Version classiqueVersion mobile

Thomas Pynchon

Bénédicte Chorier-Fryd
Gilles Chamerois

V. as Archive

LeAnn Stevens-Larré

Texte intégral

  • 1 See specifically Suzanne Keens Romances of the Archive in Contemporary British Fiction. Also, see (...)

1Archival theory’s roots are firmly attached to the pragmatic assessing, organizing and maintaining of the documents of governments, institutions, and companies. Over the course of the twentieth century, its tenets and concerns have intersected with concepts in historiography and have become intertwined with cultural studies as well. An abundance of scholarly work on the archive has been produced within the last few decades across many disciplines and is an emerging and expanding area of inquiry, both in relation to the literal archive and the archive as metaphor. Only recently, though, have literary scholars begun to apply it to issues in fiction. In the last part of the twentieth century, scholars concerned with literary history began to take interest in the pertinent aspects of archival theory related to their work, mostly focusing on the use of archives as plot within fiction or the use of real-world archives by writers and how the use of an archive influenced the fiction.1

2In the archival space, power is given by the mistaken assumption, based on its status as a sacred space, that the archive will provide an original truth. Characters that literally embody the histories of their communities are thus “archival” characters because they exhibit characteristics of the gathering together of what Carolyn Steedman calls “debris,” what is produced and then left behind by time and events. However, since the major controlling link between the archive and archival characters is that they are both “figured” in similar ways, the supposition that original truth is available through them is automatically undercut. Carolyn Hamilton, Vern Harris, and Graeme Reid establish this concept in the introduction to Refiguring the Archive: “The word ‘figure’ enfolds multiple meanings—as a verb: to appear, be mentioned, represent, be a symbol of, imagine, pattern, calculate, understand, determine, consider—all remultiplied by the words’ hospitality to prefixes” (7). Furthermore, “figure” is also a noun, thus accommodating the idea of the human figure as a type of archive.

3Thomas Pynchon’s V. corporally demonstrates that multiple subjectivities exist in that space and thus shows that the archive allows for multiple subjectivities. As an archival character, V. is built, marked, and encoded to function as a repository of memory. The reader and other characters “refigure” the meaning (s) offered by the collection of materials within the archival character.

4Archival characters are powerful in their ability to exercise a sort of control on those around them through their embodiment of memory and history, just as a fictional or historical text influences the understanding of the reader. Its power lies in the urgent need to find truth, to find resonance with what one experiences as reality, and establish a connection to origins. Contained within the archival character, however, one finds not the original but the references to the original that, if possible to find, would be true by definition—that which is original is the thing itself and therefore whole and true. The truth is desired and is actively searched for, but the nature of the archival space demands that the available records undergo rearrangement.

5The subsequent reordering and interpretation result in possible coherent meaning in the form of narrative, but the original truth can never be reconstructed as it was, to narrativize a past that exists within the present only as unconnected debris. Therefore, the human urge to find original truth is a constant turnstile of assuagement and frustration resulting in a never-ending quest articulated most conspicuously in archival characters, since they represent a past truth to the other characters within the novel and to the reader of the novel as well. Pynchon has capitalized on the urge readers feel to know the identity of V. in order to anchor the narrative in an understandable, meaningful way.

6The archival space is artificial to begin with, a space in which memory is referenced by its very absence; it is prosthetic. The debris within an archive is spatially and chronologically displaced at its inception. As language is always a referent for something else which it can never be, so the elements in an archive also refer to their original manifestations. The gap allows only interpretation based on the experience of the reader, never the facts inherent in that which is original. The desire to find the original that we identify as truth is a result of a more basic need which is to provide ourselves with a way to anchor the validity of our identity, our place within the universe both temporally and locatively, activating the necessary counterforce to the complete de-centering of the subject. The archive is the material evidence of what once was, allowing us to imagine that we have a stable identity and singular history, even though we do not.

7Pynchon’s novel shows that the subject cannot return to “the center,” or the mythic original, to complete the narrative and find this meaning. The archive in Pynchon is a space in which one is entrapped and no rupture impossible. Time and space are equalized or nullified in the literal archive due to the disjunction from the original event which produced the archived materials. Thomas Schaub states that Pynchon’s writing always “aspires to the condition of simultaneity in which contradictory possibilities coexist” (4), thus mimicking the archive. The narrator’s voice neither accentuates nor diverts attention from any detail contained within the story. The layout of the book itself corresponds to this equalized organization: the chapters of V. regarding the character V. are not chronologically ordered but instead are presented as set pieces, emerging from Stencil’s quest, interwoven with the chapters devoted to Profane and the Whole Sick Crew, and the locations are likewise scattered. The reader is responsible for both reordering the chronology of the chapters according to the present time of Profane and Stencil (mid 1950s), since events occur in various historical periods of conflict, as well as constructing the events’ meanings in relationship to both Profane and Stencil.

