Gravity's Rainbow & Hegel's Phenomenology: a college essay.

Dust's Rainbow
This may be of limited interest to nobody. It is one of two extant essays from my years in college.  The other, on Dubliners, I put on the blog last year. It's from January 1989, when I was young and alcoholic. At the time I became immersed in Gravity's Rainbow but reading it now it's clear I wasn't too immersed in writing the essay. I wrote this without referring to any glossaries or indeed any critical books about Gravity's Rainbow. It was the days before the internet. Indeed it was only in dust covered longhand, and has been typed in tranches over the past fifteen years. I was finally inspired to finish it by reading pieces from the group read of Gravity's Rainbow at Infinite Zombies.

Gravity’s Rainbow” after Hegels’ “Phenomenology’ – A critical reading

January 1989

This essay analyses elements of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow by comparing them with areas of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. Reading both in close conjunction made me feel that much cross referencing was occurring in my reactions to each of them. Particular areas such as the relationship between master and slave and the mechanics of alienation provide much of the substance of both works. The importance of the interfaces between consciousnesses and those between consciousness and death are also shared themes. By introducing an examination of these areas in Gravity’s Rainbow with a summary of some relevant Hegelian theory, the relevance of Hegel to a criticism of Pynchon will be made clear. It will become apparent that Gravity’s Rainbow has major philosophical concerns which might not be immediately recognized. I am not attempting to show any genetic link between the Phenomenology and Gravity’s Rainbow; whether or not Pynchon was aware of Hegel when writing this is not something I feel can be tackled without extensive research. There aren’t any references to Hegel made in the text which would seem to indicate the lack of a direct influence. German dialectics, both musical and Marxian, do, however play a small part in the novel. Even if there were no such link, a reading of  Hegel will affect the way Gravity’s Rainbow is looked at, because it gives new connotations to words and ideas in the novel. The first area I will deal with is some applications of Hegel’s famous Master and Slave chapter to Gravity’s Rainbow. The chapter can be applied to many parts of Gravity’s Rainbow; similar relationships exist between Slothrop and his paranoid “Them”; Pokler and the rocket; and in the sado-masochistic sexuality that is presented.

The Master and Slave chapter in the Phenomenology of Mind proposes a model for the development of individual self-consciousness. The opening sentence introduces the idea that this development is a process of interaction, and not something that can occur in isolation. “Self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself, in that and by the fact that, it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or ‘recognised’.

This reliance of self-consciousness on outside recognition involves a loss of control which Hegel sees as a loss of self. “ it [consciousness] has lost its own self , since it finds itself as an other being.

This loss of control involves the consciousness in a life-death struggle which, although involving a risk of death, must not result in death.

The death of one would mean total loss of recognition for the master. The resulting situation is a master-slave relationship. This does not, however, lead to full self-consciousness in either. The slave is not satisfying his own desire through his produce, and the master is not expressing himself through work. The master becomes dependent on the slave as well as subordinating him for he relies on the slave/bondsman to supply him with the substance of his being. By treating the master as ‘the essential reality for the state of bondage’ the bondsman is seen to achieve a greater awareness of ‘himself as factually and objectively self-existent’, for he is involved in shaping the conditions of his world through his own work.

In the master/slave dialectic self-consciousness is seen as something that can not exist in someone who has not seen themselves recognized by another self-consciousness. Slothrop’s quest in Gravity’s Rainbow can be seen as a quest for signs of recognition from the rocket and the system that produced it. Through paranoia he can discover/create this recognition. The reader can never be sure if the instances where Slothrop actually discovers grounds for his ‘fantasies’ are true or not, because the delination between fantasy and observation is very thin in the novel. We are often led into an episode pages long which is only revealed afterwards to have been a dream sequence. Early on in the book we are introduced to the idea that messages to the brain may be scrambled; the brains response conditioned. In these ways, through paranoid fantasy and conditioning, the master-slave relationship can occur in a  single self-consciousness. “Pavlov was fascinated with ‘ideas of the opposite’. Call it a cluster of cells, somewhere in the cortex of the brain. Helping to distinguish pleasure from pain, light from dark, dominance from submission…. But when somehow – starve them, traumatize, shock them, send them over into one of the transmarginal phases, past borders of their waking selves, past ‘equivalent’ and ‘paradoxical’ phases – you weaken this idea of the opposite, and here all at once is the paranoid patient who would be master, yet now feels himself a slave…

