When the Germain army declared, in April of 1942, as accelerating violence of global war brought the arrival of the British bombing of German towns, the wartime Nazi government boasted that they would use native maps in the public domain to destroy valued buildings in England with impunity. In blood-curdling claims that prefigure the American threat to violate international law by targeting of historical sights in Iran, the Teutonic boast that ‘We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide” suggests the terrifying slippage between German superiority in objective tourist maps once tied to educational formation to the superiority of airstrikes from the German Luftwaffe’s arial blitzkrieg that was determined to destroy historical sites, using V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets to act as “Vergeltungswaffe” or vengeance weapons, in an air-launched arsenal designed to destroy whatever was celebrated on the map.
The experience of a bombed out landscape was hard to distance oneself from–and all but impossible to map. During the blitz, Graham Greene gave it his Eton best, chiding Anthony Powell with customary sarcasm how the bombing raids made London “extraordinarily pleasant these days with all the new spaces” as rocket bombs had torn through buildings: Greene distanced himself from violence by affecting admiration for the “rather Mexican effect of ruined churches.” He was not only being picturesque, but looking back on the hatred he felt for the Mexican landscape whose ruins he had officially visited in 1937-8, while investigating Socialist outlawing of Catholicism in Mexico; the dark sarcasm no doubt concealed fears rockets rendered the capitol akin to the landscape he saw as a periphery whose poverty and dishonesty he loathed as “a state of mind” without morals, economic precarity, bad food and drink, and bad faith. Whatever churches Greene saw in Tabasco and Chiapas were empty of ritual or priests by state decree, secret Masses confined to private houses by priests who register with civil authorities after agrarian and land reforms stripped the church of property. If Mexico seemed a periphery, London seemed in danger of becoming one, as Britain’s bombardment by Germans hoped to reduce England’s capitol to ruins; he disdained American superiority to Mexico whose wealth they had extracted, and thought little of the “cold, snarky chambers” of Mexican ruins in the seventh century Mayan city of Palenque, but the bombing of London by “vengeance weapons” threatened rapidly to reduce the metropole by a Third Reich that hoped to triumph over Britain by consigning it to the past to bring to a close an early historical epoch. If Mexico was “a country to die in and leave ruins behind,” the specter of silent, majestic ruins were hard to map onto London.
The evocation of a ruins was telling at a time in the almost exactly eight month bombing campaign from October 1940 to early June 1941. V-2 “vengeance weapons”–or simply “revenge weapons”–were unlike earlier types of war, definitively shifting military hostilities to a home front. If Graham Greene had imagined Mexico as the glamour site of the adventures of Pancho Villa in his childhood, the dangerous landscape of wartime suggested , the start of a campaign whose targets were chosen from a travel guide was a metaphor of how bomb strikes might close a historical epoch by sheer application of force, confirming the imperial destiny claimed for the Third Reich, and reduce London to the material traces of a past Germans long studied of Rome’s Empire and ancient Greece. It was hard to watch the raids at a stoic remove. The emigre bookseller and intellectual historian Chimen Abramsky tied to wacth at close hand London’s bombing unfold by binoculars from the roof of his Highgate residence, scanning the urban landscape for the sight or sound of bombs’ inevitable before joining fire brigades to rush to the scene to mitigate flare-ups in urban neighborhoods, stunned “London was on fire, burning from four sides,” as if the Nazi invasion of Poland, Belarus and Russia had followed him and his father refuge. The V-2 bombs were perhaps only a rehearsal for the aggressive carpet bombing of the Siege of Stalingrad of late August 1942 they preceded; the utter destruction of those air raids challenged novelist Vasily Grossman’s points of reference–“Everything burned down. Hot walls of buildings, like the bodies of people who have died in the terrible heat and not yet cooled down . . . miraculously standing–amid thousands of vast stone buildings now burnt down or half-destroyed,” he wrote in his notebooks. Stalingrad became a landscape of historical ruins, “like Pompeii, caught by destruction in the fullness of life.”
