Proverbs for Paranoids

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? 

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Building on Modernism (In Response to “Modernist Reading, Post-Modern Text”)

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The overarching theme of Brian McHale’s argument in “Modernist Reading, Post-Modern Text: The Case of Gravity’s Rainbow” is that Gravity’s Rainbow doesn’t quite fit into the typical mold of other Post-Modern works, and that it is closer to Modernist works than most of its contemporaries as well as more complex. He argues this for two primary reasons:

1)      because Pynchon builds on the unreliability of Modernist narrators within his narrators through manipulating the ontological perceptions (their perceptions of what actually exist) of characters, rather than just their epistemological perceptions (their perceptions of their own knowledge); and

2)      because Pynchon employs “more than one mediating consciousness” (various narrative points of view), as in Mrs. Dalloway, for anyone who’s read it.

The first of McHale’s arguments stems from the fact that Pynchon, McHale claims, makes his characters unreliable by ensuring that they are all hallucination-prone, albeit in varying sorts of ways: Slothrop is paranoid, Tchitcherine is a druggie, Pointsman is megalomaniacal, Pokler often dreams, and Pirate is constantly in other characters’ heads. The core of McHale’s argument seems to be that Pynchon jars reality through dream sequences and hallucinations, and he provides us with scenes that do so: the opening scene (Pirate’s dream), Pokler’s dream of incest with his daughter, and a joint fantasy of Roger Mexico and Seaman Bodine about being “spitted.”

Pirate’s talent threads uncertainty through this entire narrative, as McHale points out, and this justifies some of the strange goings on as plausible activity occurring in his world — though McHale warns against leaning too hard on this crutch.

The second of McHale’s arguments alludes to the frequent shifts in narration, which was a practice of the Modernists that Pynchon improved upon in Gravity’s Rainbow. The Modernists were able to shift between multiple points of view through a series of characters’ perceptions of one event, as Woolf did in her famous skywriting scene and her various characters’ perceptions of a car backfiring in Mrs. Dalloway. Pynchon built on this practice by extending the time periods it could include from only one moment in the present or a linear sequence of events to shifting from the past to present directly through characters’ minds, as was the case with Eventyr and Sachsa.

He begins to wrap up his essay with a final claim: “The Post-Modern, I would like to suggest, is less an indiscriminate shotgun-blast than a kind of sharpshooting directed at specific target” (McHale, pg. 108). This is probably his most important statement, the one which directly addresses the Pulitzer committee and highbrows who discount Pynchon’s work as slapstick vulgarity, and it is well supported by the arguments that he has already made. Pynchon, based on McHale’s claims, does not seem to be a rogue artist of the Duchamp variety calling toilets art to make a point, he has extended the artistic practices of the Modernists into his age. This, though it is revealed late, seems to be what is ultimately at stake in McHale’s arguments.

 

Response

To cut to the heart of the matter, I agree with McHale’s ultimate claim that Gravity’s Rainbow is art (“a kind of sharpshooting”) and not slapstick (“an indiscriminate shotgun blast”), and I think those are the terms McHale was actually working in, given the proximity of this essay’s publication to the Pulitzer committee’s snubbing of the book and his explicit mention of the committee. I can’t know firsthand, but I’m sure there was a tendency in some communities to write this book off because of the Pulitzer’s rejection of it, and that seems to be what McHale was resisting, and justifiably so. I agree with him because he’s provided solid evidence of Pynchon’s extension of Modernist traditions, such as Woolf’s shifts in point of view, which he’s revolutionized.

I would also venture to say that he built on them in at least one more way that McHale did not mention. As we saw with Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the Modernists were known for creating antiheroes who tended to set out to achieve goals but ultimately fell short of them. If this doesn’t describe Slothrop during his time in the Zone, I don’t know what does. Of course, Pynchon has thrust this tradition into the Post-Modern age as well by placing Slothrop in a setting he couldn’t hope to ever understand and setting up his paranoia.

