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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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Following on from posts by @lizith and @ORGMotivation, this is a brief post to explain my current research in plain English.

A quick precursor. In many research projects, communicating what you are doing involves making a justification for the research. If that is not immediately obvious, then often the explanation in "plain English" involves making that rationale perspicuous. I'd just like to make it clear that I do not intend to attempt to justify esoteric literature studies in this post. I have done so elsewhere and truly believe that better understanding of cultural artefacts contributes a great deal to our society, but there are people who think otherwise. It would be too distracting to table this topic here.


Thomas Pynchon and Philosophy

Why have governments feared fiction to the point of burning books? Is it because they are powerless and shallow, or can the novel conceal subversive depths? How would we find such depths? My research addresses these questions in fiction through side-by-side readings of the fiction of Thomas Pynchon and various schools of philosophy, and how the two interact.

Thomas Pynchon is the "reclusive" author (no photos of him for almost 50 years) of several critically acclaimed masterpieces, from V. through The Crying of Lot 49, to Gravity's Rainbow, Vineland, Mason & Dixon and Against the Day. These are not works of fiction which merely tell stories. They are provocative works in which no obvious interpretation is forthcoming. In short: they require a great deal of thought to appreciate.

They are also notoriously wide-ranging. Gravity's Rainbow, for instance, has over 400 characters and spans so many topics that a totalising interpretation would be impossible. It seems, therefore, that we need some manner of "enabling constraint" -- meaning: a rationale that limits, but therefore allows us to say something limited, as opposed to nothing -- to get anywhere.

Taking my cue from the presence of Ludwig Wittgenstein in Pynchon's V., I propose philosophical readings as such an enabling constraint. There is, however, a certain resistance to such an approach in many institutions who prefer the other pole of literary studies, history (ie. studying the interaction, and place, of works with, and in, history). I attempt to reconcile these poles of philosophy and history through readings of philosophers at each stage in their career, so for Wittgenstein, there are three distinct phases and I am reading each one alongside Pynchon for differences and similarities. To be clear: I am not looking to work out whether Pynchon had read these philosophers; that would be historical. I am also not looking for explicit engagement with surface imagery; that would be a crude "application" eg. "Wittgenstein talks about ways of seeing, and SO DOES PYNCHON!!" Instead, I attempt to look at the context in which Pynchon embeds philosophical tropes and work from this.

While this may appear highly esoteric, it yields stunning political and ethical insights into Pynchon's works and also provides, I feel, a new more rigorous and (dare I say) portable methodology for philosophical readings of literary works.

Featured image by mafleen under a CC-BY-NC-SA license.