Is it an an oddly English response to try to map this destruction in poignant pastels, as in the header to this post? The elegant maps of the destruction of buildings that were tallied with care during the Blitz cartographically process the bombs’ arrival in an array of watercolors, as if to hold at distance the violence done to place with which each writer–Greene; Abramsky; Grossman–struggle to frame in a language of ruins that suggest historical breaks. They affirm the continuity of the landscape, rather valiantly, against Ordnance Maps, as if to chart hopes for rebuilding.
They are far leess abstracted than recent dense collection of red datapoints of where bombs hit in the recent webmap “Bombsight” charts, which illustrate the overpowering reach of the rockets but makes it hard to comprehend the scale of their effects by the density of these crowded datapoints on a Google Maps base map–even if one zooms in on closeups on individual neighborhoods against the muted generic landscape of a base map. The unprecedented intensity on London, temporally collapsed, challenges the viewer to process the impact of eight months of rockets in totality. The preservation of a set of hand-painted Bomb Damage Maps created to assess the rockets’ devastation in real time offer keys to navigate that experience, as records of the cartographic reaction to the modern violence they wrecked and the transformed urban landscapes that so many Londoners continued to inhabit.
As the destruction of these cities fades from collective memory, the online sources of like “Bombsight” that aggregate actual geodata placing the density with which all rockets and bombs dropped on the city in individual time frames offer something like a slider bar to view the violence, without the fire and death, remotely on our screens. But how to describe or take stock of the scale of such devastation, let alone to do so in a map, or to make contemporary maps and accounts to be embodied in an adequate spatial form? For the journalist Grossman, bombs that fell amidst the flames of burning houses over Stalingrad redefined the place as it had been known from maps, and redefined the lived space of the city that were unable to take stock of by a single observer. “It was no longer a matter of individual explosions; all space was now filled by a single dense, protracted sound” of the howls of bombs, air cloudy with white dust and smoke, the characters of his novel search for images of Pompeii, wondering if any one will remember them, the thunder of explosions and crack of anti-aircraft guns marking time against the howl of a bomb that grew in volume, altering one’s sense of time as “howling seconds, each composed of hundreds of infinitely long or entirely distinct fractions of seconds,” erased desire, memories, or “anything except the echoes of this blind iron howl.”
Whether referencing the obliteration of space by the Baedecker guides was a conceit of historical migration of empires or conflated cartographical superiority of touristic guides with the precision of aerial bombardment suggests the crossing of categories of bombarding civilian populations. The obliteration of clearly demarcated lines haunted Stalingrad’s bombardment included modern incendiary bombs, for Grossman, as tens of thousands of which small canisters that could tumble out of in containers of thirty-six filled the air with a distinct screeching unlike the whistles of high explosives, a screeching that echoed the screeching of the V-2 bombs that Thomas Pynchon employed as the arresting auditory perception of the mesmerizing opening sentence of Gravity’s Rainbow focusses on the “new sound” then unknown of “A screeching came across the sky” . . . Grossman focussed on the “new sound” bombs made in Stalingrad as unlike the whistle of hunters of high-explosive bombs, but “penetrated every living being [from the] hearts of those about to die [to the] hearts of those who survived–all hearts clenched in tight anguish,” so that “there was no one who did not hear it as they plunged into the city, rendering “building after building joined in a single blaze and whole burning streets fused into a single, living, moving wall . . . as if a new city of fire had appeared over Stalingrad,” introduced by the distinct sounds that follow the arrival of “planes coming from north, west, east and south [that] met over Stalingrad,” whose descent on the scientific “seemed to be the sky itself that was descending–sagging, as if under dark, heavy storm clouds, under the vast weight of metal and explosives.”
