“The Hacker We Call God”: Transcendent Writing Machines in Pynchon and Kafka

“Writing is a form of prayer.” – Kafka in his diaries.

The writing machine in fiction is almost always a metaphor used by authors from Swift through John Barth, Italo Calvino, and William Gibson to explain and display their own techniques, an energized funhouse of self-reflection. I’ve looked at many of these over the decades, since they play on the slippery boundary between reason (mechanics) and irrationality (art) in order to question deep assumptions about how their authors, and their cultures, find and express “truth” in fiction. In this essay, I look at two fictional texts about machines that write directly onto the human body. Both mechanisms work to give their subjects knowledge of realms beyond the ken of sheer mechanics. The first is the Sentencing Machine in Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” (1914), an excruciating device for torturing and executing condemned prisoners by incising tattoos on their bodies . The second is Thomas Pynchon’s much more benign “Puncutron Machine” in Vineland (1990), an electroshock device for adjusting a subject’s spiritual balance, his karmaand send him “purring into transcendence.”  Their comparison shows these two authors’ interest in metaphysics, a territory of twentieth century literature that is curiously under-explored in most criticism. The route to that territory goes from the physical body, through texts written by machines on bodies, to transcendence.

“In the Penal Colony” describes an elaborate torture device that tattoos the naked body of a convicted criminal with his “sentence” en route to killing him. This “sentencing machine” uses sharp needles and the victim’s own blood to inscribe, in an extremely ornate, elaborate (and therefore even more excruciating) script, the victim’s “sentence” on his skin.Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 4.44.29 PM Indeed, the words of the sentence itself is written only on a narrow band across the torso; the rest of the body is tortured by tattooed by exquisite curlicues, flourishes, and embellishments. We view the sentencing machine through the eyes of an Explorer who has landed on the Penal Colony. He is being given a tour by the officer in charge of administering justice and operating the machine.

“Here stands his apparatus before us. It consists, as you see, of three parts…the Bed, the upper one the Designer, and this one is the middle that moves up and down is called the Harrow. …The Harrow is the instrument for the actual execution of the sentence'” [FN1]

The officer invites the Explorer (and Kafka and the reader) to “look beyond the harrow” to where the true significance of the machine lies.

“‘And how does the sentence run?” asks the Explorer.

The officer, showing the absurdity of his own narrow faith, expresses surprise at the Explorer’s knowledge about the tenets of his creed:

“You don’t know that either?'” he asks. He goes on to explain its operation. When he is finished, the Explorer is ready to move on to the next sight.

Now I know all about it,” said the explorer as the officer came back to him. ” [FN4]

All except the most important thing,” he answered, seizing the explorer’s arm and pointing upwards: “In the Designer are all the cogwheels that control the movements of the Harrow, and this machinery is regulated according to the inscription demanded by the sentence. I am still using the guiding plans drawn by the former Commandant. Here they are” – he extracted some sheets from the leather wallet – “but I’m sorry I can’t let you handle them, they are my most precious possessions. Just take a seat and I’ll hold them in front of you like this, then you’ll be able to see everything quite well.” He spread out the first sheet of paper. The explorer would have liked to say something appreciative, but all he could see was a labyrinth of lines crossing and recrossing each other, which covered the paper so thickly that it was difficult to discern the blank spaces between them.

“Read it,” said the officer.

“I can’t,” said the explorer.

“Yet it’s clear enough,” said the officer.

“It’s very ingenious,” said the explorer evasively, “but I can’t make it out.”

“Yes,” said the officer with a laugh, putting the paper away again, “it’s no calligraphy for schoolchildren. It needs to be studied closely. I’m quite sure in the end you would understand it too.”* Of course, the script can’t be a simple one; it’s not supposed to kill a man straight off, but only after an interval…So there have to be lots and lots of flourishes around the actual script; the script itself runs around the body only in a narrow girdle; the rest of the body is reserved for the embellishments.” [148-149].

Later the officer tells the Explorer, “This procedure and method of execution which you are now having the opportunity to admire, has at the moment no longer any open adherents in our colony. I am its sole advocate, and at the same time the sole advocate of the old Commandant’s tradition.” [153]

The Explorer learns that one of the most refinements of the penal process is that the convicted does not have any prior idea of his sentence – for instance, “Honor Thy Superiors” as punishment for disobedience – nor even that he has been sentenced. The punished is supposed to “learn” about his sentence by reading it as it is transcribed painfully upon his own body. The subject is thus forced to “read” his own body as pain, the sentence dawning on the subject slowly, over the course of the hours it takes for this writing machine to do its work before bleeding its victim to death..

This is an exquisite turn, for it makes the prisoner’s reading of “the sentence” into an exercise in transcendental “illumination” (in both senses, as an enlightenment and as an embellishment of a medieval manuscript), while it forces the subject into a very strange relationship to his own body. The subject achieves a religious cognizance of his own crimes, as if the message were signaled from another world, while the skin becomes the palimpsest for a strange ritual, a kind of papyrus or better yet, a parchment, like the parchment of the scrolls of the Torah, which are also made of very fine and sensitive animal skins. Further, the punishment has to be finely adjusted, for it is no good if the victim doesn’t “get” the sentence before he is killed. The officer, recalling the good old days, says, “How we all absorbed the look of transfiguration on the face of the sufferer, how we bathed our cheeks in the radiance of that justice…” [154].