Slothrop’s sense of identity is disturbed by the many different identities he has to assume and the many ways in which he is recognized. The names he takes and the costumes he wears change his self-consciousness. As Rocketman he almost begins to believe that he is invisible, and to rationalize his belief:
Invisible. It becomes easier to believe in the longer he can keep going. Sometime back on Midsummer Eve, between midnight and one, fern seed fell in his shoes. He is the invisible youth, the armoured changeling, proviolences little pal. Their preoccupation is with forms of danger the War has taught them – phantoms they may be doomed now, some of them, to carry for the rest of their lives. Fine for Slothrop, though – it’s a set of threats he doesn’t belong to.

The problematic nature of recognition is central to the text. Many of the characters suffer from the lack of someone who will recognize what they see as their essential self. Without this recognition they suffer loneliness and uncertainty. When Enzian tells Katje that what he misses most about Blicero – it is recognition; being objectified by someone else. “’This is what I have become. An estranged figure at a certain elevation and distance…’ who looks out over the Raketen-Stadt in the amber evenings, with washed and darkening cloud sheets behind him – ‘who has lost everything else but this vantage. There is no heart, anywhere now, no human heart left in which I exist.’”
Enzian suffers the problems of the master in Hegel’s dialectic. He has a sense of self which grew from his relationship with Blicero. However, without that relationship he exists only in the relation of master to the Herreroes. Even those who oppose him acknowledge his power over them. He is left with this power, with his recognized insight into the Raketen-Stadt but has lost his sense of humanity. In Enzian and Slothrop we see the dilemma of both master and slave; the naster losing his sense of common humanity and the slave taking on the substance of others and losing his own identity. Slothrop’s case is further complicated by his ignorance of who it is who is in mastery over him, and what exactly he can and cannot do.”

The sado-masochistic relationships that exist in Gravity’s Rainbow have a clear relationship to the idea of interdependence and ‘reality’. In the ‘Master and Slave’ chapter Hegel sees the master and slave relationship as a personal one. The ‘slave’ works for a tangible master. However in the ‘war economy’ that is Gravity’s Rainbow’s social setting there are no tangible masters and all must recognize their immediate subservience to Death, the ultimate master. Many of the characters in the novel are unsure of their tasks, have no visible results to show for their work, or simply have no work to do. The relationship between Gottfried, Katje and Captain Blicero is presented explicitly as an escape into form from this formlessness. “How seriously is she playing? In a conquered country, one’s own occupiedcountry, it’s better, she believes, to enter into some formal, rationalized version of what, outside, proceeds without form or decent limit day and night, the summary executions, the roustings, beatings, subterfuge, paranoia, shame… though this is never discussed among them openly, it would seem Katje, Gottfried and Captain Blicero have agreed that this Northern and ancient form, one they all know and are comfortable with – the strayed children, the wood-wife in the edible house, the captivity, the fattening, the Oven – shall be their pressing routine, their shelter, against what outside none of them can bear – the War, the absolute rule of chance, their own pitiable contingency here, in its midst…

A similar relationship will later develop between Katje and Brigadier Pudding, again with emphasis on the idea of a game being played, of the security found in rules, in pre-cast structures. There is a dialectical play between these ideas. Once the relationship of Master and Slave is set up, it becomes a ‘game’, within which each player is certain of their role, their reality. ‘Game’ and ‘reality’ create a paradoxical situation and such a relationship is seen to be an escape from reality.

