Molly Hite’s critical work with Pynchon published in 2004 has the title “Fun Actually Was Becoming Quite Subversive.” It is an interesting title, because it originated somewhere completely different than Gravity’s Rainbow, in fact it came from the 1969 trial of the Chicago Seven, a group of young men from antiwar and revolutionary groups accused of disrupting the 1968 Democratic Convention. This was considered a very important trial in the counterculture movement, something Pynchon famously embraced in his works. The exact quote originated from the testimony of Abbie Hoffman and reads “fun was very important… it was a direct rebuttal of the kind of ethics and morals that were being put forth in the country to keep people working in a rate race.” Hite uses this to introduce her interpretation of Pynchon. She argues that “the idea of fun could subvert an oppressive capitalist structure is central to this novel of excess.”
Molly Hite uses Herbert Marcuse’s 1955 culture synthesis Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud to help frame her argument, and plainly states that this work must have influenced Pynchon. Marcuse claims that the period of time, which this book was written in, was a period of great productivity and excess, and with the technological advances, it became economically feasible to have a “leisure culture.” However with this culture of leisure comes a raising of standards and consequently a “surplus-repression.” This is repression is the repression of Freudian pleasures, conceding or flat out rejecting the gratification of many desires which Freud saw as necessary for a society to organize and survive. Marcuse argues that by denying these pleasures principles that “advanced civilizations are in danger from a second group of instinctive impulses striving for death.” This, Hite states, is where we get the dramatization of the destruction from the rocket, as it becomes global. She argues “The V-2 Rocket rises under human guidance..” and this is where we understand the “death drive.” This is the natural tendency of society, to progress to a certain point, and then fall into the death drive; the arc of human civilization not unlike the arc of the bomb.
Hite states that Pynchon understood Marcuse’s possibility of escape from postindustrial destruction, and encoded it in his book, however slight this chance might be. By not becoming individuals we are doomed to, as individuality in Gravity’s Rainbow is synonymous with disrupting the productivity and subsequent regression of human nature. This is where the overt sexual tones of the book come from, especially the more risqué ones. These sexual acts are done not in hopes of productivity, or reproducing, but simply out of pleasure. By not denying these pleasures and becoming individual of the society, we can escape the trajectory of destruction. Hite does acknowledge that these chances are incredibly small, that betrayal and self-defeating tendencies are built into the system, that “every revolution has been a betrayed revolution.” So for Hite’s interpretation, humanity is at stake, the trajectory is annihilation, and Pynchon offers a way to escape that trajectory.
I would like to agree with Hite in her thinking. In the very beginning of the novel, we are introduced with a very dark image of the concentration camp, with people being ushered into a bleak hotel. At that hotel, they wait quietly for the bomb to drop without any hope left. Right after we get that dark image, we are given one of the most colorful scenes in the novel, the banana breakfast. After a night of indulging in alcohol to excess, Pirate wakes up and picks bananas, something that was rationed during the time period. He then begins to cook a wonderful breakfast consisting of banana everything, and the scent alone is enough to ward of death, Pynchon famously says “Fuck Death.” So by indulging in this pleasure, they are able to escape death, they are able to escape the trajectory of human nature even just for a morning. I believe scenes like this are a clear road map that Pynchon gives us, that maybe by not denying these pleasures we might be able to get out of the arc of human nature, or in Pynchon’s work, the literal bomb. The chances are slim however, these people are protected only as long as the scent of the banana breakfast wafts over them, but the chance does exist.
Hite, Molly, “‘Fun Was Actually Becoming Quite Subversive’: Herbert Marcuse, the Yippies, and the Value System of Gravity’s Rainbow,” Contemporary Literature 51.4 (Winter 2010): 677-702.