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Pynchon's New Worlds

International Pynchon Week 2017

La Rochelle, June 5-9, 2017


Pynchon, History and kairos
Gary Thompson

Scheduled in the Hôtel Fleuriau: Wednesday 7 June, from 11:45 to 12:15

[I]t is characteristic of the aesthetic object that it conserves and, at the same time, reveals the historically other, since it not only allows the representation of subjective experience of the world but also makes it available within the framework of art as experience of itself in the experience of other.

--Hans-Georg Gadamer

By now, as we approach Thomas Pynchon's 80th birthday, a central aspect of his achievement through (so far) eight novels has been a particular feature of his concern with history in the context of art. The novels certainly address "dark passages" (Cowart), but with special attention to decision points. These include the following: the "flashpoints in 20th Century history" (Thomas 65) which are contexts for V.'s avatars; Oedipa's suspension in the excluded middle; the coupled '60s and '80s of Pynchon's California novels; the drawing of the Line in Mason & Dixon; the development of the corporate state in the 1890s-1920s as envisioned in Against the Day; and possibly the most contemporary of these, the 9/11 attacks in Bleeding Edge. The prevailing historical tendency as represented in Pynchon's novels has been toward secularization as part of a Faustian bargain with technology, but countered periodically and hopefully either by revelation (Oedipa, Lyle Bland) or by familial or ad hoc social enclaves (the Becker-Traverse clans, the Counterforce).

A passage from Gravity's Rainbow serves as paradigm for Pynchon's attempt "to engage and reframe history in fresh and perhaps radical ways" (Cowart 18):

Could [William Slothrop] have been the fork in the road America never took, the singular point she jumped the wrong way from? Suppose the Slothropite heresy had had the time to consolidate and prosper? Might there have been fewer crimes in the name of Jesus, and more mercy in the name of Judas Iscariot? It seems to Tyrone Slothrop that there might be a route back--maybe that anarchist he met in Zürich was right, maybe for a little while all the fences are down, one road as good as another, the whole space of the Zone cleared, depolarized, and somewhere inside the waste of it a single set of coordinates from which to proceed, without elect, without preterite, without even nationality to fuck it up. . . . 

(Gravity's Rainbow, 565-66)

One facet of these decision points worth further scrutiny is their singularity, best considered as related to kairos. Kairos means time as the immediate moment, in contrast to chronos or time as duration. Kairos in rhetoric refers to the right time or right measure to effect persuasion, and in the Acts of the Apostles the word is used to describe the arrival of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.

While Pynchon does not use the term kairos itself, the concept is powerfully present in all his novels; kairos lends urgency to these decision points, and affect to their representation in his fiction. Their rendering as moments of potential transcendence serves as a counterweight to the entropic tendencies present in much of Pynchon's fiction. Furthermore, their centrality in works of art, as noted in the initial quotation, serves as a bridge between self and other: this liminality serves to give affective force to Pynchon's overall argument about the direction of history.

Works Cited