Pynchon’s Against the Day and Tomorrow

Earlier this year, I read Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, a massive tome of 1085 pages, and while it was at times boring with Pynchon’s digressive nature, it was very much worth all the time put into it: not only is it a rollickingly good read, but it has some extraordinary revelations about our time, should we look into the past.

Against the Day is a fictional account of the interconnected lives of Pynchon’s characters from the Chicago World Fair of 1893 to the end of the Great War. At this time, anarchism is shown to be widely prevalent in the United States, with anarchists committing acts of terrorism against the state. The anarchists bombed railroad tracks and other things controlled by the state. It’s easy, from here, to infer that the anarchists then are extremely similar to the radical Islamic terrorists that we’ve declared war on; both use bombs to try and change the capitalist establishment, and both have failed thus far.

Throughout the book, there is a creeping sense of an apocalyptic crisis casting its shadow on the world. With massive technological advances, people became uneasy about the advances and where technology was headed — both heralding the improvements and worrying about whether they would contribute to their downfall. They are also confused about the blurring line with what is fact and what is fiction, as evidenced by the lengthy discussions about Aether and the double-refractive qualities of Iceland Spar. Combine the two, and you have a recipe for paranoia, and, potentially, innovation. Again, the tension builds very slowly and heavily throughout the story, with a sense that the new technology would bring disaster and wipe out civilization as we know it.

We face a very similar situation right now, especially with tensions between the U.S. and Russia (which creates a cold-war esque situation), it seems like the same sense of impending doom has taken over me, at least, and a few others in the blogosphere who think that the Russo-Georgian conflict is the assassination of Franz Ferdinand of our time. And the parallels to World War I are there: it seems like, with what has been dubbed as World War III, the alliance system exists. This time around, people envision the alliances being for America, or against them (presumably Russia, Iran, China?). There are terrorists attempting to undermine the West, much like the anarchists did. But is the War on Terror just to become a footnote in the history books like anarchism? Maybe. Is our impending doom that of a third World War, in which mankind fights massive battles against itself, possibly with the use of a nuclear bomb? Maybe.

The good news is that the characters in Against the Day realize that, although the Great War claimed all too many lives, it didn’t entirely wipe out human civilization as they knew it in an apocalyptic fashion. Let’s hope, if this is indeed the beginning of World War III, that our civilization isn’t squelched by nuclear warfare.

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  1. I would like to share a learning opportunity that shows the realities of the Great War from the perspective of the suffragettes and other prominent women of the time, you can read my free historical e-mail series, The Privilege of Voting.

    The war was the catalyst that produced the circumstances that led to passage of votes for women in England and America.

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