Monday, August 30, 2010


From Gravity's Rainbow, pages 775-776 (2006 Viking Edition):
The rhythmic clapping resonates inside these walls, which are hard and glossy as coal: Come-on! Start-the-show! Come-on! Start-the-show! The screen is a dim page spread before us, white and silent. The film has broken, or a projector bulb has burned out. It was difficult even for us, old fans who've always been at the movies (haven't we?) to tell which before the darkness swept in. The last image was too immediate for any eye to register. It may have been a human figure, dreaming of an early evening in each great capital luminous enough to tell him he will never die, coming outside to wish on the first star. But it was not a star, it was falling, a bright angel of death. And in the darkening and awful expanse of a screen something has kept on, a film we have not learned to see... it is now just a closeup of a face, a face we all know—
And it is just here, just at this dark and silent frame, that the pointed tip of the Rocket, falling nearly a mile per second, absolutely and forever without sound, reaches its last unmeasurable gap above the roof of this old theatre, the last delta-t. 
There is time, if you need the comfort, to touch the person next to you, or to reach between your own cold legs... or, if song must find you, here's one They never taught anyone to sing, a hymn by William Slothrop, centuries forgotten and out of print, sung to a simple and pleasant air of the period. Follow the bouncing ball:
                       There is a Hand to turn the time,
                       Thought thy Glass today be run,
                       Till the Light that hath brought the towers low
                       Find the last poor Pret'rite one...
                       Till the Riders sleep by ev'ry road,
                       All through our crippl'd Zone,
                      With a face on ev'ry mountainside,
                      And a Soul in ev'ry stone....
Now everybody—
I'm not even going to try to analyze everything that's going on here. I'm not even close to capable of doing so, and even if I were (big if), I'm not sure that anyone could. But there is an image here that speaks to my life-as-it-is these days, while I sit on Beinecke Plaza back on campus. The last delta-t.

A friend recently told me that she thought of that concept as a picture of the world collapsing -- not in the conventional sense of the Rocket's explosion and consequent death of everyone in the theatre, but how that last moment, the last delta-t, is reality falling apart into physics. At that last moment, motion and time cease to matter. Form collapses. The only meaningful conception of everything is the presence of the tiny, imperceptible, currently-theoretical fundamental subatomic particles and the empty space that makes up the immensity around each of them. Before the rocket does anything, we become Nothingness. Our lives and our experiences crash and dissolve into mathematics.

But even so, we do not perceive that collapse. At the very last instant before the Rocket hits, the world still is, even if there's nothing we can do to alter that fate. However, I think that the world would look nothing like how we perceive it now. The knowledge of imminent death on the part of terminal patients long before their deaths seems to change them radically, I can only imagine that moment that all of us will at one point share, the last moment before death, does something infinitely more chaotic and infinitely more radical. What would I feel at that precise instant? What would I be thinking of? What would I see, and hear? How would my reality change, or expand, or break apart?

I can't answer those questions. I don't know if anyone can, or if we'll ever be able to. But it feels to me like at that very last delta-t, the minutiae of daily life and the accepted rules -- social, physical, and otherwise -- of reality cease to matter. All that matters is that final tingling of sensation, whatever that may be: from Pynchon's examples of companionship and sexual gratification, to those things that give us solace, or make us find and build meanings or reasons or rationalizations, or joy, or fear, or transcendence, or an inseparability and indistinguishably complete blending with that which we in our arrogance consider to be apart from us, or a sickening grotesqueness (as Pirate Prentice conceives of early in the book when he thinks of that last moment as a rocket hit him precisely on the head, as the tip pressed into his skull), or wholeness or emptiness, or the fullness of life bound wholly unto the fullness of death. Circularity.

That consideration has been important for me, as I try as one of my major intellectual projects to find a way to reconcile my life as a Literature major with a penchant for theory that exists under many labels, many of which are considered "postmodern", with a persistent respect, fascination, and love for science (thanks for the sentence construction, Leah Hauge at Whore of All the Earth). I can't bring myself to think that the two are irreconcilable, however vitriolic the differences and arguments betwixt may seem. There has to be a third way. And that's what the image, beautiful and pure and horrifying and whole, of the last delta-t is for me. It is that moment where subjectivity becomes most important, even in the most oppressive bounds of objective reality. The ultimate constriction of a scientifically-based reality, the calculable parabolic arc of a rocket shot into the sky approaching in its final descent, pulled faster and faster towards the end by a force or by the invariable underlying structure of spacetime in gravity's rainbow, releases us fully even as it fully restrains us, creating the space for a sensory experience liberated from every stricture and every rule. The subjective and the objective become one. 

I hope, with all my heart, that there's a way to do that. I hope I can find what that means before the last moment comes knocking. But until then, I'll be damned if I don't at least try -- because I have no other choice. Here I live, lost at the crossroads of literature, science, and (post)modernity.

Now everybody