The religious tenor of Kafka’s portrait is underscored by the language of the officer. reveres the former Commandant and portrays him in messianic terms.

“[T]he organization of the whole penal colony is his work. We who were his friends knew even before he died that the organization of the colony was so perfect that his successor, even with a thousand new schemes in his head, would find it impossible to alter anything, at least for many years to come. And our prophesy has come true; the new Commandant has had to acknowledge its truth. …”

The officer also seems to be intriguing against the new Commandant, who doesn’t share the officer’s religion, his fervor for the old Commandant’s fundamentalist sense of justice. In fact, the explorer’s advent at the colony has precipitated a crisis in the officer. Banking on the Explorer’s sense of justice and as a disinterested observer, the officer is planning a public demonstration meant to strip the New Commandant of his authority. “If my indictment doesn’t drive him out of the hall it will force him to his knees to make the acknowledgment: “Old Commandant, I humble myself before you.” [159]

However, the officer’s coup fails, and in despair and defeat, the officer consigns himself to punishment – and transport – by the Sentencing Machine. The officer takes his place on the bed, the Harrow starts to work, and only then the officer notes that “a wheel in the Designer should have been creaking; but everything was quiet, not even the slightest hum could be heard. Because it was working so silently the machine simply escaped one’s attention.” [164]

The Designer starts popping open, wheels pop out and roll out until it is quite empty and then the Harrow stops writing, it “merely jabs. …leading to a horrible end, the body suspended over the pit, skewered.” The explorer looks into the face of the corpse and sees there .”no redemption, no exquisite torture…only murder.” They look for a place to bury the officer, come to the teahouse, which has the air of an ancient place, evoking old days long past “an historic tradition of some kind with the power of old days” [166]…and then they come across the humble grave of the Old Commandant, whose epitaph reads: ” “Here rests the old Commandant. His adherents, who now must remain nameless, have dug this grave and set up this stone. There is a prophecy that after a certain number of years the Commandant will rise again and lead his adherents from his house to recover the colony. Have faith and wait!'” [167].

This tale suggests several interlaced interpretations, but most Kafka scholars agree that it is at once deeply Jewish and profoundly authorial or textual in a furtively Jewish way. Kafka began his deepening involvement with Judiaism around 1911, when he was 28, partly as a more general struggle to find a foundational intellectual heritage, partly in rebellion against his father, who was decidedly secular and assimilationist. [FN6] When he wrote “In the Penal Colony” in 1914, he had just completed Kierkegaard’s lacerating Book of the Judge, his statement of absolute faith in God. Under Kierkegaard’s influence, Kafka seemed to be grappling with the penal and judgmental qualities of Judaism, a struggle we can also discern in his stories “Before the Law,” The Trial, andThe Castle.

In the context of Kafka’s more general involvement in Judaism, it is easy to discern the many references in “In the Penal Colony” to the minority position of European Judaism. The entire Penal Colony seems like a ghetto, while the officer is the only remaining adherent of the old faith. It is also simple to read in the officer’s description of the mutually exclusive and strained relationship between the New Commandant and the Old Commandant, in allusions to the messianism of Judaism, and the zealous behavior of the officer himself a more general parable of the strained relationship between Christianity and Judaism and even of Judaism’s subversive, submissive, and eventually self-destructive posture vis a vis Christianity. But in this essay I will confine my considerations to the scribal concerns of Kafka in the context of Judaism and not so much the social or cultural Jewish context but its metaphysical one.

Kafka is expressing in “In the Penal Colony” his passionate reaction to Judaism. Judaism’s intense, insistent, labyrinthine textuality becomes the metaphor of a punishing writing machine that both inscribes and renders judgement on the guilty. But even through its indictment of Judaism, it also reflects Judaism as a route to understanding through texts that is decidedly non-Western.

Judaism has a unique relationship between Divine revelation and acts of reading and writing, of textuality. The history of Judaic metaphysics can be understood from this perspective as a series of “en-textualizations,” a complex dance between the incomprehensibility of divine Intention and the insistence that this intention is embodied in written words, in texts, not oral prophecy or pronouncements nor in the physicality of the human body. For instance, a Jewish mystical tradition holds that Torah was written before Creation itself. God was both its Author, yes, but also its First Reader. He read the Torah as a blueprint for the universe. Moses’ revelation of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai is first inscribed in stone by God’s finger. Orthodox Jews believe that the Mosaic revelation was actually the complete written Torah, the entire Five Books of Moses that Jews today read from scrolls unfurled in the synagogue during religious holidays, and three days a week, including every Sabbath. Written with ink on very fine animal skins stitched together and rolled onto two scrolls, it is ceremonially unfurled and held before the public reader.

