At the start of Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon described the sudden arrival of an ethanol-fueled V-2 rocket that struck the zero Greenwich meridian, in a volley of ballistic missiles whose targeted strikes and explosions brought to life something like a new world. “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 sudden impact of the V-2 at the zero meridian also punctuates time, and crossing a zero threshold of how we register external stimuli in wartime. Re-reading Pynchon and looking at the recently released hand-colored detail used to render the extent of building destruction caused by rockets and aerial raids in the Bomb Damage Maps created in wartime London, archival documents that track the relative degree of local damages the city endured over two years.
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. Tyrone Slothrop’s consciousness in war-time London while he is stationed abroad 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.
Bomb Damage Maps/London Metropolitan Archives/City of London Police
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 increasing number of maps made since World War II that attempt to comprehend the blasts of rockets from drones–even in their antiquated hand-drawn form, they are unavoidable premonitions of later data maps that tally the scale of strikes against sites in Afghanistan, Waziristan, and Pakistan, or the explosive rockets and bunker buster or cluster bombs that demolished Aleppo–even as we fail to fully map the consequences of their destructiveness or understand the threshold each event has surpassed.
Thomas Pynchon began Gravity’s Rainbow by describing 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. 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.
Pynchon had confessed his discovery of consulting period-specific Baedecker guides found in Cornell University’s bookstore for research, and 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–his account his a map of the threshold of bombed out wartime London. The precognition that Slothrop feels about the place of the arrival of each V-2 rocket–a sense of their arrival impacts his threshold due to his conditioning, trace the psychological landscape of these early ballistic bombs, that in itself pushed past the zero threshold of subjects in wartime. And they map a threshold we have remarkably 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 place within the expanding mental landscape that can be compared to Pynchon’s account of Slothrop’s attempts to grasp the shifting landscape of the Blitz.
1. Serviceman Tyrone Slothrop is stationed in London with the unit “Allied Clearing House, Technical Unit, Northern Germany”, a branch of Allied Intelligence where he is charged to look in ruins to search for survivors amidst the burning rockets frequently fired at the city’s inhabitants, and examine the rocket-bomb disasters that dotted the city, as if to find life in death. At the time of his searches, “A lot of stuff prior to 1944 is getting blurry,” and he is haunted by “the notion of a rocket with his name written on it” (25), and is left to wonder to himself “how he got into investigating V-Bomb incidents” (24). While such maps are most often retrospectively recreated from data about past strikes, as information of the extent of bomb dropping is revealed, the creation of a map of ongoing damages and destruction of bombing raids recorded in real time during the London Blitz, in an attempt to take stock of the first targeting of civilian populations, and indeed as a daily tally of the scope of destruction to try to create a record of the extent of the damages that the city had endured–in ways that seem to map the paths of the first guided missiles to target densely inhabited areas. Did they create a logical distribution, or how finely could their arrival in fact be defined from such a spatial remove? Or was it that the shock of these explosions had utterly removed one across a threshold of experiencing life in ways that eradicated not only buildings, but any possibility of return?
Although we had little knowledge that the strikes were indeed noted in a day-by-day fashion, the mapping of damage, if geared to the local buildings, provide a particular rarity of assessing the impact of dreaded rockets as they hit targets in the city, revealing something of a pattern that the English Home Ministry sought to understand to grasp the elusive logic of the deadly attacks. The record of their impacts may have created a sense of survival, but also show, as Thomas Pynchon slyly suggested in the quotation that begins this post, the changed sense of time and space they create. “Will the Postwar be nothing but a series of events, newly created one moment to the next? No links?” Pynchon asks in Gravity’s Rainbow, resulting in the “end of history?” How exactly can the scale of this destruction be mapped, and the caesura that bombs impose on history be seen as anything like a continuum?
The deliberate design of pastels that assess the geographic distribution of bombed-out buildings that were impacted by the fast arrival of unmanned bombs London in the Blitz can’t help but recall the collection of paper stars Pynchon describes as created by Tyrone Slothrop in his spare time. His mapping of the sites of sexual encounters while overseas uncannily mirrors the damage of rockets that started to strike after 1944, creating greater panic than the bombs previously dropped by Luftwaffe planes–and maps a distribution of death, tracing the distribution of the arrival of V-2s over the city and the new geography it creates in the cityscape. Slothrop made the map to track his own exploits with a diligence best described as “booblishly conscientious,” but was easily mistaken as a curious attempt to track such “sudden demolitions from the sky” which might reveal some foreknowledge of the strikes. Rather than list the dates of bombing, the map Slothrop makes curiously precede them–since they rather track those few moments in his idle nights when “he can save a moment, here or there” of sexual intimacy amidst the surprise rocket strikes that hold London in fear. Slothrop has himself become exasperated when searching ruins, lucky to find victims alive, but “obsessed with the idea of a rocket with his name written on it.” There is not a clear ethanol-fueled rocket he has in mind, but the targeting of civilian populations haunts him as a new image of war, and leads to his odyssey across much of occupied Europe and to Berlin, after he leaves the asylum to which he is initially committed by the Army.