In addition to this, Pynchon has revolutionized another Modernist tradition in Gravity’s Rainbow. By the end of most Modernist stories, you’ll notice that the antihero has not really gotten anywhere by the end of their journey, and that their experience failed to change their lives in the way they expected it to. I haven’t finished Gravity’s Rainbow yet, but given the fact that we know it’s a “circular” novel, I think it’s safe to assume that Slothrop won’t get quite where he’s hoping to go either. The revolution here, though, is that where Modernist novels come to a halt, this one, again as a “circular” novel, sounds likely to reconnect with its own beginning to close that circle.

 

Works Cited

McHale, Brian. “Modernist Reading, Post-Modern Text: The Case of Gravity’s Rainbow.” Poetics Today 1.1/2 (1979): 85-110. Print.

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York: Viking, 1973. Print.

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Green Scripts in Gravity’s Rainbow

 

             The essay I chose to read was Chris Coughran’s criticism of Gravity’s Rainbow, titled “Green Scripts In Gravity’s Rainbow: Pynchon, Pastoral Ideology and the Performance of Ecological Self.” This turned out to be a very complex and difficult essay about the novel, and one that was interesting as well. He came up with a few really good points about the novel, and a few good arguments as well.

            The essay starts out by explaining that Richard Poirier published a book, titled “The Performing Self, ”two years prior to Pynchon publishing Gravity’s Rainbow, that made a claim that “America is now and history.” Coughran explains that this novel claims that the world is the way it is today, because of what happened in the past, and what we as a people have inherited from past generations, such as beliefs and traditions. He says that Gravity’s Rainbow supports this claim (Coughran 265).          

            The first really critical argument he brings up in regard to Gravity’s Rainbow is that of Pynchon being aware of his own cultural inheritances. He quotes an article by David Lowenthal “we cannot free ourselves all at once from the ideas of our ancestors, whose concepts of nature were- like our own- circumscribed by the horizons of their imaginations.” (Lowenthal 40). (Coughran 266).     

            An instance that Coughran brought up in reference to pastoral literary modes was that of “nature’s notion.” In Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon writes, “meanest sharp sliver of truth” buried beneath “so much replication, so much waste” (Pynchon 590)(Coughran 270).  

            On the topic of Pynchon’s cultural inheritances, I do agree with Coughran. He goes on to explain in this essay that you cannot free yourself of the belief of those who came before you all at once, and it will take time to be able to form your own beliefs essentially (Coughran 266). I think many of the thoughts that people have are “socially inherent” in that you kind of tend to take on the beliefs of your parents when you are young, then form more of your own opinions as you grow. At times throughout Gravity’s Rainbow, it is believed that some of Pynchon’s personal opinions are portrayed throughout this novel. As we discussed in last Tuesday, one could argue (not conclude) that not only is Pynchon sexist, but also racist. Many instances in the book refer to masculinity as dominant, and to me that suggest that he slightly looks down upon women.

            “But with a Jewess…Their animal darkness… sweating hindquarters, pushing aggressively toward her face” (Pynchon 155). To me, this part about referring to a Jewess as having “animal darkness” came off as racist.

            I thought Coughran could have gone more in depth with examples from the novel on this particular subject. There were a great number of sections I found that could’ve come off as other cultural inheritances that he did not really get into.

            In regards to the pastoral literary modes in this novel, I thought it was a really interesting thing for Coughran to point out, and I agree with the connection. Pastoral is defined as: of or relating to the spiritual care or guidance of people who are members of a religious group. Another definition however is: of or relating to the countryside or to the lives of people who live in the country. I noticed a few instances of pastoral literary modes in my reading to this point of Gravity’s Rainbow. One example, as pointed out by Coughran, is when Slothrop sees “a very thick rainbow […] a stout rainbow cock driven out of the pubic clouds into the earth, green wet valleyed earth, and his chest fills and he stands crying, not a thing in his head, just feeling natural” (Pynchon 626). He explains that this is pastoral, because it can often refer to when a character is at a crossroads of choice, and you are then permitted to have a revelation (Coughran 271). I thought this was a very interesting way to look at this scene, and I completely agree with Coughran in this idea. If you think of pastoral in a religious sense, one could argue that at this point, Slothrop is being permitted to revelation, and being exposed to maybe a greater being than himself. This could also be an example of “nature’s notion,” as Coughran referred to earlier in the essay.  

