An old essay, newly revised.
Gravity’s Rainbow (did Pynchon get it?) and the War on Terror
Part One The validity of bioenergetic analysis, whether of language or of the self, ultimately rests on the truth that we are first and foremost sentient physical creatures existing in space. The most primary and pervasive challenge we must contend with in keeping ourselves upright and alive is gravity. Hot and cold, light and dark, oxygen and water, etc., may come and go, but so far as we remain earthbound, even on the mountain top or sea bottom, gravity still remains a factor.
Thus everything we do on a physical level must in some way involve an up and a down. Holding our bodies upright requires a constant commitment of muscles. We can sit or lie down by releasing ourselves from a part of that commitment. This sort of release we usually call voluntary. However, the large variety of bodily positions available to us in physical space means that most if not all such releases, as well as the many ways in which we "hold ourselves up," are relative to other position.
For example, “Parade Rest” in the military is, at least in a physical and bioenergetic sense, a voluntary or at least more easy-going release in relation to the military stance of “Attention.” However, if the sergeant orders, “As you were,” and you crouch or sit for a smoke, and then after a few minutes he barks, “Pa—rade rest!," in relation to the degree of letting go you had experienced while on the ground, Parade Rest represents a holding, not a release.
So in general, to get our basic bioenergetic terminology straight, most of the time "up" is a holding, "down" a release, in the purely physical sense ("getting high," while an interesting tangent, doesn't apply here), but most if not all of those ups and downs are relative, quite obviously, just as “I am taller than he is, but shorter than you are,” and so forth.
Not every occurrence of human physical holding and release, however, is entirely voluntary (some would say none). The two main aspects of the human “nervous system” correspond to the fact that my suddenly standing straight as a ramrod may be a result of my more voluntary response to the sergeant’s command, “Atten-shun!” or it may have resulted from my more involuntary response to a sudden loud noise. Conversely, my “plopping on the ground," say, for a smoke, is, relatively, a voluntary letting go of my usual muscular commitment, while my falling off a cliff rarely is.
So far as we know, nothing conditions homo sapiens more pervasively, continuously and physically from the outside (that is, where each of us can most readily, if given the opportunity, exercise some measure of conscious and voluntary control) than gravity. Upon this fact rests the argument that, if one agrees that language is organic, and then to the extent that language is also voluntary, it must at some consciously accessible level embody in a rational way our physical relationship to the earth, i.e., the ways in which our neuromuscular system is shaped by and shapes itself in relation to it--particularly with a view to gravity, but also according to climate, etc.
What happens bioenergetically in the body as a whole depends on changes in our muscular tension as we move from one position to another. In bioenergetic therapy, we can become more aware of subliminal patterns of behavior by reinacting those physical changes in a relatively neutral setting and focusing on corresponding changes in the way they make us feel. In the same way, a central focus in the bioenergetic analysis of language concerns the position of letters (and their sounds) relative to one another, with an eye to learning what sorts of consistent motivational patterns emerge out of the variety of these interactions.
If human beings were unfeeling robots, then in the world outside fiction the ups and downs of their physical existence would hold no emotional importance to them, since robots are not in any living way sentient nor conform to what we mean by “organic”—they feel no physical pleasure or pain, or sense of exertion or relaxation, that might connect to joy, fear, etc. Robots can’t speak, either, until we “program” them to so, and run on tech tweaks, not love, salaries, etc.
Human beings, however, so far as we know, have always been and will always be generally subject to both pleasure and pain, as well as the stresses of exertion and the relief of release from it, at all times, and on both a physical and emotional level.
(Might want to take a break.)
Part Two So, keeping all of the above in mind, let’s embark on a bioenergetic language analysis of the current key political phrase, “the war on terror.”
We often fear actions and movements, whether our own or those of others, that strike us as involuntary, because, often correctly, we tend to associate them with a lack of control, and that lack of control with various sorts of threats or danger. Just as gravity is the most universal and continuous external conditioner of our bodies in space, so then is our fear of falling the most universal fear.
Let’s start by examining the word, “terror.” If we pick it apart, what stands out? Well, it harbors another significant word in our culture: error. Just the thought of making an error is often enough to fill us with terror. So let’s see first see how the t might be acting on the rest of the word. Contrast the bioenergetic t effect here with that of the b in bearer. The t pushes out, driving the sound of the rest of word away, and arguably out of control, whereas the ba sound (ba-earer) acts to reel the second and third syllables back toward itself. On a subliminal level, this makes a dramatic difference, for it pulls the sensory drop of the “er” sound back into the "controlled" zone of my body (analogous to my breath being pulled back in toward me on inhales), and thus connecting, if we wish to speculate somewhat more elaborately, to all things social generally emanating from that body.