Other strains of Judaism take more historical views, understanding the Mosaic revelation as the first in a series of transcriptions and redactions which produce the Tanakh, the canon of the entire Old Testament, including the Five Books of Moses, Prophets, Kings, and the Scriptures (Books of Esther, Job, Psalms, etc.) codified before the second century BCE.

But the texts and religious literacy that best captures the sensibility in which Kafka writes is the Talmudic tradition, a unique product of Diaspora Judaism. The Talmud was bred in the hothouse Jewish cultures of the diaspora after the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. It records the disputes of rabbis engaged in an ongoing symposium about the inner meanings of the Torah and the orally transmitted laws of the Sanhedrin (the Mishnah), the Jewish Supreme Court that was also destroyed with the Temple. Around 200 CE, Rabbi Judah haNasi (the Prince)  redacted the oral law in a telegraphic and elliptical fashion. Commentaries and debates in the academies of Babylon and Palestine, and then across Northern Africa and Europe were recorded through the fifteenth century [FN7]. One of the world’s most elaborate texts, it was composed collectively, and at times anonymously, by rabbis and commentators working in the academies first of Babylon, and then of Alexandria, Cairo, Persia, Spain, Italy, Germany, and elsewhere from the first century A.D. onwards, all in correspondence with each other. Even today there are modern efforts to re-codify the Talmud and add on its margins even newer commentaries. [FN8]. By contrast with the familiar and spare stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebeccah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, Joseph, Moses, and Aaron, the Talmud gives us a mixture of close reasoning, folklore, and tales that fill in the blanks of the commandments and stories found in the Torah, It elaborates structures that define Jewish ritual and the interpretation of law for changing conditions. The Talmud represents a babble of voices. It is infamous for its hair-splitting distinctions, notorious for its detailed reasoning and torturous logic based not in classical Greek reasoning (though influences of it appear) but in a devotion to the problems and ambiguities posed by the original Hebrew phrasings of the text according to its own rules of exegesis.

One simple icon of the differentness of Jewish reading practices is the page of the Talmud itself. Captured ingeniously by Daniel Bromberg, a Viennese printer in the 16th century, the layout here both untangles the multivocal nature of the talmud symposium and announces its elaborate multi-vocality and multivalence.

page of talmud
A typical page of the Talmud

Indeed, examining both the layout of the a typical page of the Talmud and its markedly non-Western interpretive practices reveals that the Talmud is almost certainly what Kafka had in mind when he described the work of the Penal “sentencing machine.”


First there is the physical layout of the page of the Talmud which would confound the Western reader: a central text is surrounded by columns – margins of crowded commentary and commentary on commentary in successively smaller print, including hypertext-like references to other pages in the Talmud and to external sources. Where does one look first? Where on this page, which seems to unfold marginalia from a central text, does one read first? Our Western training to look for a line of thought, to follow a train of ideas, to seek an authoritative text, is betrayed as much as it is on reading a computerized hypertext.

Beyond this physical confoundment there is the semantic or literacy problems posed by the relationship between an apparently central text – in these cases the sentence delivered by the Harrow written in a narrow band, or the basic text that occupies the center of the page of the Talmud – and the elaborations on that sentence. The “flourishes” and “embellishments” seem inessential to the Western eye but capture the essence of the script, its meaning, to the trained reader. You have to labor over the script to read it, find the hidden and occult paths through the labyrinth, and in that pain and in that labor arises special acts of reading which render true, even metaphysical meaning, hidden meaning.[FN10] Unlike a technical manual or much of the Western tradition of writing for clarity, the Talmudic text and the Sentence of the Harrow are not meant to be transparent; they are meant to be vehicles for revelation. The officer exhorts the Explorer “to look beyond the Harrow for the true meaning of the sentence.”This very particular style of hermeneutics and episteme arises and is encouraged uniquely by Hebrew readership. The Hebrew alphabet, developed among Hebrew slaves in the South Sinai in the 16th century BCE, is extremely inefficient.

