Zeroing in on the eight-page story of Byron the Bulb in Gravity’s Rainbow, Harold Bloom’s introduction to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow: Modern Critical Interpretations renders a portrait of Pynchon’s vision of the American Sublime. Bloom begins by detailing a compiled list of his personal favorite examples of the American Sublime, including the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and Charlie Parker’s “Parker’s Mood,” just to name a few. The list does not conclude with Gravity’s Rainbow as a complete text, but rather just the eight-page story of Byron the Bulb.
Before delving into a close reading of Byron the Bulb, Bloom characterizes the aesthetic of Pynchon’s vision from a broader, more general standpoint. He repeatedly refers to elements of Gnostic spirituality in Pynchon’s work, and at one point calls him a “Kabalistic writer”(3). For Bloom, Pynchon illustrates a continual longing to spiritually overcome and transcend the political confinements of one’s surroundings. Depressingly, the inescapable reach of the system in place thwarts these spiritual impulses. He is a “master of the negative sublime,” with a “Gnosis without transcendence”(1,3).
In part II of the essay, Bloom seeks to verify his assertions on Pynchon’s approach by looking specifically at Byron the Bulb, a most definitive example of the aesthetic in his opinion. Byron is an everlasting light bulb who refuses to submit to the corporate forces controlling the power grid. “Phoebus,” the international light-bulb cartel, never quite manages to extinguish the dissident bulb once and for all; although, they do succeed in rendering his revolutionary spirit ineffectual as he lay in a heap of burnt-out bulbs and busted appliances for eternity.
Concluding his essay, Bloom references Emerson’s notion that the I and the Abyss are the chief concerns of an American visionary. In the case of Byron the Bulb, Bloom surmises, “the I is an immortal but hapless light bulb and the Abyss, our Gnostic foremother and forefather, is the socket into which that poor I of a bulb is screwed…”(9). The two forces never reconcile, hence Bloom labeling the story an exemplary vision of the negative sublime.
To sum up the role of Abyss as our “Gnostic foremother and forefather,” however, seems to be too simplistic, and not particularly well supported by anything specific to the text. To me, the space of the so-called Abyss has been usurped by Big Business and transfigured to resemble an inescapable grid, of which Byron eventually ceases trying to transcend. Big Business creates a sort of heaven on earth, satirically referred to as ‘Bulb Baby Heaven,’ in which bulbs are manufactured and given low currents of voltage to ensure a premature demise. Initially, Byron attempts to rally the baby bulbs together in “Perfect Energy” and overthrow the control of Big Business. It is unclear, however, exactly what Byron envisions beyond the grid. Perhaps it’s all the bulbs united, working together at maximum efficiency in “Perfect Energy,” but it’s never realized and therefore we can never know how that configuration would appear. In the end, Byron concedes that conjecturing about transcendence beyond his immediate surroundings is a fruitless task, and maybe, in analyzing concepts of I and the Abyss in the story, it would be worthwhile to take a similar approach.
The OED defines the noun ‘abyss’ as, “A deep or seemingly bottomless chasm”(OED). The origin coming “via late Latin from Greek abussos ‘bottomless’, from a- ‘without’ + bussos ‘depth’”(OED). At the conclusion of the story, there are three separate entities which continue existing in a space one could define as a “seemingly bottomless chasm”: the Grid, which eventually becomes “wide open”; Byron’s anger and frustration, which “will grow without limit”; and the lifespan of Byron’s tungsten filament (668). In regard to Byron’s knowledge of the Grid and its mechanisms of control, we’re told, “Someday he will know everything, and still be as impotent as before”(668). Since the amount Byron can know or understand about the Grid is finite, this capacity for knowledge can’t be said to qualify as an Abyss. Furthermore, if everything can be known about the Grid by an individual consciousness, then it must be operating on some level of transparency or predictability, and therefore doesn’t resemble a “bottomless chasm” without depth. Similarly, the depth of Byron’s impotence as a result of the Grid is unchanging irrespective of his knowledge, thus making it a quantifiable entity and not an Abyss. That leaves the lifespan of Byron’s tungsten filament, and his anger and frustration. The lifespan of Byron’s physical form is indeed limitless, but we know the course of its existence will follow a linear, unchanging, and predictable path. The perception of anger and frustration perceived by Byron’s consciousness, however, we’re told, “will grow without limit”(668). The rate at which his anger and frustration will increase and expand is raised to no fixed power. Because it is forever unbound to any set of limitations within the story, I would contend that Byron’s conscious perception of anger and frustration inherits the role of Abyss.
Of course, in trying to specifically tie down the roles of I and the Abyss in the story of Byron the Bulb, one could counter my contention by claiming the I encompasses Byron’s physical form as well as his anger and frustration. It seems to me, however, that there’s a distinct disconnect between the two forces, and if indeed one were to consider them both a part of the I, it would be fractured and incomplete. For that reason, I would instead place Byron’s physical form as the I, and his anger and frustration as the Abyss. These two forces are indeed never reconciled, and in that sense, I agree with Bloom.
“abyss”. Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press, n.d. Web. 11 April 2014. <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/abyss>.