Power and the Obscene Word

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

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6 Responses to Power and the Obscene Word

  1. Steph Roman says:

    My own interests in the novel seem to stem from the argument Ames makes–I was also interested in this article, and it sounds quite amusing and interesting. I’m absolutely fascinated by the overabundance of profanity. It’s not even a new concept in novels, but Pynchon (of course) takes things to the extreme.

    In my humble opinion “fuck” is the most versatile word in our whole language. It has so many meanings and interpretations–just like GR itself. It might be worth exploring further why it’s used less as a synonym for the act of sex than as an expression of anger, surprise, or whatever else. It also becomes a wonderfully humorous, repeatable interjection.

    The most enlightening thing to me is that profanity can be deemed the language of the preterite, while equations are the language of the elite. That’s a deceptively complicated detail to pick up on, but I would think is one that can be widely accepted.

  2. Mike Wilson says:

    This is an interesting take on the use of obscenities in the novel. For me it calls to mind our discussion of the statement “Fuck the war” and how the use of “fuck” there did so much more than other stand-ins, like “forget,” could have.

    The word “fuck” was doing a lot of work in that sentence. Had Pynchon said “forget” the war — Roger Mexico being the speaker and having recently described his mother as the war — the Oedipal complex of Roger Mexico, and in fact most of the young characters in the novel, would not have been set up. That’s key to the story, too, because one of Gravity’s Rainbow’s main themes seems to be the tainting of the youth of this generation by its predecessors and the war. So it’s amazing how detailed and purposeful the use of obscenities are in Pynchon’s work. In most cases they’re only used to poorly express the emotional tipping point of a character by lesser writers, but I think Pynchon broke new ground with what can be accomplished with this sort of language in terms of creating ambiguity and meaning. I think it’s a topic worth looking deeper into.

  3. elizabeth829 says:

    I would also like to point out that I think the use of obscenities makes the novel even more realistic, since swear words are so common in everyday life. Pynchon’s ability to jar readers into paying attention and draw them into the narrative through hyper-realism and then push them back out into the extreme and unrealistic is incredible, I think the use of obscenities really helps with this. Perhaps it’s also another trait of post-modern writers?

  4. patriciafox17 says:

    Growing up, it was hammered into my brain that swearing only revealed that you couldn’t come up with a more articulate way of expressing your thoughts in polite company. So, with that in mind, using obscenities seems like another method of control the Elite exercises over the Preterite. The Elite has incited so much frustration, anger, sadness, and fearfulness that it appears they have got the Preterite in a linguistic chokehold. When overcome by emotion, members of the Preterite put little energy or effort put into formulating complex thoughts or reactions; they just *vent* quickly with whatever profanities trip off the tongue–a cathartic response. If there’s so much profanity in the book in the place of meaningful, descriptive dialogue, what might the Preterite say more clearly? Would they have more of a fighting chance against the Elite?

  5. I always have the feeling Patricia that though the dialogue might not often be terribly eloquent, Pynchon’s language itself is so refined and careful, and that it is the tension b/t these two modes where the possibilities for alternative language emerge.

  6. Nico Falgione says:

    While reading Gravity’s Rainbow, I have thought that the language is important. It seems that everything in the novel is included for a reason, and the language is no exception. However, I had not thought that profane language is the language of the preterite and equations that of the elite. That really changes how I look at language in the novel, and I think after reading this post I want to read Ames’ article.

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