Hebrew was in fact the very first phonetic alphabet, and all subsequent phonetic alphabets stem from it. Yet though it has been surpassed many times in its efficiency – the Greeks or Phoenicians added vowels, the Latins some letters – even today modern Hebrew in Israel lacks vowels. This absence of vowels gives rise to a comparatively extreme occurrence of ambiguity, much more so than English or any other Latinate language, which in turn makes the act of deciphering written Hebrew quantitatively more difficult and qualitatively different. For instance, try deciphering any simple sentence in English with the vowels removed and you quickly multiply possible meanings for each word which may not be resolved until you look at the whole sentence or even paragraph or consider the context of the text. Not only is decipherment slowed, but the reader must refer to the context more persistently than he or she would in reading a more efficient alphabet.The consequences of this simple inefficiency in Hebrew, as I argue in greater detail elsewhere, is an entire culture of literacy uniquely devoted to disambiguating difficult texts and at the same time uniquely tolerant of ambiguity. One can see how relying on Hebrew as the Talmud does (it is the compilation of dialogues among scholars often in different countries whose only common language was written Hebrew while speaking many different languages) would also induce an obsessive focus on the potential meanings of individual words – paronomasia – and even on the meaning differences contained in individual letters. Over the centuries, reading Hebrew also gave rise to an enormous, even transcendental, sense of playfulness and punning. For the great Midrashists (Talmudists), punning on a word to reveal an association between two meanings was a legitimate source of knowledge, a way of revealing what was a hidden but an intended connection. To complicate the picture, Hebrew letters also stand for numbers (aleph = 1, bet= 2, gimel = 3 and so on, through taf, the final letter of the alphabet = 400). This promoted a parallel tradition called gematria or numerology, in which rabbis look for correspondences between the values of related words and their meanings. Indeed, treating “mere” wordplay and numerology – their apparent coincidences and inessentiality – as legitimate epistemological systems, as essential to finding ou;the truth – is quite alien to the practice of Western reason since the Renaissance, and as much as anything explains the core differentness of Jewish thought. In fact, this essential difference in treating accidents of text as the source of metaphysical truth underscores the problem with explaining Western culture as “Judaeo-Christian.”

The hyphen in this case is, to say the least, problematic, perhaps even violent. Yet, as those familiar with skeptical, postmodern challenges to Western reason – like those captured in Pynchon’s oeuvre explored in the next column- we find a resurrection of such reasoning portrayed as a route to transcendent knowledge – in many senses truer knowledge – than those provided by the failed and deficient systems of science – the rational machines of tree-structure logic – persistently critiqued in postmodern novels. Deleuze and Guattari understand this aspect of Kafka’s metaphysics, and its postmodern quality, when they describe it as “a negative theology” and his corpus of works as a “rhizomatic writing machine” in Kafka: For a Minor Literature (1975). [FN11] As Pynchon wrote in Gravity’s Rainbow, (1973) “there’s high magic to low puns.”

The Talmud’s postmodern challenge to Western reason encourages a kind of superstition, in which coincidences – “tristeros” – lead characters and readers bent on deciphering difficult texts down the route to revelation. Such revelations are generally frustrated when pursued by rational means (for instance, plotting the sites of bombings during the blitz of London). But does postmodernism reject all routes to knowing? Or is knowledge, perhaps of a metaphysical or mystical nature, permitted, accessible, even encouraged?

Vineland continues Pynchon’s romance with the feedback loop between communication technology and humans. Pynchon favors machines as metaphors for his own authorial acts and the epistemological/ontological condition of his searcher-heroes: always keeping readers and characters in suspense, caught up in the gears of a machinery of knowledge-seeking, rational epistemologies, while caught up in the complex operations of worlds that are incomprehensible and whose foundations are apparently mystical. These searcher-characters survive in the face of systems of knowledge (forms of machinery) that are always woefully incomplete and never quite work to bring revelation. At the same time, language and communication are themselves forms of machinery enacted in the texts we are reading that also leave the characters, their author, and his reader grasping for more.

In his early story “Entropy,” for instance, Pynchon uses John Clerk Maxwell’s hypothetical machine for illustrating the Second Law of Thermodynamics to portray himself, the author of the text we are reading, as an incarnation of Maxwell’s Demon. In V., Mondaugen monitors “‘sferics” on his radio and picks up a code which contains a reference to Wittgenstein’s famous proposition from the Tractatus, “Die welt is alles was der falles ist.” [FN2]. However, this novelistic contrivance is so acute that we know Mondaugen has somehow tuned into the voice of the being who has authored the text he inhabits.

In The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Oedipa Maas wonders if she shouldn’t strive to become “the dark machine in the centre of the planetarium, striving to bring the estate into pulsing stelliferous Meaning all in a soaring dome around her.” [FN3] In Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), the metaphor is the V2 rocket itself whose parabolic flight brackets the entire novel – or more precisely, the schwarzgerat in its nose cone, the mysterious black box guidance system – which comes to mean everything, including Desire, the searches of his characters, and not least, Pynchon’s own mysterious authorial imagination. In Vineland (1990) Pynchon has brought this theme to a new level as the theme obtains special potency, a kind of comic superstition or encouragement of beliefs in transcendental realms.

The two significant technologies in Vineland are the computer and the Puncutron Machine. Both add incontrovertible proof that Pynchon, somewhat paradoxically, sees technology and technique – including his own technique as author and the technologies of a novel (writing, printing, publication, dissemination, communication) – to be potential means to transcendence. When reading Pynchon, one always feels the ground of the literal threatens to give way in favor of the system of interlocking, subterranean meanings implied in those metaphors. Any significant phrase might resonate through the whole book, or act like a palimpsest on which other readings might be written. This creation of the feeling that “everything is connected” and that everything might refer both outside the text and to another part of the text creates a kind of “infra-intertextuality” which lies at the heart of the Pynchon technique, hallmark of his singular genius. Nor is this tactic a mere mechanical application; rather, it is the place where Pynchon’s style meets his message, the place where epistemology meets ontology: the place where the desire to know and the desire to survive collaborate to achieve transcendence.

