Symbolic Deconstruction in The Crying of Lot 49
The paths leading toward knowledge (of self, of others, of the world around us) are circuitous. Thomas Pynchon, in his novel The Crying of Lot 49, seems to attempt to lead the reader down several of these paths simultaneously in order to illustrate this point. Our reliance on symbols as efficient translators of complex notions is called into question. Beginning with the choice of symbolic or pseudo-symbolic name, Oedipa Maas, for the central character of his novel, Pynchon expands his own investigation of symbol as Oedipa also attempts to unravel the mysteries surrounding the muted horn of the Tristero.
In choosing names that conjure up other images/ideas which may or may not reflect directly upon the character to whom the name belongs, does Pynchon attempt to underscore or undermine the entire notion of symbol as an authentic source of insight? The answer may well be both, I am aware, but let us continue down this path awhile longer. Consider one name, Oedipa Maas, for a moment. Classical allusions to the fated Greek king seem virtually embedded in her first name. Yet their direct relevance to her character remains elusive at best. As an intuitive literary/historical detective discovering the existence of Tristero and W.A.S.T.E., perhaps Oedipa attempts to solve her own Sphinx's riddle. More important, however, is the mindset Pynchon is able to create in the reader by including such overt symbolic references.
Other names, perhaps with less symbolic significance, begin to take on added meaning. The precedent is set. It is possible then to find further significance in Oedipa's last name, Maas. Of course this exercise can quickly degenerate into absurdity when the word itself can mean anything from thickened sour milk, to a type of fish, to a farm cottage, to a vulgar form of the word master. It is as an aberrant form of the word mass, however, that the name could acquire some symbolic content. As a lump of raw material ready for moulding, or a large quantity often with the notion of oppressive or bewildering abundance, or used to refer to the generality of mankind, the name Maas begins to resonate in the actions and attitudes of both Oedipa and Mucho Maas. It is possible that Pynchon encourages this symbolic discovery not to promote their thematic value to his novel, but instead to force the reader to be aware of the power and paradox invested in creating symbols.
Symbols are culturally constructed artifacts which give an otherwise intangible concept form. We are constantly engaged (consciously or unconsciously) in the act of legitimizing certain symbols and destroying or ignoring others. They become a kind of short cut; we can digest more complex sets of meanings more quickly (more efficiently?) without having to follow each thought from its genesis to its fruition. Words, pictures, gestures are all endowed with these representative characteristics.
These symbols are neither absolute nor inviolable, though we might like to think otherwise, Pynchon suggests. The same symbol can be used to represent different or even radically opposed ideas. Whether the name Maas is linked symbolically to two disparate personalities or the muted horn identifies more than one secret society, does the symbol itself become impotent if it is capable of housing paradoxical notions? Likewise, should the fact that such symbols exist shatter our ability to understand them, the world, others, or ourselves? "Another mode of meaning behind the obvious or none. Either Oedipa into the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia, or a real Tristero" (182). Oedipa Maas, and Thomas Pynchon perhaps, seem both entrapped and compelled by this dilemma.
Symbols or symbolic inquiry may indeed be the literary equivalent to Maxwell's Demon. While led along by the promise of certain and stable knowledge, knowledge of a more transient but no less important kind is acquired.
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.