Once the possibility of leaving the game becomes fully part of consciousness, how much security does the form offer? The solid reality of being which one holds in the ‘game’ is undermined by the possibilities that otherwise exist. The game also demands participation from another, or others, so the consciousness is still reliant on a force outside its control. The plight of the slave whose master leaves them is treated in the case of Pokler. When Leni leaves him he becomes a ‘Victim in a Vacuum’, longing for someone to ‘take advantage of me.’ His need for some task, something definite to work for, leads him to throw himself into the research so much that he becomes like a part of the A4: “Pokler was an extension of the Rocket, long before it was ever built. She’d seen to that. When she left him, he fell apart. Pieces spilled into the Hinterhof, down the drains, away in the wind. He couldn’t even go to the movies…” “Temperatures, velocities, pressures, fin and body configurations, stabilities and turbulences began to slip in, to replace what Leni had run away from.”

At this stage I think it will be useful to look at some of the ideas that follow the ‘Master and Slave’ chapter in the Phenomenology. The focus moves from the more individual basis of the Master/Slave relationship to a more general social overview. The next chapter introduces a discussion of ‘reason’, defining it as ’the conscious certainty of being all reality.” This can only occur when consciousness finds the world of people and objects around him to be comprehendable and feels itself  to be part of the whole. This Hegel sees as coming about when, through science, man discovers the laws of nature and can connect phenomena with phenomena. “Experimental science became the science of the world, for experimental science involves on one hand the observation of phenomena, on the other hand also the discovery of the law, the essential being, the hidden force that causes those phenomena… It seemed to man … as if the laws of the universe were now established for the first time. For only then did they feel a real interest in the universe, when they recognized their own reason in the reason which pervades it. The human eye became clear, perceptionquick, thought active and interpretative. The discovery of the laws of nature enabled men to contend against the monstrous superstition of the time, as also against all notions of mighty alien powers which magic alone could conquer… The independent authority of the subject was maintained against belief founded on authority and the laws of nature were recognized as the only bonds connecting phenomena. Thus all miracles were disallowed, for nature is a system of known and recognized laws. Man is at home in it, and that only passes for truth in which he finds himself  at home; he is free through his knowledge of nature.
Hegel expounds  a system of ethical involvement in society, in which individuality can be transcended through the sense that you belong to a social order. “As members of a social order, men find themselves objectified in the laws and customs which transcend their own individuality (this is what the master lacked); but because all are free and are recognized as such, they experience the social order not as something alien but as the expression and product of their own individuality (this is what the slave lacked). In a free society there can be objectification without alienation, and so Hegel asserts that ‘ the notion of the realization of self-conscious reason… finds its complete reality in fulfillment in the life of a nation.

He does not say that this occurs in any nation but only in a ‘free nation’. He saw the early Greek city-states  as a model for this type of ethical community, and explained their breakdown as being due to the increasing awareness of other customs which trade brought about. This made their own social order and its consequent conventions appear not as a simple question of right or wrong but as the result of a particular chain of consequences which couldhave been different. Although this does not constitute Hegel’s arguments in totality I feel that it puts forward those which can most tellingly be used to examine Gravity’s Rainbow.
The social order and the laws of nature are both seen as incomprehensible and alien by many of the characters in Gravity’s Rainbow. Indeed the opening epigram is the words of a scientist questioning the limits set on scientific thinking, suggesting that there are areas that lie outside the realm of observation and experiment. “Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death.” (Werner Von Braun)