8The two main stories in V., indicated by the two-pronged shape of the title letter, are not parallel but intersect, this important juncture symbolized in the title letter. The back of the 2005 Harper Perennial edition reads: “The wild, macabre tale of the twentieth century and of two men—one looking for something he has lost, the other with nothing much to lose—and ‘V.,’ the unknown woman of the title.” This blurb is a convenient quip to define a difficult narrative. It implies that V. is a character on the same par as Profane and Stencil, but Pynchon never provides a definitive answer as to who or what V. is. Most critics agree that V. takes the form of various female characters throughout the novel or that an idea that is V. is embodied by various female characters. Stencil himself states that “She’s yielded him only the poor skeleton of a dossier. Most of what he has is inference. He doesn’t know who she is, nor what she is. He’s trying to find out. As a legacy from his father” (161). The letter V is a marker—a sign given in language’s most basic form, the single letter, that does not function as a morpheme as “a” or “I” does—which can change signification and alter narratives given any context that even partially references the sign. So V the letter, but more specifically, V. as a referent only, is the archive. Within it, multiple stories are possible. All can be referenced by it, connected to it, and made out of it. V. is the point of narrative reconstruction.

  • 2 Carolyn Steedman phrases it like this: “The archive is a record of the past, at the same time as it (...)

9The Derridean concept of the future anterior2 suggests that this meeting of the documented past with the imaginative reconstruction of it is the same “point” on the timeline seen from opposite chronological positions. Pynchon’s longing for what might have been is the same position his characters inhabit within the past looking forward. There is therefore a chronological distinction but not a philosophical one—both admit doubt, allowing multiple meanings/interpretations to be possible through narrative imagination. Within this gap of perceptive ability (for the character in the past could not look backwards to his own position at the same time that the storyteller does) is the function of language and narrative, to articulate for the past position as well as the present audience and future audience, creating a future position upon the timeline, a projection or a trajectory which the narrative itself brings into existence. Peter Brooks argues “All narrative may be in essence obituary in that . . . the retrospective knowledge that it seeks, the knowledge that comes after, stands on the far side of the end, in human terms on the far side of death” (95). Narrative seeks the knowledge that exists once it is written or told, once there is a corpse.

10The body, connected to all three positions, is the porteur of this kind of language, a language that is able to articulate possibilities (a future-dependent concept) even when the time for them is chronologically over. Derrida explains his position in the future compared to a photograph, a primarily archival representation of the body:

I read at the same time; this will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me to the absolute past of the pose (aorist), the photograph tells me death in the future. What points me, pricks me, is the discovery of this equivalence. In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself; she is going to die; I shudder . . . over a catastrophe that has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead every photograph is this catastrophe. (Psyche 291)

11The future anterior position therefore resonates through the association of the life and death of the body itself. Derrida defines the pose of his mother’s body as “aorist,” a linguistic indication of a completed action or event in the past which has no relationship to the moment of enunciation of that event in the present or future. At the moment of the photograph, the pose of the body is a singular disconnected event at the same time that his viewing of the photograph connects him most forcefully to the knowledge of that body’s death which would take place in the future of the photograph but in the viewer’s past.

12The collision of these moments of “this will be” and “this has been” is in direct relationship with the body that he views in the photograph, simply a trace of that body ruptured outside of time. The body therefore remains in stasis through its appearance as a trace. It nevertheless carries the longing (for a different past and a different future) just as the archives that a community, society or person keeps contain multiple “might have beens” and “will have beens.”

13Structurally, Chapter 11, “Confessions of Fausto Maijstral,” is a study of interaction with the archive because it is the same type of interaction with the past as is the viewing of the photograph. The chapter is a piece of autobiographical writing which presents the past as composed image and tellingly focuses on three distinct characters. Fausto’s confession includes the scene which might perhaps answer and conclude Stencil’s quest, identifying a composite of V., or perhaps just V., or perhaps the final embodiment of V.—a female body in the guise of one dedicated to the service of God and mankind as an intercessor. She could be all three at the same time, given Fausto’s conception of identity and characters in fiction. The scene begins as Fausto, following the sound of children after an air raid, finds them crowded around the Bad Priest who has been trapped under a fallen column in the cellar of a destroyed house, thus immobilizing her body. Children, in “Fausto’s iconography,” were “quite real . . . . They seemed to be the only ones conscious at the time that history had not been suspended after all” (363).

