Against the Day Weblog

May 5, 2008

Birefringence and History in Against the Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — basileios @ 11:54 am

When I started the second reading of Against the Day I had planned to write something on the importance of Light in Against the Day and its apparent significance in the story and underlying meaning – if any 😉 – of the book. Light, as we mentioned in the past seems to play a rather significant part as an element that seems to be undergoing the most important change in the minds of scientists of the era, and in Against the Day it seems to be a symbol of the shape of the things to come under the series of revolutions that followed in politics, art and science. However, half way through reading the book I was struck by the rather profane and rather specific use of light in Against the Day in the phenomenon of birefringence (double refraction) and I somehow decided to abandon temporarily the first project and focus on ‘splitting’ in Against the Day. These thoughts mentioned here are by no means complete and aim only to focus on my ideas on the significance of this in Against the Day.

Against the Day for me is mainly a novel about history, the nature of history and its implications on human life. As I had written in the first review I wrote about Against the Day last year Pynchon is following a rather neo-Marxist approach on the significance of the actions of the individual which seem to play little – if any – role in the course of history. Under this specific ‘conclusion’ where does ‘splitting’, bi-location, birefringence etc come in?
One of the first lessons that I learned when I started studying History of Science back in 1990 was that ‘there are no “ifs” in History’. History is the result of a specific chain of events that have led to the present and the immense amount of degrees of freedom involved make any ‘ifs’ part of the most obscure and non-falsifiable speculation and certainly not part of the science of history. Yet, the beauty of the ‘forking paths’ and their effect on things to come seem to be attracting so much attention that are a rather indispensable part of almost any historic novel.
Under this perspective Against the Day is a novel about multiple realities and histories as a result of all the possibilities that arise when choices are there to be made:

‘Multiple Worlds,” blurted Nigel, who had floated in from elsewhere.
‘Precisely!’ cried the Professor. ‘The Ripper’s “Whitechapel” was a sort of momentary antechamber in space-time… one might imagine a giant railway depot, with thousands of gates disposed radially in all dimensions, leading to tracks of departure to all manner of alternative Hiostories…’

Page 682

and again in page 746:

Reef turned and went glaring away, shoulders hunched, up onto the Ponte degli Scalzi, soon absorbed into a mobility of hundreds of separate futures whose destiny could not be told in any but a statistical way. And that was that.

So birefringence, symbolizes in this respect the basic splitting process of the alternate realities and histories as followed by the ordinary and extraordinary ray in this double refraction that eventually leads to all ‘statistically discussed’ possibilities (something which was also mentioned in Vineland).
However, there is more than meets the eye here, as Pynchon does not simply leave the Universe in the chaos of the infinite histories. Pynchon somehow seems to believe in an order in this chaos, under the general idea of ‘strange attractors’ as events to which history eventually converges no matter what the individual choices of the splitting are.

‘it may be,’ Cyprian said as gently as he thought he had to, ‘that God does not always require us to wander about. It may be that sometimes there is a – would you say a “convergence” to a kind of stillness, not merely in space but in Time as well?’

Page 958

And this convergence in a sense works in accord with the rather bleak – at first sight at least – idea that individuals choices play no role in the evolution of History, but History proceeds with its own statistical laws that lead to specific centers of convergence, in space and time as well. The optimistic psyche in Pynchon raises the theory that this is a convergence to the best of things, to a world in which

…any wish that can be made is at least addressed, if not always granted.

Page 1085

Against the Day, a novel about the turbulent ‘paradigm shift’ days at the turn of the 19th century is a novel about forking paths and a novel about the world, or what the world would have been should an adjustment or two were made back then. That’s exactly why the reader must decide and beware.



  1. […] a new effort, and I am struck by the role that history and science plays in the novel.  I found this blog post, which goes much deeper into the book than I have, but it seems to be thinking the same sort of […]

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