In his essay Power and the Obscene Word: Discourses of Extremity in “Gravity’s Rainbow”, author Christopher Ames writes about a very interesting part of Gravity’s Rainbow: the obscenities present in it. Ames notes that the study of obscene language in literature is very limited, which is one of the reasons I chose to read and write about this essay. Whether it be Pynchon’s use of the word “fuck” or the significance of bananas as phallic symbols, Ames has really done his research and compiled his findings into this article. After two discussions in which the class talked about Pynchon’s use of “fuck” and “shit”, I found this essay to be a perfect, lewd companion. And what’s interesting is Ames’ take on why obscenity is important to Pynchon.
To Ames, Pynchon’s use of obscenity has to do mainly with a basic dichotomy that Pynchon draws attention to in Gravity’s Rainbow: the Elite vs. the Preterite. In his essay, Ames posits that Pynchon uses obscenity as the “purified language of the Preterite” (Ames 191). Ames writes that obscene language in Gravity’s Rainbow is used by the Preterite, and used by Pynchon as a bridge between language and power.
Similar to the cute meet of Roger and Jessica, Pynchon seemingly applies another movie trope in the dichotomy of the higher and lower classes, or the Elite and Preterite. Essentially, Ames’ article states that members of the Preterite in Gravity’s Rainbow are the most common users of obscene language or gestures. Tyrone Slothrop is a perfect example of a character who is presented as a member of the Preterite, as indicated by Pynchon when he writes about Slothrop’s ancestry. Slothrop uses bananas for breakfast, a phallic symbol, and also swears multiple times, which are just some examples of how Slothrop is a member of the Preterite, as defined by Ames. To contrast with obscenity as the language of the Preterite, Ames seems to suggest that equations are the language of the Elite. Slothrop’s superiors often use equations and mathematics to predict various events, while Slothrop is not really interested in all of that.
Personally, I think that Ames’ points are very valid. In fact, I had not thought of obscenity as the language of the Preterite. Slothrop, as the quintessential Preterite “hero”, uses obscenity on various occasions. Slothrop uses obscenity when he is happy and when he is helpless. For example, during the Banana Breakfast, Slothrop tells Death, in his happiness, to fuck off. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, however, when Slothrop begins to realize the conspiracy he is a part of, he says “fuck you” (Pynchon 203), helplessly. Swearing and the obscene word, according to Ames, is a comforting language for the Preterite, like some sort of “spell or incantation” (Ames 196). Ames also notes that the majority of the uses of the word “fuck” have nothing to do with sexual intercourse, but are rather used to express a range of different emotions based on the context and the character. Ames has done a great job connecting specific points in the text to his theory of obscenity as the language of the Preterite. If Ames’ theory of obscenity is true, it seems as if by using obscenity in Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon has shown himself as being a member of the Preterite. Various clues in the novel, such as Slothrop sharing many characteristics with Pynchon, point to Pynchon thinking of himself as a member of the Preterite.
In addition, Ames has ventured into a territory which I have not seen before by closely reading moments of Gravity’s Rainbow and looking at the language used instead of interpreting the plot. As we’ve said in class numerous times, every word Pynchon uses is assumed to be essential and meaningful, and Ames’ essay gives a bit of reasoning behind Pynchon’s phallic imagery and use of profanity. Although Ames’ essay seems to be a very reasonable explanation, there are some characters who, while part of the Preterite, still use equations and mathematics. Roger Mexico, for example, while seemingly part of the Preterite, uses equations and mathematics and statistics to locate the V-2 drop sites. As we’ve discussed in class before, however, this novel cannot be split into two, or three, or any number of categories; it cannot be organized. The characters in this novel are not always described as either part of the Elite or part of the Preterite, but usually have traits of both sides. Basically, although Ames’ theory is a perfect all around, general idea, it cannot be applied to each and every character in Gravity’s Rainbow.
Ames, Christopher, “Power and the Obscene Word: Discourses of Extremity in Thomas
Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow,” Contemporary Literature 31.2 (Summer 1990): 191-207