Tyrone Slothrop is both filled with a level of “operational paranoia” but seized by sexual excitement he uses a chart to try to map. Slothrop remains mightily puzzled by the sexual excitement that seems always to arrives as if reflexively or indeed spontaneously–“well Great God where’d that come from?”–shortly or days before the arrival of one of the V-2 rockets that are raining on London–the result of particular psychical sensitivity of Pavlovian proportions to “what is revealed in the sky.” Hoping to resolve the conundrum, Slothrop between air raid missions pastes colored paper stars on a map of the city, not to try to find a pattern amidst the heavy explosions and thunder-claps of V-2 bombs in 1944, but to record the memories of each encounter, that seems to track his encounters, but is noticed by superiors to curiously correlate with the very sites where they have destroyed the city’s buildings and populations, as of to present the bombed out city as a sort of personal demonic laboratory. The rockets, the first guided ballistic missiles to be shot from launching pads at civilian targets, which arrived faster than the speed of sound.
2. Slothrop’s enigmatic map becomes less an argument than a compelling question in the office of statisticians at the start of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. For the ACHTUNG office is in the process of mapping sites where V-2 rockets struck, attending to their distribution in order to determine as to whether the strikes have an inherent pattern or explanation of the new reality of war. Whereas Roger Mexico thinks they follow a Poisson distribution, we find that they register little pattern beyond the personal experience by which young Slothrop was psychically conditioned–raising the question of the nature of causality that becomes a leitmotif of the novel.
Is it Poisson or Pavlov, and are we in Slothrop’s head or feeling the impact of the war? The scale of tracking bomb damage across the city reveals another sort of assiduity to track these demolitions that suddenly arrived without warning from the sky, whose distribution Allied Intelligence is trying to understand as a logical distribution on a map that sorts out thedivides London into 576 individual squares of ruled at one kilometer scale, an “ink ghost of London,” as if hoping to deduce some logic from the distribution of sudden daily deadly strikes–despite the existence of statistical equation to describe the distribution, he knows the bombs must simply be understood as discrete events, rocket strikes in red circles of growing shape without predictive value; the Poisson equation enigmatically suggests how many squares will be destroyed by a number of hits, as if to give some inner logic to the distribution of rocket strikes that could presumably save lives.
While the scale of damage is most often mapped in an attempt to lend closure, coherence, and comprehension to an ongoing destruction of war, as if to lend some clarity to the fog of war itself as it is experienced on the ground. The maps of bombing raids and bombed out landscapes or cityscapes aim to impose a sense of often unwarranted closure in their implicit promise to fix meaning to ongoing events. Often, the mapping of damages in images are repressed, as the war’s violence cannot be communicated to civilians save, perhaps, after these horrendous and terrible events that effectively track a changed relation to place. For the continued air attacks of near-constant losses, the shift from bombs dropped from fighter planes to shot V-2 rockets, which arrived in the city even before their sound was audible, created a distinct ratcheting up of unease, only early evident in actual Bomb Damage Maps that the Home Survey Office drafted during the war.
3. In order to take stock of such explosive events, the Bomb Damage Maps derived from attempts of the Ministry of Home Security to collate damages sustained during bombing raids in London and England, as if in an attempt to understand the logic of enemy attacks on the Home Front, first focussing on London, Birmingham and Liverpool but by September 1941 expanding to the United Kingdom. The mapping was a sort of respite from the daily onslaught of violence. Despite the considerable melancholic sense of loss pervading images of bombed out landscapes, as in the header to this post, there is a detectable sense of brave resilience of the Bomb Damage Maps–as this one of Soho–spoke to the need to maintain composure, perhaps, as well as faith, as V-2 rockets shot pell-mell down on the capital–in ways that could scarcely be fixed by the circles that note their impact on the below Bomb Damage Maps drawn up from 1940 and kept in the London Metropolitan Archives, which included the sites of V-2 attacks that racked the city in destructive ways from 1944,–marking sites of impact by open circles of different diameter for V-1 and V-2 rockets that obliterated buildings across the city, coloring buildings deep purple to designate the extent of damages as “Beyond Repair” or black to designate “Total Destruction.” The images made to assess local losses provide a basis to meditate on how we map bomb damage, comprehend its extent, and how aerial strikes change urban landscapes and our relation to them.
Bomb Damage Maps/London Metropolitan Archives/City of London Police: Kings Cross
Detail, Waterloo Station/Bomb Damage Maps/London Metropolitan Archives/City of London Police
Over five hundred and seventeen V-2 rockets fired from overseas exploded in London during the German blitz of the city of London at the end of World War II from September, 1944. After V-1 bombs dropped in quick succession by some three hundred airplanes had killing upwards of 2,500 civilians, a shower of hundreds of bombs over hours shook the entire city almost without interruption, virtually covering the city during the Blitz.