Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Story of Byron the Bulb excerpt from...
Gravity's Rainbow
by Thomas Pynchon

In the spring, when the winds at Peenemunde had shifted around to the southwest, and the first birds were back, Pokler was transferred to the underground factory at Nordhausen, in the Harz. Work at Peenemunde, after the British raid, had begun to fall off. The plan—again Kammler's—was now to disperse testing and production around Germany, to prevent another and possibly fatal Allied attack. Pokler's duties at the Mittelwerke were routine: materials, procurement.  He slept in a bunk next to a wall of dynamited stone painted white, with a bulb over his head burning all night long. He dreamed that the bulb was a representative of Weissman, a creature whose bright filament was its soul. They held long dream-dialogues whose substance Pokler could never remember. The bulb was explaining the plot to him in detail--it was more grand and sweeping than Pokler could ever have imagined, it seemed many nights to be purely music, his consciousness moving through the soundscape at bay, observing, compliant, still precariously safe, but not for long.

----Fast-forward 200-something pages----

Now it turns out that this light bulb over the colonel’s head here is the same identical Osram light bulb that Franz Pokler used to sleep next to in his bunk at the underground rocket works at Nordhausen. Statistically (so Their story goes), every n-thousandth bulb is gonna be perfect, all the delta-q’s piling up just right, so we shouldn’t be surprised that his one’s still around, burning brightly. But the truth is even more stupendous. This bulb is immortal! It’s been around, in fact, since the twenties, has that old-timery point at the tip and is less pear-shaped than more contemporary bulbs. Wotta history, this bulb, if only it could speak—well, as a matter of fact, it can speak. It is dictating the muscular modulations of Paddy McGonigle’s cranking tonight, this is a loop here, with feedback through Paddy to the generator again. Here it is,


Byron was to’ve been manufactured by Tunsgram in Budapest. He would probably have been grabbed up by the ace salesman Geza Rozsavolgyi’s father Sandor, who covered all the Transylvanian territory and had begun to go native enough to where the home office felt vaguely paranoid about him throwing some horrible spell on the whole operation if they didn’t give him what he wanted. Actually he was a salesman who wanted his son to be a doctor, and that came true. But it may have been the bad witch-leery auras around Budapest that got the birth of Byron reassigned at the last minute to Osram, in Berlin. Reassigned, yes. There is a Bulb Baby Heaven, amiably satirized as if it was the movies or something, well Big Business, ha, ha! But don’t let Them fool you, this is a bureaucracy first, and a Bulb Baby Heaven only as a sort of sideline. All overhead—yes, out of its own pocket the Company is springing for leagues of organdy, hogsheads of IG Farben pink and blue Baby Dye, hundredweights of clever Siemens Electric Baby Bulb Pacifiers, giving the suckling Bulb the shape of a 110-volt current without the least trickle of power. One way or another, these Bulb folks are in the business of providing the appearance of power, power against the night, without the reality.

Actually, B.B.H. is rather shabby. The brown rafters drip cobwebs. Now and then a roach shows up on the floor, and all the Babies try to roll over to look (being Bulbs they seem perfectly symmetrical, Skippy, bud don’t forget the contact at the top of the thread) going uh-guh! uhhh-guh!, glowing feebly at the bewildered roach sitting paralyzed and squashable out on the bare boards, rushing, reliving the terror of some sudden blast of current out of nowhere and high overhead the lambent, all-seeing Bulb. In their innocence, the Baby Bulbs don’t know what to make of this roach’s abreaction—they feel his fright, but don’t know what it is. They just want to be his friend. He’s interesting and has good moves. Everybody’s excited except for Byron, who considers the other Bulb Babies a bunch of saps. It is a constant struggle to turn their thoughts on anything meaningful. Hi there Babies, I’m Byron-the-Bulb! Here to sing a little song to you, that goes—

Light-up, and-shine, you—in-cande-scent Bulb Ba-bies!
Looks-like ya got ra-bies
Just lay there foamin’ and a-screamin’ like a buncha
little demons,
I’m deliv’rin’ unto you a king-dom of roa-ches,
And no-thin’ ap-proaches
That joyful feelin’ when-you’re up-on the ceilin’
Lookin’ down—night and day—on the king-dom you sur-vey,
They’ll come out ‘n’ love ya till the break of dawn,
But they run like hell when that light comes on!
So shine on, Baby Bulbs, you’re the wave of the fu-ture,
And I’m here to recruit ya,
In m’great crusade,
Just sing along Babies—come-on-and-join-the-big-pa-rade!