Such a collaboration between machine and transcendence is oxymoronic, like the idea of a transcendental machine. But Pynchon has always favored such self-contradictory metaphors: he even named his magnum opus using one to signify the collaboration between the calculus of a rocket’s trajectory and God’s promise to redeem the earth, “gravity’s rainbow.” Indeed, as William Plater noted in his fine study of Pynchon’s work The Grim Phoenix, even Pynchon’s use of metaphor itself implies a yearning for transcendence, for it “permits the poet a mode of existence that is a self-conscious delusion, almost like the paranoid’s structure, without the obligations to believe it.” [FN 5]

In Vineland, Pynchon’s calls it “crossing between worlds,” hearkening back to his definition of a metaphor in The Crying of Lot 49 as an intrusion of one world into another. One need only count the number of occasions when one character experiences another, irrational world as a form of transcendence to get the message. The hero, Prairie, yearns to use the computer to cross over into her mother’s ghostly world of the past. The Thanatoids – ghosts – eventually take Brock over to their side just as he is about to commit his most heinous act at a family reunion. Van Meter visits the Thanatoid hotel with his Fender guitar. Weed Atman finds that upon every mysterious visit to his dentist he was “back across a borderline, invisible but felt at its crossing, between worlds” [228]. Prairie opens the refrigerator of the Sisters ….. and imagines that the food isn’t dead but sleeping, and the chill “sent her back out into the less clearly haunted world” [189]. The woge – spirits in the tale of the Yuroks – withdraw to another world, leaving the forests up above Humboldt haunted, always threatening to come back and teach humans how to live in the world if they fuck up too badly [186]. The kidnappings from the Kahuna Airlines. The worm songs DL hears from the future, transmitted by the shade of Weed Atman. And finally, Sister Rochelle lays the big daddy of these “tales of crossing over” on Takeshi as he lies helpless in the grips of the Puncutron Machine.

For instance, take the contrast between analog and digital, one of those clean and simple dialectics that lie beneath much of Pynchon’s complexities. Here it applies to the good and the bad, the Sixties and the Nixon Repression that ensued. The metonymy for the analog is Mucho Maas’ stereo system, which stands for what it delivers, rock and roll, which in turn stands for the Revolution. Ushered into Mucho Maas’ mansion, Zoyd, baby Prairie in arms, on the lam from his failed marriage, finds “…here was period rock and roll, over audio equipment that likewise expressed, that long-ago year, the highest state of the analog arts all too soon to be eclipsed by digital technology” [308]. In Pynchon’s pantheon, CD’s represent the eclipse of the rock Ôn roll analog gods.

The avatar of the digital is the computer. Pynchon’s codewords are the “zeroes and ones” to which he alludes throughout this text, carried over from that magnificent – and oft-analyzed – image in for Oedipa Maas’ paranoid situation: (you recall: Oedipa feels herself to be walking “among the matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above …. Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth.” [FN6]) In the Pynchon mythography, the whole nexus of conceits – communication systems, codes of hidden meaning, technologizing of the Word, the reduction of options, the alliance between tech and Death, especially the alliance between tech and death – all resolve onto the image of flashing electronic gateways, meant to imitate and somehow excite the shining paths (neurons) of the human brain. Pynchon re-writes the remarkably prophetic metaphor from his 1966 novel in a passage that deserves as much attention. After her husband’s desperately-needed paycheck has been stopped by the computer, Frenesi meditates on the extent to which her own life has been expunged by the computer:

“If patterns of ones and zeros were ‘like’ patterns of human lives and deaths, if everything about an individual could be represented in a computer record by long strings of ones and zeros, then what kind of creature would be represented by a long string of lives and deaths? It would have to be one level up at least – an angel, a minor god, something in a UFO. It would take eight human lives and deaths just to form one character in this being’s name – its complete dossier might take up a considerable piece of this history of the world. We are digits in God’s computer, she not so much thought as hummed to herself to a sort of standard gospel tune, And the only thing we’re good for, to be dead or to be living , is the only thing He sees. What we cry, what we contend for, in our world of toil and blood, it all lies beneath the notice of the hacker we call God.” (90-1)

Frenesi imagines the Big Brother computer controlling her destiny as a hacker God. In fulfillment of her reverie – or in answer to her dark prayer – Pynchon sends Prairie, Frenesi’s angel of redemption, her own daughter, not quite as remote and unregistering as her God, but nowhere as deep into the ones and zeroes as she is. Prairie – descendent of all of Pynchon’s anti-heroic searchers – plays the computer keyboard, searching for her mother.

“She already knew about how literal computers could be – even spaces between characters mattered. She had wondered if ghosts were literal in the same way. Could a ghost think for herself, or was she responsive totally to the needs of the still-living, needs like keystrokes entered into her world, lines of sorrow, of justice denied?…But to be of any use, to be “real,” a ghost would have to be more than only that kind of elaborate pretending….” [114, ellipses in the original]

Prairie powers down the computer, having found a picture of her mother and DL that was “sharpened up pixel by pixel into deathlessness.” To seal this conceit of the merging of the super- and sub-lunary worlds through the computer, Pynchon shifts our focus to the DL and Frenesi of that picture.

