Coloring Gravity's Rainbow

N. Katherine Hayles and Mary B. Eiser, in Pynchon Notes #16, Spring 1985

The possibility of co-option is inherent in the way Pynchon constructs his critique. He can create color within his text only by naming it, and he can name it only by classifying it as distinct and identifiable hues. Similarly, we can participate in Pynchon's creation of color only by decoding his color names, which implies that both reader and author are implicated in reducing the rainbow's "endless streaming" to the distinct hues of Newton's spectrum. At the same time, Pynchon's color coding achieves its force because it utilizes Newton's rules for color combination and refraction to creat precise transformations that connect the color names with such far-reaching themes as racism, the link between the dye and munitions industry, and the effect of synthetic chemicals and drugs upon the fragmented consciousness that they both create and control. As the color names become linked with these thematic concerns, a pervasive ambiguity arises: are Pynchon's acts of naming colors an escape from routinization, or an extension of "Their" totalizing patterns?
Pynchon's strategies are correspondingly convoluted. They progress by defining colors through binary oppositions, then by seeking ways to elude or transform the very categories that give the colors significance. The overarching color code consists of a progressive bleaching of color, from the blackness of Pirate's opening dream to the whiteness of Gottfried's descent at the end. Within this framing black/white dichotomy, colors appear not "at random," but as systematic combinations in which complementary colors are paired. Newton showed that when a color is joined with its complement, the combination yields either black or white. The appearance of color in complementary pairs therefore suggests that color is constantly at risk, in danger of collapsing into one or the other of the framing dichotomy's terms.
When colors arise that can mediate between the black/white poles, the implicit hope is that some way may be found to escape the rule of the excluded middle. When color disappears, it is a sign that the binary oppositions of a routinized mentality have taken over. The codes that govern this complex emergence and disappearance of color can be illustrated by three color groupings: the black-red-white triad, the three most pervasive colors; the blue/yellow complements associated with Gottfried and Enzian; and the color transformations that Slothrop undergoes.

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