Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973)

Gravity's Rainbow



From Beethoven: The Man Who Freed Music:

Beethoven has often been lauded for letting the fashionable enthusiasms of the day turn from him to its new idol, Rossini, without making one effort at conciliating the trashy popular taste. (p.173)

Whenever one finds a statement of [Oulibischeff's] about Beethoven's music one usually feels that the safest course is to multiply it by minus one and abide by the result. Nor does this rule fail to work when he contends that the tiny Allegretto scherzando of the Eighth symphony was a deliberate parody of Rossini, that god of the groundlings of 1812. For, on the contrary, it is possible that Rossini, four years later, was himself inspired by the daintiness of this movement, its roguish tripping rhythm, and its general melodic outlines in the famous "Zitti, Zitti'' of The Barber of Seville. (p.324-25)

In 1822 Rossini, the popular musical idol of the day, visited the Master whom his own reputation had thrown somewhat into the shade. Beethoven received him pleasantly enough, described himself as "un infelice" (an unhappy one), and advised Rossini that he would be doing violence to his destiny if he tried his hand "at anything but opera buffa."

Overcome by Beethoven's apparently wretched poverty the generous "Swan of Pesaro" tried to raise a subscription for him. But everyone declined with much the same remark: "He is a misanthrope, cranky, and can't keep friends."

After this call Beethoven remarked: "Rossini is a good scene-painter....He would have been a great composer if ..." and he roughly outlined the painful and humiliating discipline which the Italian's music teacher should have applied to an inconsidered portion of his anatomy. However, despite his low opinion of Rossini as an absolute musician, Beethoven occasionally condescended, as we have seen, to imitate his cruder popular effects." (p.379)

fern seed

Provided by Douglas Lannark

But the more popular tradition is that Midsummer Day is June 24th, the feast of St. John the Baptist, and today, St. John's Eve is noteworthy for the wealth of superstition that surrounds it.

The writer John Aubrey, who lived from 1626 to 1697, was an expert on such matters. Aubrey is best remembered for his whimsical biographies that tell us much of what we know today about Milton, Shakespeare and other well-known people of that time. Of the latter, for example, he wrote: "His father was a butcher, and I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbours that when he was a boy he exercised his father's trade, and when he killed a calf he would do it in high style and make a speech."

But Aubrey also knew about contemporary folklore, and he notes that "Midsummer Eve is called the Witches' Night; and still in many places on St. John's Eve they make fires upon the hills".

The tradition is common to many cultures throughout Europe; the fires were said to represent the sun, and men, women and children would pass through the flames to ensure their well-being during the coming year.

The date, like many others, was an important one in the calendar of wooing. Young maidens, for example, could discover the state of their lovers' affections by observing the behaviour of a sprig of orpine, known colloquially as Midsummer Man. The plant was loosely clamped in clay, and the romance was fated to endure if it leaned over to the right, but doomed if the plant was noticed listing to the left.

And if a girl's affaires de coeur were rather less advanced, John Aubrey had this advice, which for all we know may well be efficacious still: "At midnight on Midsummer Eve walk several times around a church, clockwise, scattering hempseed and saying: Hempseed I sow, hempseed I mow, Let him that is my true love come after me and show. Then look over your left shoulder and you will see, following behind you, the form of your predestined lover."

And on this day, too, young men — one suspects with intentions that were rather less than honourable — sought to become invisible by plucking fernseed. To succeed they had to do so on the stroke of midnight, and without making any contact with the plant itself.

The Book

In his A Gravity's Rainbow Companion, Steven Weisenburger writes:

[T]hroughout GR, "The Book" is volume 2 of the Lectures on Conditioned Reflexes by Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov [1849-1936], which was published four years after Pavlov's death and which represented his effort to branch out of physiological studies and into psychology. One of Pavlov's American collaborators, Dr. Horsley Gantt, did the English translation (1941); thus there is no particular purpose to the secrecy of Pointsman, Spectro, and others who "rotate" their lone copy. A bit of melodrama from the narrator. (p.37)

Roger Allen provided the following:

Pointsman and the book are (loosely?) based on William Sargant, British psychiatrist and physiologist, author of Battle For The Mind and The Unquiet Mind. He was a friend of Robert Graves who wrote a chapter in Battle and tidied up the writing in both. Most supplies of Pavlov's book were destroyed in a bombing raid, so it was a real rarity and circulated much as described in Gravity's Rainbow. According to R.D.Laing, Sargant was so fond of electroconvulsion therapy (ECT) that he used to give it to himself and organised parties at which orgies occurred.

