The oedipus myth and reader response in Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49.
The Ohio State University
As with almost everything else in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, critics disagree about what role the Oedipus myth plays. There are those, like David Kirby, who declare simply that Oedipa is the feminine form of Oedipus. Some, such as Michael Seidel, increase this correlation a degree by noting that, as her name suggests, Oedipa Maas is something more than Oedipus. In contrast, a number of critics argue with James Dean Young that Oedipa is not so much more than Oedipus as too much. For them, Oedipa's failure to "answer the riddle of Lot 49 indicates that she is only ironically Oedipus after all." Terry P. Caesar even observes that, voiced with appropriate emphasis, Oedipa Maas sounds like "Oedipus my ass": "this Oedipa is no Oedipus, or only one at the earnest reader's peril." (1) In brief, Pynchon's protagonist has been identified as everything from more than Oedipus to less than Oedipus to Oedipus, more or less.
The case against placing too much importance on the Oedipus myth in Pynchon's novel gains strength from several related areas, the first being the fear of reductionism which mythic approaches lead to when the modern story is treated as if it were simply a piece of tracing paper laid over the more essential ancient myth. As John Stark notes, "merely trying to demonstrate mythic correlations greatly oversimplifies Pynchon"--as it does many other twentieth-century authors. Some have also assumed that myth-seeking consists of solace-seeking, what George Levine described for The Crying of Lot 49 as "making comfort out of anxiety by invoking myth and poetic variations on it to 'place' Oedipa's experience." (2) The point of Oedipa's story, Levine reminds us, is the anxiety, the discomfort, the uncertainty, and we are wrong to try to rescue either Oedipa or ourselves from those feelings. Finally, as a last rejoinder against focusing on the Oedipus myth in Lot 49, critics have observed that the narrative contains many myths--Narcissus and Echo, the Virgin Mary, and Rapunzel, to name only the more obvious and to apply "myth" somewhat liberally. This proliferation of myth has been seen as a strategy itself. To quote Levine again: "Pynchon denies resolution into myth by wandering among all the available myths, from those of the Greeks to those of modern science, technology, film, comic books, radio." (3)
These are compelling arguments, and the possibility of reductionism especially is one that any critic who persists in exploring a single myth in Pynchon's work must not forget. However, it seems to me that these arguments have gained validity only because the approach to the Oedipus myth in Lot 49 has so far been invalid. I will attempt to show that the myth functions significantly in the novel because it informs the narrative on both a structural and a thematic level. Furthermore, as is true with many elements in Pynchon's fiction, the Oedipus myth does not function mechanically or simplistically, but instead requires the willing participation of the novel's readers. Pynchon uses myth as he does history and science: to involve his readers in the creative process of producing the text. He thus sends us back to the primary source of the Oedipus myth--which for the twentieth century is Sophocles--and asks not only that we read Oedipa's story within the context of Oedipus's, but also that we reread Oedipus's story in light of Oedipa's. What we find is that far from lessening the scope of Lot 49, this exchange actually expands it, and far from relieving the anxiety of the novel, the myth supports it.
Since I am proposing that the Oedipus myth functions throughout the narrative, let us begin with the beginning: "One summer afternoon Mrs Oedipa Maas came home" (1). (4) Certainly this is very different from writing, "One summer afternoon Mrs Mary Maas or Mrs Joan Maas came home." Mary, Joan--these names we know; some of us might even give them to our children. But Oedipa? Because we expect to find realistic names in so-called realistic fiction, Oedipa must surely be a give-away-clue to character--or a joke. If the former, we find it hard to believe: most authors are more subtle with such hints. With Mary or Joan, for example, we might discover Virgin Mary or Joan of Arc patterns. But our uncovering of these correspondences would depend largely upon their being so strong that they finally overcome the ordinariness of the
names themselves. As Everywomen names in America today, Mary and Joan simply do not spark immediate mythic associations.
