Make your own free website on
Helm Street
Palm Stuff
Pynchon Final

Back to Pynchonalia



















 Specular Paranoia in Gravitys Rainbow

















Jason Helms

December 17, 2003

Psychoanalytical Literary Criticism

Prof. Suzuki

            There is a joke, come closerthere is a joke about a cheerio that has disturbed me for quite some time.  For some reason it has always called into my mind Poes Silence: A Fable.  In the joke a cheerio--sometimes named other times notlives within a three-tiered cheerio box.  The bottom layer, in which he resides, consists of original cheerios; the middle, honey-nut; and the top, frosted.  The protagonist cheerio then undergoes an epic quest from the bottom to top layerthe quest itself often taking hours in the telling; I myself have made it last over an hourat which point he gets lunch.  The cheerio waits in line after line for food and then when he goes to get a beverage to wash-down his lunch with, he again gets the run around waiting in line after line, finally settling for fruit-punch instead of whatever drink he was originally pursuing.  After waiting in line for that for what seems like (and may be) days, the cheerio is told again that he is in the wrong line.  Exasperated, he screams at the top of his lungs, Where is the punch line?!  An unnamed spectator then enters as the only hope of dénouement responding, There is no punch line.

            Pynchon, after telling us myriads of tales within Gravitys Rainbow, sez that, There is also the story about Tyrone Slothrop, who was sent into the Zone to be present at his own assemblyperhaps, heavily paranoid voices have whispered, his times assemblyand there ought to be a punch line to it, but there isnt.[1]  Pynchons novel, if it can indeed be called that as many have disagreed, is this ultimate post-modern joke wherein the punch line is the fact that there is no punch line.  It traces the mock-epic journey of Tyrone Slothrop, as well as a slew of others, ending with a bang only through a sarcastic interpretation of the final passages in which a rocket destroys the movie theatre in which the reader is viewing the novel.  It deals extensively with paranoia, sexual deviance, entropy, organic chemistry, physics, obscure German literature, Puritanism, and World War II among other things.  If you listen carefully, though, you can hear the sweet simple melody of the t throughout. 

            Well, its a matter of continuity.  Most peoples lives have ups and downs that are relatively gradual, a sinuous curve with first derivatives at every point.  Theyre the ones who never get struck by lightning.  No real idea of cataclysm at all.  But the ones who do get hit experience a singular point, a discontinuity in the curve of lifedo you know what the time rate of change is at a cusp?  Infinity, thats what!  A-and right across the point, its minus infinity!  Hows that for sudden change, eh? Infinite miles per hour changing to the same speed in reverse, all in the gnats-ass or red cunt hair of the t across the point.  Thats getting hit by lightning folks (GR 664).


How can a mathematical term be a theme, especially for such an encyclopedic novel?

            t is the rate of change relative to time in a mathematical equation.  Used extensively in calculus, it usually refers more specifically to the fact that on a curve there is a point (t) at which the graph switches directions in relation to the x-axis (usually t for time).  This point is so small it cannot be measured and is what allowed Newton (and Leibniz) to describe calculus.  It allowed them to find the highest point in an arc, for it is the point when the rate of change relative to height becomes zero.  Rates used to describe it are often similar to an inverse infinity (one over infinity, an infinitely small fraction of one).  Within non-mathematical texts it often refers to a point at which something changes directions or natures within an indescribably small moment of time. [2]

            Within Pynchon it has been interpreted variously: Sanders sees it as the shift from order to disorder,[3] whereas Mendelson sees it as the division between words and time which can never be bridged.[4]  My interpretation leans more towardand uponMendelsons but I feel he stops short of the real issue.[5]  Let us look at the passage to which Mendelson alludes:

            But just over the embankment, down in the arena, what might that have been just now, waiting in this broken moonlight, camouflage paint from fins to point crazed into jigsaw . . . is it, then, really never to find you again?  Not even in your worst times of night, with pencil words on your page only t from the things they stand for?  And inside the victim is twitching, fingering beads, touching wood, avoiding any Operational Word.  Will it really never come to take you, now?


Surely it speaks of the gap between words and things, but I would question whether it really calls that gap unbridgeable.  Instead it stresses the minisculity of that gap, and questions whether we can ever travel, or understand that short of a distance.  We are, like Zenos Achilles, unable to run even the smallest of distances through half-measures.  Language then becomes our dialectic, being both words and things. 

