“Whig eccentricity is carried out in this house to most unhealthy extremes … The W.C.s contain frescoes of Clive and his elephants stomping the French at Plassy, fountains that depict Salome with the head of John (water gushing out ears, nose, and mouth), floor mosaics in which are tessellated together versions of Homo Monstrosus, an interesting preoccupation of the time — cyclops, humanoid giraffe, centaur repeated in all directions” (Gravity’s Rainbow, page 82).
This is an interesting passage that serves to characterize the government intelligence group PISCES (Psychological Intelligence Schemes for Expediting Surrender), the occupants of “The White Visitation” (a former mental hospital serving as their base), through the adornments and the physical characteristics of the facility itself — specifically those of its bathroom.
I knew from middle school history classes that the Whig Party existed early on in American politics, but I had no idea what its ideology was. Apparently, it was a short-lived party founded in opposition to tyranny, but more specifically in opposition to the tyranny its members perceived in the presidency of Andrew Jackson (who they referred to as “King Andrew”). Given that this story is set in World War II-era London, this allusion to an anti-tyranny party is obviously meant to quickly set PISCES in opposition to Hitler.
The Whig Party reference is just the set up for more important references to come, so it’s also helpful to note what this anti-tyrannical allusion applied to this context means. In other words, keep the setting in mind. Note that the “W.C.” mentioned in this passage is an abbreviation for “water closet,” which is a British nickname for a bathroom. This, too, becomes an allusion to tyranny once frescoes are introduced, because in all likelihood, these frescoes in the bathroom are likely a reference to Napoleon’s temporary ownership of the “Mona Lisa” and the rumor that he kept it in his bathroom, which was obviously not a place of honor.
In this case, the bathroom belongs to a group of people working to end tyranny (according to their title), so the reference is also a subversion of that old rumor. It’s further characterized by a rapid succession of images. The first image is the most accessible symbol. In the frescoes, “Clive” refers to Colonel Robert Clive of England, who led a band of outnumbered British troops into battle against the aforementioned French and natives of India for control of Calcutta during the height of British colonialism. This was called the Battle of Plassey, and Clive won in what would be a turning point in Britain’s influence over India. In this passage, this image glorifying British colonialism has been given a place of dishonor in the W.C. of “The White Visitation.”
The latter two images are a bit more difficult to decipher, since little is known — at least by me — about Napoleon’s bathroom fountains and floors. However, what can be taken from the second image, the one of the W.C. fountains, is the story Salome and John the Baptist. According to the Bible, Salome was the woman responsible for the death of John the Baptist. She seduced a king into granting her anything she desired, and what that happened to be was the head of John the Baptist, literally, on a platter. In this image, the head of John the Baptist is displayed, almost in a celebratory manner, as a fountain. This could be interpreted as another anti-tyranny symbol, one of warning, given the king’s involvement in the story of Salome and John. However, I think that this is an allusion to the lustful dalliances of Pirate Prentice and Tyrone Slothrop. It seems to be a red flag for any man who has been seduced in this story. Considering the summoning of “a dead ringer for Scorpia Mossmoon” (page 71) during the section about Pirate and Kryptosam, the head of John the Baptist on a bathroom fountain seems a bad omen.
Finally, “Homo Monstrosus” is pulled from a racist taxonomy established by the highly influential scientist Carl Linnaeus. In it, Linnaeus describes Africans, Asians, and Native Americans first by their skin color, and then by negative personality traits: Africans were “crafty,” “sly,” and “careless;” Asians were “greedy;” Native Americans were “stubborn” and “zealous.” White Europeans, meanwhile, were described by Linnaeus as “gentle” and “inventive.” (The irony of that particular statement is remarkable when this moment in scientific history is taken into account alongside the story of Colonel Robert Clive.) The final classification in this system of Linnaeus’ was Homo Monstrosus, which encompassed all mythological humans, including the “cyclops, humanoid giraffe,” and “centaur” mentioned in the quote. It’s worth a reminder that these mythical creatures adorn the bathroom floor in mosaic form. Though the direct allusion in this quote is to Homo Monstrosus, I think the intent was to draw attention to the racism and incorrect assumptions of Linnaeus, and to invite comparisons between the failings of his taxonomy and what the scientists (or authorities in general) in this story are doing. Dr. Ned Pointsman and Captain Blicero are certainly among those worth watching, based on their mounting list of egregious offenses.
In summary, within the bathroom of “The White Visitation” (which belongs to PISCES), we have a negative allusion to the height of British colonialism, which is segued into with an allusion to an American anti-tyranny party. We also have what seems to be a warning against feminine seduction, certainly applicable to Pirate and perhaps to Slothrop, and a reminder of the awful shortcomings of what was once considered to be the cutting-edge science of the past. Despite the effort it takes to extract that interpretation from just two brief sentences, I think it all adds up to little more than a quick moment of characterization and foreshadowing.