2007-03-12 20:45

“We Shall Pretend to Know Nothing”

This week’s reading, pp 318-335, returns to Kit, who is still at Yale, which has been losing its charm. Like all too many serious students, he has been discovering how little college has to do with learning. As Tesla’s friend Mark Twain is reported to have said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” He mutters to himself, at the beginning and end of each day, “Tengo que get el fuck out of aquí” (318:15), or “I gotta get me the fuck outta here.” He repeats it like a prayer (318:17).

With the attrition or death of several guiding lights of the math department, Kit’s disillusionment comes to a head; he begins to realize Yale is little more than a “factory for turning out Yale Men, gentlemen but no scholars except inadvertantly” (318:31). Since “Gibbs had died in the spring” (318:28), this episode therefore begins during the fall semester of 1903. Kit feels like an outsider here, knowing that he “will never look like this fellow, talk like that, be wanted in that way” (319:7-8). He may be right to some extent, but he’s clearly “wanted” in some way, because even though men in “expensive town suits” don’t chat him up, Vibe sentinels, “eyes in leafy ambuscade,” are watching him constantly.

Once again, we have a duality: Kit knows that as long as Vibe is paying the bills, he is expected to stay engaged in “applied” mathematics, but he is also aware that there is “no role for his destiny as a Vectorist within any set of Vibe goals he could imagine” (319:31).

It is ironic that an outsider like Kit is in turn perceived by Vibe as being the insider, an acolyte to an unearthly discipline, while he, Vibe, is “left behind in this soiled Creation” (319:40).

Just like Reef and Frank before him, now Kit has a conversation with his father — though unlike the others, he does not yet know that Webb is dead. He dreams that they are in a city that, in the spirit of bilocations, both is and is not Denver. Webb berates him for his damn foolish interest in Æther, and says “nobody has to know” whether Æther exists. Kit retorts that he does, and says, “I always believed children came from heaven” (320:17). This incomplete reply, with the ungraspable logic of dreams, sounds as if Kit is about to equate the Æther with Heaven.

He wakes to find that Professor Vanderjuice wants to meet with him. He has a letter from Lake, which informs him of Webb’s murder. The letter has already been opened. He and Vanderjuice skate around any explicit acknowledgement of their being prisoners here. Kit feels “the presence of a small, wounded girl” (321:36) who is trying to cry (which may be Kit’s Anima). He wanders through New Haven, and finally finds himself out on West Rock, and lets himself cry. And here is yet another reference to alternate universes; this time it is vector analysis (322:2).

Across Long Island Sound from New Haven, as the spring of 1904 “two-steps” toward summer, a tower can faintly be seen increasing in height day by day. It is Wardenclyffe Tower, which Tesla is planning to use for wireless telecommunications and power transfer.


“A trusswork tower, apparently eight-sided” (322:25).

Kit and Vanderjuice get to talking about Tesla and his tower, and they discover their mutual, dual connections to both Tesla and Scarsdale Vibe. Page 323 is thick with allusions and echoes. Vibe, for example, is funding both sides of the energy research and is willing to use dynamite against any “threat to the existing power arrangements” (323:6) just as Webb used dynamite against the existing power arrangements; Vanderjuice was working on an anti-transmitter, another duality… And the passage at 323:27-31 is as succinct a summation of Pynchon’s classic “They” as any I’ve seen. Then there’s that glimmering winged object (323:39) out in Vanderjuice’s peripheral vision, which may or may not be his soul, “whose exact whereabouts since 1893 had been in some doubt” (324:1-2).

(Also, I must mention in passing that I find it highly significant (or at least really funny) that Vanderjuice — another character whose initial is “V” — has an addiction to pizza, a wedge- or V-shaped food.)

Then things get denser and denser on page 324, when Vanderjuice advises Kit to go to Göttingen, Germany, where some really advanced math shit is going down. He wants Kit to become “something else” (324:12) besides, or aside from, a physics student. There is something about this that reminds me of Lew’s Eastward journey. Something symbolic about travelling East over the ocean. And Lew and Kit will not be the only ones who face transformations when travelling east…

Also significant, but I can’t say why exactly, is the description of Vanderjuice’s conscience “showing signs of feeling, as if recovering from frostbite” (324:3-4). That one word, “frostbite,” evokes for me the Polar adventures earlier in the book: the Vormance expedition; the Chums; Hunter Penhallow…

This dense and allusive exchange breaks against another musical number: Vanderjuice, accompanying himself on a ukelele, “produced as from empty space” (324:23), performs “That Göttingen Rag” (which will no doubt remind many of us of another mathematically-minded Tom’s song, The Vatican Rag).

Kit’s friend at Yale, ’Fax Vibe, is also interested in Tesla’s tower, and he suggests the two of them boat across the Sound to investigate. They capsize, and warm up in the transmitter shack, with Tesla himself making them coffee.

