Against the Day

Gordon Parks, American Gothic, Washington D.C., 1942

Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon’s sprawling 2006 novel set in the late nineteenth century and first two decades of the twentieth, paints a picture of the turn of the century and just beyond as a time of technological innovation, rampaging capitalism, and bewilderment at the pace of change and the loss of shared meaning and purpose amid labor unrest and violence, world war, and catastrophe possibly natural, possibly not. Also included prominently are the never-aging and impossibly optimistic boys of the Chums of Chance, who among many, many other exploits encounter time travelers. Learning of a dystopian future and doubting that they could continue to remain untouched by mortality, they are “ready to deal with hell itself, to betray anything and anyone if only they could be sent back to when they were young, be allowed to regain the early boys’-book innocence.”

You can clap your hands, it’s all right

And they do, hopping back in the balloon in which they fly from adventure to adventure, floating above the modernizing earth, escaping from its labor troubles and coming catastrophes. They fly away and continue to pursue improbable missions in their hopeful journey to their official ostensible destination, Shambala, the mythical Tibetan Buddhist kingdom, which they and other characters seek as a place of transcendence or as a source of power, depending, among other things, on whether they are well-intentioned pilgrims trying to transcend a world of power struggles or among the “capitalist Christer Republicans” turning the American West and the globe from free to exploited.

From the cover of Against the Day,
a seal that translates “Tibetan
Government Chamber of Commerce”

The Fourth of July is, among other things, both an act of time travel and a search for a mythical place. This is the case in any year but especially this year, when the Constitution is being torn up by elected and unelected employees sworn to defend it and its total destruction just got put on the docket. Especially in these faux originalist times, when specious references to the specifics of the founders’ intentions are used to justify the destruction of what the documents the founders wrote make clear are the larger values they intended the nation to pursue. Following the long tradition of patriotic amnesia, ramped up in an orgy of nationalism after 9/11, we pretend to travel back in time to the nation’s founding (increasingly, in the popular imagination) as a white, Christian nation. The Fourth of July is for this vision a proud celebration of a time when American men commenced kicking ass, a recuperation of a victory culture built even early in Indian massacres that’s been taking serious hits ever since, certainly in our loss in the war in Vietnam but arguably even earlier with our dropping of the bomb, an act that makes it hard to claim we’re the ones in the white hats. Our misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq are the result of these hits, part of the larger cultural imperative to be innocent and victorious, to, like the Chums of Chance, betray anything to regain innocence.

The culture war battle to keep this past out of schoolchildren’s ears is driven by this same imperative. We are the nation that doesn’t lose. The Big Lie of the 2020 presidential election is driven by this imperative too, this promotion of a Myth America where everything wrong is the fault of those who don’t love it and ought to have left it or, since we’re wishing here, never ought to have come (forgetting for a moment that that’s pretty much all of us). It’s all a wishful time-travel return to a time and place of innocence that never existed.

Anti-CRT Protesters in Virginia, June 2021

Those of us who want this history taught right, who insist on the harmfulness of ignoring the realities of the past and who recognize that the prosperity gospel of the GOP is nothing more than a continuation of the grand resentment-based fleecing of poor whites that gave us racial capitalism–we’re having a different kind of Fourth today. There have been some powerful reflections on what our national exercise in time travel and mythical meaning-making means to them this time around. Some of the people angry about abortion and prayer in schools and gun safety and climate warning–even people who have in the past celebrated–have announced that they will wear black, they will take a knee, they’ll skip the fireworks. Others insist that expressions of patriotism are more important than ever this year, that we can’t let the flag be taken away from us.

I’m not a flag-waver; I’m an anthem-sitter. And I think I sort of understand what it feels like to know that flag’s not waving for you. But I do think there’s something to this argument. As much as we know (because they keep showing us) the dangers of nationalism and as much as patriotism manifests routinely in violations of the flag code and of basic human morality, patriotism doesn’t have to be nationalism, and pride in a country doesn’t have to be invidious or false or inspire violence. One of the things people who read Pynchon read Pynchon for (aside from the puns, the high/low mashups that in Against the Day include appearances by Karl and Groucho Mark and a dog who reads Henry James, and the beauty) is his way of exploding history so that the moments in the past that seem determinative and set in stone can be revealed for what they were and always are–moments of possibility that could have gone a million other ways.

Mason & Dixon is my favorite of his novels for the way it does this, showing that what happened could have not happened that way, that what’s happening now won’t be understood until the unknowable future happens, that the feeling of inevitability we have about history is just a feeling and not in fact the case. Mason & Dixon brought together three such moments–the 1760s, 1860s, and 1960s–moments when lines were drawn and possibilities realized or unrealized, explosions of change that came and went, pointing to future moments of possibility when lines can be redrawn or erased. The line the title characters drew turned “subjunctive to declarative,” in Pynchon’s words, but the future is always subjunctive, and moments will come around again where different possibilities can be realized.

“America One”

One thing I’ve grown tired of hearing (and I’m not alone) is invocations of King’s line about “the arc of the moral universe.” He meant something particular by it, and it’s brought up to express hope, but when quoted it often carries a kind of passivity with it: don’t worry, it ends up saying, eventually we’ll have justice. We won’t–not eventually, inevitably, somewhere down the road. The long-building but sudden-seeming violence done to the legal foundation of the nation over the last two weeks should be our wake-up call. There are no laws of history or essential innocence or goodness or nugget of Declaration-declared, Constitution-constituting truth that will determine our outcome, and we can’t fly off in balloons of wishfulness or denial, refusing to look down and get our hands dirty or waiting for the revolution and pointing out the dirty hands. Maybe a dirty patriotism is what we need. A determination to do the hard, unglamorous work of democracy and compromise and resistance and to save the country for what it could be, from what its descending into becoming. Maybe it’s the only way we have to bend the arc in the right direction.

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