.e., not graced but damned.  He loses his very identity in the chaos of postwar Berlin, from which he will never return.”

—Gordon Theisen, in Staying Up Much Too Late: Edward Hopper’s NIghthawks and the Dark Side of the American Psyche (2006; pp. 63-65, 213)


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