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On Preterition: Thomas Pynchon and the Politics of the Apolitical
Unformatted Document Text:  preterite” (i.e., class)—a world where democracy, equality, and liberty truly prevailed. But the Puritans set the stage for a continuation of elite domination and elaborate systems of mastery and control. The readers of Mason & Dixon get to witness Pynchon’s fictional recreation of America’s corruption as the astronomer and the surveyor draw a line across the continent that will separate free and slave states. America was “a purity begging to be polluted…of course Empire took its way westward, what other way was there but into those virgin sunsets to penetrate and to foul” (GR 214)? The corrupted American idyll represents a paradise lost. Now that we have fallen to our wretched condition, Pynchon says, only through embracing preterition can we hope to find something that resembles freedom. Unfortunately, the best our corrupted world can offer is a negative freedom, a freedom from the undue influences of the system. The only way to reach this preterite freedom is to drop out of conventional society as Slothrop does so effectively in GR. The symbolism of his disappearance or invisibility should not be overlooked. Slothrop has withdrawn from the grip of the system, but he must pay a heavy price: an indeterminate identity. One might say that Slothrop has been atomized, an apt metaphor for a world in which individuals can only achieve negative freedom. Classical liberals have long viewed freedom in solely negative terms; Slothrop’s disintegration demonstrates the inadequacy of negative freedom for those who wants to live a full life. Hannah Arendt claimed that only a deeply political life can be called a full one. Unfortunately, Pynchon counters, the political in our age leads inevitably to cooptation and corruption. Even those who have every intention of waging war against the powers that be and toppling their system will see their rage tamed, their subversion normalized. With nothing else to hope for, Pynchon points to the apolitical as the best option available to us. 40

Authors: Lacey, Robert.
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preterite” (i.e., class)—a world where democracy, equality, and liberty truly prevailed.  But the 
Puritans set the stage for a continuation of elite domination and elaborate systems of mastery and 
control.  The readers of Mason & Dixon get to witness Pynchon’s fictional recreation of 
America’s corruption as the astronomer and the surveyor draw a line across the continent that 
will separate free and slave states.  America was “a purity begging to be polluted…of course 
Empire took its way westward, what other way was there but into those virgin sunsets to 
penetrate and to foul” (GR 214)?  The corrupted American idyll represents a paradise lost.  
Now that we have fallen to our wretched condition, Pynchon says, only through 
embracing preterition can we hope to find something that resembles freedom.  Unfortunately, the 
best our corrupted world can offer is a negative freedom, a freedom from the undue influences of 
the system.  The only way to reach this preterite freedom is to drop out of conventional society 
as Slothrop does so effectively in GR.  The symbolism of his disappearance or invisibility should 
not be overlooked.  Slothrop has withdrawn from the grip of the system, but he must pay a heavy 
price: an indeterminate identity.  One might say that Slothrop has been atomized, an apt 
metaphor for a world in which individuals can only achieve negative freedom.  Classical liberals 
have long viewed freedom in solely negative terms; Slothrop’s disintegration demonstrates  the 
inadequacy of negative freedom for those who wants to live a full life.  Hannah Arendt claimed 
that only a deeply political life can be called a full one.  Unfortunately, Pynchon counters, the 
political in our age leads inevitably to cooptation and corruption.  Even those who have every 
intention of waging war against the powers that be and toppling their system will see their rage 
tamed, their subversion normalized.  With nothing else to hope for, Pynchon points to the 
apolitical as the best option available to us.
40


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