Skip to Content

Pynchon's New Worlds

International Pynchon Week 2017

La Rochelle, June 5-9, 2017


The Impermanence of Intertextual Identity: Whitman, Pynchon and Decomposition
Thoren Opitz

Scheduled in the Hôtel Fleuriau: Tuesday 6 June, from 10:45 to 11:15

I would like to contribute a paper to Pynchon Week 2017 arguing that an intertextually transformed version of the poet's self, included into the novelist's work through an imitation  of his style, serves to examplify the instability of identity creations both authors deal with. In V., at the very end of the Valetta chapter, Brenda reads to Profane an anaphoric, Whitmanesque poem, a list with impersonations of the qualities of her time 'I am the twentieth century' [...] 'I am the ragtime and the tango; sans-serif, clean geometry. I am [...] the Negro's dancing pumps [...] (428).' Here Pynchon seems to mock Whitman's  all-inclusive persona, as he updates and confronts it with the 20th century's existential anxieties about the integrity of identity. In another quotation of Whitman, Pynchon brings up the defining poetological statement of Whitman's version of 'e pluribus unum,' this time linking it to the paradoxical mental condition of 'doublethink' in his introduction to 1984, which he describes as the capacity 'to believe two contradictory truths at the same time.' He writes that 'cognitive dissonance,' 'For Whitman ('Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself') [it] was being large and containing multitudes, [...] (x).' In both of these instances  Old Walt is linked to a central concern of Pynchon's New Worlds, the futility associated with trying to maintain a coherent identity. Furthermore I would like to read the passages of Slothrop's first appearance and final disappearance in GR, starting with the 'godawful mess' on his desk, a long whitmanesque list of, among other things 'decomposing library paste' (18), against the intertextual literary material of Whitman's 'This Compost.' In Pynchonian terms, in this poem Whitman wonders why nature is capable of the fundamental transformations pointed out in the Wernher von Braun quote serving as the epigraph to GR's first part, when all the earth can work with are the corpses of the world's preterites, 'Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations?' I suggest that both Pynchon's and Whitman's meditations on decomposing bodies and materials are linked to a transcendental realization of the impermanence of identity and ultimately boundary-less self, expressed in GR through Slothrop's eventual 'scattering,' and in the final line of Whitman's first introductory phrase from Song of Myself, 'And every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.' Likewise, as Slothrop becomes a crossroads towards the end of GR, we are literally encouraged to 'look for me under your bootsoles' as Whitman famously formulated it in the concluding stanzas  of SoM. That they both explicitly make use of the vocabulary and metaphors provided by science, as well as implicitly cite the ideas of Buddhist thought, to describe the disintegration of identity, strikes me as a peculiar intertextual connection, or crossroad, between these otherwise disparate authors, and a scattered presence of Whitman's persona and poetics in Pynchon and one of his most enigmatic characters. In juxtaposition to the direct quotation of Emily Dickinson in GR, who is much less of a fleshed out person in her poetry, Pynchon involves Whitman not with a stable textual presence but a decomposition of his identity by recycling his aesthetics.


All quotations of Whitman poems are taken from the scans of the original editions provided by the and therefore not paginated.