14In other words, children do not participate in the hothouse sense of time that defines Stencil’s worldview. A hothouse is an enclosed environment with a regulated temperature. Within such a closed system, there is a stasis of energy, lack of movement and an absence of time or “dead time,” a closed system subject to eventual destruction. David Coughlin interprets the children’s roles as follows: “Neither bound to nor limited by the images of the past, but open to and responding to the experiences of the present, the children actively produce the memories of the future. This everyday poetry is important because of the acknowledged power that the human imagination holds over the material world” (45). There is no suspension or death of time in their experience of the world and its events, and so they are capable of writing outside of the constant turnstile which simply recycles and reconstructs. According to Fausto, children—casually referred to as “recording angels” (364)—were active agents within a progressive history.

  • 3 Coughlin also notes that “The children are at the forefront of a living textuality that challenges (...)

15Children are responsible for the spectacle that Fausto witnesses. He also refers to children as “poets in a vacuum, adept at metaphor” (365), creators of something original outside of any force and from nothing, the nature of a vacuum.3 Children/recording angels, divine beings responsible for the writing of human deeds, are responsible for taking apart V. They also lend V.’s death an implied judgment and sense of finality, having written her end in their own actions. It is written. It is created. It is done. Although this chapter seems as if it is indeed a climax, Pynchon has organized the book so that the possibility of V. continues, not necessarily because she still exists but because Stencil still searches for her, thus proving Stencil’s entrapment within the hothouse sense of time.

16The children’s interaction with V. is rife with taking apart, not constructing—a physical dissection of sorts that reveals the lack of body underneath. Because the children are historical creatures, not trapped within the timelessness of the prosthetic body, they simply record V. from an outside position. Her disassembly, not her assembly, becomes the record, a story that should end the search for her. The Bad Priest’s female body is an amalgamation of all the previous signs of V. as well as a veritable treatise on the flesh becoming a prosthesis or inanimate, both the architecture and the debris of the archive. From his perch on the roof of a house in ruins, Fausto can watch the activity in the cellar below and narrate the pieces which they take apart. In so doing, he can symbolically end the narrative that is V.

17The children mock the fallen priest who is trapped under a fallen beam, undermining both her sacred power and her physical power. “Speak to us, Father . . . . What is your sermon for today?” (368). But the Bad Priest is incapable of giving a sermon, only able to utter three short utterances asking for help: “Please” and “Please lift this beam” and “If you can’t lift the beam, please get help” (368–369). He sees that the body around which the children have gathered and are taking apart has an ivory comb in her hair, a tattoo of the crucifixion on her scalp under her wig, an artificial foot, false teeth, and a glass eye, all apparatuses either prosthetic or sacred, associated with the other embodiments of V. throughout the novel. One boy pries a star sapphire from her navel with a knife, a clear allusion to the omphalos or axis mundi and thus an act removing any sense of life or causal chains of events. The children have, for themselves, symbolically asserted the lack of any original and the absence of any structured history by their encounter with the body of V., ultimately denying her existence as a whole entity and reestablishing the dispersal of traces.

18When an air raid siren sounds again, the children disperse “bearing away their new–found treasures, and the abdominal wound made by the bayonet was doing its work” (370). Fausto describes what the children left, a body re-integrated once again into Fausto’s personal narrative: “I lay prone under a hostile sky looking down for moments more at what the children had left; suffering Christ foreshortened on the bare skull, one eye and one socket, staring up at me; a dark hole for the mouth, stumps at the bottoms of the legs. And the blood which had formed a black sash across the waist, flowing down both sides from the navel” (370). The children/recording angels dispersed with the pieces and were able to avoid the intricate constructions of the archive in which V. and Fausto were active as well as its power structures. They avoid the archive while they are children; but as the adults in Pynchon’s narrative show, they will eventually become entrapped within it.

