Gravity's Rainbow Title
In Genesis 9:13-15, the first rainbow is a token of God's covenant not to destroy humanity again or not with a flood, anyway. As an old spiritual has it: "God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water, the fire next time."
One reading of the title is that "gravity's rainbow" is the parabola of a ballistic missile's flight, halted on the final page a "last unmeasurable gap... the last delta-t" over our heads: fiery destruction held in abeyance. For now.
The connection between the parabolic flight path of the Rocket and a rainbow is made explicit in an important discussion of the rocket's trajectory (p. 209):
- "But it is a curve each of them feels, unmistakably. It is the parabola. They must have guessed, once or twice guessed and refused to believe that everything, always, collectively, had been moving toward that purified shape latent in the sky, that shape of no surprise, no second chances, no return. Yet they do move forever under it, reserved for its own black-and-white bad news certainly as if it were the Rainbow, and they its children...."
Not universally known is the working title that the manuscript circulated with in publishing houses before it was changed: Mindless Pleasures. Many paperback houses got the manuscript under that title to read for paperback consideration. At least one person claims to still have it that way. That title picks up a concept articulated in Pynchon's first published short story, The Small Rain.
Why isn't it called "Mindless Pleasures" or one of the myriad other working titles (none of which I can remember, but they're hilarious and I just looked for an hour and can't for the life of me remember where I saw them all) it possessed prior to its settling on that perfect title. One interpretation that "gravity's rainbow" is the parabola described by the rocket's trajectory from launch to hit, as the projectile gradually loses its battle with gravity and is finally pulled back to earth following Brennschluss. This interpretation is reinforced by the original hard-cover editions of Gravity's Rainbow, which have a parabola intaglioed into the front cover. But! There are, as usual, many ways to skin this cat, to wit:
Gravity's rainbow could also be the many colors synthesized from coal-tar:
- "To find that Gravity [...] is really something eerie, Messianic, extrasensory in Earth's mindbody...having hugged to its holy center the wastes of dead species, gathered, packed, transmuted, realigned, and rewoven molecules to be taken up again by the coal-tar Kabbalists of the other side [...]" 590
- "We passed over the coal-tars. A thousand different molecules waited in the preterite dung. [...] This is one meaning of mauve, the first new color on Earth, leaping to Earth's light from its grave miles and aeons below." 166
Andrew Dinn Speculates
The following is one-time Pynchon List member Andrew Dinn's speculation:
Leafing for a second time through a collection of Rilke's poems the other day, I noticed again, and this time paid attention to, a poem called "Schwerkraft ("Gravity") written in October 1924. I believe it is very likely to be be a source for Pynchon's title. Here is the poem:
- Mitte, wie du aus allen
- dich ziest, auch noch aus Fliegenden dich
- wiedergewinnst, Mitte, du Staerkste.
- Stehender: wie ein Trank den Durst
- Durchstuerzt ihn die Schwerkraft.
- Doch aus dem Schlafenden faellt,
- wie aus lagernder Wolke,
- reichlicher Regen der Schwere.
The (not particularly lovely) translation I have is by Michael Hamburger and goes as follows:
- Centre, how from them all :you draw yourself, even from flying creatures :win back yourself, centre, the strongest.
- The standing man
- as drink through thirst
- gravity rushes through him.
- But from the sleeper falls,
- as from a cloud at rest,
- gravity's plentiful rain.
As far as my small German (and my not very large dictionary) goes, "Schwerkraft" is definitively "gravity," the attractive force, whereas "Schwere" in the last line suggests more gravity as in seriousness, although it can stand in for "Schwerkraft."
So, why is this a source for the title? Well, the mere mention of rain and gravity in the last line ought to be cause enough for speculation, as should the whole conceit of gravity/seriousness as a central force, weighing on those who try to stand against it, dragging down those who try to fly away.
But consider also the contrast in the second and third stanzas between the standing or striving? man, on whom gravity hangs heavy like an anchor chain and the sleeping man floating like a cloud, shedding his heaviness. Mindlessness, dreaming, has its own particular pleasures and achieves some form of liberation from heaviness, seriousness.
And, of course, after shedding one's burden of gravity like a rain shower, what else would you expect in the calm which follows the storm but a rainbow?
