V.—That Obscure Object of Desire

Swedish Book Cover for Thomas Pynchon’s V.

I have just finished reading Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, V. (1963). This is one of those works which is so disturbing to readers who feel they must understand every reference, every symbol, every character. And what if the novel has hundreds of characters, most of them with highly fanciful names like Herbert Stencil or Benny Profane or Rachel Owlglass or Pig Bodine. For good or ill, something happened in the twentieth century that resulted in a great divorce of art from the common everyday experience of reality.

One can find it in James Joyce (Finnegan’s Wake), Samuel Beckett (The Unnamable), Georges Perec (Life: A User’s Manual), William Faulkner (Absalom, Absalom!), and Gertrude Stein (The Making of Americans). And, in fact, all over the place.

Because my academic training is in film history and criticism, I was able to make a connection to one of my favorite directors, the Spaniard Luis Buñuel. In an interview with André Bazin and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze that appeared in Cahiers du Cinéma in June 1954, Buñuel wrote:

For me it is natural to tend to see and to think of a situation from a sadistic rather than from, say, a neorealistic or mystical point of view. I ask myself: What must this character reach for? A revolver? A knife? A chair? In the end, I always choose whichever is most disturbing. That’s all…. [Quoted in Ado Kyrou, Luis Buñuel: An Introduction (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963)]

Film Director Luis Buñuel (1900-1983)

If one looks at Pynchon’s novel V., one finds a search for a feminine entity referred to as V., presumably because that is the first letter of her name. In the course of the novel, there are dozens of characters who could qualify, and Pynchon is in no hurry to identify which one is right. The candidates include Victoria Wren, Vera Meroving, the goddess Venus, Veronica Manganese, a rat named Veronica in the sewers of New York, Madame Viola, Hedwig Vogelsang, the Blessed Virgin, or ??? Then again, V. could be a place, such as Valetta (Malta), Venezuela, the mysterious Vheissu (never explained), Vesuvius, or the V-Note Jazz Club in Manhattan ???

Thomas Pynchon is not terribly interested in providing closure, but he does know how to suck you in and keep turning those pages until you get to the strange death by waterspout of Sydney Stencil in 1919.

 

Not the Epicene Nordic Christ

Head of Christ by Antonio Allegri aka Correggio (1489-1534)

Head of Christ by Antonio Allegri aka Correggio (1489-1534)

In all of art, there are only two depictions of Christ that I—a notorious renegade Catholic—admire. One is in a Luis Buñuel film called La voie lactée, or The Milky Way (1969). In it, Bernard Verley played the role of the Son of Man (below) as a likable guy who just happens to turn water into wine at the wedding at Cana, because his mother kept insisting, “But they have no more wine!” I could see wanting to become his disciple.

Christ (Bernard Verley) at the Miracle of Cana

Christ (Bernard Verley) at the Miracle of Cana

Today, I visited my favorite painted depiction of Christ at the Getty Center. It was the work of Antonio Allegri, better known as Correggio, sometime between 1525 and 1530. According to the museum’s website, the small (28.6 cm x 23.5 cm) painting represents the face of Christ on the veil offered to Him by St. Veronica on the road to Calvary—though I am not convinced of that. He is wearing the crown of thorns, which looks as if it had just been placed on his head without any sweat or bleeding in evidence.

What there is is an expression on Christ’s face that is a somber acknowledgment of the horrible death to come, the same death that He had asked to be relieved of in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Luke 22:39)

Neither of them show us the namby-pamby Evangelical Christ which is fed as pabulum to brainless children (and adults). I can believe in Correggio’s Christ, as I do in Buñuel’s Christ. They both portray the innate tragedy of the Redemption and the strange mismatch between God’s nature and man’s in the same body.

Mexican Bus Ride

Still from Luis Buñuel’s Mexican Bus Ride (Subida Al Cielo, 1952)

Still from Luis Buñuel’s Mexican Bus Ride (Subida Al Cielo, 1952)

For various reasons, I am inordinately fond of the films that Luis Buñuel made in Mexico between 1946 and 1965. Since then, he has perhaps made greater films, but remember there is a big difference between fondness and admiration. Because these films were made in Mexico, where perhaps not enough money was budgeted for each production, the director had to use his ingenuity to make the films his own. And when he succeeded most, the results were wonderfully human and surreal. The films from this period that I liked the most are, in order of production:

  1. Los olvidados (1950). In the U.S. variously titled The Forgotten and The Young and the Damned.
  2. Susana (1951). In English: The Devil and the Flesh.
  3. Subida al cielo (1952). In English: Mexican Bus Ride and Ascent to Heaven (the literal translation of the Spanish title).
  4. El (1953), In English: This Strange Passion and Torments.
  5. La Ilusión viaja en tranvía (1954), In English: Illusion Travels by Streetcar.
  6. Abismos de pasíon (Cumbres borrascosas) (1954), In English: Wuthering Heights.
  7. The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954).
  8. Ensayo de un crimen (1955). In English: The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz.
  9. Nazarín (1959).
  10. El ángel exterminador (1962). In English: The Exterminating Angel.

Of these, the most admirable are the last two, just as the director was ready to step onto the world stage. But the ones I would like to watch over and over again are Mexican Bus Ride and Illusion Travels by Streetcar.

Mexican Poster for Mexican Bus Ride

Mexican Poster for Mexican Bus Ride

In the first film, a young man travels from a coastal village to a large market town on a long bus ride during which one passenger dies, another gives birth, and he himself is seduced by the lusciously ripe Lilia Prado (see photo above). Somehow all works out well, almost magically in fact. I have seen this film half a dozen times and am still not close to getting tired of it.

Illusion Travels by Streetcar involves—and tell me this is not unique—a hijacking of a streetcar in which a disconsolate streetcar driver who hijacks a streetcar, takes it on a route of his own devising while offering free rides to a motley crew of passengers who join him on his route.

Both films are hilarious and loving. It is obvious that Buñuel had considerable feeling for the people of Mexico, which shows through again and again.