Encyclopedic Arc: Gravity’s Rainbow and Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia

By Carl Gutierrez-Jones.

Published by The International Journal of the Book

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

The critical response to Gravity’s Rainbow has been strongly shaped by an interest in the politics of language. Pynchon’s exploration of language politics invites an array of questions, many involving the individual’s cooptation by paranoia-inspiring bureaucratic structures and the prospects for subversion of, or escape from, these forces. These questions frequently lead critics to consider the structure of the narrative itself and its political implications. As part of this process, the novel has been read as an example of various genres. This paper contributes to these inquiries by exploring the work’s encyclopedic features, and the claim, first made by Edward Mendelson, that these aspects constitute defining aspects of a rare form, the encyclopedic narrative. The most interesting aspects of Gravity Rainbow’s encyclopedism only come to light when one contextualizes Pynchon’s engagement of the genre by turning to the emergence of the modern encyclopedia, a moment of intellectual creativity as well as bureaucratization and cooptation. Prominent features of Gravity’s Rainbow,its title, structure and dominant metaphor, suggest that Pynchon is reading the novel’s most obvious historical context (World War II) through the rise of the modern encyclopedia, and through Ephraim Chambers’ ground breaking contribution, Cyclopaedia, or A Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1728) in particular. In the process, Pynchon suggests that prominent Western attempts to organize knowledge have animated sacrificial logics that are both exhibited and profoundly contested by Chambers.

Keywords: Encyclopedic Narrative, Encyclopedia, Thomas Pynchon, Ephraim Chambers, Gravity’s Rainbow

International Journal of the Book, Volume 8, Issue 1, pp.19-30. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 670.121KB).

Prof. Carl Gutierrez-Jones

Professor, Department of English, University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, USA

Carl Gutierrez-Jones was raised in Davis, California. He attended Stanford University for his B.A. degree. After two years working in special education, he pursued a Ph.D. at Cornell University in the Department of English. Upon completing the degree in 1990, he became a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara (Department of English). He has published numerous articles and two monographs: Rethinking the Borderlands: Between Chicano Culture and Legal Discourse (UC Press, 1995) and Critical Race Narratives (NYU Press, 2001). He has served as the Chair of the English Department at UCSB (2001-2004) and he is currently the Director of the Chicano Studies Institute.

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