To register the new city rendered by daily destruction, lest the earlier city by lost, the London City Council undertook in a valiant act of cartographic preservation during the air attacks from September, 1940, just after the Germans had planned to invade Russia, to 1941, and amplified with the attacks of V-2 rockets by 1944, to ensure a level of destruction more sudden and more terrifying than the incendiary bombing of Stalingrad. The ways that the British Army mapped the destruction that V-2 rockets of terrifying precision were able to carve out of the city of London had been long lost, but the recovery of these map provides an eery echo of the historical models and precedents of civilian targeting of historical sites that haunts the contemporary world. For he scars of ethanol-fueled V-2 rockets that speedily struck wartime London seventy years ago are a good place as any to start to map the systematic bombing of civilian spaces. As if mapping the liquid-fueled fantasies of destruction of Wernher von Braun, the V-1 and then, subsequently, V-2 bombs silently arrived to create a psychologically searing topography of death that transformed the city, immersing civilians to new topographies of fear.
The contemporary graphic tabulations of damages in recently published Bomb Damage Maps orient one in chilling ways to the progress and degree of bombing wartime London in purples, violets, oranges, and light blue on London’s familiar plan. The pastels are disarmingly tranquil if not placid in tenor, but seem to conceal within a Benjamin Moore-like in their variety, which seem to reveal a of destruction wonderfully measured concealment resistance of a British culture of grim-faced exactitude to the horrific episode of wartime destruction, generations away from the bombardment of images of bombed out landscapes in Beirut, Syria, or so much of the Middle East and Libya today. If these pencilled sketches seem oddly antiquated and removed, the poignant attempt to come to terms with the radically escalation of destruction in the devastatingly regular tempo of accelerating bombardment that is known as the London Blitz–even if they cannot capture the panic, commotion, terrified screams or chaos, in the muted pastels in an aerial perspective that affirm the organic city that once existed in a still alive past.
The images of community that they preserve in a time of the compacting of time and space stand in a bizarre psychological counterpoint to the terror of the Blitz, an attempt to maintain level-headedness perhaps in the methodical taking of stock of the sites that were apparently be turned into Baedekers of a future lost world. The bombs that clustered on London in the Blitz are not only preserved, but collated, in a stunning overpowering overlay that suggests a puncturing of space if not obliteration–in a collation of the sites of all German bombs dropped on London in the Blitz, September 1940-June 1941, courtesy “Bombsight“, embracing a massive repository of spatial information aggregating locations of all bombs dropped on the city.
The data is so overwhelming, of course, that the viewer is vertiginously unable to process the extent of detail it aggregates, in what might be better known as a Cartofail. The multiple maps that were made by the Bomb Damage Maps tend in the reverse: they preserve the underlying street network and sites of all buildings in the city, preserving a palimpsest that survives in the face of aerial bombardment that attempted to efface any sign of human habitation; the result is a valiant basis for the recreation of the future of London in a dark period, and a particularly healthy and plucky form of cartographic resistance, of sorts, running against the collapsing of time and space in a time of total war, by trying to retain and train attention on what exists in the city that can be preserved lest it be forgotten. In the face of total war, it is a resistance of exactitude.
The maps recall those colored glossy stars pasted, in the manner of pins, at the sites of explosions in London, which “cover the available spectrum” from silver to green, gold, red, blue, and a surprising preponderance in certain areas of violets whose locations seem to coincide with bomb strikes, but are so suspiciously marked with the names of women, the silver ones labelled “Darlene,” others Alice, Delores, Shirley, Sally, amidst Carolines, Marias, Annes, Susans and Elizabeths. The disjunction between names and places map the interior experience of Lt. Slothrop against the city that became a canvass of war, but the placid colorings of the map hues suggest a deeper disjunction between mapmaking and violence.
The maps capture an attempt to take measure of the scale of destruction, from black areas bombed out beyond repair to more lightly damaged areas in yellow, as if to process the unprecedented scale of disaster in the precision of the Ordnance Survey Maps. In ways that seemed to try to contain the violence of the bombs that killed over 9,000 by a coloring the sites that were hit by the daily assessment of bomb damages, Bomb Damage Charts drafted by the London City Council tried to process the daily destruction that took the toll of 9,000 in what Germans portrayed as revenge for allied bombers suggest an English tabulation of the ethanol-fueled violence, called as retribution for allied bombing of German cities, that revealed fingerprints of the fantasy of Wernher von Braun, the rocket scientist who was driven by truly stratospheric aspirations to reach the moon.
