The thing whose address I lost is not the End, it's the Beginning.
Let us begin with the redemptive possibilities of the Perfect Rocket. If
we have faith that the rocket does not fall, then we may want to emphasize
in the final aposiopesis not its demand for completeness but rather its
intervention. Jean-François Lyotard defines postmodernity as "incredulity
toward metanarratives" (xxiv), which may provide an important way of
thinking about the end of Gravity's Rainbow. The suspension of the
final line could itself represent such a refusal of further credence, or
to adapt the old Coleridgean formula, a reactivation of disbelief. Surely
it is in our interest to disbelieve apocalypses, at least those of the holocaust
variety. As Tanner warns: "If we as readers try to win away one narrative
'system' from the book, we are in danger of repeating mentally what They
are doing in building the rocket" (82). Why endorse a death wish? Better
to live in an ellipse of narrative uncertainty than to accept a fatalist
vision. Pynchon's invocation of holocaust is just a fiction after all, and
if we read this way the final dash might mark our disengagement from the
text, the point at which we tell ourselves it's only a novel. No
literary apocalypse has (yet) exhibited any illocutionary force. We close
the book, assuring ourselves that it's not the end of the world. So far,
This response proceeds from an old-fashioned, humanistic or sunshine scenario
of interpretation, one that is informed not by post-rhetorical indeterminacy
but by a fairly traditional enlightenment teleology. It assumes that the
world needs to be secured for reason and democracy, which goal all serious
fiction must serve. As Leo Bersani points out, Gravity's Rainbow
may not be "serious" by this or any other measure, and there is
much in in the text that militates against such a reading. But nonetheless
the sunshine scenario needs to be explored, since it is a part of the cultural
crisis in which Gravity's Rainbow is implicated.
The rhetorical or humanist reading of the ending stresses redemptive disengagement.
Although Pynchon dangles that warhead over your head, you are saved because
the narrative allows you to decouple at a point before the last time
change, or delta-t, takes effect. You are thus reminded of your brinksmanship,
which is to say your capacity for moral choice and action in a desperate
predicament. You can rethink your situation as a dweller under Gravity's
Rainbow, the intercontinental arc of the retaliatory covenant, which allows
you to opt for life and peace. So a number of critics have argued, anyway.
Bersani charges these readers with dwelling on "the sixties side of
Pynchon" (101) or to borrow a phrase from Pynchon's latest work, "the
Mellow Sixties" (Vineland, 38). Indeed such interpretations
often take their strongest warrant fromThe Crying of Lot 49 (1966),
whose ending deliberately suspends the hermeneutic process one step from
full revelation, with Oedipa Maas awaiting an utterance the reader will
never overhear. It remains to be seen whether the terminal logic of Gravity's
Rainbow works in quite the same way.
There are some hopeful indicators. The film in the old theatre ends in some
kind of accident, a breakdown either in the film itself or the projector.
Perhaps this failure of linear sequence raises possibilities for evasion
or resistance. The world is no longer being projected for us; we may finally
come to understand the "film we have not learned to see" (760).
After the break, someone flashes the words of a song on the dark screen,
and signficantly it is a song that "They never taught anyone to sing."
In fact it is a hymn by William Slothrop, a tragic figure who might have
steered colonial America toward social justice had he not been deported
to England for heresy (647-48). "Song is the magic cape," we are
told elsewhere (701). If we believe in William and Tyrone Slothrop instead
of Pointsman and Weissmann, if we concentrate on songs and not rockets,
then perhaps we can learn how to live under a suspended sentence. Aposiopesis,
after all, is both a self-silencing and an opening to other voices. Pynchon's
final dash might literally invoke us, opening the narrative in its last
moment to a revolutionary chorus. Perhaps the last line means to say (as
its context literally suggests): Now everybody sing .
But this outbreak of sunshine will have to be brief. Any choral finale for
Gravity's Rainbow must reverberate strongly against another postwar
apocalypse, Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, Or How I learned to Stop
Worrying and Love the Bomb. The resonance between these two texts establishes
the limits of liberal optimism (which even in his subtitle Kubrick sets
out to demolish). Both Pynchon's novel and Kubrick's film show how the second
world war maps onto the not-so-mellow sixties and both finish up on the
brink of doomsday. But where Pynchon is ambiguous, Kubrick is more simply
sardonic, so he makes no appeal to projectile metaphysics or parabolic transcendence.
His film is darkest satire. Its vehicle (in every sense of the word) is
the bomber epic: Twelve O'Clock High meets the Doomsday Clock. According
to the conventions of this genre, that which flies is necessarily that which
falls. If our boys are "really good," the payload must get through.
So Major Kong wrangles his 20-megaton bronco to detonation and the picture
ends in multiple thermonuclear orgasm as the Soviet genocide machine goes
off. Over the closing montage of H-bomb footage we hear a song: "We'll
Meet Again," which was a great favorite during the Second World War.
In the version on the soundtrack the audience joins on the chorus. Now everybody
"We'll meet again" is a line with particularly rich freight for
the occasion. Among other things, it repeats the irony of Kubrick's subtitle:
in the end we must stop worrying and learn to love the bomb and its way
of life. Prophecies of holocaust come and go, leaving us alive and always
at the movies. Of course we'll meet again some sunny day, even if that light
we see breaking through the clouds is actually the fireball over Bikini
Atoll. Or since the mode here is ironic, we can also read more darkly. Of
course we'll meet again, you and I, where "you" designates the
hypocrite reader or moviegoer and "I" the sinister cold warrior,
Doctor Strangelove or Richard Milhous Zhlubb. Or possibly, what we will
meet again is not a person but an entire cultural gestalt, the wartime ethos
for which Kubrick's song stands in vivid metonymy. This last possibility
seems especially mordant, sinceDr. Strangelove implies (pace
the Air Force motto, "Peace is Our Profession") that World War
II never really ended.