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The Influence of TV, Film and Radio in Thomas Pynchon's 'The Crying of Lot 49' (Part 3)

By Edited Jun 9, 2015 0 0

John Wayne

Metzger, perhaps as a legacy of his intimate involvement with media production and his pushy stage mother, is critical of Oedipa’s response to the play, which he sees as a willful misreading of history: “Hap Harrigan comics...which she is barely old enough to read, John Wayne on a Saturday afternoon killing 10,000 Japs, this is Oedipa Maas’s World War Two, man.” Oedipa may have adopted such a sensibility; she is, after all “a Young Republican.” As a former screen star, Metzger cannot account for Oedipa’s interest in production, perhaps feeling there is nothing to see behind the light of the star. For Metzger, there is only product, not production, and he leaves the theater, while Oedipa goes behind the stage to meet Randolph Driblette, the play’s director. “‘You came to talk about the play,” he said. Let me discourage you. It was written to entertain people. Like Horror movies. It isn’t literature, it doesn’t mean anything. ’” Driblette seems so indifferent to the text, as opposed to the play, as to make you wonder what he gains in putting on the production.

The answer is power; Driblette is as close we get to meeting Inverarity, and Oedipa even conducts a likewise relationship with Driblette after his death (“But as with Maxwell’s Demon, so now. Either she could not communicate, or he did not exist.”) Driblette regards the play as a conduit for his own self, “the projector in the planetarium,” and any audience response is irrelevant; Driblette is the message. The content of the play is mere surface, passing sensations; consider Oedipa’s initial reaction is to delight in the play’s visuals: “the costumes were gorgeous and the lighting imaginative.” As far as anything else goes, Driblette displays a typical Hollywood-style disdain for the writer: “The words, who cares? They’re just rote noises to hold line bashes with.” Unless Driblette is really warning Oedipa not to become involved with the Tristero, then he does believe “all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth, eyes, sometimes other orifices also.” For Driblette, who Dwight Eddins describes as a “megalomaniac,” the play only serves to demonstrate his personality.

What Oedipa is unable to see is that she is also putting together a production, the difference being Driblette is transmitting, whereas Oedipa interprets the transmission as if it were personal to her own life and needs: “She can never simply assume the position of an interpreter projecting a meaning...she will never relinquish the hope that the Tristero is more than just an assembly of ‘dead signs’ and historical ‘residue’ to which she gives life through her own projection of the world.” Oedipa, who sees herself as a receiver, is actually transmitting a version of the world, but the transmission is only received by herself (Driblette transmits, but does not care who, if anyone, receives), with not even Metzger picking up the signals; to him, The Courier’s Tragedy “plays...like a Road Runner cartoon in blank verse,” and no more, but for Oedipa “she couldn’t quite let it go.”  Oedipa is able to go behind the scenes of a media production encouraging her, as with the coincidences discussed earlier, to press on with her quest, even as she is side-tracked by the play to research the Tristero; the medium inspires her, not the message. 

Before we go on, there is an interesting image linking Metzger, Driblette and Wharfinger, which perhaps sets them aside from the other characters in Lot 49. During one of the commercial breaks in Cashiered, Oedipa threatens Metzger: “‘Sadist,’ Oedipa yelled. ‘Say it once more, I’ll wrap the TV tube around your head.’” Driblette describes himself as the projector of Wharfinger’s play, an image enhanced by Pynchon’s description: “He stuck his head out of the shower. The rest of his body was wreathed in steam, giving his head an eerie, balloon-like buoyancy.” Wharfinger himself conjures up a diabolical variation on the theme when Niccolo entices Domenico “into foolishly bending over and putting his head into a curious black box, on the pretext of showing him a pornographic diorama.” All three images represent a merge of man and the medium, with Pynchon showing how certain people, such as Oedipa, can only fail in their effort to access the media personality; such people transmit, they do not receive. Part of Oedipa’s tragedy is that she cannot fathom those who have integrated with the media, transmitting their images upon the screens of others.

This leads us to Oedipa’s visit to Vesperhaven House, a care home and another of Inverarity’s business concerns. Here she encounters Mr Thoth, “an old man nodding in front of a dim Leon Schlesinger cartoon.” Mr Thoth is the living embodiment of Potter’s warning upon media illiteracy: “As we constantly cross the border between the real world and the media world, the border sometimes get blurred, and over time we tend to forget which memories are experiences from the real world and which were experienced originally in the media world.” Duyfhuizen agrees, commenting “Mr Thoth himself is barely able to keep his memories of his grandfather separated from the cartoons he watches on television,” but we should note at no stage does Mr Thoth state a belief in the cartoons he mentions as ever taking place in reality. Indeed, Mr Thoth seems well aware of their impact upon his psychic state, when he complains to Oedipa that the dream about his grandfather was “all mixed in with a Porky Pig cartoon,” and continues to condemn television: “It gets into your dreams, you know. Filthy machine.”