Trouble with Byron’s he’s an old, old soul, trapped inside the glass prison of a Baby Bulb. He hates this place lying on his back waiting to get manufactured, nothing to listen to on the speakers but Charleston music, now and then an address to the Nation, what kind of set-up’s that? Byron wants to get out of here and into it, needless to say he’s been developing all kinds of nervous ailments, Baby Bulb Diaper Rash, which is a sort of corrosion on his screw threads, Bulb Baby Colic, a tight spasm of high resistance someplace among the deep loops of tungsten wire, Bulb Baby Hyperventilation, where it actually feels like his vacuum’s been broken though there is no organic basis…

When M-Day finally does roll around, you can bet Byron’s elated. He has passed the time hatching some really insane grandiose plans—he’s gonna organize all the Bulbs, see, get him a power base in Berlin, he’s already hep to the Strobing Tactic, all you do is develop the knack (Yogic, almost) of shutting off and on at a rate close to the human brain’s alpha rhythm, and you can actually trigger an epileptic fit! True, Byron has had a vision against the rafters of his ward, of 20 million Bulbs, all over Europe, at a given synchronizing pulse arranged by one of his many agents in the Grid, all these Bulbs beginning to strobe together, humans thrashing around the 20 million rooms like fish on the beaches of Perfect Energy—Attention, humans, this has been a warning to you. Next time, a few of us will explode. Ha-ha. Yes we’ll unleash our Kamikaze squads! You’ve heard of the Kirghiz Light? well that’s the ass end of a firefly compared to what we’re gonna—oh, you haven’t heard of the—oh, well, too bad. Cause a few Bulbs, say a million, a mere 5% of our number, are more than willing to flame out in one grand burst instead of patiently waiting out their design hours….So Byron dreams of his Guerrilla Strike Force, gonna get Herbert Hoover, Stanley Baldwin, all of them, right in the face with one coordinated blast…

Is Byron in for a rude awakening! There is already an organization, a human one, known as “Phoebus,” the international light-bulb cartel, headquartered in Switzerland. Run pretty much by International GE, Osram, and Associated Electrical Industries of Britain, which are in turn owned 100%, 29% and 46%, respectively, by the General Electric Company in America. Pheobus fixes the prices and determines the operational lives of all the bulbs in the world, from Brazil to Japan to Holland (although Philips in Holland is the mad dog of the cartel, apt at any time to cut loose and sow disaster throughout the great Combination). Given this state of general repression, there seems noplace for a newborn Baby Bulb to start but at the bottom.

But Phoebus doesn’t know yet that Byron is immortal. He starts out his career at an all-girl opium den in Charlottenburg, almost within sight of the statue of Wernher Siemens, burning up in a sconce, one among many bulbs witness the more languorous forms of Republican decadence. He gets to know all the bulbs in the place, Benito the Bulb over in the next sconce who’s always planning an escape, Bernie down the hall in the toilet, who has all kinds of urolagnia jokes to tell, his mother Brenda in the kitchen who talks of hashish hush puppies, dildos rigged to pump floods of paregoric orgasm to the capillaries of the womb, prayers to Astarte and Lilith, queen of the night, reaches into the true Night of the Other, cold and naked on linoleum floors after days without sleep, the dreams and tears become a natural state…

One by one, over the months, the other bulbs burn out, and are gone. The first few of these hit Byron hard. He’s still a new arrival, still hasn’t accepted his immortality. But on through the burning hours he starts to learn about the transience of others: learns that loving them while they’re here becomes easier, and also more intense—to love as if each design-hour will be the last. Byron soon enough becomes a Permanent Old-Timer. Others can recognize his immortality on sight, but it’s never discussed except in a general way, when folklore comes flickering in from other parts of the Grid, tales of the Immortals, one in a kabbalist’s study in Lyons who’s supposed to know magic, another in Norway outside a warehouse facing arctic whiteness with a stoicism more southerly bulbs begin strobing faintly just at the thought of. If other Immortals are out there, they remain silent. But it is a silence with much, perhaps, everything, in it.

After love, then, Byron’s next lesson is Silence.

As his burning lengthens toward 600 hours, the monitors in Switzerland begin to keep more of an eye on Byron. The Phoebus Surveillance Room is located under a little-known Alp, a chilly room crammed full of German electro-hardware, glass, brass, ebonite, and silver, massive terminal blocks shaggy with copper clips and screws, and a cadre of superclean white-robed watchers who wander meter to meter, light as snowdevils, making sure that nothing’s going wrong, that through no bulb shall the mean operating life be extended. You can imagine what it would do to the market if that started happening.

