It took a few weeks longer than I had hoped, but I finished Against the Day this week. To attempt any summary or assessment of Pynchon’s novels, given their complexity, is daunting. That this one runs more than a thousand pages only makes any such attempt that much more ambitious. I saw a few brief reviews before reading the book, and they could have been written without having read the book, for all of the depth and detail they offered. I admire anyone who actually did read the book and wrote a review of it on a deadline. Liesl Schillinger, whose reviews have puzzled me before, was one of those few. She concludes:
The only prescription for salvation [Pynchon] offers is the same one a sheriff’s wife gives to the dynamiter’s troubled daughter midway through the novel: flight from reality. “Let go,” the sheriff’s wife explains. “Let it bear you up and carry you, and everything’s so clear because you’re not fighting back anymore, the clouds of anger are out of your face, you see further and clearer than you ever thought you could.”
This is at least partly incorrect. This advice, which could be a simplified Mahamudra or Dzogchen instruction, is about not flight from reality, but about radical acceptance of reality. Its central insight is that suffering isn’t inherent in reality–it’s the result of our reaction to reality (our stance “against the day”). And Tibetan Buddhism, admittedly a hobbyhorse of mine, isn’t out of place here. One of the central themes of Against the Day is the search for the lost kingdom of Shambhala. Pynchon has incorporated Buddhist ideas into his work, consciously or not, at least as far back as Gravity’s Rainbow:
“A market needed no longer be run by the Invisible Hand, but now could create itself–its own logic, momentum, style from inside. Putting the control inside was ratifying what de facto had happened–that you had dispensed with God. But you had taken on a greater, and more harmful, illusion. The illusion of control. That A could do B. But that was false. Completely. No one can do. Things only happen, A and B are unreal, are names for parts that ought to be inseparable…”
Besides serving as a neat rebuke to Richard Dawkins’s simple-minded hubris thirty years before the fact (though an anonymous character immediately dismisses it as “more Ouspenskian nonsense”–a handy reminder of the risk in inferring the author’s thoughts from those of his characters, or even his narrator), this message from a seance is a reasonable summary of the indivisibility of Buddhist emptiness.
What Schillinger doesn’t address, aside from its Buddhist ideas, is the novel’s title. What does it mean to be “against the day”? Who’s against the day, and what’s the result of assuming such a stance? The day, in this case, seems to be light and time, and the novel is a thorough exploration of the ways in which we’re all threatened and afflicted by them (it contains the first compelling descriptions I’ve encountered of my own experience of being afflicted, physically and emotionally, by light). As such, it joins at least two grand literary traditions: the rebels against the light, from Don Quixote to Milton’s Satan to Winston Smith to Dean Moriarty; and the victims of time, from Stephen Dedalus, who suffers history as a nightmare from which he seeks to awake, to countless railers against our mortality. One version of this conflict is summarized by a grandson of the Kieselguhr Kid, an anarchist dynamiter (or perhaps terrorist) in Colorado around the turn of the twentieth century, in a schoolboy essay on “What It Means To Be An American,” a complement to the sheriff’s wife’s advice:
It means do what they tell you and take what they give you and don’t go on strike or their soldiers will shoot you down.
For the anarchists–North American, European, and Asian–throughout Against the Day, their opposition to the very notion of government, the only position they can understand and hold, costs them dearly. Yet the message of that suffering isn’t simply that opposition to the reality of government must end in suffering, for those who aid, embrace, and impose government suffer just as surely. The anarchism expounded here isn’t nihilistic or satanic. It rests, as the social movement of anarchism of the time did, on a belief in the shared decency and compassion of ordinary people. (I’m deeply indebted to an episode of In Our Time on anarchism that aired while I was reading this novel for my greatly enriched understanding of historical anarchism. Fortuitously aired episodes on the speed of light and the history of hell were also very helpful.) This is the common human decency that George Orwell referred to in his essays, and it’s what Winston Smith is referring to in Nineteen Eighty-Four when he realizes that “If there is hope, it lies with the proles.” Living under a nominally socialist or communist government already, Winston isn’t wishing for the rise of the proletariat. Instead, he seems to be seeking a life outside of government control, a position already occupied by the largely ignored proles in the novel.
The anarchism of the day of Pynchon’s novel understood the state as a mechanism imposing the will of the minority on the majority, and the political processes of the state as the means by which that minority would be chosen for power. To engage in those processes is to have already lost the possibility of liberation (all of which lends a deeply ironic meaning to “Vote or Die” as a slogan of empowerment). The current political struggle between left and right is a fight over only what the government will do to and for us. Any empowerment that might be gained by engaging in that process will necessarily be limited. Given that fifty percent of the world’s wealth has been concentrated in the hands of two percent of its population, it would be naive to believe that governments (along with corporations, the mechanisms of that concentration) will somehow resolve that, or any other, injustice. Yet this anarchism’s reliance on our shared compassion distinguishes it from any sort of cheap libertarianism. We aren’t free from our dependence on and responsibility to each other, and we’ll be liberated in inverse proportion to our need for a state to mediate that relationship. As Neil Young sang, “We’re finally on our own.”
Except that we’re not finally on our own. We’ve always been on our own. There is no Invisible Hand, no primal parent, no supreme judge, no benevolent power that will ultimately resolve our contention and end our suffering. And without that God, we mustn’t take on the harmful illusion of control. Until we all form an adult relationship with reality–that is, understand that we cannot long thrive at the expense of others and stop seeking protection from the consequences of our choices and the choices of others–we will all suffer. There’s not some other realm or group of beings with which we can hope to live in peace and harmony someday. If we want peace and harmony, we’ll have to find it here with each other. Dividing ourselves into left and right, elect and preterite, sacred and profane, governing and governed and seeking to impose our wills on each other only makes matters worse. This is the secular meaning of karma, the reality we’re best served by accepting rather than standing against, and it suggests an anarchism that cannot be furthered by bomb-throwing and assassination.
Pynchon clearly wrote much of this novel (if not all of it) after the commencement of our hopeless Global War on Terror. It includes poignant and uncanny descriptions of what seems to be the the World Trade Center and its destruction rendered in very different contexts. It speaks of our time as much as it does of any other, including the time in which it’s ostensibly set, so it’s tempting to view current events through the lens of the novel’s themes. Just as I was finishing it, I read this in Gary Hart’s review of Barack Obama’s new book:
He listened to countless people’s stories and came to a Roosevelt-like epiphany: “Government should help.”
This seems naive to me. Hope is indeed audacious, but placing it in the benevolence of government is just misguided. More interesting is this from John Edwards’s announcement of his presidential candidacy:
“We want people in this campaign to actually take action now,” Edwards said, “not later, not after the election. We don’t want to hope that whoever’s elected the next leader of the United States of America is going to solve all our problems for us. Because that will not happen.”
I’m curious to see how Edwards will run a campaign from this position. I don’t expect that he’ll ultimately be any more successful than an atheist in the pulpit. I would guess that he’ll either revise his stance or be picked apart by opponents portraying that stance as hypocritical. His insight is valid, but it’s not the basis of a presidential campaign. I hope, though, that many are inspired by it and take responsibility for our reality, regardless of the outcome of the campaign itself. Become a philanthropist, a volunteer, or a sage. Live the day as you would like it to be lived. In the end, there is no other viable choice. We cannot stand against the day, any more than we can stand with it or for it, because we are not separate from it.