This excerpt, from the end of March Kelleher’s speech at the eighth-grade graduation that opens up Chapter 11, is the conclusion to her story of the stealthy ruler that would pay off those who could recognize him with a small handful of silver or gold. An older lady, described by Pynchon as the guardian of whatever the city threw away, lives in the city and knows everything. The ruler of the city crosses paths with the elderly woman, but is rejected when offering his money to her.
“By this logic the old woman with her sack of garbage should have become an environmental cabinet minister and someday get parks and recycle centers all across the realm named after her. But whenever anyone tried to approach her with job offers, she was never to be found. Her criticisms of the regime, however, had already entered the collective consciousness of the city and become impossible to delete.” — Bleeding Edge, p. 114
This moment in March’s speech caught my interest, as it deliberately references a problem faced in the 21st century. My initial reaction to the phrase, “collective consciousness of the city”, was to draw a parallel with the Internet as a collective knowledge-base for humans. That reaction was only bolstered by the idea of her criticisms being impossible to delete from that shared consciousness, much like how what is posted on the Internet now becomes difficult to ever remove entirely due to methods such as reposting or saving, etc. Also Pynchon’s purposeful choice to use the words ‘entered’ and ‘delete’, two keys universally found on keyboards, adds to the notion that this passage is related to computers and the Internet.
What intrigued me even further and inspired me to write about this specific passage was March’s conclusion to her speech, admitting that the story of the stealthy ruler and the elderly woman was in fact an Aesop fable in which all things are supposed to represent some truth in life. However she notes that this fable was from back in the days when Stalin was in power and she challenges the crowd to apply this fable to the 21st century.
Pynchon is meticulous in his describing of the fable, taking almost two entire pages to describe it in detail. In doing so, it is evident that Pynchon wants us as readers to consider how each piece in this fable applies to the 21st century. By diagnosing the metaphors in this fable in the scope of the 21st century, we delve into what Pynchon believes to be the truths in technology and the modern era.
While it is unmistakeable that Pynchon’s use of the fable is to tell us what he thinks of the 21st century, it is more difficult to correctly diagnose what each aspect of the fable represents. March concludes her speech by asking the audience, “Who is this old lady? What does she think she’s been finding out all these years? Who is this ‘ruler’ shes’s refusing to be bought off by? And what’s this ‘work’ he was ‘doing in secret’?”. The parallel I drew for the stealthy ruler was the corrupted soul protected by the anonymity of the Internet willing to achieve its goals by any means necessary, while the elderly woman represented the incorruptible individuals with the strength to combat those who would bribe and cheat their way in this world.