19After their dispersal, Fausto tries to come to the aid of the disassembled body lying prone below him. As the sounds of the air raids outside drown out her cries, Fausto gives her Extreme Unction using her own blood instead of blessed oil. The sacrament of Extreme Unction is to be used on a dying believer by an ordained priest in order to offer forgiveness of sin and apply grace to the person’s situation. In the full application of this sacrament, the priest would apply the holy oil to the five sense organs and the feet and offer up a prayer for pardon of any sins committed with the particular body part. In this case, however, Fausto notes that “I could not hear her confession; her teeth were gone and she must have been past speech” (370). Her inability to utter her own confession is just the first of three other problems: Fausto is not a priest; no oil is available; and V.’s body has been disassembled so that some of the parts to be anointed are missing.

20Fausto’s actions are imitative in all respects. Because he cannot reassemble her pieces and participate in the sacred aspect of death, he approximates the sacred act that is supposed to reintegrate the flesh with the spirit of God. So Fausto remains firmly entrenched in the cycle of narrative, the reconstruction of events from the debris left over, as the existence of his journal attests. He states, “I detected a sincere hatred for all her sins which must have been countless; a profound sorrow at having hurt God by sinning; a fear of losing Him which was worse than the fear of death” (370). Fausto insists that “I did not hear only what I wanted to hear in these sounds that issued unceasing from the poor woman,” (370) but his interpretation that she was sincerely repentant and fearful is based on no actual information but only indecipherable noises. Because he uses V.’s own blood, there is a distinct circularity enacted within the archival space of V.’s body. This circularity results in either the inability to reconnect the flesh with the Word (the True or the Original) or in the exact opposite, the absolute connection between the flesh and the Word. The irony of the female body as holy male Priest or Christ-figure is echoed here, indicating another variation on the story of V., another possibility of who she really is.

21The body of V. has become, in front of his eyes and at the hands of the children/recording angels, “cold” like his sleeping flesh that is “night’s cold, objects’ cold, nothing human, nothing of me about it at all” (371). V. is linked to the island of Malta itself since this scene happens in concert with the bombing raid over Malta, her cries being echoed or drowned out by the artillery, and she falls silent just as the “all-clear” sounds. She is another piece of debris, along with the destroyed architecture of Malta, which the children have left behind in order to participate in a moving history.

22The children and the narrator dismantle her body. The action occurs as the German bombs destroy Valletta and Malta. Furthermore, the witness, Fausto, is a poet, or creator, who constructs his version of the destruction and records it in written form. Stencil then uses this record as a hint or trace, to follow after a body wholly constructed by narrative and contained within his conscience through narrative. Pynchon layers the signifiers of architecture/bodies destroyed by different forms of power and the subsequent reconstruction of those bodies through the prosthesis of narrative and history. Valletta and Malta are being destroyed by the Germans forces, perhaps the power most closely associated with imperialism in Pynchon’s work. The body of V. is being destroyed by the children/recording angels and the narrator, two forces that also control the narratives they construct.

23This focus on the body is transmuted in the chapter “V. in Love” to the treatment of the idea of fetish. This chapter is replete with references to various body parts, natural, altered, prosthetic—the body becoming within the text, little by little, “inanimate.” The traditional uses of the fetish and the totem allow them to be identified with two human impulses, the desire for self-fulfillment and the desire for community. The relation to the archive is important in its contrast: the fetish is a singular, selfish desire and related to the individual materials located within the archive without context outside the singular relationship with the reader/researcher/viewer. The archive as a whole—its architecture, its place within the community at large, its ability to rearrange blocks of materials into a narrative structure—represents the desire of the community, a totem. Thus, the fetish leads to decadence and death while the totem leads to unity and life. Fetish and totem are not mutually exclusive notions since they are simply the two tensions that result in the possibility of stories being told. The interaction between these two desires, of the self and that of the greater community, results in narrative tension. Excluding one over the other removes the possibility of narrative altogether.

  • 4 See Peter BrooksReading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative.

24Pynchon’s illustration of the fetish, not the totem, demonstrates how removing the narrative, removing time, produces only decadence and death, a move further toward the inanimate accommodating the instinctual drive toward death, the ultimate goal. In her manifestation as the patroness in “V. in love,” the concept of the death drive and its power in giving all stories “the right ending”4 is clear. The first lines of the chapter entitled “V. in love” are thick with references to confused time, showing how the chronology of the narrative is confused:

The clock inside the Gare du Nord read 11:17: Paris time minus five minutes, Belgian railway time plus four minutes, mid-Europe time minus 56 minutes. To Mélanie, who had forgotten her traveling clock—who had forgotten everything—the hands might have stood anywhere . . . . By the cover of Le Soleil, the Orleanist morning paper, it was 24 July 1913. (424)

  • 5 The Austrians would issue their ultimatum to Serbia on July 23, 1914.

