Read an excerpt from The Counterforce: Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice—a book publishing tomorrow by Fiction Advocate.
Fiction, viewed as a kind of hallucinogenic drug rather than a vitamin supplement, doses our metaphorical pineal gland, that “seat of the soul,” as Descartes called it. In some frogs and sharks such a gland contains a light-sensitive “third eye.” In humans it is connected with the production of melatonin, and, in the 1960s context, it was also associated with research into the effects of psychedelics. Welcome back to Pynchon.
The questions asked in this regard by John N. Bleibtreu (a rather Pynchonian surname) in his 1966 essay in The Atlantic, “LSD and the Third Eye,” remain relevant to the medical, cultural, and literary inheritance of the counterculture in general and the drug culture in particular:
The principal question concerning psychedelic estates remains: How much disruption can the system tolerate? […] The problem of how to maintain a certain madness while at the same time functioning at peak efficiency has now captured the attention of many psychiatrists. There seems to be a point at which “creative” madness becomes degenerative, impeding function rather than stimulating it.
Pynchon wishes to deal out altered states that defamiliarize the world and creatively disrupt how we see. To quote two standard taglines of the 1960s: Another world is possible—all power to the imagination.
In The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas’ disc-jockey husband Wendell “Mucho” Maas sees the light when he takes LSD and listens to rock and roll:
When those kids sing about ‘She loves you,’ yeah well, you know, she does, she’s any number of people, all over the world, back through time, different colors, sizes, ages, shapes, distances from death, but she loves. And the ‘you’ is everybody. And herself. Oedipa, the human voice, you know, it’s a flipping miracle.
This way of seeing the world or hearing the voice of the human person could be associated with the paradoxical and slippery notion of “The Counterforce” broached by Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), at least as expanded and writ large in the zeitgeist of the counterculture. The counterforce, viewed in a “lower case” variation, so to speak, can provide a doubled-edge metaphor for the process of creative resistance to various types of oppressive power, while at the same time darkly evoking its mirror image in the world-ending terminology of nuclear strategy.
The counterforce is not actually an organization you can join and it might not even exist (let’s face it). It is both illusory and necessary as a provisional and mobile concept that advances storytelling – fiction – as one way to envision alternatives to the present, and, therefore, for the future. In this specific sense, Pynchon proposes that facts alone cannot save us from our current predicaments – we need better stories.
The Pynchon Wiki usefully lists some of its quotations from Gravity’s Rainbow on the “counterforce” as follows:
“Suddenly there was a beach, the unpredictable… new life”
“a nova of heart that will … change us forever to the very forgotten roots of who we are”
“the possibility of another night that could actually … light the path home”
“Enough to make you believe in a folk-consciousness”
“love, dreams, the spirit”
“love that can even make the oppression seem a failure”
“some promise of event without cause, surprises, a direction at right angles to every direction his life has been able to find till now”
“the living green, against the dead white”
Here we see the more positive side of Pynchon’s imagination nicely condensed. Love; the fight against oppression, the “dead white” and what Against the Day (2006) calls “the wrong people”; the ecological mythology of Vinland as a fictional Eden in the green New World; the realm of dreams; the possibility of a new or alternative life reached through uncovering the beach—the beach beneath the paving-stones, as the Paris slogan of 1968 had it.
Mucho Maas adds the prospect of mind-altering substances to this book of love, while Doc Sportello, the burn-out private investigator protagonist of Inherent Vice (2014), uses marijuana to see an alternate America that contains his stoned vision of what is described in terms echoing Gravity’s Rainbow‘s counterforce as “the night… about to turn epic….” To be “against the dead white” is to be against the day and for “the living green.” And this flaky eco-sensibility of regeneration and redemption, a “nova of heart,” is perhaps Pynchon’s clearest definition of the counterforce as a perceptual change that carries other potential forms of liberation within it. We need fiction to help us see how to see.
The counterforce of love is inherently political insofar as it “can even make the oppression seem a failure.” (Note the careful wording here: seem.) And one might add laughter into the mix along with love, since it heralds the promise of embarking on what we hope for and risk on a good trip. The same old world awaits us upon return, of course. It is heartbreaking to consider the failure or pollution of a generation’s optimism about the power of love, music, art, and politics to change the world. But, according to a certain way of thinking, or a certain lens on the potential contained in the subversive elements of the past, that heartbreak suggests the possibility that something like the counterforce cannot ever be eradicated entirely, even if it seems to lie dormant during reactionary eras, like the 1970 of Inherent Vice, or more recent times, for that matter. Pynchon’s novels are highly cognizant of the dangerous collapse of the counterculture and its replacement by forces of exploitation and surveillance, but Pynchon refuses to give up on the failed but perennial ideals of a more loving, less greedy world. Inherent Vice mourns the loss of alternatives in the culture but it doesn’t stop there—like any good private detective, it supports the hopeless cause.