And they reflect, as such an attempt to map the devastation Thomas Pynchon so famously began Gravity’s Rainbow by suggesting the sudden arrival of an ethanol-fueled V-2 rocket that struck the zero Greenwich meridian around 1967, by describing a volley of ballistic missiles whose targeted strikes and explosions brought to life something like a new world, and a terrible one that is punctuated in a senseless sequence of devastating strikes. And as Pynchon famously used the Matthausen testimonies to describe the horrors of the bombs’ production during the war by the remain side, the bomb damage maps would have provided powerful means to elaborate the destruction of the city came to map the fictionalized if troubled ever-idiosyncratic psyche of Tyrone Slothrop. The rooftop observations of the arrival of V-2’s that arrive, arching short of the land and arriving on London, tracked by a group of Yanks, stationed at the Allied Clearing House, Technical Unites, Northern Germany (ACHTUNG), a paper warren filled with black typewriters that pose as grave markers, removed from the war but close to its violence.
As much as orient one to the destruction of bricks and mortar buildings, they suggest a way to complete the terrifying topographies of the wartime city, as familiar cityscapes suddenly vanished, taking human lives in a chaos difficult to psychologically sustain. If Stephen Spender described how in “destroyed German towns one often feels haunted by the ghost of a tremendous noise” as it “is impossible not to imagine the rocking explosions, the hammering of the sky upon the earth, which must have caused all this,‟ evoking the inability to grasp or orient oneself to the ineffability of the sensory barrage of modern destruction with particular eloquence. Pynchon was particularly attentive to transpose the complicated topographies of what were otherwise blank space by recourse to the “old Baedecker trick” not limited to that genre of travel books alone, but pillaging from WPA guides and other maps, in ways that make it more than likely that something like the Bomb Damage Maps provided a similar basis to orient his readers to imagining the new topography of war in which his characters sought to navigate as best they could, and the tourist maps of post-war London which rendered the continued effects of bombed out areas light green offered an effective palimpsest as any to recover the psychological trauma of the destruction of the psychic network of place and society–
–itself a mirror image to the German Schadenskarten created to document the parallel six years of trauma inflicted on cities in the Nazi state.
Although the scale of destruction was more targeted and more limited in scale, the hundred and ten hand-colored Bomb Damage maps applied a six color palette to the Ordnance Survey maps in order to register the impact of bombs on the city, ranging from yellow noting mild damage a dire black denoting “total destruction,” which, even if they cannot capture the scale of the 29,890 victims killed in the raids and 50,507 suffering serious injuries, although their over-generous 1:2,500 scale allows one quite effectively to explore parts of the city’s neighborhoods and read the present configuration of individual blocks against the damage of older bombs–whose scale is partly captured in surviving photographs of Debris Survey and Disposal Service crews who explored ruined houses and buildings in plaster-dusted uniforms in the hope of seeking survivors. The images of police constables Arthur Cross and Fred Tibbs capture the broader effort of repair, reconstruction, and taking stock of a spate of local destruction as it occurred, and the need of the maps as a means to process the rapid arrival of rocket strikes in the not indiscriminate targeting commercial and residential London by unmanned rockets.
Repair of evening coming of 1941 of Bank Underground Station
“A rocket has suddenly struck. A terrific blast quite close . . . : the entire fabric of the air, the time, is changed–the casement window blown inward, rebounding with a wood squeak to slam again as all the house still shudders.” The impact of the V-2 striking the zero meridian punctuates time by sudden intervals, and crossing a zero threshold of how we register external stimuli in wartime and to mark a new threshold in the violence of military violence in wartime. If the arrival of unmanned rockets sent shudders of fear into the bodies of individuals in London, if not penetrating their consciousness.
