Weisenburger's Companion, 2nd Edition
The Pleasures of the Text in the Information Age
by Donald F. Larrson
Before the 1973 publication of Gravity’s Rainbow, it was already clear from V. and The Crying of Lot 49 that Thomas Pynchon required an unusual range of erudition (or at least the will to such erudition) from his readers. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, Jacobean revenge tragedies, the Fashoda crisis, the Herero uprising, bebop jazz, Hanna-Barbera cartoons, Henry Adams and Robert Graves, electrical circuitry, entropy and Maxwell’s Demon, philately and postal history—no frame of reference would be out of bounds. With the narrative complexity and sheer length of Gravity’s Rainbow, those frames of reference proliferated exponentially, yet something larger than allusion alone seemed to be at stake here. James Joyce had claimed that the “enigmas and puzzles” of Ulysses “would keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant,” but Gravity’s Rainbow for all the enigmatic quality of its narrative is not a puzzle begging a solution. To read the text is not just to be drawn into its carefully detailed Zone of post-war Europe, a concatenation of the grimmest realities and the most outlandish fantasies; the novel’s references simultaneously expel us back into the emerging Rocket City of our own destructive present. Professors or not, we are almost forced to become researchers, veering between the poles of paranoia and anti-paranoia, the twin certainties that everything in both the text and the world is connected and that nothing is connected, looking for, perhaps fearing, confirmation in an image, a context or a quote.
Thus, fifteen years later, Pynchon’s readers—not all of them professors, to be sure—were delighted to see Steven Weisenburger take up the challenge of the book’s allusiveness in A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel. Weisenburger managed to gloss definitions and unpack textual and historical sources, while providing synopses of the main events in each of the book’s episodes, handy enough for a first-time reader. But Weisenburger went even farther, noting that these definitions and sources reveal that the novel’s four sections each coincide with key events in the Christian liturgical calendar; moreover, Weisenburger contended, these four sections form a mandala, symbolic of a redeeming wholeness. As Weisenburger puts it, while the rainbow of the rocket’s path is an arch that ends in destruction, “the shape of Gravity’s Rainbow is circular” .. Still, Weisenburger admits, “The narrative approaches, but avoids, closure” , a point seized on by N. Katherine Hayles in her review of the Companion’s first edition for Pynchon Notes. The “narrative’s frequent spinoffs into other times and places,” Hayles argues, make this “indistinct mandala . . . a figure that can barely be discerned through extensive smearing and stretching [rather] than a sharply drawn structure” , even though, she concludes, the book “succeeds even when it fails . . . better at stimulating discussion than foreclosing inquiry” .
Inquiry, of course, was not foreclosed. Over the last two decades, readers have advanced new questions, discovered additional sources, and proposed new hypotheses for references that Companion had not dealt with, had not covered fully, or had gotten just plain wrong. And here I must confess that I was one of those readers, spurred to delve into the library stacks at first to clear up certain matters, mostly to do with film and popular culture, which I posted to Steven Weisenburger. Later, I had the chutzpah to put this (and further) information up on a web site, “A Companion’s Companion: Illustrated Additions and Corrections to Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion”, which in turn prompted readers to contact me with additional corrections, questions, sources and hypotheses. So, I admit that I (and, by extension, my own contributors) am flattered to have been cited several times by Weisenburger in the long-awaited second edition, revised and expanded, of the Companion.
This new edition is some seventy pages longer than the original, with additions and corrections that lend greater clarity to Pynchon’s sources and allusions, now keyed to the year 2000 Penguin edition of the novel as well as the original Viking and Bantam editions. New source material used by Pynchon is revealed, there are eight pages of maps and illustrations, and some of the novel’s most perplexing mysteries are answered, among them the reference to the Kenosha Kid and the source of the epigram from Wernher von Braun for Part 1: Beyond the Zero. Although Weisenburger finds even more reason to trust his previous argument for Gravity’s Rainbow’s circular design, he has also taken account of the criticisms raised by Bernard Duyfuizen and others regarding specific time references in the novel that turn out to be “loose and much more impressionistic than one might expect from the narrative’s concision elsewhere” , appropriate, he admits, to “a fiction that so accents fantasies and dreamscapes, as well as historical events shrouded and nimbused by uncertainty, haunted by ghosts” . Katherine Hayles’ claim that Weisenburger’s first edition was “a book that no serious Pynchon scholar can afford to neglect”  holds even truer for this edition—true too, I would argue, for any reader willing to plumb the novel’s depths.
