Tear Off Your Own Head

August 16, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Been Down So Long It Looked Like Up to Me.

Tear off your own head

Tear off your own head

It’s a doll revolution

-Elvis Costello

This is not an advice column, but I’m going to go ahead and give some anyway: you probably don’t need to read this book. But if you’re interested in Pynchon, you might want to take a look at his introduction sometime. (Mine is a 1983 Penguin paperback, which I believe is the first with the intro.) It’s surprisingly heavy on the personal detail, rather tellingly uninterested in much of the book itself, and seems to have been written while Pynchon was writing or at least planning Vineland, since the phrase “karmic adjustment” pops up.

But there are some interesting things in the book — it’s overstuffed, is all, and rather pompous — including its use of ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is the description of an artwork in a medium different than that artwork (although it’s often used for descriptions of books within books, too): in this case, there’s the use of jazz rhythms and descriptions of other music, but there are also paintings. I tend to be a sucker for this in literature: it’s one of the things I love Paul Auster for (the movies were the best part of The Book of Illusions, for instance). The most important painting here is kept rather cryptic, but in a useful way. And it strikes a strange chord (to engage in ekphrastic metaphor) with the Elvis Costello song quoted above.

It’s a mural-sized canvas by Calvin Blacknesse, Gnossos’s friend, advisor, and guru. Blacknesse is, apparently, a figurative painter, rather out of step with the art-world trends of his time, even anachronistic, I should think (although there may be a hint of early psychedelia, here). His canvases appear to be heavy on symbolism and mythological imagery. When we first meet him, he’s painting “the dark goddess.” Here’s our first brief description of the painting most important to Gnossos: “That one with the tapestry look, a beheading. Must have it sometime.” Gnossos then goes on a very bad mescaline trip in the Blacknesses’ house, and is terrified of the painting. “No, I saw him,” he says of the figure in the painting. “He cut his head off. All by himself.” (This leads to one of the funniest scenes in the book, the tripping Gnossos fleeing to the bathroom to hide all the razor blades to protect the family from themselves.)

Nevertheless, he takes the canvas and installs it over the mantel in his room. Like a lot of ekphrastic devices, it serves, I think, as a kind of compact allegory of the character with which it’s identified. Gnossos is, indeed, on a mission to tear off his own head, it would seem: his quest to receive a vision, to get out of his own skin, to remain “Exempt”: from death, societal convention, and ordinary consciousness. In another funny touch, the canvas nearly falls on him when the spurned Pamela attacks him with a knife: “the nearly decapitated profile rushed at his own.” Funny picture, a man in profile presumably with a knife cut through most of his throat, with the medieval look of a tapestry.

Some more lines from “Tear Off Your Own Head”:

What’s that sound?

It will turn you around

It’s a doll revolution

They’re taking it over

And they’re tearing it down

It’s a doll revolution…

(Costello wrote this to be recorded by the Bangles, I’m told, and they did so, after his version was released. It’s a very sixties song, for a very sixties-sounding group.)  At the end of this book that’s exactly what’s happening: Alonso Oeuf, Gnossos’s nemesis, has successfully led a coup of the university administration with a demonstration of thousands of students who will do pretty much whatever they’re told. A doll revolution.  I suspect it’s supposed to be read as a microcosm of the university unrest of so much of the sixties, with both its good elements (increased academic freedom, decreased repressive sexual regulations) and its ugly (wankers who play at being revolutionaries following the mob’s every whim).

Gnossos has an ambivalent relationship with the real: he wants the mystical “real,” as his name implies, the layers of reality behind the mundane. But he’s terrified when a vision does strike — it happens to be a death-vision, unpredictable as visions tend to be — and when real death occurs, he’s rather unprepared for it. He’s a kid, and an unlikeable one at that. Anyone who says “Oh, Thanatos baby, kiss my wicked tongue” as he threatens to jump off the side of a boat for a lost love is not terribly likeable, or prepared for the reality of death.

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