This essay was slightly hard to follow, mostly because he references novels and essays that I have never read, so it made it slightly harder to make connections to his essay and Gravity’s Rainbow. At one point, he made references to novels such as “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” and “The Catcher in the Rye,” and I just think I would’ve understood these references better having actually read these novels. Overall though, I thought it was a really well done critical essay in response to Gravity’s Rainbow. It helped me to get a better understanding of what Pynchon was trying to do with particular passages as well.

Coughran, Chris, “Green Scripts in Gravity’s Rainbow: Pynchon, Pastoral Ideology and the Performance of Ecological Self,” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment 16.2 (Spring 2009): 265-279.

 

Lowenthal, David. “Is This Wilderness ‘Paradise Enow’? Images of Nature in America.” Columbia University Forum Spring (1964): 34-40.

 

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York: Penguin, 1973.

 

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Fritz Lang Films

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I thought it might be fun to find the movie posters for the films my critic spoke of in his article, so here they are–they’re both kind of fascinating. Metropolis also has a bunch of different ones, some even more exciting than this example, so if you like movies or movie posters I’d recommend Googling it.

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The Cinematic Imagination

Antonio Marquez –The Cinematic Imagination in Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow”

Film techniques have swept into the realms of novels, “revolutionizing” writing and the writer’s craft. Antonio Marquez points out that in 1922 Ulysses spawned the age of using cinematic imagination to convey the liveliness of film into writing. The novel itself is highly cinematic, written to feel like individual scenes and episodes, but of course it also includes the “wacky pastiche of familiar films,” an effort that makes it quite popular amongst cinephiles (Marquez 166). Marquez then moves on to describe the 20th century invention of film as a cultural force and phenomenon, and also that its technological aspects have the power to influence popular culture–it is the “confluence of science and art” (167). With this in mind, he presents his thesis: 1) cinema as psychological/ cultural influence on modern thought and behavior, 2) cinema as technological invention and extension of technologique, are the components of what he calls “cinematic imagination” and the “thematic thrust” of GR (168).

Concerned with the psychology of film, Marquez makes interesting distinctions, mostly pointing straight to the language of the text and how it relies on film terms to spread its message. Cinematic experience affects people subconsciously, and Pynchon alludes to such in the very first pages, as Pirate Prentice’s dream comes to him like an image in a view finder (168). Similarly, Pynchon directly references the act of going to the movie theater, and Marquez draws from this that looking up at a movie screen, in isolation, in the darkness, collectively amongst strangers, is indicative of the cultural phenomenon and the depth film’s effect has on modern consciousness (170). The argument adds that Pynchon treats film very much like Plato did the cave.

Pökler seemingly becomes the representative of mass movie-going culture, because of his vicariousness in living those movies out. And as he breaks down, Pökler confuses reality with movies, because he’s singularly focused on cinematic interpretation. Later in the article, Osbie Feel is labeled as a “film-freak,” who references about five films in one sentence. Osbie is a bit different from Pökler’s episodes, though, as his scenes are embedded alongside Katje’s S&M films—Marquez ascribes this to be part of “the gigantic puzzle” of GR (178). Then he qualifies this with the point that Pynchon uses cinema as a point of reference: “both the serious and comic passages are interspersed and enveloped by cinema chatter and film-making” (178).

Importantly, Marquez seems to draw both from Plato’s cave and these strange characters and films that scientific methods of control have been applied to films. Then he asserts, perhaps boldly, that film is “separate frames manipulated rapidly to create movement, continuity, coherence, and meaning. It is all illusion” (172). He follows up with, “Pynchon is dramatizing in a novelistic framework a phenomenon which has preoccupied film and cultural historians: the films of a nation shape and reflect its mentality” (174). He spends a great deal of time discussing particular German films, Metropolis and Die Frau im Mond, by Fritz Lang, both of which Pökler claims to have seen. Like Alpdrucken inspired Pöklerand his generation, Marquez/ Pynchon suggest that Metropolis inspired the Germans’ “lust for power and glorious dreams of a technologique fused with romanticism” (173). Then, acting as film-historian, he points out two mind-blowing facts: Hitler and Goebbels praised Metropolis and took inspiration from it, and the first A-4 rocket was inscribed with “Die Frau im Mond” (“The Girl on the Moon”) (174). It’s no accident these two films are referenced in GR. And a third mind-blowing historical fact is that the director, Fritz Lang, was a leftist and a Jew (173).