However, if the name Oedipa is a joke, what's the point? To show the absurdity, the contradiction, of a convention that requires meaningfulness from names of fictional characters when real life demands no such correspondence? This is the view of Tony Tanner, who argues that the wild names Pynchon gives his characters are "a gesture against the tyranny of naming itself." (5) But, ironically, if readers are to prove that this is Pynchon's point, there is only one way to do so: by responding conventionally, and asking and answering the question "Is Oedipa Oedipal?" In short, to form an opinion either way, we must seek further evidence of the Oedipus myth. The myth thus hangs over the novel like a perplexing clue, waiting to be confirmed or denied. Unless a reader is completely unfamiliar with Oedipus--and consequently fails to take up Pynchon's challenge--we can hardly say that the myth plays no role in how we read the novel. With the very first sentence, Pynchon turns his readers into amateur detectives, just as Pierce Inverarity does Oedipa in the opening scene. Our mystery is to learn how to read Pynchon's story.
When a writer gives a clue like that of Oedipa's name, readers typically verify the myth's presence by identifying actions in the modern story that mirror those of the myth. For example, the protagonist murders his father or marries his mother. Or he does something similar enough to what the mythic hero does that the parallel is suggested--say, sleeps with his daughter or murders the uncle who was like a father to him. However, to justify reading the story from a mythological perspective, we usually want to collect more than one correlation (although we need not collect the whole myth--a significant part will do) and require some proof that the resemblances are coherent and meaningful. This simple-sounding process is, of course, not at all simple. As William Righter observes, we must ask two essential questions: have we found the right "clues," and does the overall sense of correlation somehow seem right, in that all of its aspects roughly cohere? There is no completely reliable way to answer either of these questions, but Righter suggests that our underlying principle must be that "the myth is as serious as the degree ... to which it has some consequence for [a] character." (6) This business of mythic identification can be made clearer by turning to the criticism of Lot 49 and looking at several attempts to reveal the Oedipus myth, attempts which fail for one reason or another. To begin with, Maxwell's Demon and Pierce Inverarity have both been associated with Apollo's oracle which revealed the complications surrounding Oedipus's birth. (7) Yet the coherence of the correlations seems weak. Maxwell's Demon is not even functional, or at least Oedipa cannot communicate with it. So far as we know, it is not sending out any messages, even the sometimes cryptic garble that passed for insight from the oracles of ancient Greece. Nor does Pierce seem a likely candidate for prophet given that all evidence that he planned Oedipa's adventure comes from her overworked imagination and is, therefore, neither verified nor verifiable. In brief, to compare an inoperative theory or a dead lover to the very active and very real oracle in Oedipus's life seems farfetched, to say the least.
As a second example of identifying correspondences between the text and the myth, we can refer to several critics who have related either Oedipa's search for the Tristero (8) or her effort to decipher Pierce's will (9) to Oedipus's meeting with the Sphinx. However, once again, when we match these events against the myth and the rest of Pynchon's narrative, these correlations also fail to hold up. Oedipus answered the Sphinx's riddle and thereby saved Thebes from destruction. There is no proof that Oedipa solves the mystery of the Tristero, ever understands Pierce's will, or saves anything (except perhaps herself from the sterility of an insulated life).
Of course, critics such as James Dean Young would claim that this failure of Oedipa is precisely Pynchon's point--she is no Oedipus--and thus they find support for the view that the Oedipus myth functions ironically in Lot 49. Were Oedipa's activities best described as riddle-solving, this argument would be justified. But as other critics have pointed out, Oedipa's quest most accurately corresponds not to the meeting with the Sphinx but to a later phase in Oedipus's history: Oedipus's investigation into a mystery and his discovery that he is the criminal he seeks. As Edward Mendelson summarizes: Oedipa's name "refers back to the Sophoclean Oedipus who begins his search for the solution of a problem (a problem, like Oedipa's, involving a dead man) as an almost detached observer, only to discover how deeply implicated he is in what he finds." (10)
Obviously, there are also gaps in this correlation. For one thing, Oedipa searches not for a murderer, but for the meaning and, ultimately, the nature of a secret organization named the Tristero. For another, the crimes of patricide and incest have nothing to do with her self-incrimination. However, these differences, in contrast to those we discussed for the oracle and the Sphinx, are, I believe, incidental; as I will try to show, Oedipa's quest is essentially Oedipus's. That is, her investigation is, like his, finally an investigation of reality and knowledge--and her understanding about their nature is basically that reached by Oedipus. A review of Oedipa's and Oedipus's growth as outlined by this portion of the myth will confirm this observation.