25The fact that the clocks show different times points to the unreliable aspect of time. Although humans have codified time into clocks and watches, they are merely human constructions through which we understand reality, but they are not actually real. And Mélanie has “forgotten” her clock as well as everything else, which places her outside of both time proper (historical time) and her own personal memory. Pynchon’s narrator instills a sense of history, however, by giving a firm date, exactly one year until the July Crisis was in full swing leading up to the declaration of WWI in August 1914.5 Pynchon discounts the human construction of time as artificial at the same moment that he reaffirms our historical consciousness through the act of narrative.

  • 6 Hanjo Berressem reads the “V. in Love” chapter as a challenge to the Freudian psychoanalytical syst (...)

26However, Mélanie cannot escape time since she is literally named after it. Mélanie’s surname is l’Heuremaudit, “the cursed hour/time.” Doubling the sense of doom, Pynchon also chooses “Mélanie” which is derived from the Greek for “dark.” The implication here is the paradox of the archive. It is indeed a space outside of time where objects are kept “forgotten” in order to be remembered again when needed, but it is a closed space which is dead until it is narrativized. The description of Mélanie is fitting: The fifteen-year-old’s “eyes were dead” underscoring the relationship to the inanimate, and she “resemble [s] the classical rendering of Liberty” (425), underscoring her object status as a statue. She is a dancer, and her stage name is “Mlle Jarretière,” “Miss Garter.” And once, she is simply called “fétiche” as a pet name. Pynchon wants her position as object to be unmistakable so that it is only possible for her to be animate through interaction with narrative.6

27She arrives in Paris on the eve of the Great War in a time of decadence, thus “the cursed hour,” and her relationship with V. and subsequent death fulfill the requirements of Freud’s theories on the death instinct via Pynchon’s concern with the inanimate. Because decadence is only forestalled by the resurrection of the pieces of the past through narrative, Mélanie’s life and death signal an instance of ultimate destruction because her story ends in the right death. Consequently, V., who loses the human time-bound emotion of love, moves further toward inanimateness herself.

28Like the garter, Mélanie is already an inanimate object within Pynchon’s fictional world. She feels as if “She was not pretty unless she wore something. The sight of her nude body repelled her” (428), further implying her role as fetish because her flesh was not acceptable, subordinate in attraction to the inanimate objects that she could attach to it. Psychologically, the repulsion she feels for her flesh might have been a result of the molestation by her father. The narrator tells us that Mélanie’s father often molested her, calling the molestation “their game,” an adaptation of language into euphemism that serves to diminish the actions of the one in power, thus mimicking the role of the molester who characterizes his actions in terms that diminish their true import. Having been such a player in her father’s language games further removes the chances that Mélanie could tell her own story in a way that reflected any truth. She is inanimate as a result of her father’s abuse—she cannot tell her own story, and she must be filled in with pieces of other objects in a vain attempt to create her own narrative.

29As Freud points out in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, those who have suffered trauma often revisit the trauma in dreams, as Mélanie does. She has a dream one night that her father comes to her and is also “a German” at the same time. He winds her up with a key between her shoulder blades and tells her that she would have stopped otherwise (433). Mélanie repetitively returns to the memory of her father and their relationship. The winding of a spring as in a toy or clock to make it work is consistent with the images of Verq Meroving and the Bad Priest, who are both fitted with mechanical bits and windup clock eyes. This connection between the various female bodies, machines, and time illustrates the inanimate attributes of the female body and its dependence upon an artificially inscribed time structure, supplying a suitable narrative arc. In this case, since she is also wound by “a German,” the narrator places her body as an object within the history of the German aggressions, in particular toward France, which would eventually lead to WWI. Mélanie is easily identified with the French given her nationality, her “French nose,” and the fact that she resembles the classical Liberty, a symbol for the Entente Powers relative to the Central Powers.

30Mélanie was an object to her father, and she dreams that she is simply a thing to be wound and used, thus a fetish in the sexual sense, but the additional political and historical aspects reference a more pervasive issue of power that goes beyond Mélanie’s personal situation. The story’s temporal setting of 1913 indicates a moment of rupture, indeed the Great War which marks the man-made historical rupture subsequently named modernism. This subtle but striking indication links Mélanie’s existence in the text to the issues of the archive and the narrative of twentieth century history. This connection therefore underscores Pynchon’s concern with the decadence of history and the dissolution of Western culture which is articulated in the theory of the death drive for the individual, Mélanie in this case. He represents twentieth century Western culture as lacking a unifying totem that would counteract the chaotic desires arising from selfish interests of power.

