Literature Study GuidesGravitys RainbowPart 1 Episodes 12 14 Summary

Gravity's Rainbow | Study Guide

Thomas Pynchon

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Gravity's Rainbow | Part 1, Episodes 12–14 : Beyond the Zero | Summary



Part 1, Episode 12

In Germany in December 1944, the approach of winter is marked by propaganda posters: "WAS TUST DU FÜR DIE FRONT, FÜR DEN SIEG?" (What are you doing for the front, for victory?) In England, the White Visitation endures the onset of winter. The narrator recalls the White Visitation's transformation from insane asylum to psychic research station.

The focus moves back in time to the beginning of Operation Black Wing, a psychological warfare operation housed at the White Visitation. Pirate found out there were "in Germany real Africans, Hereros, ex-colonials from South-West Africa, somehow active in the secret-weapons program." (German South-West Africa was a German colony from 1884 to 1919. Along with the Nama people, the Hereros rebelled against German rule in 1904. The rebellion was quashed in a years-long genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people were killed.) Pynchon imagines a psychological warfare plot trading on German anxiety about Africans. (Although there had long been Afro-Germans in Germany, they were subject to detention and execution in Nazi Germany.) Pynchon imagines a scenario in which Hereros work on the V-2 rocket. Operation Black Wing builds a fantasy to exploit the racial anxieties of Germans. The narrator explains Slothrop's drug experience in Part 1, Episode 10 was research into racial anxiety, for the benefit of Operation Black Wing.

At the White Visitation, Pointsman is depressed by the imminent Allied victory. Peace will mean the end of his wartime research funding. He badgers the head of the White Visitation, Brigadier Pudding, for more money. Pudding is a World War I veteran who is nearing age 80. He is confused by the many bureaucracies and organizations of "the War-state." He delivers weekly briefings: "senile observations, office paranoia, gossip about the War ... [and] reminiscences of Flanders [a World War I battlefield]."

Pointsman and Dr. Géza Rózsavölgyi argue about how best to examine Slothrop's mysterious connection to the V-2 rocket. Rózsavölgyi favors a personality test. Pointsman says the behaviorists "want to expose Slothrop to the German rocket" to see how he reacts. The episode concludes with a description of the elaborate architecture of the White Visitation house.

Part 1, Episode 13

The discussion concerning how to explore Slothrop's sensitivity to the rocket continues. Pointsman wants to do behaviorist experiments on Slothrop. He adds "the Americans" have already experimented on Slothrop. Pudding is appalled: "We can't, Pointsman, it's beastly." The episode switches focus to the past, summarizing Laszlo Jamf's experiments on "Infant Tyrone [Slothrop]." At Harvard University, the visiting German psychologist Jamf conditioned Slothrop to respond to a certain stimulus with an erection. Jamf considered an erection a "binary, elegant" piece of data "that's either there, or it isn't." Additionally, it is possible Jamf did not undo Slothrop's conditioning, a process known an "extinguishing" the reflex.

The map of Slothrop's conquests and the map of V-2 rocket strikes are perfectly aligned. Various White Visitation denizens have their opinions. Some believe Slothrop has "precognition," an ability to predict where the rockets will fall. Some believe Slothrop uses telekinesis to cause the rockets to fall on the sites of his seductions, out of unconscious guilt or anger. Mexico thinks it is a "statistical oddity," but its oddness causes him to question "the foundations of that discipline." Pointsman believes some remnant of Jamf's surviving reflex is operating in Slothrop.

The puzzle is Slothrop visits the women before the rocket strikes. This puts stimulus and response in reverse order. Perhaps there is nothing statistically random about the girl-map or the rocket strikes. Likewise, cause and effect are reversed: the location of the rocket's ground-zero impact point seems to exist before the flight of the rocket. Proving this would prove "the stone determinacy of everything, of every soul." The narrator adds, "You can see how important a discovery like that would be."

