“There is no way out. Lie and wait, lie still and be quiet. Screaming holds across the sky. When it comes, will it come in darkness, or will it bring its own light? Will the light come before or after?” (Pynchon, p.5)
This passage is part of an elaborate and seemingly prosaic dream of Pirate Prentice’s, which we read about in the very first section of Gravity’s Rainbow. We find Prentice in the very center of the Blitzkrieg on London, England by the Germans, a time when bombs were dropped daily on the city. The death tolls went sky high, the city was practically leveled, and the soldiers were living in a daily expectation (not fear) of imminent death. And that’s where we come in.
Prentice, as one of the soldiers sent out to investigate the landing sites of the bombs launched by the Germans, has as close to a first hand knowledge of the V-2 rockets as anyone who has not actually been hit by one can possibly have. He has seen the destruction, the loss, and the pain that it can cause, and although he may have become inured to the sight, it is still ever-present in his mind, even when he is sleeping. It has invaded his subconscious, and the knowledge of what can and, in all likelihood, will happen has created this expectation that it will happen. It cannot be avoided.
There is no way out – This is where we see that knowledge, on a subconscious level, that there is an inescapable inevitability about this war, which has produced this expectation of death, that is hopeless, and yet, hopeful at the same time. It is this very hopelessness that creates the hope, that it will all be over soon. The V-2 rocket is the most fearful and deadly weapon created by the Germans during WW2; faster than the speed of sound, it could destroy miles of life and land before it has even been heard or noticed. Prentice knows that once a V-2 is headed your way, “There is no way out”, you will be dead before the whistling reaches your ears; it is a hopeless situation to be in. And yet this feeling inspires hope in him; he can at least hope for a death that will snuff out his life before he even knows what is happening; he doesn’t have to experience that fear, that feeling of dread, associated with the “screaming” of the rocket. It will be over before he even realizes that it has begun.
Screaming holds across the sky. – Pynchon’s use of the word “screaming” rather than, say, whistling, or howling, is very peculiar. It suggests the idea of the sheer terror that is inspired by the very sound of the V-2 rocket. The fact that this screaming cannot even be heard until after the rocket has hit its target, is even more suggestive; it tells us that the purpose of this rocket is not just to cause death to those in the environs of the landing site. It was created for the aggrandizement of the Germans, to proliferate their power over, not just their victims, but the witnesses as well. This show of power only increases this feeling of inevitable doom that hangs over their heads at all hours.
When it comes, will it come in darkness, or will it bring its own light? – What is particularly interesting about this line is that Pynchon is actually asking his audience, “will it come in darkness, or will it bring its own light?”He is extending this uncertainty beyond his characters, and infiltrating the minds of his readers, trying to get us to understand. It’s as if he is asking what do we think? Is it all a lost cause, a war that has already been lost and left us nothing to live for? Or is there something beyond the pale of reasoning, something that will transcend our rational minds, and demand that we don’t give up, and find something to defy death with? If the feeling of hopeless inevitability has taken over, then yes, it will come in darkness, in a void that was allowed to grow and expand within. It will bring its own light once the idea of death has been accepted, and the unreasonable hope has prevailed.
Will the light come before or after? – This line seems to be challenging the idea of life after death, it is an extension of the notion of whether you are considered one of the Elect or the Preterite.If you are one of the Preterite, then you are doomed to an eternity of Hell, and the only light you will ever see is the flash of the V-2 as it explodes. You will see the flash, a bright light, and then an eternity of darkness and fear. But, of course, if you are one of the Elect, then the light you see, will be the light of Heaven, shining down upon you, and inviting you into the loving embrace of the Almighty. In my opinion, this idea of the Elect vs. the Preterite is one of the more ridiculous notions in this novel, because it seems to dictate that no matter what you do in your life, none of it will make any difference, since we are all pre-destined to go to heaven or hell. However,as it is a running theme throughout the novel, and it seems to me that this is one instance in which it makes an appearance in the interpretation of the text.