The Problem with Time: Chronophobia Meets Chance and Oedipa
Over the course of our class discussions, we have explored the many facets of what Dr. Carter has termed “chronophobia,” a deep and profound fear of time that characterizes the American concept of the future since its beginnings. The theme of chronophobia becomes especially poignant in the fiction written since the Second World War. This essay seeks to explore the dimensions of the theme of chronophobia in Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.
One of the primary manifestations of chronophobia is the character’s dysfunctional relationship to time, especially as it relates to himself. Chronophobic characters are often without a sense of time and history. In Kosinski’s Being There, Chance Gardiner has no past. Raised on television, Chance’s understanding of time is defined by technology. He sees the past not in terms of personal identity and experience, but in terms of images, episodes in an on-going television program. The past self is no more (and no less) “real” than a television program that one has already seen: “There was no TV then. Catching sight of his reflection in the large hall mirror, Chance saw himself as a small boy and then the image of the Old Man sitting in a huge chair” (6). Chance lives in a perpetual state of nowness. Reality, in his mind, is defined by presence in time and space. In fact, other individuals cease to exist when they are beyond his attention: “As long as one didn’t look at people, they did not exist. They began to exist, as on TV, when one turned one’s eyes on them” (12). For Chance, out of sight is not only out of mind; it is out of existence.
The individual’s name is synechdocal for one’s identity. A person’s name binds him to time and identity is a location in time as opposed to the formless and pointless fluidity of the whole of time. Identity and existence are made manifest by one’s actions in history. Chance’s very name rejects a belief in linear causality. His existence is random, without reference to any context beyond his inner subjectivity. Following the death of the Old Man, the lawyers “need some proof of [Chance’s] having lived here. . .” (18). Chance naively offers himself, his own bodily presence, as proof of his identity. Disconnected from time, however, Chance is television program without an audience.
As we have noted above, Chance has no sense of past. But neither does he experience a sense of the future. Living in the eternal Now focuses his attention on the only constant he can experience, himself. Thus, narcissism is also a feature of chronophobia. Self-contained, Chance parrots back other people’s speech. Skrapinov, the Soviet Ambassador, asks Chance “Do you by any chance like Krylov’s fables? I ask this because you have that certain Krylovian touch” (75). Chance, never having seen a television program about Krylov and thus not knowing him, can only echo back, “Krylovian touch? Do I really?” (75). His conversations with Elizabeth Eve and the President are equally marked by this lack of substance. In the sixth section of the novel, Chance’s lack of identity is the source of tremendous anxiety among the world’s leaders.
The novel closes with a scene of Edenic tranquility and peace in which Kosinski articulates his “cure” for chronophobia: “A breeze fell upon the foliage and nestled under the cover of its moist leaves. Not a thought lifted itself from Chance’s brain. Peace filled his chest” (118). Chance finds himself in the same philosophical state as Adam and Eve: ontology without epistemology, being without knowing. His thoughts lift themselves from his brain. Kosinski suggests that chronophobia results in a lack of interpersonal connection and the failure to experience human love. Chronophobia negates the possibility of full human development as Chance becomes animalistic in his state of being without knowing. Being There offers no remedy for chronophobia. Kosinski only offers the dark consequences.
Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 offers a different approach to the theme of chronophobia in the character of Oedipa Maas. Like Chance, she is early on defined by her lack of definition, her disordered sense of personal identity and vision. Oedipa’s name connects her to Oedipus Rex, an ancient ancestor who, like Chance, struggles with the problem of who he is. Oedipa struggles to connect points in history and decipher a meaningful whole out of what appears meaningless. She thinks back to a mysterious phone call she received in the middle of the night from a voice “in heavy Slavic tones” (11) that she figures to be her ex-lover Pierce Inverarity. The difference between Oedipa and Chance is that Oedipa makes connections among discrete events and objects in history and creatively attaches meaning to these connections, whereas Chance experiences events and objects singly and separately.
Surrounded by self-centered men, Oedipa fights to break from the closed system of narcissism. Oedipa’s cure for chronophobia is to create (a) history out of scattered objects and events. She breaks out of her own closed systems and grows as a character when she recognizes “she looked terrible” after wandering the lonely and filthy streets of San Francisco all night in search of the mysterious Tristero (125). No longer as self-centered as she was at the novel’s opening, she realizes the value of sympathy for other people when she encounters the alcoholic, tattooed sailor and holds him in her arms.
Oedipa suffers at the novel’s start because she does not , as directed by the oracle at Delphi, know herself. She experience “a moment of nearly pure terror” when she “tried to find her image in the mirror and couldn’t” (41). Facing a world that threatens her sense of order by offering no meaning, Oedipa’s mission is to make meaning, an Apollonian endeavor in revolt of the postmodern world’s epistemological waste land. Driblette sarcastically asks of her “Why . . . is everybody so interested in texts?” (78). Oedipa in certain ways resembles the creative God of Genesis in miniature. Where Yahweh was beyond time and, indeed, created time through the investment of meaning, Oedipa is confined by time (she has to execute Inverarity’s will) and by space. Oedipa overcomes her chronophobia by investing the random scribbles and logos she encounters with a hidden meaning. The connecting theme of her manic accumulation of objects is the Tristero. Oedipa is driven “to bestow life on what had persisted, to try to be what Driblette was, the dark machine in the centre of the planetarium, to bring the estate into pulsing stelliferous Meaning” (82). The capitalization, in particular, stresses the creative power she shares with Yahweh. Oedipa not only wishes to project a world. She wants to project a meaningful world in which she reconciles with time by overcoming her own narcissism through the establishment sympathetic relationships with others.
Kosinski’s and Pynchon’s differing use of their main characters articulate two very different responses to the American literary theme of chronophobia. Chance Gardiner and Oedipa Maas, like their literary precursors Rip Van Winkle and Hester Prynne, have a dysfunctional relationship with time. Oedipa’s character expresses a more positive experience of chronophobia than does Chance’s. Chance remains in his own closed system at the end of his novel, a situation which promises only further deterioration and entropy. Oedipa is anti-entropic, her very own little Maxwell’s demon with a twist. She begins in a closed system, but, being human, she can break out of the never-ending loop and make her own name in history.