When Oedipa arrives in San Narciso to meet Metzger, her co-executor and special counsel to Inverarity's estate, she has a sort of Sherlock Holmesian view of the world, as if its phenomena were only waiting for someone with a colossal magnifying glass to detect them and read their meaning. Upon first seeing the city, she compares it to the circuit card of a transistor radio she had once dismantled and ascertains: "There were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There'd seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding" (91). Appropriately, when Oedipa initially thinks she has discovered evidence of an underground postal system--first on the stamp of a letter from her husband, Mucho, and then through Mike Fallopian, one of the patrons of the Scope bar--she assumes that like "the private eye in any long-ago radio drama" all she would need to solve its mystery were "grit, resourcefulness, exemption from hidebound cops' rules" (91).
Oedipa approaches the mystery of the Tristero as if it were a wonderful chance for her to play detective. Like Oedipus, she is certain that she will find an Answer and, also like him, she never imagines that it is her view of the world that is actually under investigation. However, as each private-eye task that she puts into practice fails--her witnesses die, disappear, or simply complicate the mystery; her clues never gel into positive evidence; her theories refuse to resolve themselves into solutions--Oedipa grows to doubt, at first, that she will be able to share in "the revelation in progress all around her" (28) and, finally, that she will ever again be able to distinguish Reality.
The point is that Oedipa's view of Reality was a false view, that the accurate view involves uncertainty and is, therefore, more perilous because it takes one to the precipice of the void. As Oedipa nears this precipice, she hesitates, having become "anxious that her revelation not expand beyond a certain point. Lest, possibly, it grow larger then she and assume her to itself' (125). She feels reluctant about following up anything and goes to absurd lengths to avoid talking about Randolph Driblette (124-25), the director of The Courier's Tragedy who committed suicide soon after Oedipa attended his production and questioned him about the Tristero.
Like Oedipus, however, she takes that perilous plunge and surfaces with the terrifying knowledge. Isolated, alienated, and scared to death, Oedipa discovers that her only conclusion must be a pluralistic one that does not solve the mystery but simply reaffirms it. The Tristero exists, or she is fantasizing its existence, or she is the victim of an elaborate plot, or she is imagining such a plot (128). Having confronted the void, Oedipa responds in a typically Oedipal way. She drives on the freeway at night for a while with her headlights off (132), her version of self-blinding. But nothing happens, and so Oedipa, unlike Oedipus, finds no outlet through which to disperse the horror of her revelation. She is forced to accept the position that although she may wait for the answer, she will probably never know.
In revising her view of world, Oedipa comes to understand that her former life, representative of the lives of most Americans, was a sick life. The secure life of the suburbs has meant conformity, callousness, and near-petrification: "She had heard all about excluded middles; they were bad shit, to be avoided; and how had it ever happened here [in America], with the chances so good for diversity?" (136). Indeed, one suspects that with her revised perspective Oedipa might now discern that the revelation that had eluded her upon first glimpsing San Narciso was actually implicit in the generalized description she had formed before arriving there: "Like many named places in California it was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts--census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to its own freeway" (12). This is an America to which Oedipa cannot return. As she determines, "The only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia" (136).
Most critics agree that Oedipa moves, as Lance Olsen observes, from certainty to uncertainty, a direction exactly the opposite of the conventional detective. (11) But many critics argue that it is within this movement that the Oedipus-Oedipa parallel breaks down. Oedipus's self-blinding suggests that he has cleared up, beyond doubt, the mystery of Laius's murder as well as the mystery of his past. "Alas! All out! All known, no more concealment!" he cries. "O Light! May I never look on you again, / Revealed as I am, sinful in my begetting, / Sinful in marriage, sinful in shedding of blood!" (12) The oracle has proved true, and Oedipus has proved its Truth. How far this ending seems from Oedipa's directionless stumbling towards the position that the only certainty is uncertainty, that the only truth is indeterminacy--as far as Classical Greece seems from twentieth-century America.