The article closes out by jumping to the end, a point in the novel that seems to “turn the lights on” in the theater and for the reader. It comes abruptly to an end. From his conclusion, Marquez keeps the door open for multiple interpretations—Pynchon’s “film-novel…oddly spliced gigantic cartoon/newsreel of a period of modern history,” can be 1) a novelistic invention or, 2) a literary sham (179). It’s certain that he believes the former, but Marquez realizes the risks of Pynchon’s novel and its movie-like qualities, because it is incredibly weird, wacky, and pastiche at times.

I found Marquez provided an interesting and surprisingly succinct argument about the cinematic imagination. I’d never heard or used that term before, but reading his article convinced me that Pynchon was quite deliberate and dedicated to writing this novel like a movie. Don’t we call each section or chapter “episodes” after all? My personal interests are very much rooted in the sensational, particularly visual, elements, and so reading about how particular characters sort of embody both the filmmaker and filmgoer role enlightened me a bit. I’m attracted to the visual absurdity—strong images of Slothrop climbing down toilets, wearing pig costumes, Katje, Gottfried, and Blicero’s S&M party, chimpanzees and naked girls on ships—these are connected in some ways to films and movies and the culture that created those phenomena. It seems obvious in hindsight, but having a critic point out that the rapid transitions between times/ spaces/ people reflects strongly of a film reel cutting to a different scene, then back to the initial one. Reading Pynchon is strongly reminiscent of film-viewing, as it cuts between things in a flash. Sometimes events and objects are blurry, sometimes they flicker, and sometimes it’s hard to recognize what’s happening.

Additionally, I’d recommend Marquez to anybody really interested in film, film history, and cultural forces. He’s quite detailed in describing cinema as a response and product of society, and his analysis of Fritz Lang’s films in the middle of the article seemed really spot-on to me.

Works Cited

Marquez, Antonio, “The Cinematic Imagination in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow,” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 33.4 (Autumn 1979): 165-179.

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Pynchon and Paranoia

I read an interesting critique by Leo Bersani called Pynchon, Paranoia, and Literature that not only discussed Pynchon’s use of the word “paranoia” but the very idea of paranoia itself. He also engages in countless questions about the true meaning of Pynchon’s writing, and even asks, “What is Gravity’s Rainbow?” (Bersani 107).

Bersani begins by talking about the complexities of paranoia. While it has a medical, psychiatric, and psychoanalytic definition, he claims that Pynchon tends to use it as a synonym for “unfounded suspicion about a hostile environment…” (99). Using paranoid in the sense of that definition, I would most definitely say that all of the characters in Gravity’s Rainbow are indeed quite paranoid. In fact, one might say that reading the book itself could make the reader paranoid, using it in the synonymous definition. By our desire to to connect each event in occurring in the story, keep track of the multiple plots and their interconnectedness – by that definition, we are all indeed paranoid as well.

Bersani continues on to state that “Pynchon is less interested in vindicating his characters’ suspicions of plots than in universalizing and, in a sense, depathologizing the paranoid structure of thought.” (101). By doing this we are lead to believe that Pynchon doesn’t want to verify his characters’ suspicions to merely prove a political point, and Pynchon’s use of paranoia is much more complex than that. Pynchon even writes that war is just a cover up, a “spectacle”, or “diversion from the real movements of war”, confirming his own paranoid beliefs (102). Paranoia is a intuition of “invisible interconnectedness”, and leads one to believe that there are reasons behind visible occurrences, and secret connections of events.  Bersani says that by trying to escape paranoia would to be like trying to escape the movement that is life, leading me to believe that paranoia is almost a necessary characteristic to our lives (if we use paranoia in the definition of believing everything is connected).

