It’s been said — I wish I knew who said it first — that fantasy is always about disenchantment, about the draining of magic from the world. Certainly disenchantment is one of Pynchon’s obsessions, and the fantastic elements of his stories tend to emphasize loss. There’s a moment late in Mason & Dixon, when our heroes are returning from their adventures in the wilderness, and they discover that their companion the poet Timothy Tox is accompanied by a Golem:
But as ’twill prove, the closer they escort Mr. Tox to the Metropolis, the less Evidence for his Creature’s existence will they be given, till at length they must believe that the Poet has either pass’d, like some Indian Youth at the Onset of Manhood, under the Protection of a potent tho’ invisible Spirit,— or gone mad.
The city’s powerful engines of disenchantment overwhelm and dissipate the magic that arises from the unregulated wilderness. Experiences of the supernatural must thereafter be either invisible, indiscernible to the Sensorium, or a token of insanity. And then after a while those who had had such experiences wonder whether they even happened at all. They eventually “fade into the light of common day.”
Where has it gone, the glory and the dream? And can it be recaptured? This sense of being in-between haunts Pynchon’s fiction: I find myself thinking of Matthew Arnold “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born.”
I think one cause of this tendency in Pynchon’s fiction is generational. Pynchon is roughly the same age as Ken Kesey, who once said that he was too young to be a beatnik and too old to be a hippie — that is, his life fell between two excited and excitable movements of countercultural possibility. Kesey tried to overcome that in-betweenness by main force — the main force of an artificial community, the LSD-fueled Merry Pranksters. And of course it didn’t work; it couldn’t have worked. There are a lot of people like the post-Pranksters Kesey in Pynchon’s fiction: old druggies like Zoyd Wheeler or Doc Sportello, becalmed, in the doldrums, waiting out the coastal fog as Doc does at the end of Inherent Vice, hoping for something, anything, to happen. Pynchon’s characters are often half-remembering or hoping to remember some idealized past, some lost Lemuria or Atlantis, and half-watching for some Vision to appear on the horizon of the future. The Second Life-like video game DeepArcher in Bleeding Edge is an attempt to enforce this Vision by the main force of digital technology: the technological sublime, accessible always to the connected user!
In the Sixties the “connected users” were potheads and acidheads, and if Kesey was the chief Merry Prankster of such secular hope in the latter part of the decade, following the pioneering work of Timothy Leary, its dark Joker was Hunter S. Thompson. An early paragraph in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas goes,
The sporting editors had also given me $300 in cash, most of which was already spent on extremely dangerous drugs. The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.
If that won’t immanentize the Eschaton, what will?
But Thompson actually knows that it’s all bullshit, that he is continuing practices and habits that he doesn’t believe in any more. At one point he pauses in his wild trip through Vegas to say,
We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled the Sixties. Uppers are going out of style. This was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously. After West Point and the Priesthood, LSD must have seemed entirely logical to him… but there is not much satisfaction in knowing that he blew it very badly for himself, because he took too many others down with him.
And Thompson is one of those. Elsewhere in the book he writes the true epitaph of the Sixties, in a passage whose tone might be quite recognizable to those on today’s left trying to reckon with Trump, in a passage that Thomas Pynchon could have written:
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time – and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened. … There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.