Thus I can, equally, be the “bearer” of good or bad news. In “terror,” the sense conveyed--synonymous with a lack of control--is something quite different.
But let’s do one more quick analysis here to further illuminate the relativity of the body-sensory activities of this particular sound (not spelling). In the word “air,” as pronounced by most Americans at least, you get the same sensation. The effect of the r sound following the short e is same as that when it follows the “ai,” because the two are similarly pronounced: if you focus on the area around your mouth as you say either syllable (“air”/ “er”), you can feel the r “falling” over the lower lip and start down the outside of your jaw. But at the end of the word “air,” without the t driving it “out and over,” there’s a sensation of the breath being pulled back in. We will come to see that, among other things, the sound of the letter r often if not always functions as a fulcrum—the image of the center of a teeter-totter, or the hump in a weird roller-coaster ride comes to mind. That is, depending on what’s going on bioenergetically on either or both sides of the r, it can send your subliminal feeling-sense up or down, forward or backward, and at varying velocities.
So, whereas in “air,” the bioenergetic effect of the syllable is to, essentially, mimic a breath, in "terror," driven forward by the force of the t, the effect is to take that same initial sense of falling over the lower lip and down, and then propel it out (of our control?).
“Buzz” (“bzzz” with a bit of intention) is onomatopoeia 101, as most English majors know, but then so is “roar” (“rrrr” with a bit of intention). How about the semantic for terror then, as me suddenly falling, losing control, and then getting—take your pick—scared or angry? (Tears may come later, but are not embodied in this word.)
Voila: a good all-purpose bioenergetic analog for either the perpetrators or the victims, or both, of something very bad. Is anything potentially more universally bad, on a physical level, than an out-of-control fall? At least in the word “error,” the momentum of the t isn’t working to drive the end of the word over the edge, too, so there’s some possibility of pulling back inward, breathwise, usually signaling some sort of slow down, reflection or mediation. At least here there’s a chance that the “error” will not make the teacher angry, and we will get another chance to pass, not fall, er, fail.
Ok, now back to the “war on” part of the "war on terror." We do this analysis second here because, well, common sense suggests that the “war on,” in our real and political context, is supposed to be considered our response, if not our antidote, to the “terror.” So, though it comes first syntactically, it’s actually the add-on or modifier here.
Now having some sense of what it is we are trying to deal with, how are we going to deal with it? The w sound is all about puckering and then spreading the lips. Sort of like the “air”/ “er” sound, the trajectory of one’s breath coming out is generally that of a downward curve, but it begins higher up, thanks to the pucker. This pull-down is not due to the action of an r, but the muscular release of the pucker. Nor is it necessarily headed out and down for long. It can be pulled, variously, up (wide); or back and down (whoa).
Here, however, the short a sound doesn’t seem to do much to stop that “coming down on” feeling; rather it gives it a little push forward that then continues on down, while also augmenting the sense of “spread,” a good analog for a sense of something that’s going to widen and encompass, that began, as it usually does, with the previous release of the lips from the pucker (“waa!"—think of Baby Huey, without the tears. Better yet, think of his father, the helicopter). Now what’s this spreading sensation--as it comes down on something “below” it-- going to end with? Well, how about a r? Tit for tat, right?
You, as the perpetrator of terror, can get mad. Well, guess what, so can we, and not only are we committed to warring on you, we are "higher and wider," and well, maybe even just bigger and stronger than you, too, so there! (And boy, are we ever going to be “coming down hard.")
Coming down hard "where?" Well, the word “on” here just serves (via the stolid o sound dropping onto the stolid n sound—no sudden or scary drops here) its usual function of telegraphing our feeling sense that something is on top of something else.
True, this is a bit redundant: “we are not only higher and wider, bigger and stronger; and we are definitely on top of this situation. But then, the political use of the phrase “war on terror,” in case you haven’t noticed, is all about repetition, anyway (a whole other discussion).
Just one last question (its relevance may be debated). In bioenergetic terms (look elsewhere for a micro-analysis of this), “Gravity’s Rainbow” probably means something like “what goes down, must come up." Now, rainbows don't connect easily in any way with a universal fear of falling (failing), but sometimes they do appear as the aftermath of a "hard rain."
For me, this “raises” the question of how much about the subliminal workings of words did Thomas Pynchon really know? Whether consciously or unconsciously. Perhaps there’s another book or two of his out there to put back on the reading list.
@Copyright Lee Strauss 2015