In her fascinating book Thomas Pynchon and American Counterculture, Joanna Freer connects the political with the psychedelic in Pynchon’s novels. She champions Against the Day as Pynchon’s “most psychedelic novel” and argues that it “works specifically to problematize the ‘real’,” in the process suggesting “the potential multiplicity of perceivable realities.” Along somewhat similar lines, David Cowart argues in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon that the “visionary moment” so valued by Pynchon is “commonly occulted by sobriety.” As Pynchon critics often note, all this is largely intended in a figurative sense, one that needn’t involve real drugs, necessarily, which in any event are never portrayed by Pynchon as the only answer to the problem, and are as often as not depicted in the novels as adding further tools of exploitation to the arsenal of oppression. (In Inherent Vice, heroin and cocaine, in particular.) This, then, is something more like a wider challenge to the so-called “discourses of sobriety” – history in particular – from the critical perspective of a particular form of historical fiction that foregrounds its own fictional status.
Equally, such trips, whether literal or metaphorical, cannot be reduced to the private, apolitical experiences that seemed to dominate the drug culture when it became detached historically from countercultural radicalism. Instead, consciousness expansion and various forms of political consciousness-raising are inextricably linked for Pynchon in a mode of analysis that exceeds the boundaries of sobriety. So Freer argues productively that there’s “a warning elaborated throughout Pynchon’s oeuvre against allowing imaginative or visionary experience to become an end in itself, dissociated from a critical, interpretative practice aimed at alleviating suffering and escaping oppression.”
Indeed, on this view, imaginative work forms a prelude to other forms of engagement. In order to build a different world, we first must envision that it might be something other than what’s there at the moment, and to cast off the claim that this is how things always must be. Pynchon attempts to re-enchant the everyday mundanities of American life by recasting the New World as a puzzling map whose legends do not point only to exploitation, a map within the map featuring a fictional territory, with treasures open to lovers and losers, loners and flakes, amateur sleuths and paranoiac novelists. Viewed through this powerful fictional lens that both magnifies and distorts, our mental map begins to wobble as we fall under the influence of this spell or drug.
Baudelaire notoriously recommended that one remain “continually drunk,” but, he asked immediately afterwards, “on what?” The answer: “Wine, poetry, or virtue, as you wish.” It’s also true that Baudelaire wrote up his experiences with hashish in his ambiguously titled Artificial Paradises. Is it OK to admit that paradise is always artificial? Does its fictional status make it any less valuable? Is it enough of a consolation to see things in a slightly different way—to imagine those alternative versions of oneself that try harder to love and do better at fighting back?
No, not quite. On one hand, it’s a start; on the other hand, it can trap us into doing nothing, just as Bleibtreu noted about psychedelics like LSD and their “degenerating” effect of diminishing returns. So, hallucinogens are optional here—all of the above can be taken as metaphorical content about the power of love, ecology, fiction, and good critical prose. In The Crying of Lot 49, it’s Oedipa who points out to her psychiatrist, Dr. Hilarius, who wants to hook her on LSD, that “I am having an hallucination now, I don’t need drugs for that.” In a pointed turn, it’s revealed that Hilarius began his career at Buchenwald.
That said, Walter Benjamin, responding in part to Baudelaire, connected his own experiments with hashish to his early notion of “genuine aura,” which he described in almost spiritual terms as an inherent bit of magic waiting to be discovered in “all things, not just certain kinds of things, as people imagine.” Inherent Vice‘s Doc Sportello might identify with this experience of expanding one’s consciousness by one means or another, especially since this vision of the fragile, interconnected world is radically opposed to smashing things to pieces. What sounds New Age or proto-hippie is more deeply ecological and philosophical insofar as it places something that might be divine (or something like that?) in a coextensive relationship with everything that exists in our beautiful, sad, hilarious, tragic, bizarre, lonely, hopeful, tender, fucked-up, and fantastic world.
Buy a copy of The Counterforce – Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice from its publisher, Fiction Advocate. The book appears in the Afterwords series featuring new takes on contemporary classics.
J. M. Tyree (Twitter: @textplusimage) is the coauthor of Our Secret Life in the Movies (with Michael McGriff, from A Strange Object/Deep Vellum), an NPR Best Books selection, and of BFI Film Classics: The Big Lebowski (with Ben Walters), from the British Film Institute and Bloomsbury. He also wrote BFI Film Classics: Salesman and Vanishing Streets – Journeys in London (Redwood/Stanford University Press). His essays and short stories have appeared in Brick, Lapham’s Quarterly, Sight & Sound, Film Quarterly, American Short Fiction, Guernica, and other magazines. He currently serves as a Nonfiction Editor at New England Review and teaches at VCUarts.