31V., called alternately “the woman” and “V.” depending upon the narrative viewpoint, appears in this time frame as she does throughout the novel at moments of historical upheaval. The narrator explains she finds herself “excommunicated” from the Street and “bounced unceremoniously into the null-time of human love” (441) when she meets Mélanie. Thus, the timelessness of the archive begins to exercise its power over their situation. They become entrapped within a “null-time” of the archival space where narrative is possible but is subverted by the nature of the fetish. V. is the patroness of the ballet in which Mélanie is the prima ballerina. Upon first seeing Mélanie, the woman tells her “You are not real . . . . Do you know what a fetish is? Something of a woman which gives pleasure but is not a woman. A shoe, a locket . . . une jarretière. You are the same, not real but an object of pleasure” (436). After the two women begin a romantic relationship, V. says to her “Do you only lie passive then, like an object? Of course you do. It is what you are. Une fétiche [sic]” (438).

32The dual connotations of the term fetish are important in terms of its relation to the notion of archive. First, a fetish is an inanimate object which has been imbued with magical, religious, and/or sacred attributes. Second, it is an object of erotic pleasure that is not flesh. The word itself is composed of these two strains meeting in the Portuguese fetiço “charm, sorcery” and feitiço “made by art, artificial, skillfully contrived,” from the Latin facere which means “to make” (OED). The psychological sense of fetish in relation to an erotic object seems therefore to arise from the combination of “charm” and “artificial.” A fetish, then, is a creation, a substitution of one thing for another—in the end, a metaphor and a prosthesis. It is a thing to be desired that is a substitute for the original, and the frustration at never being able to claim the original adds to its power. “Frustration at not being able to fragment herself into an audience of enough only adds to her sexual excitement. She needs, it seems, a real voyeur to complete the illusion that her reflections are, in fact, this audience” (442). The mirrors or, better yet, her reflection, are Mélanie’s fetish which is a substitute for the audience she needs. A mirror is the ultimate symbol of “Self” as “Other” but it is reliant upon one physical body.

33In Mélanie’s case, her need of a real voyeur to “complete the illusion” is telling. She needs an outsider’s presence to give context to her experience (just like she had with her father) and narrate it. V. is that outsider. However, as V. realizes, Mélanie and V. are one, so the illusion is just that, an illusion. In this case, no one exists to tell the story. Furthermore, Mélanie cannot “fragment herself into an audience of enough,” so not only is there no narrator, but there is also no audience to read the story. She is caught in a self-referential feedback loop which can never escape the boundary of one inanimate object. The situation therefore moves only toward death since there is no reconstruction, only repetition.

34She exhibits the power of the inanimate to be anything necessary to those who interact with her, the same power that the inanimate material records within the archive exhibit. Archived materials seduce with their ability to “fill in the gaps” of history, and they too are imbued with a type of sorcery that comes from the mystery of their being hidden away from public consumption within a sacred space. V., however, is normally in the metaphorical position of archive, so this reading of Mélanie seems to undermine that position. The text itself resolves this apparent contradiction in two ways. First, it hints at the parallel nature of other manifestations of V. and Mélanie by ascribing them similar attributes—Mélanie wears pretty ladies’ slippers with buckles, and later the Bad Priest will be found to have on the same slippers.

35More convincing, however, is the mirroring that Pynchon introduces. For the “lovers,” “certain fetishes never have to be touched or handled at all; only seen, for there to be complete fulfillment” (440). Thus, V. supplies Mélanie with mirrors: “dozens of them. Mirrors with handles, with ornate frames, full-length and pocket mirrors came to adorn the loft where-ever one turned to look” (440). Their “still-life of love” as reported by Porcépic years later to Stencil, was constructed as follows:

V. on the pouf, watching Mélanie on the bed; Mélanie watching herself in the mirror; the mirror image perhaps contemplating V. from time to time. No movement but a minimum friction. And yet one solution to a most ancient paradox of love; simultaneous sovereignty yet a fusing-together. Dominance and submissiveness didn’t apply; the pattern of three was symbiotic and mutual. V. needed her fetish, Mélanie a mirror, temporary peace, another to watch her have pleasure.