Byron passes Surveillance’s red-line at 600 hours, and immediately, as a matter of routine, he is checked out for filament resistance, burning temperature, vacuum, power consumption. Everything’s normal. Now Byron is to be checked out every 50 hours hereafter. A soft chime will go off in the monitoring station whenever it’s time.

At 800 hours—another routine precaution—a Berlin agent is sent out to he opium den to transfer Byron. She is wearing asbestos-lined kid gloves and seven-inch spike heels, no not so she can fit in with the crowd, but so that she can reach that sconce to unscrew Byron. The other bulbs watch, in barely subdued terror. The word goes out along the Grid. At something close to the speed of light, every bulb, Azos looking down the empty black Bakelite streets, Nitralampen and Wotan Gs at night soccer matches, Just-Wolframs, Monowatts and Siriuses, every bulb in Europe knows what’s happened. They are silent with impotence, with surrender in the face of struggles they thought were all myth. We can’t help, this common thought humming through pastures of sleeping sheep, down Autobahns and to the bitter ends of coaling piers in the North, there’s never been anything we could do…Anyone shows us the meanest hope of transcending and the Committee on Incandescent Anomalies comes in and takes him away. Some do protest, maybe, here and there, but it’s only information, glow-modulated harmless, nothing close to the explosions in the faces of the powerful that Byron once envisioned, back there in his Baby ward, in his innocence.

He is taken to Neukolln, to a basement room, the home of a glass-blower who is afraid of the night and who will keep Byron glowing and on watch over all the flint bowls, the griffins and flower-ships, ibexes in mid-leap, green spider-webs, somber ice-deities. This is one of many so-called “control points,” where suspicious bulbs can be monitored easily.

In less than a fortnight, a gong sounds along the ice and stone corridors of Phoebus headquarters, and faces swivel over briefly from their meters. Not too many gongs around here. Gongs are special. Byron has passed 1000 hours, and the procedure now is standard: the Committee on Incandescent Anomalies sends a hit man to Berlin.

But there something odd happens. Yes, damned odd. The plan is to smash up Byron and send him back right there in the shop to cullet and batch—salvage the tungsten, of course—and let him be reincarnated in the glassblower’s next project (a balloon setting out on a journey from the top of a white skyscraper). This wouldn’t be too bad a deal for Byron—he knows as well as Phoebus does how many hours he has on him. Here in the shop he’s watched enough glass being melted back into the structureless pool from which all glass forms spring and re-spring, and wouldn’t’ mind going through it himself. But he is trapped on the Karmic wheel. The glowing orange batch is a taunt, a cruelty. There’s no escape for Byron, he’s doomed to an infinite regress of sockets and bulbsnatchers. In zips young Hansel Geschwindig, a Weimer street urchin—twirls Byron out of the ceiling into a careful pocket and Gessschhhhwindig! out the door again. Darkness invades the dreams of the glassblower. Of all the unpleasantries his dreams grab in out of the night air, an extinguished light is the worst. Light, in his dreams, was always hope: the basic, mortal hope. As the contacts break helically away, hope turns to darkness, and the glassblower wakes sharply tonight crying, “Who? Who?

Phoebus isn’t exactly thrown into a frenzy. It’s happened before. There is still a procedure to follow. It means more overtime for some employees, so there’s that vague, full-boweled pleasure at the windfall, along with an equally vague excitement at the break in routine. You want high emotion, forget Phoebus. Their stonefaced search parties move out into the streets. They know more or less where in the city to look. They are assuming that no one among their consumers knows of Byron’s immortality. So the data for Non-immortal Bulbsnatchings ought to apply also to Byron. And the data happen to hump up in poor sections, Jewish sections, drug, homosexual, prostitute, and magic sections of the capital. Here are the most logical bulbsnatchers, in terms of what the crime is. Look at all the propaganda. It’s a moral crime. Phoebus discovered—one of the great undiscovered discoveries of our time—that consumers need to feel a sense of sin. That guilt, in proper invisible hands, is a most powerful weapon. In America, Lyle Bland and his psychologists had figures, expert testimony and money (money in the Puritan sense—an outward and visible O.K. on their intentions) enough to tip the Discovery of Guilt at the cusp between scientific theory and fact. Growth rates in later years were to bear Bland out (actually what bore Bland out was an honorary pallbearer sextet of all the senior members of Salitieri, Poore, Nash, De Brutus and Short, plus Lyle, Jr., who was sneezing. Buddy at the last minute decided go to see Dracula. He was better off.) Of all the legacies Bland left around, the Bulbsnatching Heresy was perhaps his grandest. It doesn’t just mean that somebody isn’t buying a bulb. It also means that somebody is not putting any power in that socket! It is a sin both against Phoebus and against the Grid. Neither one is about to let that get out of hand.