Jules Siegel Speculates
Jules was Pynchon's roommate at Cornell and they stayed in touch for some years after graduating. In the early 1980s, Jules wrote an article for Playboy magazine, "Who is Thomas Pynchon, and Why Did He Run Away With My Wife?". More here...
The following are Jules Siegel's speculations, with input from Sean Klein:
At 01:17 PM 05/21/97 PDT, wrote: [snip material about clarity, etc.]
I think that Pynchon is at his most superior when he's writing clearly. Someone said earlier that his writing is actually often quite clear, but his plots are difficult. I think that's because he doesn't have plots in the conventional sense. It's one of the more appealing qualities of his writing. You don't have to begin Gravity's Rainbow at the beginning. There is no beginning. It does open with a specific scene, but the book's organization is topological rather than logical. It describes a space and its contents, which relate to each other the way furniture and decorations in a room relate to the room and to each other. There is some sense of chronological time, but it is not very important in the novel's structure, which takes you through an exploration of a multi-dimensional map.
The space described by this map is Gravity's Rainbow the parabola of the rocket vs the arc of the rainbow, but also the whole range of life as seen in the most primitive form just shit rearranging itself in new forms through eternity. I think that's the reason for so much fecal imagery.
When I first started corresponding with Andrew Dinn, I wrote:
- "I wonder if anyone has commented on what it means: we are Gravity's Rainbow. You know the spectrum is a manifestation of light energy. So Gravity's Rainbow would be the spectrum of gravity all that has mass, I guess. But I don't really think it applies, because gravity isn't energy; it's an effect of the shape of space, supposedly. I think that gravity's really just another manifestation of what we call sexual attraction, love, that which brings one to join with another."
- "Bravo Jules, but you should be writing this to the list. Others have played with that idea but usually without communicating what lies behind it so succinctly and cogently."
This is how I got involved in all this to begin with. Thanks a lot, Andrew. But let us continue. I wrote that on the basis of skimming the book in 1974. In the past few weeks I've been looking through it more carefully. I think my initial reaction was correct.
Gravity's Rainbow is the Periodic Table of the Elements acted out by cartoon puppets. Think of a school play with kids in colored costumes being the different colors of the spectrum Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet and acting out little skits with songs symbolizing the nature of each color. Now extend the metaphor to the Elements, only use weirdos to play them. They are kind of crawling around in the muck bopping each other like the Three Stooges. They rise up in spirit and become beautiful and glowing and then they sink back into the muck again or the Rocket sinks them again. Or They contrive to keep them down.
These are preliminary thoughts. My main point is that the book is about the leap from shit through flesh to spirit and that this process is Gravity's Rainbow. The process is not described as a linear plot, but as eruptions along a continuum. The continuum is not any place in particular but the stuff of the book itself. If you look through the book, you'll find specific references to gravity as a manifestation of the life force and the planet as a living organism.
With a book of this magnitude with so many subjects and so many mystical and mathematical allusions, *any* number can be made to seem a significant number.
This is very true and is the basis of most mystical numerological confabulation.
I think it's helpful to look at mathematical representations of feedback, the way a rocket homes in on a target.
When you look at astrological signs as descriptions of states of energy this becomes even more interesting:
Seeds Springing forward Fire
Planting Ploughing forward Earth
Leaves and Flowers Opening outward Air
Nursing breasts Condensing tides Water
Fruits Blazing summer Fire
Harvest Cooling off Earth
Weighing Diffusion Air
Storage Privacy Water
Hunting Arrow flight Fire
Forage Nimble Earth
Lightning Crackling Air
Rain Falling Water
Astrology is an agricultural almanac. Each sign represents a state of energy. Fire, Earth, Air and Water are actually almost exactly equivalent to Plasma, Solid, Gas, and Liquid. In the system above, you can see that a growth cycle is being described, beginning with the enthusiastic spurt of the germinating seed, which then turns to the plodding cow, then to the opening of the buds of the leaves and so on.
Each state of energy is opposite to (or a correction of) the previous one, but in a different direction. Now remove the astrological symbolism and simply view the transformations of energy as the underlying state of the cosmos. Whether you then translate this as Tarot or Astrology or I-Ching or whatever, you are always dealing with the same process of self correcting feedback.
In other words, Gravity's Rainbow.
© Jules Siegel