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Pynchon's New Worlds

International Pynchon Week 2017

La Rochelle, June 5-9, 2017


New World Melancholia: Guilt and Innocence in the Work of Thomas Pynchon
Joel Roberts

Scheduled in the Hôtel Fleuriau: Wednesday 7 June, from 14:30 to 15:00

Pynchon's oeuvre is saturated in melancholia. There is a pervasive sense of refusal to his narratives, the minimal preservation of that which has been atrophied, to use a Pynchonian word, by the global capitalist order of domination. FromStencil's refusal of the loss of his father in his attempt to reconstruct the truth of 'V.', to Oedipa's desire to reconstruct the lost truth of the Tristero, to the refusal of work discipline in The Whole Sick Crew, Slothrop, Zoyd, and Doc Sportello, refusal as preservation structures Pynchon's narratives. Further, as Dana Medoro – following Agamben – notes, synecdoche, metonymy, and metaphor function 'as replacement for an unnamed other' (2003, p. 74), and this is the world(s) of Pynchon's fictions, as his characters so often find themselves, as numerous scholars have noted, 'cast adrift in a sea of writing' (p. 75) – in a world of melancholic preservation in and through the signifier. The Tristero as a metaphor of 'god knew how many parts' (1990, p. 68); the Tristero as the name for the refusal of the loss of resistance.

Melancholia as resistance, then? Perhaps, though the 'late-afternoon melancholy' (2000, p. 489) of Pynchon's prose also raises the question – given that he is a writer who, as Richard Moss puts it, reveals the world to be at 'the mercy of theological concepts' (2014, p. 20) – of the entanglement of theology and melancholia, and of what the consequences of this entanglement might be for Pynchon's deployment of it. As Gil Anidjar reminds us in his 2014 Blood: A Critique of Christianity, '[t]he entire language that has been spawned around mourning and melancholia could, in fact, be said to partake of a not so subtle Christian semiology' (n.p.). Anidjar further notes that one of Freud's key insights into melancholia is that it is an open wound – the open wound of Christ, who we have killed, and the history of attempts to suture this wound through the innocence-restoring acceptance of this crime, which is enacted via incorporation. Christianity, therefore, is 'the difference between innocence and guilt as the basis of human society' (n.p.).

This paper will explore the theology of melancholia across Pynchon's oeuvre. If Pynchon's fictions are fictions of the New World, of the world that came after the time 'when the land was still free and the eye innocent' (1975, p. 214), is Pynchon's melancholia in some ways an attempt to expiate the guilt of the New World's violent imposition? This paper will argue that, if Pynchon's work evidences what Moss describes as a desire for 'liberation from a traditional religious mode of control into a neo-religious spirituality' (2014, p. 20), Pynchon's melancholia suggests that this 'neo-religious spirituality' is still bound to the Christian metaphysics of guilt and innocence. Pynchon's work undoubtedly documents what David Cowart describes as the 'dark passages of history' (2012, xiii), but, I will argue, the melancholia of his texts is nonetheless (in some ways) indicative of a desire to be innocent of the violence of the New World, to redeem themselves through an exculpatory incorporation of the very losses that the establishment of the New World enacted.