Saturday, July 5, 2014

Mind Contours: Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon's epic novel,  Against the Day,  is an odyssey in four dimensions, and more. The reader is introduced to this imaginary space during the first pages of chapter one. The boys' group, 'Chums of Chance,' discuss the altitude of their dirigible with the conclusion that if they keep going up into the lighted sky, they'll be going down. How can rising become falling? All of the key characters in the tale ask themselves similar questions.

The reader realizes early on that the reading time of  Against the Day will be different from other novels, longer and shorter. In the novel, the path of light is followed as it travels through the pages at a constant velocity. Yet it is always changing over time, illuminating evolving territories and imaginary borders, and shining on the people who are both grounded and accepting of fantasy. The reader's view of history and individual destiny is guided by Pynchon's description of a time-territory-personality matrix.

Major themes emerge from this imaginary time-space. One of them describes the human genius and folly as seen in the historical record. Pynchon shows the reader that ideas begin as fantasy. Mathematicians translate these fantasies into arbitrary symbols using an arcane logical system. Scientists use the symbols in their experiments attempting to ground them in quotidian reality. Leaders of commerce take the realized ideas and create marketable products. Politicians corner the markets and carve up the land for power and defense.

The novel describes paths for the secondary characters parallel to the historical record, but different. Unlike history, the lives of many of the background characters do not flow continuously. Some stay as children in the world of fantasy. Some get bound up in symbols and never find the ground. Some characters are caught up in science without anticipating the applications that will be made of their discoveries. Other characters spend their lives in commerce fighting for wages or using tactics to maintain the dominance of wealth. The politicians look at the earth in terms of artificial geographic borders, defending their domains while encroaching on the property of others.

The primary characters are anarchists of fantasy, mathematics, science, commerce, and politics. They challenge the frontiers in each of these dimensions. The reader comes to an understanding of the driving force and goal of anarchy through the conscious and unconscious choices the characters make. Readers then have choices. Do we stay as children in fantasy, or do we take on adult responsibility? Are we satisfied with a symbolic description of the world or do we live in it? Can we make a living by the economic rules but also free ourselves from materialism? Do we ascend to political power or resist borders that require defense and foster encroachment? Is there a Shambhala, a vanishing point on this earth where we can approach perfect, boundless, infinite, multi-dimensional peace?

Take your own personal odyssey as you read Against the Day. Experience the fantasy but go beyond it. Do the math but learn to apply limits. Explore science but prevent its use in evil applications. See how to earn a living but avoid the traps of being owned by your possessions. Become aware of political power and fight against the immoral if necessary. And above all, when down becomes up, explore the frontiers of your life looking for your dimensions.

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