So, out go the Phoebus flatfoots, looking for the snatched Byron. But the urchin has already left town, gone to Hamburg, traded Byron to a Reeperbahn prostitute so he can shoot up some morphine—the young woman’s customer tonight is a cost-accountant who likes to have bulbs screwed into his asshole, and this john has also brought a little hashish to smoke, so by the time he leaves he’s forgotten about Byron still there in his asshole—doesn’t ever, in fact, find out, because when he finally gets around to sitting down (having stood up in trolleys all the way home) it’s on his own home toilet and plop! there goes Byron in the water and flusssshhhh! away down the waste lines to the Elbe estuary. He is just round enough to get through smoothly all the way. For days he floats over the North Sea, till he reaches Helgoland, that red-and-white Napoleon pastry tipped in the sea. He stays there for a while at a hotel between the Hengst and the Monch, till being brought back one day to the mainland by a very old priest who’s been put hep to Byron’s immortality in the course of a routine dream about the taste of a certain 1911 Hochheimer…suddenly here’s the great Berlin Eispalast, a booming, dim iron-trussed cavern, the smell of women in the blue shadows—perfumes, leathers, fur skating-costumes, ice-dust in the air, flashing legs, jutting haunches, desire in grippelike flashes, helplessness at the end of a crack-the-whip, rocketing through beams of sunlight choked with the powdered ice, and a voice in the blurred mirror underfoot saying, “Find the one who has performed this miracle. He is a saint. Expose him. Expedite his canonization…” The name is on a list the old man presently draws up of about a thousand tourists who’ve been in and out of Helgoland since Byron was found on the beach. The priest begins a search by train, footpath, and Hispano-Suiza, checking out each of the tourists on his list. But he gets no farther than Nurnberg, where his valise, with Byron wrapped inside in an alb, is ripped off by a transsectite, a Lutheran named Mausmacher who likes to dress up in Roman regalia. This Mausmacher, not content with standing in front of his own mirror making papal crosses, thinks it will be a really bizarre kick to go out to the Zeppelin field to a Nazi torchlight rally in full drag, and walk around blessing people at random. Green torches flaring, red swastikas, twinkling brasses and Father Mausmacher, checking out tits ’n’ asses, waistlines ‘n’ baskets, humming a clerical little tune, some Bach riff, smiling as he moves through the Sieg Heils and choruses of “Die Fahne Hock.” Unknown to him, Byron slides out of the stolen vestments onto the ground. He is then walked past by several hundred thousand boots and shoes, and not one so much as brushes him, natch. He is scavenged next day (the field now deathempty, columned, pale, streaked with long mudpuddles, morning clouds lengthening behind the gilded swastika and wreath) by a poor Jewish ragpicker, and taken on, on into another 15 years of preservation against chance and against Phoebus. He will be screwed into mother (Mutter) after mother, as the female threads of German light-bulb sockets are known, for some reason that escapes everybody.

The cartel have already gone over to Contingency Plan B, which assumes a seven-year statute of limitations, after which Byron will be considered legally burned out. Meanwhile, the personnel taken off of Byron’s case are busy tracking a long-lived bulb that once occupied a socket on the porch of an army outpost in the Amazon Jungle, Beatriz the bulb, who has just been stolen, mysteriously, by an Indian raiding party.

Through his years of survival, all these various rescues of Byron happen as if by accident. Whenever he can, he tries to instruct any bulbs nearby in the evil nature of Phoebus, and in the need of solidarity against the cartel. He has come to see how Bulb must move beyond its role as conveyor of light-energy alone. Phoebus has restricted Bulb to this one identity. “But there are other frequencies, above and below the visible band. Bulb can give heat. Bulb can provide energy for plants to grow, illegal plants, inside closets, for example. Bulb can penetrate the sleeping eye, and operate among the dreams of men.” Some bulbs listened attentively—others thought of ways to fink to Phoebus. Some of the older anti-Byronists were able to fool with their parameters in systematic ways that would show up on the ebonite meters under the Swiss mountain: there were even a few self-immolations, hoping to draw the hit men down.