And yet . . . The appearance of this new edition in the year 2006 poses two sets of issues for the reader, one practical and one more theoretical. First, despite the careful attention to detail of Weisenburger and his contributors, we all (myself included) managed to miss certain errors of fact in the first edition that persist into the second. For example (all references are keyed to the Viking edition pages of Gravity’s Rainbow that come first in both editions of the Companion), Rigoletto and La Boheme are both termed “comic” operas (V132.20-21); the first name of César Flebotomo is traced to a non-existent origin as “the Etruscan/Latin title for a dictator” (V184.33); “Electric Charlie” Wilson, past President of General Electric and government official, is confused with Charles Coffin, GE’s founder; and the misprint reference to “Dr. Stanley Livingstone” (V624.18) still stands, as does the reference to Thor’s hammer as “Mullicrusher” (V709.39). An overreliance on Baedeker for place references misses Zurich’s Gemusebrucke (“Gemüse-Brücke” in GR, V261.29), aka “Rathausbrücke” in the city’s market district. The town of Wismar is still placed 15 miles southeast of Rostock (V567.33), when it is actually about 30 miles southwest. The entry on Todd Browning’s Freaks (V534.11) still gets the ending wrong. And there is still the questionable relevance of Weisenburger’s citation (V588.5) of a misprinted photo of Wernher von Braun in the Avon paperback edition of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo-Jumbo when the photo was printed correctly in the original Bantam paperback edition. U.s.w.
Some emendations and corrections in the new Companion create a few new errors. A gloss on the astrological sign of Taurus (V152.16) defines the word correctly as “bull,” but adds “Hence also ‘Minotaur,’ the [tautological] Bull of Taurus.” The entry on Lawrence of Arabia (V201.15) is somewhat more accurate than in the first edition, but still refers to Lawrence as leading “Turkish insurgents,” an appellation likely to be rejected by those Arabs who fought with Lawrence against Turkish Ottoman control. A note on the Rex Theatre in Antwerp (V546.24-25) refers to William Wellman co-starring in Buffalo Bill, the film that Wellman actually directed and that starred Joel McCrea. While Weisenburger correctly notes the origin of Spaniols (actually a regional variant of Ladino-speaking populations) in Jews expelled from Spain (V549.21-32), he refers to the latter as “Ashkenazik Jews” when they are actually Sephardic. U.s.w.
Despite such slips, the Companion is still invaluable to Pynchon’s readers for the many more entries that it gets right, for the access to cross-referencing that such a book can provide, and for the narrative and symbolic contexts that Weisenburger assigns for these many references. Yet the errors also point to the larger theoretical questions surrounding such a project as A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion or any similar work of literary scholarship in the Internet Age. If in less than a day, with only Google at my fingertips, I could confirm the errors cited above, then couldn’t a research assistant or a University of Georgia Press fact-checker have done the same? And, for that matter, can’t any reader do the same? How many of us have stared at the yet-unopened mass of Against the Day, wondering whether to commit to one, long read-through or to risk the potentially endless distraction of keying in each reference as we read, unpacking contexts as we pack in the text while discovering new labyrinths to wander in? And what happens to the notion of scholarly authority, the apparatus of peer review, and the place of publication in the routinization of academic labor when “amateurs” (whose name and work are rooted in “love”) have the potential to get the first word and the last laugh on the arguing professors? Even as I write (for publication perhaps a year or more hence), Tim Ware, “curator” of the HyperArts Pynchon Pages has established a Pynchon Wiki for each of Pynchon’s novels (and more), a sort of electronic Tristero system that depends on a literary collectivity operating within, alongside, and yet separate from traditional scholarship.
But to what end? There is a somewhat mindless pleasure to be had in discovering a postcard of Fred Roper and His Wonderful Midgets, but does it serve any purpose? Are we all just newer versions of Oedipa Maas at Berkeley, “whiz[zes] at pursuing strange words” (Lot 49, 76) but not much else? Perhaps not, for if, as I have suggested, Pynchon’s referentiality propels us from the page back into the world by necessity, then the Internet offers the chance of a parallel world wherein we may find each other. And even works such as A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion may still direct us to new paths of understanding that go beyond mere allusion. But as reader-scholars, we must choose which path to take. With such aids, Gravity’s Rainbow (or any book) can be “a Text, to be picked to pieces, annotated, explicated, and masturbated till it’s all squeezed limp of its last drop” (V520), or it can be ours “to permute and combine into new revelations, always unfolding” (V 727). Which—as Pynchon might ask—do you want it to be?
- Weisenburger, Steven. A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel, 1st ed. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1988, Introduction, p.11
- Ibid, p.11
- Hayles, N. Katherine. "Fractured Mandala: The Inescapable Ambiguities of Gravity’s Rainbow," Pynchon Notes 24-25 (1989), p. 131
- Ibid, p. 132
- Weisenburger. A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel. 2nd ed. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2006
- Ibid, p.12
- Hayles, K., p. 129