Hanjo Berressem remarks “Lot 49 follows the colonization and contamination of the subject’s dreams via the media, especially television...which not only intrudes into dreams but actually produces and simulates them...” However, in discussing a favorite cartoon “during the war, when Porky Pig worked in a defense plant,” Mr Thoth could well be referring to any one of a number of such cartoons produced in the 1940s as wartime propaganda, perhaps even sharing a bill with Cashiered. Talking fondly or dreaming of a cartoon does not mean Mr Thoth believes it happened. Mr Thoth, unlike Oedipa, seems aware of, and irritated by, television's infiltration, of becoming his own screen for its transmissions. Aware of the medium’s incursion, he is powerless to prevent it.

Where there is concern for Mr Thoth is in his memories of his grandfather fighting the Indians

which possibly originate from a regurgitated Western drama (perhaps even Bonanza again, a live-action show harder for Mr Thoth to discern from reality than an animation). If so, then Mr Thoth, of the first cinematic generation, has become another American believing the false memories of national mythology, a rewriting of the national script that would put Wharfinger’s various unofficial editors to shame. In a novel which deals with distorted signals, where ‘Oedipa Mass’ can be rendered as ‘Edna Mosh,’ ‘Thoth’ could be interpreted as a slurred ‘SOS.’ If not, and his account of cowboys and Indians are real (and Mr Thoth does seem angrier with his grandfather than with the Indians, contrary to media expectation), then his age helps save him from saturation; aged 91, and so born around 1875 if we follow the novel’s time frame, into an era where the electric telegraph was cutting edge, Mr Thoth was able to spend a large part of his life free from the media's influence; he cannot resist, but he can still fight. The younger generation, like The Paranoids, can choose to follow; Oedipa is unaware of the choice and so follows the narrative instinct blindly.

If we are in doubt over the case of Mr Thoth, then Oedipa’s experience with the Nafastis machine is more of a warning. All Oedipa needs to do, so John Nefastis tells her, is “leave your mind open, receptive to the Demon’s message.” Again, Oedipa's place is to receive messages and again transmits her own, which no-one can possibly register (“Are you there, little fellow, Oedipa asked the Demon.”). At least here Oedipa is aware of her participation, even as it fails – but an intriguing line of thought on Pynchon’s intentions here comes via Susan J Douglas’ account of the cognitive benefits of radio over television: “autobiographical accounts from great conceptual scientists like Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell or Albert Einstein describe a process in which they did their most creative work using visual imagery, which was later translated into equations and theorems.” Nefastis, in building a Maxwell’s Demon, has defeated the point of Clerk Maxwell’s exercise; to have made a product of the imagination into a real, physical product is a less imaginative exercise than Maxwell’s original thought concept.

The machine appears to have done Nefastis little good, sunk as he is in a bland, juvenile stasis; he shares the same “under-age looks” as fellow spirit Stanley Koteks, “wore a shirt of various Polynesian themes and dating from the Truman administration,” and watches children’s programming on television. (Oedipa risks joining him in unwittingly copies an infant’s view of television as having little people inside, who act out the television shows the child watches). Of course, the machine doesn’t work and serves only to stultify a hypothetical scientific experiment. Clerk Maxwell caused something similar to occur during his lifetime, with this concept of ‘the ether,’ intended to help people understand the principle of how radio-waves travelled from one point to another:

“Clerk Maxwell...advanced the idea of this invisible medium, which included light and heat as well as radio waves...it filled all unoccupied space, it was invisible and elastic, it was odorless, and while it was everywhere, it did not interfere with the motions of bodies through space. But radio waves were thought to disturb it and produce waves in it...This was, in other words, a mechanical model, not an electronic one, which is why ‘the ether’ was helpful to people’s imaginings about radio, but not to their comprehension of how it worked.” (Douglas)

Nefastis, in building a Maxwell’s Demon, attempts to create an equivalent to the ‘ether’ and as he watches brainless cartoons, Oedipa at least queries Maxwell’s purpose (“But had Clerk Maxwell really been such a fanatic about his Demon’s reality?), but her attempts align with Nefastis’ viewing of television; the only way in which she feels she can communicate with the Demon is to mimic her belief in media by projecting a message, which is ‘received’ by Nefastis through meaningless television, this man for who news broadcasts exist only to intensify bodily pleasures. As with the “big in-joke” of The Courier’s Tragedy, the Nefastis machine doesn’t so much break down the fourth wall as reinforce it. A dead object, the Nefastis machine conveys the established false notion of a television for its audience, and not a power in its own right. In fooling us, the medium wins again.  

The visual image Pynchon creates here suggests another media theory. The purpose of the Demon was to sort fast and slow molecules so that the faster grouped together within the machine: “You can then use the difference in temperature between this hot region of the box and any cooler region, to drive a heat engine.” This makes Dan Laughey’s discussion on McLuhan all the more interesting: “According to McLuhan, the media technologies that so decisively shape our lives and extend our human faculties are served up in two forms: hot and cold. Hot media are rich in information and so require little work from our senses...By contrast, cold media are information poor and make our senses work harder to receive their messages. So, a photograph is hotter than a cartoon, a CD is hotter than a vinyl record.”