Gravity’s Rainbow is “obsessed” with the idea that paranoia is a necessary product of all information systems.  There would be no “They” without a “We”, and vice versa. Bersani proposes the question “Can we escape being manipulated – perhaps even destroyed – by such systems?” (103). There are always those who are suspicious and suggest an alternative to the “way of life” but is there truly another way? Power depends on the control of information, and without that control and power, what would there be? Chaos?

The most interesting question I found in this piece by Bersani was, “And whose side is Pynchon on?” (107). This novel seems to be so clearly against the control of information and machines, but yet Bersani suggests that Pynchon is one of “Them”. Is this because Pynchon is orchestrating the occurrences and paranoia in the novel? Bersani says that it is because Pynchon “willingly tortures his characters” (107). What are your thoughts on that? Is Pynchon part of the preterite? Or is that idea ludicrous based on the very idea of this novel?

And my final question: Is paranoia inescapable?

 

Bersani, Leo, “Pynchon, Paranoia, and Literature,” Representations 25 (Winter 1989): 99-   118.

 

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Pynchon’s Complex Narrative

            “Recognizing Reality, Realizing Responsibility” by Craig Hansen Werner is a critical essay on Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I think the essay works to answer the question, how do I approach reading Gravity’s Rainbow? The last sentence on the first page best captures Werner’s answer to this question, “Pynchon forces the resolution of modes off the page and into our lives, where it belongs. If we let him.” (85) Werner is pointing out the reader’s role throughout his essay in arguing that Pynchon’s text is so dense and complex that it compels the readers to reach out beyond Gravity’s Rainbow and consider more than just themselves. Because of the complexity of the text, the readers are forced to move towards a community in order to make sense of the text. Pynchon challenges solipsism, the view that the self is all that exists, because his modes frustrate isolated reading.            

           Werner creates an image that Pynchon illustrates such an intricate community in his novel in order to relate to the reader’s reality of their world. Werner closes his essay with a quote from Pynchon “…join in here with your brothers and sisters, let each other know you’re alive and sincere, try to break through the silences, try to reach through and connect.” (96) Werner believes Pynchon uses plot and characters as tools for the readers to relate to solipsism in real life. One example of this is Werner’s analysis of Slothrop. Slothrop’s paranoia is a reason for his solipsism and his efforts to escape his paranoia make him an anti-paranoid, which Werner defines as the idea that nothing is connected to anything. According to Werner, Slothrop’s effort to break away from his solipsism fails and his experiences in the end are not resolved. Slothrop’s unresolved life is an example of a reality in the novel that we are meant to take into our own lives. I cannot agree or disagree with Werner’s view on Slothrop’s resolution because I have not yet reached that point in the text, it will be interesting to see how things unfold.

            It seems obvious that the world Pynchon creates in Gravity’s Rainbow is packed with many references, strange narratives, and influences from other writers, so why is Werner pointing out these aspects? When reading a text, I often find myself wondering why I am reading the work or what I am meant to take away from the work. I think Werner writes his critical essay in effort to assure readers that Gravity’s Rainbow is a rewarding text when it is read the right way. To readers that do not need to be convinced of the benefit of the complexities in this novel, this essay may not be of much use. I do not think Werner presents any new or particularly impressive ideas in his essay, but he does open up some reasons for the overwhelmingly complex narrative. I agree that Pynchon’s structure says something about reality, the absurd amount of characters and information thrown at the readers relates to our real life. Everyday we learn facts and meet people we need to sift through by significance or connections to other aspects of our life, and Pynchon’s narrative mirrors that thought process.

            Distinguishing between reality and illusion in this novel is a skill I struggle with in Gravity’s Rainbow. Think back to our in-class discussion of Polker and the “amazing incest” he imagines with his daughter. We tried to talk through some reasons behind Pynchon’s hazy division between reality and illusion, which is a question we could not definitively answer. Maybe Werner is suggesting this distinction is not what is significant about the text. Instead of recognizing the reality in the world Pynchon has created, we are meant to use the text to add to our connections and understanding of our very own real life reality.

 

Werner, Craig Hansen, “Recognizing Reality, Realizing Responsibility” (1982), in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow: Modern Critical Interpretations, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986), 85-96.

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