But this conventional interpretation demands a closer look. The Truth is not revealed to Oedipus, as it was, for example, to Moses. Like Oedipa, Oedipus has had to seek knowledge, and in doing so has learned that those truths which seemed absolute were, in reality, illusions. He is not a dutiful son, but a patricide; he gained his throne not by his intelligence, but by his crime; his love has been unnatural, not natural; and he has been blind when he thought he saw perfectly. In brief, Oedipus discovers that the knowledge he believed the most unequivocal was actually the most equivocal. The Chorus delivers the final word on what this discovery means: "Then learn that mortal man must always look to his ending / And none can be called happy until the day when he carries / His happiness down to the grave in peace" (68)--which is not to suggest that Oedipus would have been happy had he died ignorant of his past, but that death is the point at which we can look back on our life, separate fact from fiction, and judge whether we have been happy or unfortunate in our living.
Thus, even though Oedipus determines that the evidence against him is conclusive, the ending and general movement of his life imply a more uncertain position. The ambiguity of truth is emphasized in Oedipus's exile from Thebes when he, who counted himself the most miserable of men, is exalted by the gods. Indeed, in this exaltation, Oedipus reveals that he has learned the lesson that what is true today might not be so tomorrow. He tells Theseus: "Be sure you cannot fail of your reward / In giving Oedipus this dwelling-place / Unless heaven means to play him false again (90; my italics). Oedipus now understands that to be human means to lack total vision, absolute knowledge; the gods--and reality--may turn on him at any time.
This view that Sophocles's Oedipus discovers the limitations of human knowledge receives historical support from several philosophers of ancient Greece. R.G.A. Buxton notes that "Gorgias affirmed that the foundations of human knowledge were shaky. Protagoras insisted on the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], lack of clarity, which affected men's knowledge of one major aspect of the world divinity" As Buxton concludes, "Man might be the measure of all things, but his insight was, at least in one respect, severely limited." (13)
Buxton maintains that Sophocles was consistently concerned with this theme of limited human knowledge: "The plays of Sophokles and the pronouncements of Delphi alike convey a sense of the inscrutability of the gods, and of man's inability fully to grasp their will in time to avert disaster." (14) E.R. Dodds states the case more fully for Oedipus the King, supporting the notion that the overall view of reality in the tragedy, especially as expressed by its conclusion, is one of non-assurance more than assurance:
Certainly the Oedipus Rex is a play about the blindness of man and the desperate insecurity of the human condition: in a sense every man must grope in the dark as Oedipus gropes, not knowing who he is or what he has to suffer; we all live in a world of appearances which hides from us who-knows-what dreadful reality. But surely the Oedipus Rex is also a play about human greatness. Oedipus is great, not in virtue of a great worldly position ... but in virtue of his inner strength: strength to pursue the truth at whatever personal cost, and strength to accept and endure it when found....
To me personally Oedipus is a kind of symbol of the human intelligence which cannot rest until it has solved all the riddles--even the riddle to which the answer is that human happiness is built on an illusion. (15)
With some modification, these observations can also apply to Oedipa's story. For one thing, whereas Oedipus remains insatiable in his quest, Oedipa occasionally loses her appetite for the pursuit. In general, she is not less enthusiastic, just less certain about how to proceed and about whether her effort will be rewarded with even the temporary knowledge found by Oedipus. This difference can probably be attributed to the difference between a religious world and a nonreligious one. Simply by their "presence," the gods reassured Sophoclean audiences--and Oedipus--that final knowledge does exist, even though humans might be unable to penetrate through to that Truth. Oedipa and many modern readers cannot presume even this much possibility.
Lot 49 does not, therefore, re-tell the entire myth of Oedipus, but rather loosely follows the major action of Sophocles's Oedipus the King. If we demand close and particular correspondences between a story and a myth before we assume that the myth might function significantly, then we are likely to miss the Oedipal connections in Pynchon's novel. Another reason for the failure to pursue this Oedipal element has been based on a misunderstanding of Oedipus's story, the idea that he discovers a final truth. But, as we have seen, despite cosmological variances between their worlds, the general pattern of Oedipus's and Oedipa's lives is identical: during their investigations, both characters move from absolute positivism to relative indeterminacy; the "crime" that both find so appalling is that they were so self-absorbed that they never saw the inherent danger of the former position.
In fact, our examination of the Oedipal element in Lot 49 should also put to rest the fear that such a quest might result in an attempt to see Pynchon's novel as derivative and, worse, as the product of a single myth. For one thing, we have found that Pynchon uses myth as he does history and science, sending us "away" from the text so that we may return to it better readers. It seems, then, that Pynchon bombards us with myths not to deny myth, as some critics would have it, but to challenge us to review our knowledge of these classic stories. Thus, far from ending our investigation into myth, we have found that we probably still have much to learn from the other myths in Lot 49.