James Clerk Maxwell
Oedipa stares at a photograph of Maxwell imprinted on the machine’s exterior and her mental exertions are stronger than Nefastis’, as his television is a source of ‘richer’ information: “Hot media are user-friendly but easily forgotten and highly disposable entertainment forms; cold media, on the other hand, foster learning because they require higher levels of sensory participation, concentration and literacy skills.” (Laughey) Nefastis, sorted by Pynchon into the hot media of television, is more moulded by it than Oedipa; it influences his attitude towards women (“Nefastis had been watching on his TV set a bunch of kids dance a kind of a Watusi...‘There’s something about a little chick that age.’”), his sexual life (suggesting intercourse with Oedipa in front of the TV news) and his body language: “Nefastis snapping his fingers...in a hippy-dippy, oh-go-ahead-then-chick he had doubtless learned from watching TV also.” Nefastis sees Oedipa as no more real than the women he sees on television and his idea of sensitivity is detecting messages from construed by his own self.

Oedipa, attempting to contact the ether via a photograph, taps into the underused imaginative side of her character, but the use of this latent intellect, long fed only by escapism, is part of Oedipa’s problem in that it seeks continual nourishment from the source it is first roused by (the drama of the letter regarding Inverarity’s will). Oedipa mulls upon her misused mind as she returns to her alma mater, “unfit for marches and sit ins, but just a whiz at persuing strange words in Jacobean texts.” (72) Oedipa may have been better off with a colder form of media. Pynchon tells us the photograph of Maxwell on the Nefastis machine that his “hands were cropped out of the photograph. He might have been holding a book.” (73) If only Oedipa had read more of those novels reviewed in that edition of Scientific American; as it is, she chases a ‘perfect’ text, which she believes will explain her problems by explaining a single word.

Oedipa’s new-found knowledge, in an unholy amalgam with her existing media learning, becomes too specialized and her reaction leads to multiple lines, but only one direction. Michael J Arlen, one-time TV critic for The New Yorker, explains how this happened: “McLuhan...has this big idea...about the effects on the Western man of the alphabet, of movable type, print, and how this visual-mental dependence on little letters all in a row...has created in man a linear response to the world, has created specialization, compartmentalization, civilization even, mass production and other sundry evils.”        

After this incident, and during her long night in San Francisco, it dawns on Oedipa that perhaps her psychological apparatus has let her down and her narrative is dying, the Shadow is

Film projector
fading. Oedipa retrospectively observes herself as “like the private eye in any long-ago radio drama,” who now “has to get beat up on.” Patrick O’Donnell discusses Joseph Slade’s opinion of how important this media figure is to Oedipa: “As it revolves around the formation of her identity as reader-detective in an indeterminate world of proliferating meanings [as her quest] becomes ‘an endless fluctuation of sensibilities, rather like a film sprocketing through a projector. At any given moment, the focus or frame changes.’”

Each time Oedipa adapts to a new media, the media adapts the narrative, dragging her along like a fish on an angler’s hook. Yet this is really only from her perspective; media is indifferent and Oedipa is still tied to the idea of ‘message.’ If Oedipa possesses a growing awareness of the media’s influence (if not how it influences her), her helplessness manifests itself during the meeting with the old sailor at the San Francisco flophouse. Here, Oedipa indulges in a fantasy to rival any mawkish made-for-TV movie: “She ran through then a scene she might play. She might find the landlord of this place and bring him to court and buy the sailor a new suit...” However, the derelict is the realist: “But with a sigh he had released her hand, while she was so lost in the fantasy that she hadn’t felt it go away, as if he’d known the best moment to let go.”

Throughout Lot 49, Oedipa attempts to make sense of her reality by conversion into stories (with happy endings), but here has to face the only type of ending: “‘He’s going to die,’ she said. ‘Who isn’t? said Ramirez.’” Disillusioned by her narrative's mortality (in contrast to immortal media figures upon which those narratives are based), Oedipa seeks narratives in non-media objects, such as the sailor’s mattress. Oedipa shocks herself by thinking of all the real stories from real lives that will be lost: “...the set of all men who had slept on it, whatever their lives had been, would truly cease to be, when the mattress burned. She stared at it in wonder. It was as if she had just discovered the irreversible process.” The process to which Oedipa refers is the one-way system of media transmission, which gives only to take. The media process, be it television, film or even radio, travels along one path into many minds and its stories are not our stories. This is a realization Oedipa would not have made by ‘engaging’ with the recognized media.

In the concluding part of this article, I shall look at how Oedipa freed herself from her dependence on the narratives of the mass media. 

 Click here to read part one or part two of this article. 



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