Any talk of Bulb’s transcendence, of course, was clear subversion. Phoebus based everything on bulb efficiency—the ration of the usable power coming out, to the power put in. The Grid demanded that this ratio stay as small as possible, that way they got to sell more juice. On the other hand, low efficiency meant longer burning hours, and that cut into bulb sales for Phoebus. In the beginning Phoebus tried increasing filament resistance, reducing the hours of life on the sly and gradually—till the Grid noticed a fall-off in revenues, and started screaming. The two parties by and by reached an accord on a compromise bulb-life figure that would bring in enough money for both of them, and to go fifty-fifty on the costs of the antibulbsnatching campaign. Along with a more subtle attack against those criminal souls who forswear bulbs entirely and use candles. Phoebus’s long-standing arrangement with the Meat Cartel was to restrict the amount of tallow in circulation by keeping more fat in meat to be sold regardless of cardiac problems that might arise, and redirecting most of what was trimmed off into soap production. Soap in those days was a booming concern. Among the consumers, the Bland Institute had discovered deep feelings about shit. Even at that, meat and soap were minor interlocks to Phoebus. More important were items like tungsten. Another reason why Phoebus couldn’t cut down bulb life too far. Too many tungsten filaments would eat into available stockpiles of the metal—China being the major world source, this also brought in very delicate questions of Eastern policy—and disturb the arrangement between General Electric and Krupp about how much tungsten carbide would be produced, where and when and what the prices would be. The guidelines settled on were $37-$90 a pound in Germany, $200-$400 a pound in the U.S. This directly governed the production of machine tools, and thus all areas of light and heavy industry. When the War came, some people thought it unpatriotic of GE to have given Germany an edge like that. But nobody with any power. Don’t worry.

Byron, as he burns on, sees more and more of this pattern. He learns how to make contact with other kinds of electric appliances, in homes, in factories and out in the streets. Each has something to tell him. The pattern gathers in his soul (Seele, as the core of the earlier carbon filament was known in Germany), and the grander and clearer it grows, the more desperate Byron gets. Someday he will know everything, and still be as impotent as before. His youthful dreams of organizing all the bulbs in the world seem impossible now—the Grid is wide open, all messages can be overheard, and there are more than enough traitors out in the line. Prophets traditionally don’t last long—they are either killed outright, or given an accident serious enough to make them stop and think, and most often they do pull back. But on Byron has been visited an even better fate. He is condemned to go on forever, knowing the truth and powerless to change anything. No longer will he seek to get off the wheel. His anger and frustration will grow without limit, and he will find himself, poor perverse bulb, enjoying it…


Laszlo Jamf walks away down the canal, where dogs are swimming now, dogs in packs, dogs’ heads bobbing down the scummy canals…dog’s heads, chess knights, also may be found invisible in the air over secret airbases, in the thickets fogs, conditions of temperature, pressure and humidity form Springer-shapes the tuned flyer can feel, the radars can see, the helpless passengers can almost glimpse, now and then, out the little window, as through sheets of vapor…it is the kind Dog, the Dog no man ever conditioned, who is there for us at beginnings and ends, and journeys we have to take, helpless, but not quite unwilling…The pleats in Jamf’s suit go weaving away like iris leaves in a backyard wind. The colonel is left alone in Happyville. The steel city waits him, the even cloud-light raising a white streak down each great building, all of them set up as modulations in the perfect grid of the streets, each tower cut off at a different height—and where is the Comb that will move through this and restore the old perfect Cartesian harmony? where are the great Shears from the sky that will readjust Happyville?

There is no need to bring in blood or violence here. But the colonel does have his head tilted back now in what may truly be surrender: his throat is open to the pain-radiance of the Bulb. Paddy McGonigle is the only other witness, and he, a one-man power system with dreams of his own, wants the colonel out of the way as much as anyone. Eddie Pensiero, with the blues flooding his shaking muscles, the down, mortal blues, is holding his scissors in a way barbers aren’t supposed to. The points, shuddering in the electric cone, are aiming downward. Eddie Pensiero’s fist tightens around the steel loops his fingers have slid out of. The colonel, with a last tilt of his head, exposes his jugular, clearly impatient with the—

1 comment:

mimus said...

If I mistake me not, this is derived from Lucian's "A (Traveller's) True Tale", as was Cordwainer Smith's "Drunkboat", at least in part.