The Burning Coal

Shawn has always interested me as a character in Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge. He has consistently seemed the most pointless character yet knowing Pynchon’s obsession with writing everything for a reason, there has to be some ulterior motive for having him. It may be something as simple as having a vehicle for Conkling to meet Maxine or, surprise, it might be that he attempted to help Maxine in some form of therapeutic manner. After viewing Vip’s sex tape, she has a session with Shawn where he relates to her a fantastic piece of Buddhist literature that is littered with West Coast slang and style. I will paraphrase here as Shawn draws out a story that could easily be summed up in a couple lines:

“Dude is holding this burning-hot coal in his hand…Why do you keep holding on to it?….can’t you see how beautiful it is?….Couldn’t you like set it down someplace?….Somebody might take it.” (pg 182)

As I begin my dive in to this pseudo-textual reference, this passage becomes increasingly muddled. The Bleeding Edge wiki says that the coal relates to “sensuality and excrement” and makes a vague reference to Brigadier Pudding. Hold up here for half a second. After doing a quick summary of this character’s role in Pynchon’s previous novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, I need some context to what that was all about (specifically later on down the page, 5th instance of “Pudding”). Interestingly though, what Shawn quoted as something from the Buddha himself, was actually a fake quote being passed around. The quote is actually from Buddhaghosa and not from the Pali cannon, Buddhisms main scriptures. According to the FakeBuddhaQuotes website, the first instance of this mis-attribution can be found in Minding the Body, Mending the Mind by Joan Borysenko. This whole mis-attribution of a work or even a reinterpretation of a work is consistent theme that Pynchon revisits in his novel. Reg makes bootleg movies based on blockbuster motion pictures that end up catching the attention of art professors. Buddhaghosa makes a quote about anger that is pretty much in line with Buddha’s teachings yet not part of his direct work.

Shawn is a self-professed Zen Buddhist. Here in the West this may get lost on some readers, or they may just dismiss it as all Buddhism is “the same”. Zen Buddhism originated in 6th century China and focuses on intense meditation and insight. There is not a huge emphasis on rituals or specific works like other forms of Buddhism yet it does have its own method in promoting enlightenment. One method in particular that I felt that Pynchon has been utilizing through Shawn is the koan method. This form of zen Buddhism relies on a strong student-teacher relationship and the idea of a vague story, dialogue, or riddle that often does not make sense. The student meditates upon the work and report to their teacher on what they believe the meaning or answer to be.  According to Smith and Novak’s book on Buddhism

“Entering Zen is like stepping through Alice’s looking glass. One finds oneself in a topsy-turvy wonderland where everything seems quite mad – charmingly mad for the most part, but mad all the same. It is a world of bewildering dialogues, obscure conundrums, stunning paradoxes, flagrant contradictions, and abrupt non sequiters, all carried off in the most urbane, cheerful, and innocent style imaginable.” (89)

The Buddhist Parable of the Burning Coal is Shawn taking the role of a teacher and providing Maxine with a purposely vague dialogue on a man being burned by a coal. He tells her to find out which of us said something wrong and what, which ultimately relies upon Maxine to find out what the meaning of this dialogue is.

Personally, my interpretation is that this burning coal represents Maxine’s obsession with her case. She knows it’s destructive to her, and possibly those she cares about, but the fraud inspector in her is having a field day with it. It’s almost like she is having a midlife crisis and this case allows her to play out this fantasy that she can be a superhero fraud investigator to save the day. Maxine somewhat notices this meaning as she relays the parable to Justin when he discusses DeepArcher’s security breach. He acts extremely worried and when Maxine recommends they go open source he replies with a “wish I could just…”. This implies Justin knows that holding onto the program will only hurt him in the long run, but being able to hold it and look at it…he has a hard time letting go.

One other point I would like to bring up with Shawn and his zen obsession. I feel like Pynchon is making fun of the West’s obsession with Eastern spirituality and New Age wellness. New York City is portrayed as this capitalist dystopia that is exploited relentlessly by Giulanni and other capitalists to make it “yuppy friendly”. Shawn has no formal training in Zen Buddhism yet he is able to pawn off his thoughts and therapy sessions to the many people who are willing to pay to listen to him. Zen ceases to be this intense meditation on the self and becomes some sort of mystical Eastern cure-all for all of Shawn’s customers.

After reading through the whole book and about this particular form of Buddhism, I feel that the burning coal symbolizes everyone’s hopeful obsession. Maxine and her fraud case, or even Windust. Justin and his DeepArcher program. Ice and his desire to control everything. March and her will to reveal the truth. The whole book is ripe with each character having a burning coal.

Works Cited:

Bleeding Edge Wiki. 11 November 2014. Web. 23 February 2015.

Bodhipaksa. Fake Buddha Quotes. 27 September 2012. Web. 23 February 2015.

Dr. Larry Daw. The Modern World. 8 August 2000. Web. 23 February 2015.

Novak, Philip and Smith, Huston. Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2003. Print

Pynchon, Thomas. Bleeding Edge. New York: The Penguin Press, 2013. Print.

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One Response to The Burning Coal

  1. cso9 says:

    I think one of the most fascinating and intriguing things about Pynchon’s work is that you can never really be sure if each character has a purpose. For an author who seems to mention every subtle detail purposefully, it surely throws a reader for a loop when it comes to the characters. I feel that in the style of narrative, it could be another one of his tricks where we don’t know if he’s playing us, attempting to analyze every last bit to find out there nothing’s behind the scenes. Then again, there’s also reasons to believe otherwise, such as in the case of your post and a previous post about Vyrva,

    That’s very funny and strange that there’s a fake buddha quotes website! But, necessary nonetheless. That’s a notable observation you’ve made that his quote was a knock-off. It leaves me to believe both your opinion that Pynchon is mocking the obsession with Eastern spirituality, as well as perhaps Shawn being a hoax of a character. Maybe it all ties back to what I’ve previously mentioned, that Shawn really doesn’t have a purpose? That despite how spiritual he may try to portray himself, or as insightful he tries to be to Maxine, when it comes down to it, there is nothing truly coming to fruition with his character.

    Aside from that, I do agree, that while Shawn may not be purposeful himself, the coal metaphor is not for nothing. I’m glad you decided to focus on this passage, because I was also allured by its jumbled mess of a mindf***. I, too, was trying to decipher if Pynchon was really trying to say something there, or if it was all for this particular purpose? To leave his audience rereading the silly tidbit of whatwouldbe Buddhist wisdom, wondering if there is something behind it?

    We may never know… since Pynchon is chock full of symbolism, but never willing to consent to interviews to find out.


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