The Rocket

“On Comparing Apples and Oranges: James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon”

By Sara Solberg

This essay first appeared in Comparative Literature Studies, March 1979, Volume XVI, No. 1, pp 33-40. Thanks to (now Dr.) Sara Solberg for allowing us to place it online at The Modern Word.

Gore Vidal has made the comment that comparing Pynchon to Joyce is like comparing a kindergartener to a graduate student. [1] The bias thus displayed by Mr. Vidal brings up only one in an impressive array of difficulties in the study of comparative literature: namely, the kind of literary snobbishness which is, after all, nothing more than the urge to prove aesthetic superiority by the books we read.
Some of us may have thought that Roland Barthes had changed all that. Certainly he has given us, via a new mythological pantheon, a refreshingly broad definition of “text” — a definition which subsumes plastics and billboards along with more traditional literary texts. In Joyce’s Ulysses, where everybody is everybody else and nobody is anybody, and in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, where the protagonist literally disintegrates into the print on the page, we have not so much a new kind of fiction as a new kind of reading phenomenon; and the baggage of cause-and-effect, of good and bad, of biographical criticism, of closed systems of any kind, will only weigh us down.
What I am interested in here is the problem of comparing apples and oranges. An interesting expression: my understanding of it is that the wisdom of the language does not object to a comparison of apples and oranges per se. Obviously, we can say: 1) Apples and oranges are both fruit and both more or less round, or 2) Apples are red, whereas oranges are orange, unless green because not yet ripe, or mottled because covered with mold. Color, shape, consistency, and taste are perfectly sensible grounds for comparison. I take it that the implied reproach of the expression refers to taking one’s hierarchy of taste across generic lines. It makes no sense to say that an apple tastes better than an orange; but it makes perfectly good sense to say either that one likes apples better than oranges, or that one apple tastes better than another apple. It also makes perfectly good sense to put an apple down beside an orange to see how each is transformed by the simple presence of the other. For apple, read Joyce’s Leopold Bloom; for orange, read Homer’s Ulysses.
I said before that in reading modern literature one is hampered by the traditional notion of cause and effect. I am referring to the influence study. Traditionally, the influence study was based on the author’s literary work, public and private correspondence, and, most concretely, on a reliable list of what was on the author’s bookshelves. In the case of Joyce, this approach led to studies of Madame Blavatsky, Giambattista Vico, Edouard Dujardin, as well as to an endless wallowing about in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Mind you, knowing that Stephen Dedalus’s comment in Ulysses that God is “a shout in the street” [2] comes from the Book of Proverbs [3]does not necessarily clear up anything, except that Joyce had read the Book of Proverbs. But it was believed that identification of an author’s sources would somehow elucidate the text. Then speculation as to influence, even if the speculation be largely noise (that is, distortion), at least enables the critic in search of connections to create a recognizable harmony, a progression, such as from Rabelais to Swift to Joyce, or from Homer to Vergil, or from Walter Scott to Dickens, or from Edgar Allen Poe to Baudelaire.
What does one do, then, with an author like Thomas Pynchon, whose mania for privacy effectively prevents any traditional influence studies? We have no correspondence whatever, only a sketchy biography, and certainly no list of the books he lives with. And when he drops a hint as to his sources, it is always in a context of indeterminacy, For instance, the extraordinary opening paragraph of V.’s third chapter:

As spread thighs are to the libertine, flights of migratory birds to the ornithologist, the working part of his tool bit to the production machinist, so was the letter V to young Stencil. He would dream perhaps once a week that it had all been a dream, and that now he’d awakened to discover the pursuit of V. was merely a scholarly quest after all, an adventure of the mind, in the tradition of The Golden Bough or The White Goddess

The first line of the second paragraph begins: “But then he’d wake up the second, real time…. “ This is surely more a red flag than a clue. Richard Poirier, one of Pynchon’s most astute critics, has written:

As in some complicated apparatus of modern warfare, the signal “self-destruct” might be said to flash whenever a reader of Pynchon presses too confidently at a point where he thinks he’s located the “meaning.” [4]