36Pynchon refers to a “pattern of three” although, of course, only two actual bodies are involved. The third is the mirror-image. But Pynchon reduces all of them to “one”: “for the other [V.] is also her own double” and “They are she.” (442). No friction occurs because one must have two objects to create friction, and with no friction, then there is no production of heat, another indication of death. No dominance or submissiveness exists either, only sovereignty and fusion because there is really only one object.

37Because there is no other, there is no audience, and since Mélanie is inanimate and cannot function as narrator, there is no story to interrupt the feedback loop. A closed system with no heat cannot continue to function because it has reached maximum entropy. The drive toward death and the end of narration will be complete. Walter Benjamin indeed posits that “Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death” (94). Benjamin’s idea supports the general assertions of archival theory: since the archive is the space of death in material form, then the archive is the space that authorizes the story.

38V.’s thoughts on the subject corroborate the idea that the obsessive and uni-directional “out of time” qualities of the fetish are a step toward the inanimate and therefore toward a type of heat-death that occurs within the confines of the archive.

As for V., she recognized—perhaps aware of her own progression toward inanimateness—the fetish of Mélanie and the fetish of herself to be one. As all inanimate objects, to one victimized by them, are alike. It was a variation on the Porpentine theme, the Tristan-and Iseult theme, indeed, according to some, the single melody, banal and exasperating, of all Romanticism since the Middle Ages: “the act of love and the act of death are one.” Dead at last, they would be one with the inanimate universe and with each other. Love-play until then thus becomes an impersonation of the inanimate, a transvestism not between sexes but between the quick and dead; human and fetish.

  • 7 See Lila Graves’ “Love and the Western World of Pynchon’s V.” for a discussion of the Tristan and I (...)

39The exit strategy is not through human love, according to this construct, or at least physical human love. Pynchon locates the issue in the realm of myth and narrative, ancient themes which have been communicated from one person to another in narrative or from one generation to another in myth—“Porpentine’s theme” and the “Tristan-and-Iseult theme.”7 These “ready made” constructions teach us in this instance that human love ultimately leads to death according to the narratives we tell about it because these stories follow the principle of the right ending. Scott Sanders laments this aspect of Pynchon’s fiction: “His fiction is so dominated by an awareness of the pressures that lead to a dissolution of personality and to the disintegration of culture itself that he finds scant space for imagining contrary historical impulses, possibilities for recovery, for renewal, for reunion” (191). Indeed, the “V. in love” chapter ends in the death of Mélanie. But of course it does—for Pynchon it is necessary. The possibilities are scant because our narratives prescribe such a reading. It is the right ending.

40And these preconceived narratives or thematic categories we share are stored in our memory structures because they are supported by social narrative structures. Human memory is finite, and in order to arrange our recall and understanding of life in the most efficient manner possible, we categorize. We draw parallels through “themes.” We classify based on male and female, dominant and submissive. Porcépic even attempts to record the possible combinations in order to help sort out their story:

[he] produced . . . a chart of the possible combinations the two could be practicing. It came out to 64 different sets of roles, using the subheadings “dressed as,” “social role,” “sexual role.” They could both for example be dressed as males, both have dominant social roles and strive for dominance sexually. They could be dressed different-sexed and both be entirely passive, the game then being to trick the other into making an aggressive move. Or any of 62 other combinations.

41The V./Mélanie relationship skews or upsets these fundamental cognitive processes as well as reinforces them—their relationship validates the narrative themes we recognize at the same time that it disrupts the gender categories society and history have constructed. Porcépic’s mocking chart symbolically plays out the finite arrangements of their relationship and foreshadows its death.

42Although V. is aware of the “death” drive in which she is participating, she is blinded by love to a pattern of decadence to which Stencil thoroughly ascribes. Since much of the story the reader receives is framed and structured through Stencil’s retellings, having been “Stencilized,” then the structure which supports such a reading of conspiracy is not surprising.