The episode shifts focus to Pointsman's rapturous, long-ago encounter with the ideas of behaviorist psychology. His belief in behaviorism is described as a seduction by a "Venus." Powerful forces, perhaps a "Syndicate," will demand payment for the pleasures Pointsman has enjoyed with this Venus. Then Pointsman and Mexico have a discussion or argument about methods. Mexico takes the side of investigators Pointsman calls mystical, dismissing a certain style of thinking as "yang-yin rubbish." Mexico points out analysis might also be limited.

Pointsman is interested in Slothrop's paranoia, as revealed in his personality tests. He describes paranoia in physiological terms. One area of the paranoid brain is highly stimulated: "One bright, burning point, surrounded by darkness." Pointsman feels he is on the verge of completing the work Pavlov left unfinished at his death.

The narration shifts focus to other events around the White Visitation. Two men from Operation Black Wing watch a third, a "black man," skating on the frozen pond.

Part 1, Episode 14

Back at Pirate's house, a young Dutch woman is being filmed. At the same time, Osbie Feel is scraping out the caps of Amanita muscaria mushrooms and preparing something. He opens the oven door and the Dutch woman has a subtle emotional reaction to the sight of the open oven. Osbie closes the door, "but for Katje it will never close."

Katje recalls a Captain Blicero in Holland. He held Katje and a young man named Gottfried in thrall or in captivity. The three of them passed their time in intricate sexual arrangements, in which Blicero dominated. He threatens to cut Katje's hair to make her look like Gottfried, and he dresses Gottfried in Katje's silk stockings. They play at being brother and sister. Gottfried is kept in a cage. Katje is the "maidservant" and Gottfried is "the fattening goose." The situation is like the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel.

They are at a rocket-launching site in Holland, and they are in danger. Rockets misfire and there are English bombing raids on the site. Danger "adds an overtone to the game." Blicero also wonders if Katje is a British spy. In the Hansel and Gretel metaphor, Katje is Gretel, the one who "must push the Witch into the oven intended for Gottfried."

Blicero reminisces about the works of 20th-century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. He also thinks about his military service in German South-West Africa (Südwest). There he participated in "crush[ing] the great Herero Rising." He had a lover there, a "Herero boy." The Herero boy had already been "corrupted" by missionaries. The boy refers to their lovemaking with the name of the Herero god Ndjambi Karuna. Now, in 1944, the Herero "boy" is a man and is "halfway across Germany, deep in the Harz [Mountains]."

Back in Africa, Blicero had given his Herero boy the name Enzian, the German word for "gentian," a flower. Blicero named him for a poem by Rilke. He now thinks Gottfried is Enzian's double, though one is a white Dutchman and the other a black African.

Katje quits the "game," leaving Gottfried and Blicero behind and defecting to the English side. In response, Blicero moves the rocket site, named Schußstelle 3. The house where they played their game is abandoned. Katje has been exfiltrated by Pirate Prentice. She has already outlived her usefulness to the British. All she had to offer was Schußstelle 3, and it has moved. She has nowhere to go, so Pirate suggests she go to the White Visitation.

Katje wants to be of service, to make up for the Jewish families she caused to be deported while she worked with the Dutch Nazis. She acts as if there is "a real conversion factor between information and lives." The narrator says there is: "Don't forget the real business of the War is buying and selling."

The narrative shifts focus to Katje's Dutch ancestors, in particular one named Frans. He played a part in Dutch imperialism and in the extinction of the dodoes (flightless birds) in the Dutch colony of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.

At the White Visitation, Osbie's films of Katje are shown to Grigori, Pointsman's octopus.


Ordinarily it seems the point of a war is to win, but these episodes show people and organizations that want the war to last and last. They have other aims besides winning. Pointsman wants his funding to last, so he can go on researching, following in the footsteps of Pavlov. The narrator explains, "The real business of the War is buying and selling." From this perspective, the battles and campaigns are just a distracting spectacle: "The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals." The fighting more or less runs itself. This view also demotes heroism and patriotism to "non-professional," unimportant status. The professionals tend to the real war, the acquisition and consolidation of capital and/or power.