And if the practice of Pynchon is not enough to convince us that any one interpretation solves the "mystery of Lot 49," then the lesson of both Oedipus's and Oedipa's stories should prevent us from accepting such a position. Both narratives teach us that knowledge is elusive, that interpretation is an ongoing process, not a final product. As C.E. Nicholson and R.W. Stevenson note, the reader learns from the fate of a character whose interpretive dilemma is so close to his own. Like her namesake in Thebes, Oedipa discovers that a determination to reduce the ridding complexity of her experience to satisfyingly rational and unitary conclusions is one that only brings trouble on herself. Similarly, the readerly habit of reliance upon an explicative resolution of the symmetrical but antithetical possibilities of the novel ... is correlatively reductive and restrictive; a narrowing of focus which Oedipa [and, I would add, Oedipus] learns to repudiate. (16)
To put this another way, the reading experience is Oedipal, meaning fully participatory and open-ended. By following up on the "clues" of the narrative--allusions to myth, science, literature, history, pop culture, and the like--we arrive, like Oedipus and Oedipa, at possibilities only. Our ignorance turns into tentative and temporary knowledge so that our final answer to Pynchon's text must be that there is no final answer. The mystery novel has become not only a story about a mystery, but also a mystery itself.
(1) David Kirby, "Two Modern Versions of the Quest," Southern Humanities Review 5 (1971): 388; Michael Seidel, "The Satiric Plots of Gravity's Rainbow" in Pynchon. A Collection of Critic Essays, ed. Edward Mendelson (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice, 1978) 20; James Dean Young, "The Enigma Variations of Thomas Pynchon Critique," Studies in Modern Fiction 10.1 (1967): 72; Terry P. Caesar, "A Note on Pynchon's Naming," Pynchon Notes 5 (1981): 5.
(2) John Stark, Pynchon's Fictions: Thomas Pynchon and the Literature of Information (Athens: UP of OH, 1980) 122; "Risking the Moment: Anarchy and Possibility in Pynchon's Fiction," in Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon, ed. George Levine and David Leverenz (Boston: Little, 1976) 114.
(3) Levine 117.
(4) The Crying of Lot 49 (New York: Bantam, 1966). All references to Pynchon's novel are from this edition and are cited in the text.
(5) Tony Tanner, Thomas Pynchon (London: Methuen, 1982) 60.
(6) William Righter, Myth and Literature (London: Routledge, 1975) 46, 32.
(7) Douglas Mackey, The Rainbow Quest of Thomas Pynchon (San Bernardino, CA: Borgo, 1980) 2; Kirby 391.
(8) Kirby 388; David Seed, "Pynchon's Names: Some Further Considerations," Pynchon Notes 6 (June 1981): 41; Mackey 33.
(9) William Plater, The Grim Phoenix: Reconstructing Thomas Pynchon (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978) 150; and Lance Olsen, "Pynchon's New Nature: The Uncertainty Principle and Indeterminacy in The Crying of Lot 49," Canadian Review of American Studies 14 (1983): 157.
(10) Edward Mendelson, "The Sacred, the Profane, and The Crying of Lot 49," in Pynchon: A Collection of Critical Essays 118.
(11) Olsen 158.
(12) Oedipus the King, trans. E.F. Watling, in Sophocles: The Theban Plays (New York: Penguin, 1946) 58. All subsequent references to this play are from this edition and are cited in the text.
(13) R.G.A. Buxton, "Blindness and Limits: Sophocles and the Logic of Myth," Journal of Hellenic Studies 100 (1980): 35.
(14) Buxton 36.
(15) E.R. Dodds, "On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex," in The Ancient Concept of Progress and Other Essays on Greek Literature and Belief (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1973) 76-77.
(16) "'Words You Never Wanted to Hear': Fiction, History, and Narratology in The Crying of Lot 49," Pynchon Notes, Spring 1985: 107.
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|Title Annotation:||Thomas Pynchon|
|Author:||Moddelmog, Debra A.|
|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2014|
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