Very Nice Indeed: Cyprian Latewood's Masochistic Sublime, and the Religious Pluralism of Against the Day
My paper deals with mythological/religious imagery and syncretic soteriologies in Thomas Pynchon’s 2006 novel Against the Day, focusing in particular on the character of Cyprian Latewood, bisexual spy, Orpheus stand-in, and masochist par excellence. Cyprian’s path throughout the novel is specifically an Orphic descent/return myth, but it also deals with issues of mystical transcendence, metempsychosis, Dionysian ekstasis, and Buddhist nirvana. These are represented at the macro level in themes such as retreat from the world, neo-monasticism, anarchic activism, or hope for transcendent knowledge, and also within specific images and scenes, such as those involving flight, self-negation, disembodied voices, and the final voyage of the Chums of Chance, a Manichaean allegory of escape. Cyprian’s final home at a Bogomil-Orphic monastery near Thrace serves to tie together disparate religio-political strands within the novel, including a syncretic teleology (Gnostic/Buddhist/Manichaean) and countercultural activism. It is simultaneously a retreat from the world – a political move with relevance to the history of the Bogomils as both persecuted sect and social agitators – and also a move towards transcendence through gnostic ritual.
There are a few important results of this reading, touching on religious, mythological, and Pynchon studies, and sexual and political discourse. Firstly, it challenges the ease with which Western, and specifically Christian, ideologies appropriate counter-discourses in acts of cultural hegemony, exemplified in one instance by Kathryn Hume’s early reading of the novel’s ethos as explicitly Roman Catholic, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary (“The Religious and Political Vision of Against the Day”, 2007). Secondly, though other critics have gestured at the presence of Orphism and Buddhism in Against the Day, they have failed to convincingly tie these concerns to a larger conversation around Pynchon’s oeuvre and the meaning of the evolution of the author’s religious vision. None, so far as I know, have commented on the expressly Manichaean concepts in the work, and the consequences of the presence of this specific cosmological binary. Lastly, by making the heroic Cyprian the focus of the novel’s transcendental religious narrative, the author complicates two assumptions which have lingered unquestioned for far too long in Pynchon studies, namely the anti-metaphysics of his earth-centered onto-epistemology, and the inherent homophobia present in a worldview which privileges the nuclear, procreative family structure and seems to use homosexuality and sadomasochism strictly in negative significations, as metaphors for unequal political and economic power dynamics (see Julie Christine Sears’ “Black and White Rainbows and Blurry Lines”). This paper resists the reductive impulse towards conclusiveness, but rather seeks to complicate existing readings while pushing forward into new territory by synthesizing areas of discourse around the author, his works, and mythology and politics, which are usually considered only as discrete entities. Pynchon’s postmodern playfulness in his arrangement of historical, religious, and political signifiers resists organization into a singular narrative, but is rather designed to lead readers to question the ways in which knowledge is produced and belief is rationalized, and to consider alternatives to a future which marches blindly in lockstep with our past and present realities.
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