Paranoid views of shadowy profiteers manipulating a war have been floated before. In World War I, an anti-Semitic rumor common in Germany held that Jews were "war profiteers" and "hoarders," secretly and parasitically benefiting from the efforts of German soldiers. The Jewish profiteers, according to this view, lived in luxury while non-Jewish Germans suffered the poverty and privations of the wartime economy. What prevents the mysterious "They" in Gravity's Rainbow from being the Jewish caricatures of the anti-Semitic imagination?

There are two main ways Pynchon prevents his paranoid version of World War II from resembling anti-Semitism. First, the novel criticizes the morality of American-German postwar collaboration in the areas of rocket science and international corporations. Such collaborations necessarily involved working with former Nazis, or with corporations that had done business with Nazis, such as IG Farben. Second, the novel is critical about paranoia. An anti-Semitic work like the publication The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or the 1940 Nazi propaganda film Jud Süß never questions its own conclusions. Pynchon's representations of paranoia include paranoia collapsing back into itself, devolving into meaninglessness. Pointsman explains the consistency of the paranoid worldview. Neurologically, the paranoid brain contains only a small cluster of active cells: "One bright, burning point, surrounded by darkness." Thus Gravity's Rainbow does not entirely buy into the paranoid theories it presents, unlike a work of anti-Semitic propaganda.

Slothrop's contribution to Operation Black Wing reveals part of the novel's larger design. Under the influence of drugs, Slothrop "help[s] illuminate racial problems in his own country." Operation Black Wing will sift through his testimony for ideas about how to manipulate German racial anxieties about German black people. Likewise, although much of Gravity's Rainbow is set in London in World War II, it is about the concerns of Pynchon's own place and time: the United States in the 1960s and 70s. Those years in the United States saw the rise of the civil rights movement for African-American enfranchisement, as well as the "black power" movement and the Black Panther Party, both aimed at the further liberation of African- Americans. In those same years, the United States' involvement in Vietnam, where it engaged in the oppression of nonwhite people, also revealed the United States as an imperial power. Gravity's Rainbow uses the collapse of the Nazi German empire to explore the difficulties and contradictions of American society.

Mexico is described as the "anti-pointsman" in Part 1, Episode 9. However, the two of them do not just subscribe to different schools of scientific and mathematical thought. Pointsman is so convinced of the truth of behaviorism that he seems to have had a religious conversion experience. His introduction to behaviorist psychology is described as his seduction by a cruel Venus who will someday exact a price. Mexico, while he is an expert statistician, is not as fervently committed as Pointsman. Mexico suspects Slothrop's oddity might shake "the foundations" of the discipline of statistics. Pointsman, by contrast, thinks the Slothrop phenomenon is within the reach of behaviorism, not outside it. Pointsman wants to show his connection to rockets is a conditioned reflex created by Jamf.

The escapades of Blicero, Katje, and Gottfried are styled as a fairy tale, with Katje and Gottfried like Hansel and Gretel. Children's worlds and games are thematically important in Gravity's Rainbow. A fairy tale is a fitting lens for Germany. Stories like the Brothers Grimm's "Hansel and Gretel" are quintessentially German, and they are also often cruel. Even the happy ending of "Hansel and Gretel" involves an act of violence, "push[ing] the Witch into the Oven." In Blicero and Katje's version of the fairy tale, both the happy ending and the captivity leave the "brother" and "sister" feeling morally and emotionally devastated. The enactment of Blicero's complicated sexual scenarios is voraciously pursued and ultimately disappointing, opening onto an experience of emptiness. The use of fairy tale elements to decorate sexual captivity points to the contrast between innocent childhood stories and depraved adult ones.

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