The same applies to the point where we think we’ve located direct influence. Not only, then, does Pynchon shun publicity (he would not accept a gold medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, not even, as he supposedly said in his brief note of rejection, as “a hedge against inflation”); [5] he writes what is in fiction analogous to Jean Tinguely’s sculpture called “Hommage à New York,” which self-destructed in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art in 1960.
Not only are his books replete with fastidiously accurate historical “facts” (his depiction of Maltese and South African history, for example); they are also blatant invitations to madness, or, as he repeatedly calls it in Gravity’s Rainbow, paranoia — the notion that everything is connected. Anti-paranoia then becomes the notion that nothing is connected, and, as Pynchon so aptly puts it, none of us can live with that for very long. [6] Joyce invites his reader to engage in a similar kind of brinkmanship, to live on the interface between fact and fiction. As the structuralist critic Umberto Eco once said, Joyce has no final control over the Joycean pun: [7] a word such as “jocoserious” has endless reverberations, and Ulysses itself, being a sort of pun on myth-making, still eludes final interpretations. One cannot exhaust the possibilities, yet one is compelled to try. This is largely the point.
But can a study be done, a comparative study, of two works such as Ulysses and V., or Finnegans Wake and Gravity’s Rainbow, with such grey matter as indeterminacy and inexhaustibility as the very grounds for comparison? Surely one need at least prove that Pynchon has read Joyce.
Consider the evidence for direct influence in this case. In Pynchon’s first short story, “Mortality and Mercy in Vienna,” [8] the protagonist Siegel is accused of having a “still small Jesuit voice” inside him, and his roommate calls him Stephen. But Siegel might be any jesuitical Catholic undergraduate, and the Stephen might as easily refer to St. Stephen or any other Stephen for that matter, as to Stephen Dedalus. Then, in V., the word “mixolydian” crops up as the name of a character, Fergus Mixolydian. This led Joseph Slade to suggest that Pynchon “may have lifted” it from Ulysses, [9] where it appears in Stephen’s drunken soliloquy on intervals in the “Circe” chapter. The name Fergus too might come from Ulysses. Fergus is the subject of a two-stanza song, which originally appeared in Yeats’s play The Countess Cathleen, and which becomes an insidious siren song for Stephen. The Fergus of the song seems to beckon Stephen away from his three-way struggle against Ireland, England, and Mother Church, into a life of indolence and paralysis. Pynchon’s Fergus is described as “the laziest living being in Nueva York,” [10] which is a reference, perhaps, to Stephen’s kind of paralysis. Also, and most tantalizing, is Pynchon’s description of Fergus Mixolydian as an “Irish Armenian Jew and universal man,” [11] which, with simple substitution of Hungarian for Armenian, gives us Leopold Bloom of Ulysses, the cultured “allroundman.” [12] But Joyce and Pynchon may have come independently to the word “mixolydian,” by way of music, where it is a term of art referring to one of the ancient Greek modal scales, and the name Fergus is common enough. To say that Pynchon and Joyce are both great friends of music is hardly grounds for claiming direct influence.
Roger Henkle, another of Pynchon’s appreciative critics, has drawn another parallel between Ulysses and V., this time one of narrrative structure. [13] In Ulysses, Stephen and Bloom celebrate a “mass” together in the “Ithaca” chapter and become “Stoom” and “Blephen” — but this supposedly consubstantial pair rapidly splits up again into two isolated individuals, unable to communicate and afflicted, as is the norm, with cross-purposes. A similar kind of thing happens in V., where “two lines about to converge, miss, and veer away from each other forever.” [14] The Profane and Stencil plots meet late on in the book in Malta, only to diverge again when Stencil leaves abruptly for Stockholm. Henkle sees a canny, not an uncanny, resemblance here; yet nothing in Pynchon’s text, besides the presence of that open-endedness which is basic to almost all contemporary literature, permits us to claim direct influence.
Another example: the “Scylla and Charybdis” chapter of Ulysses sets up various oppositions, notably pitting Aristotelian dogma or the primacy of the senses against Platonic ideals or the “whirlpool” of mysticism. Interestingly enough, Joyce chose to exploit the whirlpool image of Charybdis but not the six-headed-monster image of Scylla. Theosophists and other “yogibogeybox” [15] types do sustain their roles as Charybdis — engulfing the unwary and the credulous. But Stephen, an Aristotelian, is shown as occupying the rock of Scylla, the rock on which mythology says Scylla sat, for Joyce, solid ground. Pynchon seems to have done much the same thing in V.: the waterspout (an inverted whirlpool) which engulfs Sidney Stencil at the very end of the book is opposed to the rock of Malta, exploited at length in Chapter Eleven as a possible metaphor for the incredible staying power of the Maltese people during the Axis bombing of 1942. The waterspout is followed, in the last paragraph of the book, by whitecaps and kelp islands that show “nothing of what came to lie beneath, that quiet June day.” And it occurs within an explicitly defined circle of enchantment, in which an ancient sorceress named Mara holds sway. “Draw a circle from Malta to Lampedusa. Call it a radius.” [16] says Pynchon. Within this circle, the Mediterranean is unpredictable and might contain, as a superstitious sailor puts it, “screw [screw meaning a ship’s propeller as well as other things] — chewing fish.” [17] And, finally, a naval officer thinks to himself:

The Navy would rather blame something alive, preferably human and with a service number, than pure accident. Fish? Mermaid? Scylla, Charybdis, wha. Who knew how many female monsters this Med harbored? [18]

But the Straits of Messina, traditionally the home of Homer’s Scylla and Charybdis, lie just outside Pynchon’s hypothetical circle - very close but definitely outside. This is typical of Pynchon’s flirtation with narrative continuity, as well as of his deliberate sabotage of any effort we might make to connect his Mara to Homer’s Scylla or his rock of Malta to Joyce’s rock of dogma. Likewise with the title of Pynchon’s book: naturally enough, readers of V. endeavor to discover just what or who this V. is. Needless to say, we are never told, though the book reviewers who were given the dubious pleasure of reading and explaining V. within two weeks of its publication back in 1963 did jump to conclusions — most notably the one which says that the lady V. is Herbert Stencil’s mother. The careless reader is indeed invited to believe this is so, just as he is also invited to include Mara in the Greek pantheon of Mediterranean monsters. But Pynchon is careful to undercut his own innuendo: given normal gestation period, the dates of the lady V.’s seduction of Stencil’s father and Stencil’s birth almost, but do not quite, fit.
The most obvious example of this kind of sabotage in Ulysses is the presence, disturbing not only to readers but to the characters themselves, of the famous “man in the brown macintosh.” This personage, highly comic in the “Hades” episode, where, by a simple misunderstanding, he becomes what he wears (Hynes, the reporter covering the funeral, puts his name down as M’lntosh), becomes more complex, like everything else, in the “Circe” chapter — but it never can be said with any certainty just who he is. Critical ingenuity has naturally risen to the occasion, suggesting Moses, Christ, Lucifer, the Wandering Jew, Joyce himself, and so on; but the joke is really on us. Joyce was fond of misunderstandings of all sorts, including typographical errors which he occasionally let stand. It may seem an odd thing to say about a writer so well known for his passion for organizing, but Joyce was a true saboteur. The delight he takes in undermining our assumptions forces us into the disagreeable position of being pedants poking about in old literary ruins, trying to tie up all the loose ends, trying to STOP THAT INFERNAL ECHOING.
All this makes for very problematical comparison. In the case of Joyce and Pynchon, there can be no certainty of direct influence, for the simple reason that both authors are interested in sabotaging all such attempts to achieve absolute clarity. And, when the grounds for proving (if that is the word) indirect influence are that Joyce and Pynchon both write books that refuse to conclude, clearly the next question is why not compare any two author? Why not, say, Gide and Pirandello, or William Gaddis and Frank Stockton, author of that eminently open-ended short story called “The Lady or the Tiger”?
Why not indeed? The burden of proof is surely on the one who would limit the scope of comparison. Michael Wood rather severely chastised Robert Martin Adams, author of a recent book called Afterjoyce: Studies in Fiction after Ulysses, [19] for what he calls Adams’s tendency to “dance up to what looks like a connection, and then decide it isn’t one.” [20] First of all, Adams writes a more confident prose than this comment would seem to indicate. Secondly, Professor Wood is missing the point — namely, that things are and are not connections. A synapse, which is a connector or a vehicle for transference of neural energy impulses, is a gap. This makes it a very peculiar kind of bridge; yet it is a bridge.
A person standing too close to, or looking too closely at, Tinquely’s sculpture when it self-destructed would clearly have been injured. Likewise, a reader who insists on forcing a complete or tidy connection where there is instead a synapse (or, as Stephen says in Ulysses, a pier, a “disappointed bridge”) [21] only hurts himself. As Pynchon says of his tireless quester Herbert Stencil, he faces “leads” that fight back. [22] Incomprehensibility in V., as in Ulysses, is willful, tenacious, even righteous.
The only valid question, then, to ask, regarding the propriety or impropriety of comparing any two given texts, is whether the experience of reading one is enriched by the experience of reading the other. To paraphrase the last line of Archibald Macleish’s “Ars Poetica,” a poem cannot help but mean. Things have a tendency to accrete meaning, and even the disjunctive metaphors of the Dadaists end up suggesting a great deal.
Another modern saboteur, Marcel Duchamp, in 1914 bought in a hardware store, and then exhibited in an art museum, a mass-produced bottlerack. That bottlerack has since been called, by Robert Motherwell, a “sculpture.” [23] We can see Motherwell’s characterization of the bottlerack as a reflection of both of the seemingly opposed notions: 1) what Max Weber called the “routinization of charisma,” [24] whereby sparks of one kind or another — like the revolution of the readymade — are reduced to ashes; and what Duchamp offered as a satirical gesture is adopted by way of the colossal lunacy of the art world as a sacred, that is, routinized, object; and 2) that tendency of things to accrete meaning, whereby the simple and yet immensely complex act of changing the context of a thing (from hardware store to art museum) radically alters our understanding of the nature of art — in which case the bottIerack is now, although it was not in 1914, a sculpture, a beautiful object.
When Joyce juxtaposes Bloom and Homer’s Ulysses, he sets up endless resonances which, before we are through analyzing similarities and differences, will force us onto a wholly new plane of reference, a wholly new understanding of what it means to be heroic. Pynchon, by juxtaposing a model of historical accuracy and a study in unreliable narration, forces us into a new understanding of fiction, of what it means to be a reader. A comparative study of two texts, if it could rid itself of the onus of proving influence, could then address itself, not to the author’s private life, nor to a mere listing of sources, but to the world — to those preoccupations which the two authors have in common, regardless of influence.