British Military Intelligence

At the time British Military Intelligence was reorganized, in 1905, it included MI-5, counter-espionage, and MI-6, military espionage. In another reorganization in 1939, MI-6 was transformed into the Special Intelligence Service (SIS), with the Foreign Office. SIS's Section D specialized in sabotage and subversion. The SIS and Section D were complemented by Military Intelligence Research (MIR) within the War Office.

In 1940, MIR and Section D were combined with the War Office to form the Special Operations Executive (SOE). A "black" (sub rosa) propaganda section of SOE, created by the Foreign Office and named "Electra House," was attached to the SOE in 1940 to become the Political Warfare Executive (PWE), charged with political and psychological warfare.

In August 1941, the PWE began a series of "black" broadcasts to Germany, consisting of detailed intelligence about the German army as well as lurid tales of German army and Nazi Party leaders. Interesting that in Gravity's Rainbow, the "black" broadcasts are about black rocket troops in Germany.


From McGovern:

"Major General Dornberger's struggle to retain control of the Army rocket program which he had begun in 1930 was over. He was shocked and depressed by the appointment of Kammler, who, he knew, had only the most superficial understanding of rocketry. Only a month before, Kammler had told Dornberger that he should be court-martialed for wasting so much money and manpower in trying to make a reality out of a fantasy like the long-range rocket." (p.77)

La Gomera

Barbara Kingsolver writes about La Gomera
in "Paradise Lost", from her collection of travel essays
High Tide in Tuscon: Essays from Now or Never:

"Among urban Canarians, La Gomera has a reputation for backwardness, and the Gomerans themselves are sometimes likened to Guanches--the tall, blue-eyed, goat-herding aboriginals whom the Spaniards found here and promptly extinguished in the fifteenth century. No one knows where they came from, though it's a good guess that they were related to the tall, blue-eyed Berbers who still roam the western Sahara. Throughout the Canaries, the Guanches herded goats, made simple red-clay pottery, and followed the lifestyle known as Neolithic, living out their days without the benefit of metal. [...] On La Gomera they used a type of language unique in the world, which was not spoken but whistled. This exotic means of communication, called silbo, could traverse the great distances that routinely separate neighbors on an island cut through and through with steep, uncrossable gorges. (Whistling carries its subtleties over distance in a way that shouting can't.) I'd been told by many Canarians that the silbo has died out completely. But others claimed it still persists in some corners [...]." (pp.111-12)

"Easy enough a life, to stay forever in the paradise of San Sebastián. Columbus came close to doing it. Gomerans love to tell the story of how he delayed his first historic voyage for many months--nearly cashed it in altogether--having settled down here comfortably with the widow of the first Count of La Gomera, Beatriz de Bobadilla." (p.113)

King Yrjö

From Pynchon's 1964 short story, The Secret Integration:

"The road wound down a little ridge into King Yrjö's woods, named after a European pretender who'd fled the eclipse then falling over Europe and his own hardly real shadow-state sometime back in the middle Thirties, trading a bucketful of jewels, the yarn went, for all this property. Why it had to be a bucketful, which sounded like an impractical way to carry jewels around, nobody ever explained. There were also supposed to have been three (some said four) wives, one official and the others morganatic, and a fiercely loyal aide, a calvalry officer seven feet tall with a full beard, spurred boots, gold epaulets and a shotgun he always carried with him and would not hesitate to use on anybody, especially a kid, caught trespassing."

Osbie Feel

A Pynchon List thread:

Jorn Barger wrote:

Who wrote Gravity's Rainbow, *among its characters*?

Oedipa could easily have written Lot 49, and Zoyd is very likely to blame for the laziness and self-pity of Vineland. But there ain't no way Tyrone ever managed GR! He just didn't *think* enough...

Would any of its characters have been equal to the task?