“Back down in the computer library, in storage, quiescent ones and zeroes scattered among millions of others” [115]. Pynchon then uses this crossing among terms of a metaphor to cross over to the story of their, and the nation’s, 1960s experiences.

By contrast with the computer and in keeping with the general farce of Vineland, the Puncutron Machine is a comic device, designed to “get the chi flowing back the right way” [164]. The very name is laden with echoes of and allusions to Pynchon’s name, the diacritics of writing itself, and to piercing through the veil of illusion we call reality. Takeshi, Japanese agent and schlemiel, victim of other people’s plots, can’t quite accept that DL, the consummate Ninjette, has laid on him the Ninja Death Touch. A short summary of the tangled plot will help us here: Since her girlhood, DL had trained in the Eastern martial arts, apprenticing herself finally to Inoshiro Sensei, who teaches her the Death Touch among other mystical procedures. After refusing Mafia don Ralph Wayvone’s offer to assassinate Brock Vond – the Darth Vader of Vineland – and fleeing his wrath, she is kidnapped, taken to Tokyo, and auctioned into white slavery by the Yakuza. This all turns out to be engineered by Wayvone, who also is the highest bidder. Placed in a notorious Tokyo whorehouse, Haru No Depaato, and seeing no other recourse, DL prepares to put the Death Touch on Brock Vond after all.

Unfortunately, Brock Vond has somehow gotten wind of the plot and he, in turn, kidnaps Takeshi, who is Vond’s Oriental double (a fact we are supposed to accept at face value, so to speak). Takeshi is put into DL’s embrace in Brock’s stead. She is too out of focus to detect the switch, and in the act of intercourse puts the evil touch on him, which is now destined to work its black magic on Takeshi’s bladder for a year and a day until he dies or some cure can be found. In a fit of remorse, DL persuades Takeshi to take refuge among an order of Eastern-mystical nuns-ninjettes, The Sisterhood of Kunoichi Attentives who run “‘a sort of Esalen Institute for lady asskickers'” [107] where DL had completed her training. The Sisters try to heal Takeshi and correct DL’s error by an application of spiritual and mechanical technologies: they bond DL to him as a sort of karmic bodyguard and at the same time use a mysterious therapeutic technology on him: the “Puncutron Machine,” designed to correct the imbalance in a subject’s karma. The language in which Pynchon registers Takeshi’s first impression of it might easily be a gloss on the complex plot of Vineland and a parody of the reader’s intended role as a talmudic-style interpretant:

“It was clear that electricity in unknown amounts was meant to be routed from one of its glittering parts to another until it arrived at any or all of a number of decorative-looking terminals, ‘or actually,’ purred the Ninjette Puncutron Technician who would be using it on Takeshi, ‘as we like to call them, electrodes.’ And what, or rather who, was supposed to complete the circuit?

“Oh, no,” Takeshi demurred, “I think not!” [164]

Again, we can’t avoid noting the self-reflexive turn. Pynchon uses a technological metaphor for the e-talmud-like hypertextual circuit he has built, a circuit of interpretation completed when the reader hooks into the text. Pynchon often makes us feel as if we are caught in a servo-mechanical loop of interpretation.)

Subsequently, Takeshi wonders if the elaborate Puncutron sessions and everything they imply weren’t just a plot to get him to purr into transcendence (op. cit., above). In other words, if we take the analogy seriously, the machinery of Pynchon’s plot aids the reader in crossing between worlds, just as the Puncutron aids the reader’s avatar, Takeshi, in striking a karmic balance.

By contrast with this grim fable of a writing machine, and finally, in relief of our curiosity, on nearly the last page of the novel, we get a glimpse of the workings of the Puncutron Machine itself as it operates on Takeshi. It seems clearly Pynchon’s answer to Kafka:

“…the Head Ninjette had managed to corner him while he was on the Puncutron Machine, all hooked up with no escape, and while an inkjet printer moved along the meridians of his naked skin, laying down trigger-point labels in different colors, adding reference numbers and Chinese ideograms, and a Seniro Ninjhette Puncutech stod by with an ivory fescue, noting and commenting…” [382]

Here the machine is not a punishment, as it is in the Penal Colony, but a reward and healing, a means to a happier transcendence: the text of Takeshi’s body gets punctuated with a chart of his chi nodes in preparation for acupuncture. However, Sister Rochelle “as so often in the past, now socked Takeshi with another of her allegories, this time about Hell.” Despite the differences – comic and parabolic – to which their authors put them, the two writing machines strike to the core of their respective authors’ purposes: to point to the transcendent. The numerous collisions of the transcendent with the mundane in Vineland – whether through direct allusion to the transcendental or through metaphorical machinery – further signify (or model) a more macrocosmic posture: the only hope for redemption from pedestrian but ubiquitous evil is to abandon rationality and plunge into the transcendental, to suspend the quest for certainty (as Prairie learns to do) and to give up simply surviving and immersing (as Zoyd is forced to do) in favor of recognizing deeper and unutterable truths. In short, to believe in magic.