            Leverenz sees that Pynchons use of ten-dollar words gives us a dictionary reflex that makes us self-conscious of language as a separating actPynchon makes us at once self-conscious of our language, aware of natural particularity, and sensitive to the jar between human perception and natural fact.  There is a painfulness in each of these brief perceptions, a pain of potential betrayal and separation, and a pleasure of momentary union beyond our control.[6]  Leverenz obviously feels the sadomasochistic, pseudo-sexual relationship that Pynchon maintains with the reader, though he (Leverenz) never explicitly acknowledges it.  He becomes the perfect model of the average modernist reader and ends up rejecting Pynchon for his preachyness through one side of his mouth while praising him for creat[ing] the most powerfully aching language for natural descriptions in our lifetime.[7]  It is Pynchons use of language that gives us these mixed reactions of pleasure and pain, unified loneliness. 

            Ricoeur sez that the word dream is not a word that closes, but a word that opens.[8]  Pynchons grandiose text is likewise contains plots but no dénouement, in that it never closes, but always opens up new possible interpretations toward a Hegelian bad infinity.  If to interpret is to understand a double meaning, then Pynchons work has no end to interpretations.  Many have tried to identify all the allusions, sources, puns and themes in Gravitys Rainbow, and it has defied explanation to them all.  In failing, we identify the fault in Ricoeurs definition of symbol: a double-meaning linguistic expression that requires an interpretation, and interpretation is a work of understanding that aims at deciphering symbols.[9]  This tautological definition leads us into the hermeneutic circleof believing and understanding.[10]  It is this postcritical faith as Ricoeur calls it, that asks analogy, How does that which binds meaning to meaning bind me?  The movement that draws me toward the second meaning assimilates me to what is said, makes me participate in what is announced to me.[11]  Pynchons use of allusion, analogy, symbolism and even puns inspires a sense of paranoia much like his characters possess.  It is for this reason that many of Pynchons readers experience a feeling of being infected[12] by the paranoia in Gravitys Rainbow.

            In fact, it is one of the characteristics of paranoia that it infects.  This is due to its characteristic sense of connectedness.[13]  While most fulfill this universal need to feel connected by sublimating or enjoying a sexual relationship, the paranoid person is always at the mercy of connecting to the object world through special kinds of thoughts that nonparanoids resort to only in times of stress.[14]  In fact, this extensive defensive use of concrete and magical fantasies of connectedness to objects is the essential characteristic of paranoid character.[15]  Paranoia then manifests itself ironically enough through self-reference, always stressing the only viewpoint which the paranoid has extensive connection.  The paranoid then builds elaborate systems because loving attachments are unstable.  When these systems of connectedness fail in this purpose, which they inevitably do at some point, they become malignant, or permeated with rageIf the pathways of connectedness become permeated with feeling, but the aggresivity is split off entirely, the result may be euphoria or erotomania.[16]  What a perfect description of Gravitys Rainbow!  The failure of systems leads toward aggressivity, which, when permeated with feeling, results in euphoria and erotomania.  This progression explains Pynchons vision of sexual deviance within war, as well as the pervasive drug use throughout the novel.  Yet, as mentioned earlier, this paranoia is infectious, leading the reader to respond with feelings of aggressivity, euphoria, and erotomaniaall of which are prevalent reactions to the novel.  Also explained is the apathy Pynchon seems to have toward violence as paranoid patients clearly demonstrate the effect of splitting, not so much between love and hate toward the object, but between experiences of complete indifference and total connectedness to the object.[17]  Here we are reminded of Slothrops observation of his coalition with hopes for success and hopes for disaster about equally high (and no, that doesnt cancel out to apathyit makes a loud dissonance that dovetails inside you sharp as knives) (GR 676). 

Lacan noted this relationship between paranoia and aggressivity back in 1948 writing, the aggressive tendency proves to be fundamental in a certain series of significant states of the personality, namely, the paranoid and paranoiac psychoses.[18]   Lacan further elucidated the notion of an aggressivity linked to the narcissistic relation and to the structures of systematic méconnaissance and objectification that characterize the formation of the ego.[19]  Pynchons obscurity and lack of cohesion are not accidents, as they are often perceived, but the glaring symptom of the thing he is describing: paranoia.  He has gone from symptom to synthome, accepting and using the paranoid system around him and then illustrating it to othersbut for what reason?  What does anyone have to gain by embracing such a seemingly useless system?  Possibly to create the negative libido that enables the Heraclitean notion of Discord, which the Ephesians believed to be prior to harmony, to shine once more.[20]  Yet, not to lean to far to the side of Discord, the most epitomic characteristic of paranoia is the discovery that everything is connected, everything in the Creation, a secondary illuminationnot yet blindingly One, but at least connected (GR 703).  If it is true that everything is connected, then author is tied inextricably to text and therefore reader.  This becomes the ultimate paranoid interpretation of Lacans truth of I is an other, an observation that is less astonishing to the intuition of the poet than obvious to the gaze of the psychoanalyst.[21] 

