Time, gravity and the modern physicist
I took a class with Peter Galison last term, in which we studied the writing of Thomas Pynchon, particularly “Gravity’s Rainbow.” The book inspires many reactions at once. I found it obscene and sublime and beautiful and disgusting and engrossing and boring. The New York Times review in 1973 far outstripped me. It said:
“Gravity’s Rainbow” is bonecrushingly dense, compulsively elaborate, silly, obscene, funny, tragic, pastoral, historical, philosophical, poetic, grindingly dull, inspired, horrific, cold, bloated, beached and blasted.
Despite that, it won the National Book Award in 1973. It continues to amaze people. The artist Zak Smith was inspired in 2004 to make an illustration for every single page. Here is his take on Slothrop’s beach wear:
I don’t claim to get all of what’s going on in GR, and I don’t actually recommend it to people unless they’re willing to put a lot of work into it, including buying one of the guides to the novel, which run close to as long as the book itself. In my naive way, I don’t agree with some of Pynchon’s narrative choices. I think the book would not have suffered a bit if he’d axed certain scenes, or left them unsaid. But postmodern narrative is about as far from journalistic narrative as you can get, so who cares what I think?
The novel surfaced again in a class on the Bible in literature that I’m taking this term, which is focused on “Paradise Lost,” “Moby Dick” and “King Lear.” That last is there because the course actually covers the books the professor considers the most tremendous works in the English language, only he didn’t want to give the course that name. The professor, Gordon Teskey, made the comment in the first class that the other candidate for the reading list was “Gravity’s Rainbow.” (Teskey pointedly said that he was not calling these ‘the best’ works in the English language, but ‘the most tremendous’). You can certainly see Melville’s influence on Pynchon. Funnily enough to the modern reader, many reviewers in Melville’s day found Moby Dick a shocking and even obscene novel.
Galison came to speak to the Niemans not long ago, and he’s not unlike GR in his individual complexity (I should clarify that I find him neither disgusting nor openly obscene). He’s a physicist and historian of science who writes about fundamental practices of science. He also makes documentaries about visually challenging topics like storing nuclear waste and secrets. Here’s a lengthy piece profiling his work (and his somewhat legendary ability to go without sleep).