The topography of fear is one that exercizes peculiar psychic effects on the American military intelligence soldier Lt. Tyrone Slothrop, who finds he can predict their arrival by the sudden onrush of feelings of sexual arousal. As if joining eros and Thanatos in a modern casualty of warfare and psychological experimentation he underwent as a child, Lt. Slothrop finds himself possessed by what are experienced as eerily unexpected stimuli Slothrop able to explain–and indeed predict–the ways that the distribution of bombing of the city is mirrored in the mysterious maps he keeps behind his desk of the sexual conquests he has achieved as London was being destroyed. Lieutenant Slothrop, the novel’s hero, creates the maps with sticky stars behind his desk as a personal memorabilia, or journal, of sorts, while he works at a London military intelligence unit, that might be taken to mirror the conjuncture of personal space and theaters of military conflict, or of domestic and national space. While he intends the stars as preserving what might be best seen as personal sexual encounters with colored stickers that erupt from the map’s surface, his superiors cannot but note that their similarity of bombing sites, even as he would describe them best as the sites of a Pavlovian response where the impending arrival of bombs seems to provoke as a particularly unexpected involuntary erections: preceding the arrival of the bombs, Slothrop experienced to some surprise serial trysts with different women at the sites he marked on the map with assiduous care, beside the first name of each. Slothrop’s map of stars objectively seems a way for him to try to understand himself, and as it happens the psychological conditioning he once received as a child, in ways that only mirror how the Ordinance maps of London were used to take better stock of the scale of damage on the Home Front. There is a similar haunting juncture of personal and military in the range of those who heard the arrival of incendiary bombs in Stalingrad, that Grossman described, to suggest the horrific expansion of a military theater, including “women who had been standing in queues and were running back home to be with their children; people who had managed to hide away in deep cellars, protected from the sky by thick stone slabs; people who had dropped down on the tarmac in the middle of streets and squares; people who leaped into slit trenches in parks and pressed their heads against dry earth; patients in psychiatric hospitals; wounded soldiers lying under chloroform on operating tables; babies, red in the face as they cried angrily . . .; half-deaf, feeble-minded old men.”
Slothrop’s co-workers are struck by the mysteriously marking the sites as echoes of sites where bombs struck, however, in ways that raise immediate suspicions. Indeed, even as try to decipher a mathematical order in the sudden build-up of bomb attacks. The Bomb Damage Charts attempt a similar successful, if fatally flawed, attempt to invest normalcy onto the destruction of London’s landscape? Looking at the recently released hand-colored detail used to render the extent of building destruction caused by rockets and aerial raids in the London Bomb Damage Maps created in wartime London–maps that tracked the progress and degree of local damages the city endured over two years in real time–one is encouraged to re-read Pynchon at a distance, and the meaning of the maps that Slothrop’s unit try to make of bomb-strikes in the city, in which some find an order that mirrors a Poisson Distribution, as if to discern in the sporadic bombing of the city some logic of probabilistic order in the distribution of bombs that punctuated time. Indeed, the striking images of bomb damage that the city endured offer compel an attempt to sort them out in so concrete a register to coming to terms with the rapid pace of sudden strikes on the city–clarified as it was attempted to be converted into crystal clear charts to communicate the extent of local damage that future town planners and rebuilders might readily survey, as if to prepare a clean record of the bombing raids one never quite knew when would end.
–and as if to convert the extent of bomb damage to a means one’s mind might comprehend and take stock of a rapidly changing urban landscape and world. As the maps seem an attempt to freeze, mark time, and take stock of the transfigured urban landscape, they provide an odd echo of the search for self that Slothrop, compelled in odd ways he can’t quite understand to treat the wartime city as a site of pleasure, finds himself creating while he lives in a landscape increasingly transfigured by human death that destroyed over 3,000 buildings by the war’s conclusion and had killed some 30,000. With the events of the war definitively remote, maps that already assessed the scope and scale of such damage–already evident in details of a 1947 map of London which rendered the areas suffering particular damage by light green shaded blocks that pockmark the city in post-war tourist maps–
–and the small scale bombing raids that had begun from November 1940 to May 1941 by the Luftwaffe that launched pilotless V-1 rockets and then v-2 missiles fell across the city’s fabric in an onslaught of new technological fierceness of death, that never could be precisely mapped, but whose devastation the London County Council continuously updated and noted even as upwards of a third of the buildings in the city had been damaged or destroyed by unannounced explosions.. How better to imagine the hectic pace of their arrival that so successfully destroyed individual buildings that they were known as Baedecker raids, from 1944 destroying 100,000 buildings or rendering them unrepairable, as the missiles launched from the Netherlands rendered much of the city and beyond repair. How better to imagine these strikes than by the image of bomb damage assessments, a gloroious source if their ever was one, as Pynchon sought to find new first-hand information of historically removed fact. Much as the Baedecker provided a basis to describe in accurate or believable ways that local atmosphere the bomb damage maps provided a new way to come to terms with modernity.
