Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Dr. Strangelove's Rainbow

"I aim at the stars, but sometimes I hit London."
Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow is an exegesis of Kubrick/Terry Southern's Dr. Strangelove.

If I had the money to go back to graduate school and write my thesis, that'd be it. Since I don't, this'll be the short version. The really short version.

The message of Gravity's Rainbow -- if you boiled it down to a fortune cookie -- would read: Technocratic society has a hard-on for death.

To expand it a little -- what's wrong with Western European society is a form of sexual perversion.

Cutting through the multitude of subplots, there are two central narratives:

#1) Dr. Blicero, an evil Nazi rocket scientist, runs a weird S&M cult on the side at Peenemunde during the Blitz. At the end of the book -- and after the war -- one of his sex partners willingly enters the nose cone of a V-2 rocket as a living, sexual sacrifice. The evil Nazi scientist fires it off into a movie theater and ruins the show. (It's a V-2 rocket -- but it clearly implies the Cold War nuclear missiles it would spawn.)

2) Slothrop, a horny American out of an R. Crumb comic, was conditioned as an infant by Dr. Jamf, an acolyte of Pavlov. The conditioning created a sexual response to a mystery stimulus -- which turns out to be Imipolex G -- an erectile plastic, an artificial, dead thing that mimics the most organic of responses. In the book, this fictional substance is an essential V-2 rocket component. As a result, Slothrop has precognitive erections when he's stationed in London during the Blitz. He bangs a lot of women. Inevitably -- a short time later -- rockets bang down on the site of his sexual assignations.

OK. So let's compare that to Dr. Strangelove:

As with Gravity's Rainbow, the fortune cookie message is: Technocratic society has a hard-on for death.

The movie opens with a sexual image of planes refueling in mid-air. In case there's any doubt, every character's name is a sexual pun implying some sexual deviance or excess: Merkin Muffley, Jack D. Ripper, Buck Turgidson, etc.

The plot: The USSR has a doomsday machine designed to destroy all living things if they're attacked. They keep it quiet -- saving the surprise for the upcoming party conference. Jack D. Ripper, a rogue American general, sends a wing of B-52s into Soviet airspace because he thinks the commies are polluting "our precious bodily fluids" with fluoridation. (The reason he thinks this -- he's impotent.) Top representatives from the USSR and USA meet in the underground "War Room" and collaborate on recalling the American planes. An evil Nazi rocket scientist -- Dr. Strangelove -- dominates the meeting. The American president and the Soviet premier negotiate on the hotline in a Jules Feifferesque parody of an old married couple having a tiff. The effort succeeds -- all the planes return, except for one that can't communicate. Against all odds, it gets through. Major Kong rides an H-Bomb down like a rodeo cowboy -- triggering doomsday. Down in the War Room, Dr. Strangelove pitches a scheme to preserve the world's elite in salt mines -- in a ratio of one man to fifty women, supermodels all. His paralyzed legs are miraculously healed.

The movie ends with an orgasmic montage of atomic bomb blasts, to the tune of "We'll Meet Again."

It's a brilliant movie, but ultimately, it's pop satire painted with a broad brush. Pynchon took its basic concepts and expanded on them, reaching a complexity worthy of Joyce's Ulysses. But the core ideas and images are all there:

The phallic symbol of the rocket.

The orgasmic symbol of an exploding rocket.

The equation of a highly militarized technocracy with sexual perversion.

An evil Nazi scientist who epitomizes this sexual perversion. The name of the character literally spells it out -- Dr. Strangelove.

Gravity's Rainbow is Dr. Strangelove's lovechild.

I could beef this up to a 20-page paper. But that's basically it.


Josh said...

i agree completely with your thesis

Marty Fugate said...

Thanks, Josh! Pynchon's mind is mind-boggling. One of my heroes as a writer. I'd say I'm following in his footsteps, but that's a lot like an ant saying he's following in the footsteps of the Jolly Green Giant.