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Bombed Out Landscapes over Time

The scars of ethanol-fueled V-2 rockets that speedily struck wartime London seventy years ago are a good place 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.  Tabulations of damages in the recently published Bomb Damage Maps of wartime London orient one chillingly to the progress and degree of bombing wartime London in purples, violets, oranges, and light blue on London’s familiar plan, as much as the resistance of a British culture of grim-faced exactitude to the horrific episode of wartime destruction.  If they 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 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.  n 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.

 

waterloo-detail-bombs

 

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.

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–

 

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–itself a mirror image to the German Schadenskarten created to document the parallel six years of trauma inflicted on cities in the Nazi state.

 

Schadenskarte_Operation_Tigerfish_27.11.1944.pngSchadenskarte des Angriffes am 27. November 1944

1280px-Luftbild_Freiburg_1944.jpgStadtarchiv Freiburg, destruction of Freiburg sometime after or during Summer of 1945

 

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.

 

 

139293.jpgRepair of evening coming of 1941 of Bank Underground Station

 

 

 

 

Assessing damage of Bank of England and Royal Exchange after London bombing raid of January 11, 1941, which created a crater of 1,800 sq feet–the largest in London

 

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 consciouness, the topography of fear is one with peculiar effects on the American military intelligence soldier Lt. Tyrone Slothrop, who finds them sources of sexual excitement.  The arrival of unexpected stimuli Slothrop experiences becomes the basis to explain the ways that the distribution of bombing of the city is mirrored in the mysterious maps that Lieutenant Slothrop, the novel’s hero, creates behind his desk in a London military intelligence unit, created by marking sexual encounters with colored stickers that erupt from the map’s surface, but mark the site of the sites of unexpected  erections that the impending arrival at bombs seems to provoke as a particularly unexpected Pavlovian response:  a few days 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 objectively map 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.

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.

 

 

waterloo-detail-bombs

 

lcc-bombs-v-2-v-1

 

–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–


Bodleian Museum, London and the blitz

 

–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.

2004Bomb 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 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.

 

Bombed out london from St Pauls

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Filed under London Blitz, military maps, Thomas Pynhcon, Vietnam War, war crimes