1. The map of bomb strikes in London–rather than a map of damages–strikes his superior quite suddenly. They provide a sort of cypher and enigma that Thomas Pynchon invites readers to puzzle over in Gravity’s Rainbow, much as Slothrop’s superiors try to discern an apparent logic in its distribution. The discussion of the meaning of the map comes up quickly in the novel–“Pointsman, do you want to hear something really paranoid? . . . Have you consulted a map of London lately? All this great me-teo-ric plague of V-weapons . . .” “They’re falling in a Poisson distribution.” . . . “But have you ever thought of why?” The presence of the map Slothrop hung with joint personal satisfaction and obliviousness above his desk that shows his sexual adventure in wartime London provide a pretense to investigate his idiosyncratic Pavlovian response to the strikes, leading military intelligence to wonder whether Slothrop might be”able to predict when a rocket will fall at a particular place” or even considering that the hapless Slothrop is, rather than clairvoyant, in fact endowed with a psychokinesis by which “the force of his mind [is] causing the rockets to drop where they do,” using electric signals that manipulate the rockets’ guidance systems by his mind; the “map Slothrop’s been keeping on his girls” haunts the experts in London, since they fall in exactly the same distribution as the rocket strikes in the London Blitz. Thomas Pynchon himself has describe how, hungry for items of information to weave into fiction, he came as a student at Cornell University to “loot the Baedecker” with an abandon he was only able to acknowledge indirectly in his written stories in 1959, as a source for adapting freely “all the details of a time and a place I’d never been to”–“Who’d make up a name like Kevenhüller-Mensch?”–he found particularly enchanting, whether to describe Egypt in 1899, all the while enjoying to imagining apocalyptic showdowns and exploring that eternal question of whether history was more statistical or personal. The same question seems to underly Gravity’s Rainbow, in a different way, and if old maps and written descriptions provide a sense of place, the Bomb Damage maps or their description
But even when considering the extent of damage of London neighborhoods, so clearly antiquated are the maps to remind one of the extent we’ve continued to cross further thresholds in the continued onslaught of bombs in the London Blitz impinge on the zero threshold of Lt. Slothrop’s consciousness in war-time London while he is stationed in the city with allied intelligence–at the same time as the new degree of bomb warfare raise the threshold of acceptable violence for the world. For the first section of Gravity’s Rainbow, “Beyond the Zero,” describes the intersection of Slothrop’s unprecedented premonition of the arrival of V-2 rockets that enter the perceptual threshold of the military man and the new threshold of violence in war-torn Europe. Whereas Pynchon explored the threshold of attention of the arrival of bombs across the landscape of war torn London for Lt. Tyrone Slothrop, the graphic response to the punctuation of space registered in the meticulously colored maps of bomb damage. The maps force us to consider to the thresholds of violence and attention that the scale and violence of subsequent bombing raids have almost mercilessly continued to cross–providing a chilling record of the reaction to their sequence in historical “real” time.
The painstaking hand-colored detail used to render the scale of local destruction that the city suffered appear to provide a record of coming to terms with the “new normalcy” of wartime attacks by aerial bombers and, from 1941, the scourge of V-2 rockets, as much as they reveal the scale of the destruction of local buildings in an apparently objective way.
