Back in the Aether Again


Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day is the story of a quest. Perhaps for reason; perhaps for reasons beyond reason. Perhaps for an understanding of the human experience. The story of a family named Traverse, which must be more than a mere family name. The father, Webb Traverse, ostensibly an itinerant miner in North America’s West a couple decades after the US civil war, he is also a bomber whose sympathies lie with those opposed to the robber baron capitalists that populate the estates and boardrooms of the United States. The men whose general perception of the men from whose sweat and blood they make their millions is a perception that sees those workers as unworthy of life. Pynchon doesn’t exactly condemn capitalism as much as he describes the inevitable progression of that system of economics to its ultimate expression in war and bloodshed. Which is condemnation enough. To the robber baron Scarsdale Vibe, Webb Traverse is somehow different. He is considered not just an opponent, but an opponent that must be sought out and killed. Once dead, he is brought to a place that is beyond boot hill, beyond Tombstone–a place where vultures of the human and avian type rule. Reading this particular section, I was reminded of William Burroughs’ grotesque visions of the western lands. As it turns out, the youngest Traverse is provided an education by the same robber baron that ordered Webb’s death. The daughter, meanwhile, marries the trigger man. Of course, the desire for justice cum revenge reveals its head along the plot line. Indeed, two of the brothers begin their travels with exactly such a thought. The Traverse family finds itself part of every facet in the tale. Mathematics and monopoly capitalists. Anarchy and anal sex. Airships and manned submarines built by Italian anarchists. Meteors that change the earth and murders accompanied by grotesque tortures that defy belief. It is not a pretty world provided here, but it is an interesting one that is full of adventure and surprise.

In the distance of time, a foreboding of human catastrophe lurks. Sometimes it is spoken of by travelers from the future. These are travelers who bend time and live in their own as well as the past. Other times, the coming catastrophe is spoken of by clairvoyants and con men. Above and beneath it all is the search for an ancient place, a holy grail, known as Shambhala. There resides a secret of life. Meanwhile, a weapon that destroys everything is for sale. It appears to be entropic in nature from the clues Pynchon provides. The Chums of Chance–a Tom-Swiftian group of adventurers that fly above the earth in a cloaked airship, call these travelers The Trespassers. The Chums, who introduce the entire work, believe at first that it is The Trespassers who are bringing on the coming apocalyptic event: an event that we readers has the luxury of history to tell us is World War I. The Chums fly on, taking orders from men they do not know and meeting many of the other characters in the novel. Eventually, they become aware that they are being used by forces they resent. Indeed, this is the case for most of the folks in the story. The sexually unusual Cyprian, the youngest Traverse, Kit. Even the gunmen and the women. As the reader, we of course have the advantage of seeing this, although even we are being manipulated. Isn’t that the nature of art?

Ah yes, the women, not femme fatales but often very femme–the major ones being the sensuous and sexually adventurous mathematician and enchantress of unknown origin, Yashmeen; the strikingly attractive American girl Dahlia (or Dally), equally at home with street urchins and princesses, who grows into a woman over the course of the novel; and the Traverse women: Mayva the matriarch, Lake, her father’s silent storm who marries his killer, and Stray, lover of both Frank and Reef Traverse and the mother of Reef’s first child. She then reinvents herself as an adventurer, trader and friend of the Mexican anarchists. Women that are intellectually stimulating and physically desirous, they inspire all sorts of intrigue and shenanigans of a every nature. Like other Pynchon tales, one could state that the novel itself radiates out from the few women who appear throughout the story.

Light is another radiant character here. Light bifurcated by pieces of crystal spar and light bent by mirrors that create likenesses as real as the thing or creature reflected. The abnormal bluish light and eerie glow that covered the planet in the wake of the Tunguska event of June 30, 1908 and the light of love, especially that of the unusual threesome of Reef Traverse, Cyprian and Yashmeen. Light that can destroy anything if manipulated in that way. Light that is the fundamental element of the mysterious Q-weapon and the Interdikt line that anarchists hope to destroy in order to prevent the war that is on its way. Light of mystery and mystical light.

