Gravity’s Rainbow as Historiographic Metafiction

22 Sep

Throughout Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon questions how history gets created, why it is created, who creates it, and its role in constructing both individual and communal identities.  Many of the characters express views about history, and almost all of the characters speculate fearfully about a loss of the past, or the end of history.  Even Jessica, one of the most traditional characters, worries that she cannot remember what it was really like before the war.  Speaking to Roger, she explains, “‘I can read magazines.  But what was it like?’” (60).  At the heart of these fears is a postmodern concern:  What the characters really seem worried about is not the disappearance of history, but its reduction to a chain of produced “events,” or simulacrum-like texts.  The idea of the “production” of history raises the concern that history will no longer relate to the personal, or to the lived testimony, but will rather work to reproduce the existing mode of capitalist production (to take a Marxist approach). 

The novel often takes issue with this kind of traditional, revisionist model of history.  One can see, for example, a distrust of the way history is created and recorded on page 107.  Here, Katje points out the lack of value human experience has in the creation of history; she realizes that there is not “a real conversion factor between information and lives” (107).  She then goes on to note that many events, such as war and the mass death it necessitates, serve only as “spectacle[s],” which then provide “raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence” (107) (might we be able to relate this to Jameson’s discussion of the flatness of postmodern images?).  According to Katje’s interpretation, History is nothing more than a cog in the wheel of “buying and selling,” a tool within capitalist production (107).  There is nothing true or personal housed within History (capital “H”), but it is rather a sequence of recordable events meant to evoke certain responses—but often these responses fall flat simply through the mass production of such texts.   This can be related to Jameson’s point that, within modern conceptions of history, “there no longer does seem to be any organic relationship between the [American] history we learn in schoolbooks and the lived experience of the current multinational, high-rise, stagflated city of the newspapers and of our own daily life” (11).  What Gravity’s Rainbow, and especially Katje’s questions, do, is point out the disconnect that occurs between totalizing representations of history, and the personal every-day histories of lived experience. 

The novel’s fascination with Pavlovian conditioning can also be read as a commentary on history.  The need to control, and to determine causal links between events and behavior, can be linked not only to behavior, but to the production of history, and this urge is a driving force for characters like Pointsman.  Pointsman muses that “When one event happens after another with this awful regularity, of course you don’t automatically assume that it’s cause-and-effect.  But you do look for some mechanism to make sense of it.  You probe, you design a modest experiment” (146).  Pointsman’s need to find connections, or links, is one that is established even earlier in the novel.  Mexico, whose life is ruled by the safety of predictable mathematical equations, explains to Pointsman that the rockets are completely “independent” phenomenon (57): “‘Bombs are not dogs.  No link.  No memory.  No conditioning’” (57).  Mexico’s calm assurance about this frustrates Pointsman, who wonders, “How can Mexicoplay, so at his ease, with those symbols of randomness and fright?” (57).  Pointsman fears what will happen if “Mexico’s whole generation have turned out like this” (57).  He questions, “Will Postwar be nothing but ‘events,’ newly created one moment to the next?  No links?  Is it the end of history?” (57).   Pointsman, Jessica, and Katje, along with many other characters in the novel, question the ability of historical events, (or produced images and texts), to adequately capture the essence of human experiences and human relationships.  They seem, almost point-blankly, to fear the “waning of affect” that is a focal point of our course.  If history is nothing more than an endless production of unlinked texts, if it establishes no relationships or causal bonds with the past, then how can it evoke true feelings or capture human emotion?  How can it provide the kind of “cognitive mapping” that Jameson feels is necessary in order to understand postmodern identity?

If the novel is, at least in part, a critique of the production of history, does it not also participate in the same historical systems of production?  Gravity’s Rainbow, as many of us have noted in other comments on the blog for this week, is highly interested in the role of witnessing, and in writing events down as texts (or in the creation of historical texts through narration/testimony).  Does it, then, support the very system it seeks to critique?  Perhaps.  Or perhaps not.  I would like to bring in that lovely piece by Hutcheon here and her fabulous term, “historiographic metaficiton.”  Hutcheon explains that historiographic metafiction problematizes, rather than produces a concept of history (112).  She states that this kind of fiction “installs totalizing order, only to contest it, by its radical provisionality, intertextuality, and, often, fragmentation” (116).  Gravity’s Rainbow seems to fit perfectly into Hutcheon’s definition of “historiographic metafiction.”  It presents the established order, the great They, and Their role in creating History.  But through the testimony of hundreds of characters, many of whom do not ever meet or intersect, that totalizing Text is deconstructed and questioned, and History, capital “H,” is reproduced as a more faithful plurality of histories: we get not one, but a plethora of reliable (if contradictory) historical texts.  We get a privileging of difference.  As Hutcheon argues, novels like Gravity’s Rainbow install “power,” but only to “contest it” (180).   Pynchon’s cast of characters, all of whom identify with different historical referents, begin to deconstruct the concept that history can be universal, and they question whether a universal history, or totalizing text, is desirable.  But the sense of yearning in the novel also suggests that even if a totalizing history is not accurate or desirable, there is something about the production of history, through the creation of texts or recording of testimony, which can be universalized.  This is an idea that I would like to leave open-ended for discussion.

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One Response to “Gravity’s Rainbow as Historiographic Metafiction”

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  1. 111 Best Works of Metafiction | Ronald B. Richardson - September 1, 2016

    […] speculate fearfully about a loss of the past, or the end of history,” according to “Gravity’s Rainbow as Historiographic Metafiction” on the blog Engl 693. Link to […]

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