Finding what's real in Gravity's Rainbow
To read Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow is to enter into a world of estrangement, a world where both readers and characters seem to be on the outside of some impenetrable and essential core, some crucial truth which lingers just at the edges of our perception. Artifice and conspiracy dominate; characters are united across boundaries of time, position, and specific intent by a desperate search for something real. Avenues to authenticity appear and deflate throughout the novel, and we watch as characters move towards whatever they think might deliver them to a sense of the real, to return them to their central, lost humanity. Katje Borgesius finds herself at the center of two similar scenarios in which other characters seek the real through elaborate sadomasochistic role-play, where erotic pain is used to facilitate a genuine experience. Both scenes constitute a path to the real that necessitates performance and blurs the line between the genuine and the controlled, and perhaps demonstrates how one can facilitate the other. At the nexus of opposition—pleasure and pain, creation and destruction, choice and submission—these characters find the potential for unity, for a glimpse of truth and entrance into the realm of the real, and the brief return of their human selves which have been so long lost to them.
Part two of Gravity’s Rainbow begins the steady collapse of what has hitherto been a beacon of order: The White Visitation. As the bustle and business of the War fade into the narrative background, the organization that thrived on its structure starts to dissolve. Brigadier Earnest Pudding has begun to shirk his responsibilities, showing little care or concern for the program he was once so wholeheartedly dedicated to. As Myron Grunton puts it, “The old man’s funking!” (Pynchon 227). Pointsman devises a scheme to keep Pudding in order, to sustain in him some measure of hope or inspiration, incorporating desires pilfered from Pudding’s dreams and fantasies. In comes Katje, carefully costumed and briefed on her role, to play the part of Domina Nocturna, Brigadier Pudding’s own pseudo-Kabbalist “shining mother”, his Mistress and last love (232). In return for his memories, recollections of “myth, and personal terror”, she delivers to Pudding beatings, twelve strikes of her cane in return for his accepted confession (234). Pudding’s pain, his punishment and his reward, is contingent on this moment of shared communication, a moment of connection.
As the blows fall, Pudding feels the veils drop from his world and something of the truth is revealed to him: “bound by nothing but his need for pain, for something real, something pure. They have taken him so far from his simple nerves. They have stuffed paper illusions and military euphemisms between him and this truth, this rare decency, this moment at her scrupulous feet...” (234). They have brought him away from a sense of the essential, and instead filled Pudding’s life and heart with “military euphemisms”, insolation from the truth which this moment of contact and pain so swiftly delivers. Huddled on his knees, taking the waste of another into his own being, he finds a sense of dignity. His world, so bound in a tangled web of conspiracy, power, and shifting control, has kept him from feeling connected to reality, to his fellow human, to his own sense of self. In each strike of Katje/Domina Noctunra’s cane, he is made viscerally aware of another human’s impact on his body and spirit; he confesses to her psychic pain to be cleansed by physical pain, and she delivers the contact that frees his from the “paper illusions” which cloud his life outside this cell.
And yet he accesses truth through fantasy, through a performance where the woman he worships is steeped in artifice down to the last, intimate detail. It seems essential to his experience of this “rare decency” that Domina Nocturna exists only in this cell, only in this role as supreme love and supreme pain, and yet as readers we know the depth of Katje’s history; this is for her, theater.... Isn’t it? She has been instructed, at least, by Pointsman or some outside operative on how to act, what to wear, even how to shit. But moans almost escape her as she takes pleasure in watching Pudding’s pain, a current of the real that rips through her performance (234). The narrator imagines her voice mingling with Pudding’s, two joined declarations of genuine pleasure, two testaments to authentic feeling.
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Issues of Multiplicity and Containment in Olympia
My mother used to tell me, “It’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind”. She was, I think, trying to tell me something about a woman’s right to interior freedom and the necessity of having a mobility of opinion, position, and countenance. To be female has long been associated with a sense of fluidity, both in physical form and quality of consciousness. Unsurprisingly, her male counterpart is often linked with unyielding rigidity. The subjects present in Manet’s Olympia each embody a certain female fluidity, a difficulty of categorization that has significantly informed their reception. At the time of their exhibition, they existed largely outside the contemporary discourse that normally served to discuss and dissect them, and subsequent efforts at understanding and classification have been conflicting and frustrating. The figures depicted exist at the center of infinite crossroads, confounding the masculine desire to subsume their multiple identities into a consumable whole. I argue that the unfixed nature of the female consciousness and body is at the center of the viewer’s interaction with the piece, and is vital to a conception Olympia’s and Laure’s roles.
In “What Is Female Imagery?”, a group of feminist artists in 1976 come to a tentative consensus that there is such thing as a “female sensibility”, not in the sense than any female bodied or identifying woman must or simply does create a certain kind of unified work, but rather that to exist as a woman is a distinct way to move through the world, and this is often reflected in their art. As Linda Nochlin puts it: “My experience is filtered through a complex interaction between me and the expectations that the world has of me”. The binary framework used in their discussion appears outdated now, and today it would be considered maladroit to march into a Gender Theory course and try to assert any quality or sensibility as inherently “feminine”. And yet, to be perceived as female in 1860, regardless of actual gender identity, was to interact with the world in a fundamentally different way than a male-perceived counterpart. The expectations, opportunities, and possible roles for women all differed significantly from those of men. It is with this understanding of a loosely united “feminine sensibility” that I proceed with my binary discussion of ‘female fluidity’ versus ‘male rigidity’; although gender may well be constructed, society’s larger belief in a gender binary creates a difference of lived reality for those perceived as one sex or the other, and in this sense binary gender becomes a real and vital factor in an individual’s life. The women making claims to a ‘female sensibility’ defined it not in terms of concrete style or distinct trends, but rather spoke of this ‘feminine’ unfixed, fluid quality. Lucy Lippard said of the work: “…it’s vaguer, even more impossible to pin down. There is a lot of sexual imagery in women’s art….But that’s too specific. It’s more interesting to think about fragments, which imply a certain antilogical, antilinear approach also common to many women’s work”.
Olympia and Laure are similarly impossible to pin down. Their essence is doubled, refracted—they exist simultaneously as the live models who sat for their likeness and the represented figures they became. With regard to the figure of Olympia, she complicates primarily the distinction between ‘femme honnête’ and ‘fille publique’, neither a respectable woman nor a traditional courtisane. Contemporary critics sought to fix her within the bounds of prostitute, a role that was regarded “anxiously and insistently—as a unity, which existed as an end-stop to a series of differences which constituted the feminine”. Although her nudity and pose placed her within the framework of paintings dedicated to les filles publiques, her body is unorthodox: her gaze too penetrating, her hand too flexed. She shifts between varied signs of what she could be and how she should be received, and contemporary critics as well as modern viewers seem bested by desires to “…discover in the image a preordained constellation of signifiers which keeps her sexuality in place”.
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