Ekphrasis and the Visual Representation of Information in Gravity’s Rainbow
Scheduled in the Hôtel Fleuriau: Wednesday 7 June, from 11:15 to 11:45
References to visual representation abound in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, often taking the exercise of ekphrasis to new heights. We find verbal descriptions of works of visual art: paintings and photographs as well as comic books and architecture. Yet information, the great currency of this novel, is also visually rendered. Scientists, intelligence officers and bureaucrats all deal in maps, charts, graphs, blueprints and industrial designs. After all, is it not the conflation of visually-rendered data, the stars and circles on Roger Mexico’s map of rocket landings, that precipitates the entire plot? In a novel that playfully upsets the “Pavlovian” determinism of cause and effect, a novel that takes as its narrative arc the unstoppable motion of a rocket, what are we to make of paintings and other visual representations that are static in nature? Art’s claim over literature is that, while it cannot represent the movement of time, it can offer the immediacy of a global, unified vision. Yet Gravity’s Rainbow is a novel that frustrates any attempt at a bird’s eye view. Most characters are only afforded a partial perception of the various plots in which they are entangled, saying nothing of the reader’s attempt to keep track of the novel itself. Gravity’s Rainbow is encyclopedic not simply because of its overabundance of information, but rather because it wrestles with the impossible ideal of the total view (the Encyclopedia was once thought to be the book that would end the need for all other books). In this novel, visual representations of data often become oversaturated, veering towards the abstract shapelessness of the Roarschach test. Paradoxically, once they are unmoored from the reality they seek to reference, these meaningless data pictures stray from of the confines of science over to art, becoming increasingly polysemic. Conversely, it is often in paintings and old stones—churches, cathedrals, hotels, the “orgy of self-expression” that is the White Visitation—that time seems to leave a reliable mark of its passing. This paper will consider the ways in which visual art and architecture compare and contrast with visual representations of information in Gravity’s Rainbow, further helping to define Pynchonian ekphrasis.