Andrew Dinn replied:

This one is so obvious. It's the hidden cameraman whose use of controlled substances seems to deny the very possibility of control, whose address straight to camera and to Pirate is also straight to the readers' paranoid mind, who is already expecting Roger, Katje and The Eagle of Tooting when they come to sign up for The Counterforce (how do I find that dotted line?), whose mentor, Dumbo, carries a white feather enabling him to *defy gravity*.

Osbie Feel, of course.

Note also that Osbie was the one found sitting at that desk with the copy of An Introduction to Modern Herero and other Pynchonesque paraphernalia, — Prospero, master of his poor cell, anyone?

P 536:
"He leads her to a back room fitted out with telephones, a cork board with notes pinned all over, desks littered with maps, schedules, An Introduction to Modern Herero, corporate histories, spools of recording wire. 'Not very organized around here yet. But it's coming along, love, it's coming.'"


The following thread occurred on the Pynchon List in October 1996:

Andrew Dinn, Fri, 18 Oct 1996:

"Zipf's principle of least effort" (p.32, line 5) is this just the linotype layout principle that you put the most frequent cases near to hand? Or is it a more general principle in coding theory?

Alan Westrope replies:

The latter. Zipf was teaching at Harvard around the time that Slothrop was hanging out with Malcolm X and JFK; his writings were cited by no less an authority than Claude Shannon in his seminal papers on information theory, including "Prediction and Entropy of Printed English." A-and George Miller's Introduction to the M.I.T. Press reprint of Zipf's 1935 book The Psycho-Biology of Language contains this interesting sentence:

"But who would have thought that in the very heart of all the freedom language allows us Zipf would find an invariant as solid and reliable as the law of gravitation?"

Zipf dealt with word frequencies, not letter frequencies, and he found that analyzing texts in many different languages throughout history produced strikingly similar results, which when graphed were always close to a straight line. One interesting graph shows very similar patternsfor Homer's Iliad and Joyce's Ulysses.

Page 216 of The Psycho-Biology of Language confirms Gloaming's remarks about pathological speech:

"Although many diseases are not revealed by an immediate effect on the normal stream of speech, it is surprising how many illnesses are... Especially in nervous and mental diseases, particularly when functional, as, for example, in anxiety-states, obsessions, manic-depressive psychoses and schizophrenia, distortions of the stream of speech are major symptoms, if not the major symptoms."

Interestingly, Zipf's Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort wasn't published until 1949. I suspect Gloaming learned of it from all those clairvoyants who were always hanging around... :-) --Alan Westrope

To which John Mascaro replies:

Plunging back in all akimbo, I note that Alan Westrope mentions an interesting Zipf fact:

"Interestingly, Zipf's Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort wasn't published until 1949. I suspect Gloaming learned of it from all those clairvoyants who were always hanging around... :-)"

No doubt, though GR's use of things Zipfian raises some interesting questions on the book's chronology. To my knowledge the actual expression — Principle of Least Effort — wasn't used by Zipf until the 1949 book. But more interesting to me when I actually read this book is the very bizarre drift of Zipf's thought. This Principle of Least Effort he uncovered gradually became his total obsession, and the 1949 book absolutely crosses a line [...], blending statistics with paranoia as Zipf — not sounding at all like a statistician- pleads to the reader that his Principle lays bare nothing less than the secret structure of all social relations — not just linguistic, but economic, political. etc. He waxes utopian about the explanatory power of the Principle. But then gets really weird, a strange note creeps in, just like the one that creeps into Gennaro's performance of THE COURIER's TRAGEDY. Zipf starts talking about (I'm going from memory here; this was in my diss) the injustices visited upon him by jealous rivals and the forces of repression generally, forces which DO NOT WANT knowledge of the Principle to be disseminated.

For a lover of TRP, reading the Zipf book is an amazing experience — as the reverse echoes start sliding up and down your brain. I'd bet a dollar our man immersed himself in this book, and found, natch, a way to incorporate an entire lost history (Zipf firmly believed he had revolutionized EVERY area of human inquiry; that all social research would be altered permanently; and that this fact would be self-evident to anyone who understood the Principle) into what to many readers must seem like a toss-off comment or two exploiting an unknown guy's funny, and probably fictitious, name. -- john m


Gravity's Rainbow
Gravity's Rainbow - Thomas Pynchon