Gnosticism and Pynchon

So I’ve been exploring a relationship between Pynchon and gnosticism. What first got me going on it was researching something of the characters’ names in Gravity’s Rainbow. I was on Thomas Gwenhidwy. He’s a pretty minor character, but I wanted to dig into his name a bit. He’s a Welsh doctor and I think Pynchon uses Wales because their Christianity was at odds with the Calvinist and Puritan Christianity practiced through most of England and early America: they were less into predestination, the elect and the preterite. Gwenhidwy turns out to be the name of Welsh mermaids. A book on mythological creatures noted that, unlike the mermaids of practically every culture who lure ships to crashing into hidden rocks and reefs, Gwenhidwy does not have any negative connations. On the contrary, she is seen as a shepherd with nine sheeps and a ram – who are the crests of waves.

She works as a symbol in the book because the timing of Gwenhidwy’s scene is during Christmas, and Jesus was the celebrated shepherd of the flock that is humanity. Pynchon’s also a fan of gender mixing, bending since that seems to create a more holistic person, a being better suited to existing between the one and the zero. Gwenhidwy, afterall, is a character of hope. He is “a pocket of color, a holdout agains this whitening day” (p. 170). Instead of using modifiers like “robotic” that connotate lifelessness and a relationship with machines, Pynchon associates Gwenhidwy with life. Cape is “hedgehog colored” (170) and “a robin is peeking out from its nest in his beard” (172). So Gwenhidwy could easily be a part of any hopeful message the book delivers.

When I thought of his first name, Thomas, the first association that jumped in to my head was the Gospel of Thomas, one of the gnostic texts discovered in Nag Hammadi in 1945. Unfortunately, due mostly to academic infighting about who would have access to the documents and could produce scholarshp first (so says Ellen Paegels), the texts werent’ fully translated until the mid-70s, and Paegels didn’t come out with her book (which became a bestseller after the DaVinci Code came out) didn’t appear ’till 1979, which misses the publication of GV.

But, then I found out that some scholars got together and published in English language version of the Gospel of Thomas in 1959! They deemed it the most important text of the find so they got special permission to study, translate, and make available the translation for the public.

Even if Thomas Gwinhedwy isn’t named after the Gospel of Thomas I still think there’s something to be said for Pynchon’s relation to gnosticism. I found that gnostic texts were around in English in the 1920s and 1930s, so he could have been influenced by some of those later writings.

I can’t find a lot of scholarship about Thomas Pynchon and gnosticism, but Dwight Eddins did write a book called The Gnostic Pynchon. It is just unfortunately not part of the Multnomah County Library system so I’ll have to make a trip and hunt it down at PSU. They have it, but I can’t check it out since I’m not a student.

Gnosticism is derived from the Greek word gnosis, which means knowledge derrived from experience. It’s the way someone might know a brother, or lover, or someone with whom one immediately feels a deep, special connection. There are two other Greek words for knowledge: skene and mathein. Skene contributes to our word “science,” and means a sort of rational, logical knowledge. Mathein makes “mathematics” and represents the knowledge that comes from deductive or computational reasoning. So gnosis is this way of gaining knowledge not through systems of computers, dossiers, empiricism, statistics, and Poisson distributions, but through interfacing with the world and everyone else in it, which I think is a very Pynchonian concept; knowledge through discovery rather than knowledge through analysis.

My, admittedly cursory, reserach tells me that many gnostics believed that God did not create humans to rule and control, but that God is in every human and that humanity was a magical process of self-creation, where humans somehow imagined each other into being. Quite poetic, really. So not only does this viewpoint encourage individuals to seek the holy in themselves, it encourages them to reach out and seek the holy by interfacing with the godlike pieces in everyone around them. I’ve also learned that “orthodox” Christians frequently accused gnostics of having “unorthodox” sex, which might be a clue to some of Pynchon’s pornographic scenes.

My next post will probably be about mandrakes.


2 Responses

  1. […] – bookmarked by 1 members originally found by hotsaucelakers on 2008-11-19 Gnosticism and Pynchon – bookmarked by 5 members […]

  2. […] dirt and weeds and undergrowth than elect steel and paper and upper atmosphere. A blog post on Gnostic elements of Gwenhidwy’s character points out that Gwenhidwy’s described as “a pocket of color, a holdout against this […]

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