This revelation does not come all at once, and neither Prairie nor Zoyd particularly embrace the transcendental by tale’s end. But it does come piecemeal. Sister Rochelle’s advice to Prairie during her stay among the Attentives might as well serve as Pynchon’s caveat to his reader: “Knowledge won’t come down all at once in any big transcendental moment” but by paying attention, “out at the margins, using the millimeters and little tenths of a second, you understand, scuffling and scraping for everything we get” [112].

This message might as well be a warning to the hungry reader about the structure of Pynchon’s anti-rational method in constructing Vineland. The novel, any novel, especially one devoted to untangling a mystery, may be a procedural machine, but this one is a machine for the production of transcendental meaning. We can even discern -in the retrospective light shed when we read it in this way – this existential, and perhaps mystical, position evolving through Pynchon’s previous works, especially when he meditates on technology. With this context, we can finally read Takeshi’s experience in the Puncutron Machine.

Like many other Pynchon characters who find themselves caught in the toils of plots that go beyond their ken or capacity for accepting incontrovertible data, while he is strapped into the machine and it works on him, Takeshi finds himself entering a peculiar state of paranoid rapture:

“Most of the time he couldn’t believe she had really Done It to him, because even this long way down the line he still had trouble believing in his own death. If she’d killed him, why stick around? If she hadn’t, why put him, a complete stranger, through all this? It was driving him toward what, in fairly close to it now, he could detect as some state of literally mindless joy. There was no way he knew of to experience such joy and at the same time keep his mind. He wasn’t sure this might not be her real mission – to make of his life a koan, or unsolvable Zen puzzle, that would send him purring into transcendence” [180].

This passage also could just as easily describes Pynchon’s own textual play with the reader throughout his works, his penchant for posing paradoxes and unsolvable puzzles. Perhaps Pynchon’s purpose all along was to send us “purring into transcendence.”

This passage above also becomes emblematic for a whole series of other passages that surround it. Indeed, in virtually every scene from the time DL enters the Kunoichi retreat with Prairie circa 1983 to officially begin her search for her mother [109], to the time that the narrative returns to the “present” of 1984 [294] the reader is treated to a long and complex and varied system of gestures at transcendent or magical realms. When Prairie first meets Sister Rochelle, Head Ninjette of the Kunoichi Attentives, she discovers that the Sister Superior has learned how to make herself invisible (“she could impersonate the room in its full transparency and emptiness” [111]. Then, Prairie accesses the Attentives’ computer, and its elaborate data bank, “a girl in a haunted mansion, led room to room, sheet to sheet, by the peripheral whiteness, the earnest whisper of her mother’s ghost”[114]. DL’s training in the martial arts leads her to “discover that all souls, human and otherwise, were different guises of the same greater being – God at play” [121]. DL receives “another message from beyond, no doubt. She saw a pattern” [124]. And so on throughout those middle pages: the intertwined stories of Takeshi and DL’s Death Touch, Brock Vond and Frenesi; Frenesi and DL and the 24fps film crew; the revolution at PR3 and its sabotage by Vond and Frenesi; the murder of Weed Atman; Takeshi and DL’s encounters with the Thanatoid … Stories of the sixties unfold, each tinged by its own hint of the mystical and of levels or world beyond and outside the realm of perception, worlds of secret motives and irrational operations and death beyond life and karma and ESP (a lot of ESP). In Vineland, “something waited over a time horizon that not even future participants could describe” [222].

These ineffable narratives include thoroughly implausible but longed-after worlds of magic, of living spirits and intuitions fulfilled, but also worlds of dark revelation lurking just beyond our senses, of secret and inexplicable acts hatched in realms beyond our reach. Interestingly, this magic middle of the Vineland timeline also concerns the fertile years roughly 1962 to 1972, the years which bracket Pynchon’s writing of V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1967) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), the essential Pynchon. If we take this correlation as more than mere coincidence, then we might conclude that the happy and transcendent ending of Vineland in 1984 has some subtle autobiographical significance: perhaps something happened that year to permit Pynchon to write again, to shake off, somehow, the demons of the Nixonian Repression and, in the dead middle of the Reagan years, re-discover “the magic.” Just as Reagan unwittingly calls his CIA dog Vond off the backs of the Wheelers and the Gates, so perhaps something — whether belonging to official reality or Pynchon’s own imagination one can only guess – lifted. If this is at all true, then the transcendental references in Vineland also signify something essential about Pynchon’s imaginative sources and his feeling about a newfound freedom to invent. But whatever its deeper significance, the exploration here of a new metaphysical or transcendental possibility, through technology is intriguing.