Throughout this exchange on pp 326-7, are many compelling things. Just a few: We have a few more in a long and illustrious line of references to vision, invisibility and the Invisible, going all the way back to that day in 1893 when the Chums arrived at the Chicago Fair, when (1) Miles tripped over a picnic basket whose “familiarity rendered it temporarily invisible” (4:30-31), and (2) they were travelling so fast as to be functionally invisible (8:30); Tesla recounts to Kit his initial vision that led him to begin his researches in electricity and “wireless” power transmission. He speaks of his “Magnifying Transmitter” as existing already, “as if time had been removed from all equations” (327:18); he speaks too of how he is expected to be “consciously scientific,” rather than subconsciously, or unconsciously, in stark contrast to Edison’s “perspiration” that can be translated so easily into those comfortably tangible “billable hours” that clients desire…

After spending the night, Kit and ’Fax depart. The conversation they have on their way back is particularly interesting. There seems to be genuine affection and respect on both sides; the duality of the Vibe and Traverse families been remarked upon already, and the existenec of this friendship only strengthens it. It occurs to me that there’s a curious parallel between Scarsdale Vibe and Webb Traverse, in that they both look upon an outsider with greater paternal affection than upon their own children. With Vibe, it’s Kit, and with Webb, of course, it’s Deuce. And in both instances there’s something about it that’s ill-advised at best. And you could wonder, too, if ’Fax’s motivation to befriend Kit is anything like Lake’s motivation to marry Deuce?…

Anyway, despite his being yet another agent of Scarsdale’s vast network, I found myself taking ’Fax entirely at his word when he gives Kit advice about escaping; after all, he has his own very good reasons to get rid of a rival for his father’s affection. The advice he gives (at 329:15-21) struck me as being the best possible plan: both he and Kit benefits, it plays to Scarsdale’s weakness for votive motivations, and nobody has to get killed.

So Kit goes to see the Twin Vibes, and the meeting goes well, or as well as could be expected. Another allusive passage comes at 330:33-37. “Avalanches” reminds me of Lake’s fantasy of dropping dynamite on Webb, and of the explosive that actually fell on Lew; “blue northers” evokes Lake once again; “desperate men” could mean anyone back there in the San Juans, not least Webb himself; and “unexpectedly going loco” reminds me of Tesla’s story a few pages back of his mountain vision… What did y’all make of Foley snorting, as if waking, at the end of what kit says there at 330:37?

Oh, and look at 331:9 — how Scarsdale had paid “for the elimination of many forms of inconvenience.” I wish we had a concordance for Against the Day because that word jumped out at me, and I’d love to see where else it’s used other than as the name of the Chums’ airship…

Vibe says to Kit, significantly, “Become the next Edison” (331:28) rather than, of course, become the next Tesla. This is another odd little parallel with Webb, who in the dream had also spoken in a derogatory way about Kit being “a little damn Tesla”…

The Twin Vibes discuss Kit afterwards, and the contrasts between the two of them are once again sharpened. Foley is firm of resolve, with “cast iron” nerves. Vibe, on the other hand, is wracked with apocalyptic doubts; he is burdened and torn by his Christian duties, to love “every damned socialist” despite his belief that they are the Antichrist, “and that our only salvation is to deal with them as we ought” (332:30). It is disquieting, to say the least, to hear how one of Them speaks of Their own “Them” (that is, Us) — “they assassinate our great men and bomb our cities” (333:9).

Some other random observations: “What we need to do is start killing them in significant numbers, for nothing else has worked” (333:22). Hm. What year is it again? There are some fields in Flanders that might work well to that end. “Smite early and often” (333:27) — a little Chicago shoutout, perhaps?

You will notice I’ve glossed over the mathematics and mathematicians in this section, because I simply do not feel qualified to address any of it. I will say this much, though. The Wikipedia article on Quaternions mentions at one point that “quaternion operations have extended applications in electrodynamics, general relativity, and 3D video game programming,” which seems like a typically Pynchonian collection. And given that Quaternions are useful in calculations involving three-dimensional rotations, we may have some new insight into Deuce and Sloat four-cornering Lake back on page 269… The “fundamental formula for quaternion multiplicative identities” is:


which makes no sense to me, but sets up a kute pun in next week’s reading. Any math nuts out there care to try their hand at explaining all this for the rest of us, and how it all connects?

Another undercurrent in this section, continuing and deepening from elsewhere in the book, is that of transcendent worlds, imaginary worlds, alternate universes, devotional activities meant to replace traditional religion, and so on. And the discoveries and observations being made during these early years of the twentieth century about the universe are thickening, tightening, twisting: space and time function more like a fabric or a continuum than like a grid or geometric projection. Time is fluid, or unnecessary, or nonexistent…

By Way of Explanation, 28 June 2020

Shortly before Against The Day was published, I joined the Chumps of Choice as one of the guest moderators for a group-read of the book. We began in December of 2006 and ran through to December 2007.

I hosted four times, with one additional “side” post. In the interest of owning your own content, I have dredged the following five posts from the Chumps Blogspot archives to give them a new, permanent home here.

I was someone else then. Some posts from that blog will slowly be reappearing here at AFC, backdated with their original publication dates.

Here are links to the five ATD posts:

  1. Light and Pain pp 189–219
  2. “We Shall Pretend to Know Nothing” pp 318–335
  3. Against the Day pp 792–805
  4. Mindless Pleasures
  5. What I Tell You Three Times is True pp 976–999

And they all share the tag Chumps.

pynchon chumps

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