We map place to know where things lie but when we map bomb strikes, we map an erasure of place, tracing the outlines of how space was once occupied by place. Maps might try to take stock of the devastation of bombings and air raids–but they can only hint at the scope of what occurs on the ground, and the varieties of maps made to understand the impact of the early ballistic missiles that arrived in London’s Blitz give their viewers an inescapable premonition of the scale of the increasingly prevalent maps made since World War II. The attempt to comprehend the blasts of rockets from drones, the maps of the London Home Office, despite their antiquated hand-drawn format, are unavoidable premonitions of later data maps that tally the scale of strikes against sites, from Afghanistan, Waziristan, and Pakistan, or the bunker buster or cluster bombs that demolished Aleppo, in their failure to describe the violence they try to process. Even as we fail to fully map the consequences of their destructiveness or understand the threshold each event has surpassed, the Bomb Damage Maps remind us of the impossibility to comprehend the scale of local devastation.
Gravity’s Rainbow begins with the strike of one of the V-2 rockets that hit London in scattershot plots from 1944 in “sudden demolitions form the sky,” from the arrival of V-2 impact at Greenwich, 000 longitude–the zero meridian. The location immediately raises the question of whether their arrival can be mapped to reveal of any notion of causality. Despite attempts to find some causality in their pattern, the proposition that “Things only happen” as we accommodate to their occurrence increasingly seem evident. For despite any attempts to parse their distribution by Poisson distributions, the arrival of V-2 rockets lack causation. Where the “meteoric plague of V-weapons” hit across London was a subject of increasing professional concern, as the smoldering craters from which ragged smoke curled in the London landscape–and which Pynchon so chillingly evokes–provided paranoid interpretations as their distribution was tried to be understood as something created by human agency, dumped on civilians in a way intelligence seeks to try to grasp in Pychon’s elegant–and sadly increasingly quite timely and timeless–novel. The destruction of their sudden arrival is emblematic of a new order of terror–a new threshold of terror that is shattered by the scale of bombing targeted civilian populations in World War II, and shattered the era that preceded it in ways that can never be clearly mapped or given logical structure, try as hard as we may. Slothrop’s map suggests an uncanny mapping of eros and thanatos, mapping the “sexual Other, whom he symbolizes on his map, most significantly, as a star, that anal-sadistic emblem of classroom success with permeates elementary education in America,” Dr. Treacle has it, that so spooks his superiors.
Pynchon confessed to have been quite consumed when consulting period-specific Baedecker guides found in Cornell University’s bookstore for research on novels. As a young author, he systematically “looting the Baedeker for “all the details of a time and place I had ever been too, right down to the details of the diplomatic corps” in a story set in Egypt–so “Could Willy Sutton rob a safe?”–for atmospheric passages in stories–as well as no doubt maps. And his account of a map of the threshold of bombed out wartime London becomes the centerpiece of an extended interrogation on human agency and contingency, as well as destruction psychic and physical: the patterns of Slothrop’s sexual conquests in London map, in an uncanny way, “match up square for square” with the sites of bomb-strikes, and immediately direct collective attention to the mechanics of such apparent skills precognition: once photographed and projected over the actual statistical maps of bomb strikes, “girl stars and rocket strike circles [are] demonstrated to coincide,” in ways that provide the invitation to try to understand the mechanics of the effects that the substance that triggers poor Tyrone’s apparent reflexive stimulation that the arrival of V-2 rockets somehow provokes, “as quickly as two days, or as slowly as ten” from the strike, and “with a mean [time-]lag of about 4 1/2 days.”
The eery embodied precognition triggered in Slothrop’s penis before the arrival of each V-2 rocket–an arrival that impacts his mind because of Pavlovian conditioning, trace the psychological landscape of these early ballistic bombs, itself pushed past subjects’ zero threshold in wartime London. It probably doesn’t bear saying that they map a threshold we have continued to traverse. If used to spin further apocalyptic narratives haunted by “our common nightmare The Bomb” that Pynchon described as haunting his fiction and so much else, the maps provide something like a palimpsest of these fears. Long before searching for reactions before “this slow escalation of hopelessness and terror in the few ways open to us,” the record of a titration-like destruction of the cityscape that the Bomb Damage Maps reveal provide an amazing contemporary, if quite cartographically removed and antiquated, Baedeker to trace the expanding mental landscape comparable to Pynchon’s account of Slothrop’s attempts to grasp the shifting landscape of the Blitz.