In The Tower
remedios varo, lot 49 by thomas pynchon, safehouse by bladee, and living alone in a second floor apartment
I first read Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 when I was eighteen years old, and though I wasn’t sure what it all meant, even then I was drawn to the final paragraph of the first chapter. At that age I posted the last sentence of it on my Snapchat story for reasons that are difficult for me to understand now. I’m reproducing it below, with additional line breaks by me because Pynchon is hard for our algorithm-addled brains.
As things developed, she was to have all manner of revelations. Hardly about Pierce Inverarity, or herself; but about what remained yet had somehow, before this, stayed away. There had hung the sense of buffering, insulation, she had noticed the absence of an intensity, as if watching a movie, just perceptibly out of focus, that the projectionist refused to fix. And had also gently conned herself into the curious, Rapunzel-like role of a pensive girl somehow, magically, prisoner among the pines and salt fogs of Kinneret, looking for somebody to say, hey, let down your hair. When it turned out to be Pierce she’d happily pulled out the pins and curlers and down it tumbled in its whispering, dainty avalanche, only when Pierce had got maybe halfway up, her lovely hair turned, through some sinister sorcery, into a great unanchored wig, and down he fell, on his ass. But dauntless, perhaps using one of his many credit cards for a shim, he’d slipped the lock on her tower door and come up the conchlike stairs, which, had true guile come more naturally to him, he’d have done to begin with. But all that had then gone on between them had really never escaped the confines of that tower.
In Mexico City, they somehow wandered into an exhibition of paintings by the beautiful Spanish exile Remedios Varo: in the central painting of a triptych, titled “Bordando el Manto Terrestre”, were a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forest of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world. Oedipa, perverse, had stood in front of the painting and cried. No one noticed; she wore dark green bubble shades. For a moment she’d wondered if the seal around her sockets were tight enough to allow the tears simply to go on and fill up the entire lens space and never dry. She could carry the sadness of the moment with her that way forever, see the world refracted through those tears, those specific tears, as if indices as yet unfound varied in important ways from cry to cry. She had looked down at her feet and known, then, because of a painting, that what she stood on had only been woven together a couple thousand miles away in her own tower, was only by accident known as Mexico, and so Pierce had taken her away from nothing, there had been no escape.
What did she so desire escape from? Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?
This is one of Pynchon’s transcendent paragraphs, where he masterfully slides from extended fairytale metaphor to specific narrative anecdote and then pulls it all together in a final few synthesizing sentences in a way that captures so much and looks so effortless. At a formal level, there’s so much to admire, but I graduated a long time ago and I don’t need to talk about form anymore.
The subject of the paragraph is the protagonist of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas. It’s centered around her malaise as a woman in the 1960s, a feeling constantly trapped in the world, using the fairytale metaphor of a princess trapped in a tower. Like a fairytale, she’s seemingly rescued from the tower by a lover, Pierce, who distracts her from her boring marriage to her disk jockey husband, but was she really saved? Is she still trapped by the same magic?
Art is how Oedipa begins to understand that she was/is trapped. Pynchon sends Oedipa to view the Remedios Varo painting “Bordando el Manto Terrestre” which translates as “Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle”. It depicts women seated in a tower, embroidering a tapestry that spills out to form the world. Oedipa cries at this painting, seeing herself in these women trapped in a tower spilling out their creation of a real world they cannot see.
For a long time after reading this paragraph I didn’t think much about this painting. I studied Lot 49 in a college class a few years later, and I saw the painting then but didn’t think much of it then either. After graduating college, I lived with my parents, but eventually the oedipal aura got too strong and I got my own private posting tower, a second floor corner apartment with windows on three of its four sides. Since moving here I’ve really been drawn to Remedios Varo. No one specific event drew me to her, and I’ve never seen her work at a museum. It was just a gradual feeling set on me by living in this specific place.
“Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle” is not Remedios Varo’s only painting with a tower. Below are just a few more that I really like.
While in Pynchon’s paragraph, the tower has a negative connotation, to show heroine Oedipa trapped by forces beyond her understanding, I don’t think it’s always that way in these paintings. Some of the subjects are trapped, but they’re also safe in the tower, or using the tower as a place to prepare. In the tower they’re free to create their own world more magical than what’s outside the tower.
In “La Creación de las aves”, translated as “Creation of the Birds” we see a painter inside a room which isn’t necessarily a tower but in my opinion it is. Paint comes in through a tube from the outside world, and in his tower the painter channels the moonlight with a triangle-shaped piece of glass and creates birds, who come to life on his page and then soar out the window. And of course, the painter himself is part-bird part-human, so he’s painting an aspect of himself. But unlike the birds he doesn’t leave the tower.
Remedios Varo veers between fantasy and reality, famously saying “the dream world and the real world are the same”. I think the tower is a critical space for that process, but also a critical symbol for that process. The tower is a symbol of fantasy but also a safe space for the fantasy to form, a place where the world can’t touch the fantasy while it’s still in its nascent form.
In Bladee’s song “Safehouse”, off his early album Gluee, he sings about things that make him feel safe, like his Gucci sunglasses and his North Face jacket and his True Religion t-shirt. These are mixed in with totally made up fantasy objects like “magic stones in his necklace”. The center line of the song is “ten years of solitude made me independent'', that being himself alone for so long is what gives him the strength to make art like this now. I think about this song when I look at the Remedios Varo paintings of the inside of towers, full of their eccentric objects that give strength to their captives. Bladee calls it a safehouse, not a tower, but I think they’re both about the safety and strength of solitude.
What distinguishes the tower from other houses is that it’s one room and it’s high up. When you live in only one room, your entire life is around you at all times and it can all blend together. One room is how a prison cell is set up. But when you can fill your prison cell with your own objects and your own creations, you can find some strength in solitude because it’s your solitude. And unlike a prison cell, towers have windows to see far across the outdoor world. A captive tower maiden can’t immediately go into that outdoors, she can’t touch grass, unless she has permission for the staircase down. Often outside of fairytales we do, but there’s still something different when you have no physical space of your own that’s directly connected to grass. The tower makes for a better observer, but less connected to reality.
Living alone in my apartment tower it does all start to feel like one room. There’s no need for me to close any doors so I just drift between spaces, mostly spending time in the living room, which has the most windows. I can go downstairs whenever but sometimes I’m having too much fun online to remember to do that. I used “Bordando el Manto Terrestre” as the cover photo for my preemptive defense Substack piece apologizing for my TikTok anthropology that I wrote in January, because that’s how it felt, that I was in my tower and letting these videos spill out to form the world. Maybe not the best use of my personal safe space, compared to the power to create fantastical real true-to-the-self art that I’ve talked about. Living alone has certainly given me more space for being myself, but being myself enough to make good art is really hard. When I think of my time in this tower as a fantasy I think I’m a bored scryer-sorcerer who channels the vulnerable art of the world and refracts it back out to the world in distorted ways, too far from the world to take responsibility for the consequences of my spells.
My favorite part of the Pynchon paragraph that I started this with is how Oedipa wants to hold the tears she cried at the Remedios Varo painting in her sunglasses for the rest of her life, and view the world through those tears. Sometimes art feels like one particular revelation can sit with you forever and guide you through every moment that comes after, and you never need anything more. That I’ve sat with this Pynchon paragraph for so long, for seven years, and still am learning things from it is really special.