[1] See “American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction,” The New York Review, July I5, 1976, p. 37.

[2] References to Ulysses are to the Random House-Vintage paperback edition (New York: 1961). Stephen makes the above comment in the “Nestor” chapter, p. 34.

[3] See Proverbs 1: 20-22.

[4] The Performing Self (New York: Oxford, 1971), p. 21.

[5] Jules Siegel, “Who is Thomas Pynchon ... and why did he run off with my wife?,” Playboy, 24, No.3 (March, 1977), 122. This article, incidentally, is an extremely unreliable source for information on Pynchon’s private life: it is possible, though unlikely, that Pynchon himself wrote it; in any case, what purports to be biography reads a great deal like fiction.

[6] Gravity’s Rainbow, Viking paperback edition (New York: 1973), p. 434.

[7] Professor Eco made this comment in a lecture, entitled “Semiotics of Sign and Semiotics of Text,” delivered at the Maison Française, Columbia University, on November 17, 1976.

[8] First published in Epoch, 9, No.4 (Spring, 1959), 195-213.

[9] Slade, Thomas Pynchon, Vol. 5 of the Writers for the Seventies series, gen. ed. Terence Malley (New York, Warner Books, 1974), p. 251.

[10] References to V. are to the Bantam paperback edition (New York: 1964). The quotation is from p. 45.

[11] Ibid., p. 45.

[12] Ulysses, p. 235.

[13] Henkle, “Pynchon’s Tapestries on the Western Wall,” Modern Fiction Studies, 17 (Summer, 1971), 212.

[14] The quotation is from Richard Patteson’s article, “What Stencil Knew: Structure and Certitude in Pynchon’s V.,” published in Critique, 16, No.2 (1974), 42. In other words, Patteson and Henkle both discuss this aspect of V.; only Henkle, however, makes the connection between V. and Ulysses.

[15] See Ulysses, p. 191.

[16] V., p. 463.

[17] Ibid., p. 406.

[18] Ibid., pp. 406-07.

[19] Robert M. Adams, Afterjoyce: Studies in Fiction After Ulysses (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).

[20] Michael Woord, “Joyce’s Influenza,” The New York Review, October 13, 1977 p. 11.

[21] Ulysses, p. 25.

[22] See V., p. 118.

[23] The Dada Painters and Poets (New York: George Wittenborn, 1951), p. xvii.

[24] Weber, Wirtsschaft under Gesellschaft. Trans. as The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, eds. A.M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1947), pp. 363-73, 386-92. Pynchon uses the phrase, and explicitly attributes it to Weber, in Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 325.

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