There’s an implicit comparison in these two texts between the tradition of talmudic routes to knowledge and those that arise in postmodernism. The Jewish circuitous, dense, exacting, complex, multi-vocaal skeptical, non-Western episteme is revealed through a reading of Kafka’s reading of the reading practices induced in the Talmud as represented “In the Penal Colony” by the sentencing machine. Pynchon in Vineland gives us an obvious re-reading of Kafka’s sentencing machine, updating it for a cybernetic age and revising it to fit his own epistemological and metaphysical (as well as comic) views: a postmodern counter-episteme incarnated as a puncutron machine.

The comparison illuminates a relatively under-explored territory in postmodern criticism, the metaphysics of postmodernism and the religious or superstitious feeling it inspires. Despite the fact that Kafka uses his machine as a critique of Judaism and Pynchon uses his machine as a point of farce, both writing machines offer compelling images. They both work on the body. that most literal aspect of our being, in order to bring the subject to awareness of forces that move beyond the physical and the beyond conventional structures of thought. Both suggest alternative routes to knowing.

Taken together, and used to illuminate each other – perhaps like two columns of text side by side or like the two cylinders of a Torah scroll held open before us, immanent but somehow elusive in their calligraphy – the two images of transcendental writing machines reveal that both authors have constructed a machinery of narrative devoted to convincing us that a transcendental realm lies beyond both epistemology and ontology (which dissolve into each other, again like two columns of a text which turn out to be parts of the same scroll), a transcendental realm which Kafka critiques and asks us to dread, but which Pynchon salutes and asks us to laugh at.

Both these transcendental technologies anticipate a virtual technology where machinery will literally inscribe “fictitious” experiences on our bodies in order to achieve transcendental effects in our minds. Taken in this way, Kafka and Pynchon lie on a vector whose trajectory is towards the increasingly telepathic and neurological. Undoubtedly, as authors like William Gibson who envision this virtual future have already suggested, these transcendental effects will lead to the construction of a new metaphysics and new gods.


1. “In the Penal Colony” p. 141-142All excerpts from Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories edited by Nahum N. Glatzer (Schocken Books New York 1971 transl. by Willa and Edwin Muir.
2 “The world is all that is the case.”
3 The Crying of Lot 49, p. 136
* Much like the condened man who comes to understand his sentence at about the sixth hour of his “sentencing”
I.e., “understanding” the script — reading it through the body in this case, but equally through talmud torah — is equivalent to death.
4 William Plater, The Grim Phoenix: Reconstructing Thomas Pynchon (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978) p. 228.
5 The Crying of Lot 49, p. 58
6 For a refractory view of this struggle and its inherently Jewish nature, see Kafka’s “Letter to My Father,”
7For some of these Jewish readings of Kafka, see Martin Buber, “Kafka and Judaism,” in Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays ed R. Gray (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: 1962); Maurice Friedman, Problematic Rebel rev. ed. Chicago.; Nahum N. Glatzer, “Franz Kafka and The Tree of Knowledge,” Arguments and Doctrines, ed. A. Cohen. New York, 1970. Clement Greenberg, “The Jewishness of Franz Kafka,” Commentary XIX (1955); Jean Wahl, “Kafka and Kierkegaard,” in The Kafka Problem, ed. A. Flores. New York, 1963; Harry Zohn, “The Jewishness of Franz Kafka,” Jewish Heritage (Summer 1964). See also John Updike’s Foreward to Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories (1983). For an incisive and critical look at Kafka’s metaphysical stance, see Walter Benjamin’s “Max Brod’s Book About Kafka and Some of My Own Reflections, Illuminations transl. by Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1973; German orig. 1936).
8 Mostly by Rabbi Adin Stenisaltz.
* Much like the condemned man who comes to understand his sentence at about the sixth hour of his “sentencing”
I.e., “understanding” the script — reading it through the body in this case, but equally through talmud torah — is equivalent to death.
9 See Michael Joyce’s The Poetics of Hypertext (University of MIchigan Press, 1995).
10 Kafka seems here to be making a clear reference to Jewish schooling: Jewish schoolchildren spend an inordinate amount of time huddled over texts of the Talmud. The primacy placed on reading and deciphering in Jewish education is well known, and anyone who has seen an Orthodox Ôcheder’ or schoolroom would be struck both by the intensity of reading and the apparent commotion or babble as the students practice reading and discuss meanings.
11Kafka: For a Minor Literature (1975) Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. As Ronald Bogue clearly explains it in Deleuze and Guattari (London: Routledge 1989), D&G define a rhizome “as the antithesis of a root-tree structure or Ôarborescence.’ the structrural model which has dominated Western thought from Porphyrian trees to Linnean taxonomies to Chomskyian sentence diagrams. Arborescences are hierarchical, stratified totalities which impose limited and regulatewd connections between their components. Rhizomes, by contrast, are nin-hierarchical, horizontal multiplciites which cannot be subsumed within a unified structure, whose components form random, unregulated networks in which any elelment can be connected with any other elelemnt. The Kafka corpus, as a rhizome, therefore, has no privileged point of entry” (107).

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