The Preterite and the Elect

“But if they were chosen to come to Mauritius, why had they also been chosen to fail, and leave? Is that a choosing or is it a passing-over? Are they Elect, or are they Preterite, and doomed as dodoes?” (Pynchon 112).

This passage comes from page 112 of Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, and is Pirates’ thoughts on one of his ancestors, Frans Van der Groov. This ancestor would hunt dodoes on the island of Mauritius. However, Pirate begins to touch upon a fairly important topic in Gravity’s Rainbow. The Preterite and the Elect, the damned and the chosen, those saved and those who will be left behind.

The idea that a supernatural force would select and save a certain group of people, or the Elect, has been present in most religions. The idea that some people or groups of people were predetermined to be saved, and therefore have faith, truly captures the meaning of the term the Elect. However, Pynchon takes this idea a step further. Throughout the novel it seems as though there is a supernatural Being who is behind the scenes seemingly manipulating the entire story. Pynchon’s writing style also seems to help reinforce this idea that there is a force that is beyond us controlling the forces in the world, or at least in the novel’s world.

Pynchon’s prose, which is long and hypnotic, lends itself to this idea. The prose itself seems to include indications that our entire world is in on this conspiracy to control everything. This passage also points to the Them, We, or Us that is constantly refereed to throughout the novel. These capital pronouns refer to the Preterite, or those left behind. A majority of characters so far in Gravity’s Rainbow has fallen under this category, and thus is subjected to this Force controlling these actions. Slothrop’s map of stars shows this force at work, anywhere that Slothop engages in sexual activity there a rocket falls. This is that Being at work, a malevolent force that seems to be keeping the characters separate between a division that is more an illusion than an actual division. This Force or Being is attributed almost total control in the novel, from the pattern that rockets fall in to the ancestry of different characters, it has steered the world into being what it is in Gravity’s Rainbow.

Of course, there are some characters who represent the Elect. The Pavlovians and other psychologists are all part of the Elect in Gravity’s Rainbow. They have been chosen, and are separate from the Preterite in this choosing. They are trying to find a pattern in what is happening, but without taking into account that there is something else at play that is beyond their understanding. The Elect also seem to be moving in secret, constantly hiding what they are truly doing. The invisibility of the Elect in Gravity’s Rainbow serves to show that these two distinctions are not always clear cut. The Elect can lose power and become the Preterite in Pynchon’s world.

The Elect also seem to have another interesting characteristic in the world of Gravity’s Rainbow. They are part of this Force or Being at work. Some of the strings that are being pulled are being pulled by the Elect. Some of the Preterite are being directed by some of the Elect. This makes the position of the Preterite sound hopeless, stuck in between two larger forces both of which want to control them. However, this is not Pynchon’s message in Gravity’s Rainbow.

A major theme in Gravity’s Rainbow is the impact that rapidly advancing technology has on the world, and specifically on the people in the world. Technology is the great equalizer in Gravity’s Rainbow. The V2 rocket is just starting to be used when the novel starts, and it has already produced a terrified effect on the Elect. Technology, especially when it is rapidly advancing, is how the Preterite can move out of their dark place in society. It is how they can rise above, and no longer be controlled by the Elect, or those in power. It is the ultimate tool by which the Preterite can stop being disenfranchised, and can take control of their own fate.

Pynchon’s use of the Preterite and the Elect is a theme that is evident in every character of Gravity’s Rainbow. From the paranoia that is present in some, to the strange pattern that the rockets fall in, there is some outside force that is at work in Gravity’s Rainbow. This outside force is directing the events that are happening, but also keeping the imagined division in place between the Elect and the Preterite.

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4 Responses to The Preterite and the Elect

  1. krr58 says:

    This representation of the Elect vs. the Preterite is very interesting and true, but there is more to it than people simply being chosen or damned by some supernatural entity. It is based in the actual choices we make as well as our religious beliefs. We can’t just say that we believe and expect to automatically become one of the Elect because we don’t want to go to Hell. This idea of the Elect being “chosen” by a supernatural Being is very dogmatic in its bare essentials.

  2. msk58 says:

    I really like how you talk about technology being an equalizer. It is true that technology can be used as a method for the Preterites to rise up against the Elect. As mentioned by Roger’s statistics, the fall of the bombs cannot be predicted. Therefore the bombs can hit anywhere and anyone, whether someone is member of the Preterite or the Elect. Later on in the novel we already see that the bombs killed one of Pointsman’s colleagues, Spectro, who was a fellow Pavlovian and a member of the Elect group to which they belonged to. The bomb hitting St. Veronica’s hospital is very significant because it shows that even those who are supposedly “the ones to be saved” can too be victimized and in fact destroyed by the bombs like anyone else can be obliterated by them. I think this incident can also lead to the question: if one of their own can be destroyed by the bombs, are the Pavlovians truly a member of the Elect or do they simply think that they are?

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  4. beenjamin-y says:

    To echo on msk58’s comment–is there any real basis in identity of preterite, or is the whole ability to ascend to Elect merely in the consolidation of power in times of crisis, of suffering that is largely put upon the preterite of the world? Is there anything more to being Elect than dodging more bullets than are able to hit the mark of the group you’re trying to establish as elect amongst the chaos of the times?

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