Whereas Hegel feels that he can talk usefully about extremes, about the “pure conception of recognition,’ Pynchon constantly challenges this mode of thought. He challenges the assumption that everything is in a state of binary opposition. When the relationship between Pointsman and Roger Mexico is being discussed the two alternative viewpoints are presented. “In the domain of zero to one, non-something to something, Pointsman can only posess the zero and the one. He cannot, like Mexico, survive anyplace in between. Like his master I.P.Pavlov before him, he imagines the cortex of the brain as a mosaic of tiny on/off elements. Some are always in bright excitation, others darkly inhibited. The contours, bright and dark, keep changing. But each point is allowed only two ‘states’: waking or sleep. One or zero. ‘Summation’, “transition’, “irradiation”, “concentration”, “reciprocal induction” – all Pavlovian brain mechanics – assumes the presence of these bi-stable points. But to Mexico belongs the domain between zero and one – the middle Pointsman has excluded from his persuasion – the probabilities. A chance of 0.37 that by the time he stops his count, a given square on his map will have suffered only one hit, 0.17 that it will suffer two…

In this way ‘extremes’ of two kinds are questioned.The limits are called into question and so is any system that operates by using the concept of opposites to ignore the ‘centre’. Pynchon’s universe is one in which we cannot know everything through ‘known and recognized laws’. Multiplicity and ambiguity cannot be ruled out. Hegel’s dialectic does include a state of consciousness where these elemnets are recognized but he sees it as necessary to eliminate them to finally achieve ‘absolute knowledge’. For Pynchon, knowledge is tied to data and speculation and can never become fully ‘absolute’.

Gravity’s Rainbow also questions the idea of a free society within which all individuals are free. Freedom is seen as something which is very difficult to define, and as something demanding and frightening. I have already discussed how people escape from reality into games, preferring the security of certain known limits to the formlessness of the outside world. Free is a concept whose very core is challenged by the idea of conditioning, and this is central to Gravity’s Rainbow. Early on we are introduced to Pointsman’s experiments with conditioning, and this particular form of conditioning is echoed on a more general level. On the very first page the phrase “knotting into” is italicized; people are involved in the continuation of something that has begun before them. They are being shunted around by forces beyong their control. There is an ominous sense in the novel of people and history having to give way to the demands of technology. The war is referred to as a laboratory. When Slothrop is attempting to find out about Impolex G he starts to discover very worrying connections between the scientific research centres on both sides of the war. But it isn’t the people who run these that are dangerous, not them that he must worry about; it is the technology that demands such systems to support and develop it. “The treacherous question is not meant to apply to people after all but to hardware.”

While Hegel says that through work, consciousness can become more real and alienation overcome through common effort.; Pynchon asks questions about the actual produce. He works into the novel a commentary on information, psychiatry, technology and economic systems; equating each with some form of social control to condition the people who use them or are used by them. These product are seen as Alien to the better parts of human consciousness; love, trust, a sense of responsibility… Enzian and Christian wonder how any sane person can commit themselves to a society that has so devalued and endangered human life. “’Show me any society that never said, ‘I am created among men’’ Christian waits with Enzian in the fields above the encampment, ‘‘to protect you each from violence, to give shelter in time of disaster’’ – but Enzian what protection is there? What can protect us from that? Gesturing down’ [at the A4] ‘‘It comes as the Revealer. Showing that no society can protect, never could – they are as foolish as sheets of paper…’" ‘They have lied to us. They can’t keep us from dying, so They lie to us about death. A co-operative structure of lies. What have they ever given us for the trust, the love – They actually say ‘love’ – we’re supposed to owe Them? Can they keep us from even catching cold? from lice, from being alone? from anything? Before the Rocket we went on believing, because we wanted to. But the Rocket can penetrate, from the sky, at any given point. Nowhere is safe. We can’t believe Them anymore. Not if we are still sane, and love the truth.

Society is clearly an alien force here, and there is no hint that it can become anything else. Systems cannot become human because they are objective, and humans can never be fully objective. In Gravity’s Rainbow the impossibility of completely understanding even one human being is demonstrated by the fact that areas of Slothrop remains unknown to Pointsman and the huge surveillance operation deployed to find out all about him. Science, economics, law, all have a human basis but can never become a system in which all humanity can objectify themselves.

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