I read Louis Mackey’s critical essay Paranoia, Pynchon, and Preterition. There are many claims in this essay regarding the relationship between the word preterite and the overall language of Gravity’s Rainbow, all of which are explained through Slothrop’s Proverbs for Paranoids. However, for the sake of length, there are only a few specific points that appeared to be the main support for Mackey’s argument, which I would like to draw your attention to.
Mackey’s argument begins with the distinctions that he draws between the Elite and the Preterite, and their different views of the world in general. According to Mackey, the Elite are also known as the Positivists, those who look at the things that happen in this world, and take them at face value. They don’t over-analyze any event, and they don’t criticize the outcome; nothing happens for any particular reason, it just happens, period. The Preterite, on the other hand, are the Paranoids, those people who exist in their belief that someone is out to get them, everything is inter-connected, everything has some meaning behind it. Mackey explains this distinction through a religious angle; the Elite maintain this belief through a Calvinistic faith, that consigns all men to either salvation or damnation, whereas the Preterite take the more Puritan point of view through paranoia. However, Mackey does not stop here, but takes his analysis of the Preterite even further, to the point where the Preterite, as a group of people can be subdivided into the Reprobate and the Preterite. The Reprobate are those who have been selected for immediate and eternal damnation to Hell, but the Preterite are those who have been selected for damnation, but have been left to sink into Hell in their own good time. This is where Mackey begins to define his argument; Gravity’s Rainbow is written through the “religion” of the Preterite – just as the paranoid puts all of his faith in the belief that everything is connected, even though we cannot perceive that connection, this entire novel is written on the basis of references, ambiguous hints, and assertions that are not always explained. And just like the Preterite must accept the fact that his damnation is assured through these unseen connections, when we read this novel, we must accept that we will not always be give the answers, and that the true mastery behind Pynchon’s writing may never be revealed.
Another claim that Mackey makes regarding the word Preterite, is that it should be taken for its literary meaning. as well. Preterite literally means “to pass over”; Pynchon uses this as a method in his writing, where he bombards us with so many remote hints, or bits and pieces of information that we are expected to put together somehow, and yet cannot, because Pynchon literally passes them over, and does not bother to give us any actual meaning for his method. It is a rhetorical strategy, meant to expose the language that Pynchon uses, continually failing to come to any conclusive point, as Mackey rightly quotes from the novel, “this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into.” This is what Pynchon has been trying to do throughout the entire novel, it is this “mindless irresponsibility” which sustains the reality of Gravity’s Rainbow.
There is one main point of Mackey’s argument that I cannot fully agree with; Mackey is basically claiming that the entire novel is based on the Preterite, and the Elite have no role, except as they provide a contrasting background to represent the Preterite against more clearly. My understanding was that Pynchon was using this whole idea of the Elite vs the Preterite as a means to reconcile the different aspects of World War ll (rich man’s war, poor man’s fight) and to help us comprehend the different meanings of his words. I believe that the Elite play a much larger role in Gravity’s Rainbow than Mackey permits; the Elite are represented by the ones referred to only as They. They are the ones who are pulling the strings, they are everything and everywhere, there is no escaping Them. It is the Elite that the preterite language submits itself to; why else would Pynchon use this kind of language?
Mackey’s argument that the language of Gravity’s Rainbow is intentionally rhetoric is true, but I don’t think it goes far enough. When Pynchon uses the evasive language which is so infuriating at times, he is more often than not, being ironic as well as rhetoric. His continual hints or references to pop-culture, comics, movies, and exaggerated sexual encounters, are a way of subverting the gratuitous and serious nature of the novel. This ironic way of writing, throws the serious aspect into greater relief; it’s a way of grabbing our attention and practically shoving our faces into it, trying to get us to understand. It is not inappropriate to suddenly use a comical gesture in the middle of a crucial scene, because that very gesture makes us pause and think, Why is Pynchon doing this?