Gravity’s Rainbow: Drugs, the Counterforce, and the Beats

Topics: Beat Generation, Thomas Pynchon, Jack Kerouac Pages: 21 (7670 words) Published: March 18, 2011
Laura De Vos
January 2009
The American Historical Novel after 1950
Luc Herman and Petrus Van Ewijk

Gravity’s Rainbow: Drugs, the Counterforce, and the Beats


Just as the ghost of Rathenau claims that “secular history is a diversionary tactic” (GR 167[1]), I want to investigate in this essay how drugs can be a “diversionary tactic,” both in the world of the novel as that of the writer. All layers of society in the novel use drugs, from Pointsman (GR 168-169) to Tchitcherine (known as the “Red Doper” [GR 719]), to the members of the Counterforce, such as Säure Bummer and Slothrop[2]. The people in the Counterforce use drugs as a way of resistance, because “They’re the rational ones. We piss on Their rational arrangements. Don’t we . . . Mexico?” (GR 639) But it is exactly because the Counterforce is actively trying to be unorganized and unstructured (and in this way the opposite of “Them”) (Moore 123), that they cannot lay any weight on the System and so that they cannot make a difference. They are intimidated by the System, a System that is a part of everyone who grew up in it. For both of these reasons they will never be able to escape it: “The Man has a branch office in each of our brains, his corporate emblem is a white albatross, each local rep has a cover known as the Ego, and their mission in this world is Bad Shit. We do know what’s going on, and we let it go on” (GR 712-713). The members of the Counterforce are just keeping themselves happy with their personal resistance. Susan E. H. Davis admits that the Counterforce is a failure, but she claims that this is mostly the case because “it functions as an organization and so contradicts its own ideals” (Davis 199). The individual rebellions “offer cause for hope,” because they prove that “the Zone is far from being under control.” (Davis 199) The System, however, does not really mind that type of resistance, because it does not really hurt it; the System can go on with business as usual. As Thomas Moore puts it: “They may decide to simply ignore individual heroism, mystery, magic, ignoring it being tantamount to obliterating it, since to be “unauthorized” is in Their terms not to exist” (Moore 120). When the members of the Counterforce put themselves outside the system, they will never be able to really change anything about that system. All their efforts will easily be ignored. To really mean something you need to be as big a group as possible, you cannot change the System on your own. The story of Byron the Bulb teaches us exactly this: as a “Babybulb” he wanted to organize the bulbs, “get him a power base in Berlin, he’s already hep to the Strobing Tactic” (GR 648). But soon enough he learns that They have divided and conquered the people and have made them too passive to organize themselves. “Byron in the end feels himself “condemned to go on forever, knowing the truth and powerless to change anything. No longer will he seek to get off the wheel. His anger and frustration will grow without limit, and he will find himself, poor perverse bulb, enjoying it” (GR 655)” (Moore 146-147). Individual resistance is not enough, it cannot change the world. When you are on your own, “knowledge is not power but proof of impotence” (Hite 15). This failure of the Counterforce, partly induced by their drug use, reminds us of the failure of the Beat Generation. Pynchon, in Slow Learner, acknowledges the influence of the Beats, and of Jack Kerouac in particular, on his writing. This inspired me to investigate possible parallels between the anarchic Counterforce in Gravity’s Rainbow and the Beats. From this comparison it will be obvious that Gravity’s Rainbow is not only a novel about the 1940s, but also about the time in which Pynchon wrote the novel. History seems to repeat itself constantly; what happened with the Beats happened again with the hippies and seems to be exactly what is happening to the Counterforce in Gravity’s Rainbow.

The Beat...

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