If V. suspected her fetishism at all to be part of any conspiracy leveled against the animate world, any sudden establishment here of a colony of the Kingdom of Death, then this might justify the opinion held in the Rusty Spoon that Stencil was seeking in her his own identity. But such was her rapture at Mélanie’s having sought and found her own identity in her and in the mirror’s soulless gleam that she continued unaware, off-balanced by love. (411)

43The Kingdom of Death reference recalls Eliot’s The Waste Land, itself a comment on the condition of Europe due to WWI. Pynchon’s meaning echoes Eliot but is a broader judgment on society and history at large. The “opinion held in the Rusty Spoon” shows that Stencil’s identity is wrapped up in believing in a “conspiracy leveled against the animate world.” Since V. is not aware of what Stencil sees looking back at her story, Derrida’s future anterior becomes active. Stencil imagines “had she known” (443) scenarios which he surmises would have ultimately led to V.’s death. He imagines that she would have chosen to “establish . . . so many controls over herself that she became a purely determined organism, an automaton, constructed only quaintly, of human flesh” (444) or that she might have “journey [ed] even deeper into a fetish-country until she became entirely and in reality . . . an inanimate object of desire” (444). Both past possibilities are relevant for Europe in the aftermath of WWI, V.’s body being for Stencil the locus of history and the “what will have been” scenarios that occupants of post-WWI Europe might have contemplated.

44The notion of the archive enables a reading of the novel as if it were itself an inanimate artifact amidst the rubble of the twentieth century, one piece of many which can be added to the whole story and itself a microcosm of that story. The archive is figured to be objective, meaningless, raw material just as language in itself is supposed to be inanimate and meaningless without context and elaboration of the signifiers. But the silent archive, formed and interpreted, produces the unstilled word, and Pynchon’s novel shows that language is the inanimate, prosthetic debris. The world still whirls about the center of the silent Word. This is the mystery, the power, and the danger of the archive in Pynchon. The novel is indeed an artifact of the technological advancement of storytelling, a kind of prosthetic memory which has itself subsumed the role of communal storyteller. Within the archive, the hidden and authoritative material records of the past, the story-telling whirl is able to continue—the word made flesh, or at least “narrative.”


Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., 1968.

Berressem, Hanjo. “V. in Love: From the ‘Other Scene’ to the ‘New Scene.’” Pynchon Notes 18–19 (Spring/Fall 1986): 5–28.

Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. 1984. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Coughlan, David. “The Sewers, the City, the Tower: Pynchon’s V., Fausto’s Confessions, and Yeats’s A Vision.” Critique 50.1 (Fall 2008): 35–50.

Derrida, Jacques. Psyche. Trans. Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.

“fetish, n.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED online. Oxford University Press. Web. 30 June 2010.

Graves, Lila. “Love and the Western World of Pynchon’s V.South Atlantic Review 47.1 (January 1982): 62–73.

Hamilton, Carolyn, Verne Harris and Graeme Reid. “Introduction.” Refiguring the Archive. Eds. Carolyn Hamilton et al. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002. 6–17.

Keen, Suzanne. Romances of the Archive in Contemporary British Fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

O’Driscoll, Michael & Edward Bishop. “Archiving ‘Archiving’.” English Studies in Canada 30.1 (2004): 1–16.

Pynchon, Thomas. V. New York: Harper, 2005.

Sanders, Scott. “Pynchon’s Paranoid History.” Twentieth Century Literature 21.2 (May 1975): 177–192.

Schaub, Thomas. Pynchon: The Voice of Ambiguity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.

Steedman, Carolyn. Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001.


1 See specifically Suzanne Keens Romances of the Archive in Contemporary British Fiction. Also, see Michael O’Driscolls and Edward Bishops “Archiving ‘Archiving’.”

2 Carolyn Steedman phrases it like this: “The archive is a record of the past, at the same time as it points to the future. The grammatical tense of the archive is thus the future perfect, ‘when it will have been’” (7).

3 Coughlin also notes that “The children are at the forefront of a living textuality that challenges the limited view of a supposedly universal imagination defined by Yeats through the works of Blake, Shelley, Keats, and Wordsworth—all male, English, and white. The children represent the chance to attend to the real world, not to some imagined greater reality, and the chance to inscribe now in the Anima Mundi the previously unrecorded memories of those who had been consigned to the sewers” (47).

4 See Peter BrooksReading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative.

5 The Austrians would issue their ultimatum to Serbia on July 23, 1914.

6 Hanjo Berressem reads the “V. in Love” chapter as a challenge to the Freudian psychoanalytical system precisely because of this complete objectification of Mélanie. He argues that “Freudian psychoanalysis is based on specific assumptions concerning the status of the subject and defines itself as the science of this subject. Pynchon questions this position by applying Freudian concepts to a ‘subject’ that has turned in a pure ‘object’” (6).

7 See Lila Graves’ “Love and the Western World of Pynchon’s V.” for a discussion of the Tristan and Iseult myth in V.



© Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2013

Licence OpenEdition Books

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search