Mathematics plays a starring role, much as it did in Gravity’s Rainbow. It’s a mathematics beyond the accountants books and the ledgers of the rich. Mathematics full of symbols and a language of its own. A language whose meaning provides clues to the meaning of existence and how the world exists. Mathematics whose various approaches creates devotees in the same way as religious cults. It’s a math that always somehow leads to suffering and death. Yet we pursue it anyhow for the power it might provide us. Or for the pure beauty it provides–a symmetry of description that puts the world that is chaos in an order we believe we crave. It’s a math where the sum of the angles of a triangle are greater than 180 degrees because the earth is curved not flat. Non-Euclidean and the gateway to Einsteins Theory of Relativity. Mathematics that strives to include the fourth dimension–time. Once included in the formula, time as we know it ceases to exist. We are here there and elsewhere all at once. Then again, so is everyone else. Mathematical poetry and magic, not to mention the tarot.

The ancient Greek concept of the Aether is the firmament on which much of this story resides. The stuff of alchemists and their creations, it is the Aether that transfers light and energy. Beyond that, it holds all matter together. Firmament that is not solid. This aether was believed to be the substance which filled the region of the universe above the terrestrial sphere. Aristotle included it as a fifth element distinct from the other four, Earth, Water, Air, and Fire and its Platonic solid, according to Plato, was the Dodecahedron. Humanity that likewise refuses to maintain its former shape and concepts. The age of invention. Tesla discovers an energy source in the ground capable of providing free electricity once it is properly harnessed. Of course, the robber barons do not want Tesla to succeed These capitalists have discovered the incredible profits to be made when they allow the profit to accumulate through acquisition and murder, thereby allowing them to accumulate even more. Anarchists and Bolsheviks understand the same process and hope to destroy it.

The situation described in these pages is one of present and future danger. It is a danger descended from technology and its (mis)uses. It is also a danger precipitated by the worship of and desire for profit and more profit. Individuals live their lives as if they are theirs to live but all the time wondering if they are merely puppets controlled by forces greater than even those who pay their bills. At times almost primitivist in nature, the opposition to this world one finds in these pages stems from a belief that science is wrought with danger. This belief doesn’t come from the lack of scientific knowledge that is often the basis for religious fears of science, but from an overwhelming knowledge of science’s potential. Indeed, it is the place where find ourselves today.

In Riemann geometry, there are no parallel lines and x is infinite when it’s a negative number, but finite when it’s a positive one. In Against the Day, only the number of pages is finite. The possibilities considered are without end. It is an adult Tom Swift series of adventures; a piece of historical fiction that is also an adventure with the requisite subplots of love and intrigue. This book is a marvel of lyrical descriptions of everything from various appearances of the sun to sexual practices frowned upon by “normal” society and the machinations of the parallel world of espionage, revolution and counterrevolution. The writing is what we have come to expect from Pynchon: sentences that loop toward a conclusion one can hardly wait to arrive at. Despite this desire, one finds oneself lingering–sometimes because the loop reads like one of the mathematical formulas trying to explain the unpredictability of human or geologic events. Other times one lingers on a sentence or phrase because the words assembled are structurally so complete they stand alone like a Taoist epigram. There must be a meaning behind the symbols on the page. Despite Pynchon’s imploration to the contrary in his pre-publication blurb (found on Amazon and elsewhere), one can not help but think of the present day, with conflicts breaking out around the world and corruption and greed a way of life among certain classes.

Some critics will gripe that the novel is incomplete; that it leads nowhere, but this is not the case. This novel leads to the beginning of the human catastrophe we now call history-the Twentieth Century. Just as Gravity’s Rainbow provided a uniquely subversive and anarchistically creative perspective on the world created in the destruction of World War Two, Against the Day provides us with a similarly subversive perspective on the opening act to the drama in which that war was Act Two. Despite the bleakness of the times that these tales are told, an indomitable beauty resides within them, thanks in large part to the characters Mr. Pynchon creates, the stories that they live, and the approach to the telling by the author.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net



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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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