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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, January 31, 2011

Dammit, I now think that I don't understand Pynchon

This is a bit of a problem, since I'm giving a talk tomorrow night on Pynchon's fiction. I've been reimmersing myself in it for some time now, reading those books that I hadn't previously read and re-reading as many as I could find time for of the others. I think I now have a good feel for what's in Pynchon's eight published books, and I'm certainly well geared up for conversation about them. My feel for some is, alas, better than for others (in particular, I've only read Mason & Dixon once, and didn't follow it anywhere near as well as I'd like). Still, there are likely to be few people in the audience, if any, with a better grasp than mine of Pynchon's oeuvre.

And yet ... I'm now confused by this overall body of work. Although I enjoyed much of it and was astonished by almost all of it (Pynchon is one of the most impressive stylists working in the English language, and he produces tour de force passage after tour de force passage), I'm not at all sure that I have a clear idea, after all this, of how Pynchon has developed as a writer or of just where he's at now, mentally.

I can see many things there: his fear and anger when it comes to rapacious governments and corporations; his loathing of exercises of control, surveillance, and exploitation; his general sense of the ruthlessness of elites (by which he certainly does not mean artists and the intellectual classes - he has in mind the world's semi-hereditary power elites based on social position and wealth); his sympathy for all those whose interests are passed over when power plays itself out in the world.

But there's all this other stuff as well, all the satire that seems to cut in a different direction: the sense that we are pattern-making beings who see connections and conspiracies that aren't really there; the feeling of all moral authority being leached away, rendering all judgments, even his own, problematic (which, in a sense they are); the ongoing unease and alienation that seems so ubiquitous in Pynchon as to be corrosive. How does all this fit together?

Help! Actually, I'll doubtless use the talk to raise some of these questions, not only about Pynchon but about contemporary literature more generally. But what do you think should be said in a relatively brief talk on Pynchon for a group with (I suspect) very mixed levels of knowledge of the man's work? I'm open to any suggestions.

1 comment:

Blake Stacey said...

As we're talking Pynchon, I have to wonder: is the desire to know how "all this" fits together just another example of our tendency to shape events into conspiracies? Isn't that the classic question of the paranoid?