This self-referential characteristic of paranoia that Pynchon intimates is the sine qua non of clinical paranoia.  Auchincloss and Weiss attribute this to the desire to create a grandiose self in which the representations of self, ideal self, and ideal objects are fused.  Yet they misinterpret the symptom when they claim that by maintaining this fantasy of a grandiose self who does not need others, the narcissist avoids the terrors of an inner world where object constancy cannot be maintained.[22]  Their insight into the control aspect of paranoia is acute, but they widely miss the target when they claim that it is to avoid the terrors of an inner world.  By imposing their own fantasy on the outer world, the paranoid avoids the supposed exterior terrors and retreats into a fantasy interior.  The connection between this reclusivity and aggressivity is almost so obvious as to avoid, but so prevalent that it must be mentioned.  Lacans entire essay from which I have been quoting is an investigation of the connections between paranoia and aggressivity, which he sums up thusly, war, after teaching us much about the genesis of the neurosis, is proving too demanding perhaps in the quest for ever more neutral subjects in an aggressivity where feeling is undesirable.[23]  Pynchons opus sharpens this genesis of neurosis as it calls us to question whether war might indeed be a complex plot designed by the multinational (supernational) corporations in order to better study behavioral psychiatry: The Germans-and-Japs story was only one, rather surrealistic version of the real War.  The real War is always there. 

This brings us to gravitys rainbow itself, possibly the most neglected image in the novel.  It is perhaps too open to interpretations, driving many away.  Pynchon himself anticipates this calling it,

the curve each of them feels, unmistakably.  It is the parabola.  They must have guessed, once or twiceguessed and refused to believethat everything, always, collectively, had been moving toward that purified shape latent in the sky, that shape of no surprise, no second chances, no return.  Yet they do move forever under it, reserved for its own black-and-white bad news certainly as if it were the Rainbow and they its children(GR 209)


Let us assume then that it is.  If we go far enough (debatably too far) in these connections we see the novel as rocket; the reader as target; and the arc as the experience.  We have already seen that paranoia leads us to connect the otherwise unconnected, so why not trace it fully unto the title itself.  Judge this book by its cover and see Pynchons masterpiece as what it truly is: a mirror.  Pynchon placed within this paranoid world, being dragged down into entropy seeks more than anything, the Rocketan entire system won, away from the feminine darkness, held against the entropies of lovable but scatterbrained Mother Nature (GR 324).  Entropy creates desire and desire gives way, through its counter-effect lack, to need.[24]  Which leaves us with this chilling challenge: to find a way out!  Brown sees that some have idealized the genital character as a way out of the human neurosis.[25]  Later he points to sublimation as a possible solution for the way out.[26]  Pynchons ultimate sublimation then is the encyclopaedic Gravitys Rainbow, mirroring the indefinite postponement of suicide in his Sold on Suicide (GR p. 320).  In this song the narrator crones about all the things he would renounce for suicide, and in the act of cataloguing them never gets to the suicide of the title.  Pynchon likewise postpones his own death through sublimation by writing and implicating us in the process.

            The reader, as mentioned earlier, becomes

the Rockets purely feminine counterpart, the zero point at the center of its targetAll the rest will happen according to the laws of ballistics.  The Rocket is helpless in it.  Something else has taken over.  Something beyond what was designed in.

            Katje understands the great airless arc as a clear allusion to certain secret lusts that drive the planet and herself and Those who use her (GR 223).


We readers are helpless, turning page after page; making connection after gut-wrenching connection, until all is nothingness and nothingness, all.  This is why Leverenz protest against Pynchons language falls so far short.[27]  A neurosis isolates; a sublimation unites.[28]  The ink rubbing off on our voracious fingers binds us to the text, the text to the arc, the arc to Pynchon, and we are back where we started.  The desires (or lusts) that created and drive the characters are as much Pynchons as they are ours.  We, through Gravity, pull the text toward us, longing for the sublime oblivion it bringsthe ultimate escapism. 

            Language then is gravity and leads us to the useless distinction between metaphor and metonymy.  Just as language uses us, it causes us to duplicate its tendency toward play.  Language lends itself toward paronomasia and connections that do not exist outside of it.  But language is still the universal that binds us and its rules can only be bent, never broken.  Metaphor is therefore meaningless in that there are no perfect semblances but time and chance happen to all, leaving us grasping at metonymy.  Lacan reveals for us languages schizophrenic structureits tendency to mistake words for things.[29]  There may be no gods, but there is a pattern: names by themselves may have no magic, but the act of naming, the physical utterance, obeys the pattern (GR 322).  iek puts it another way, every name in so far as it is part of common language, implies this self-referential, circular moment,[30] thereby connecting it to Lacans big Other.  Language is the system, the Man who, has a branch office in each of our brains, his corporate emblem is a white albatross, each local rep has a cover known as the Ego, and their mission in this world is Bad Shit (GR 712-713).

Languages paranoia is contagious and we find ourselves lost in words, unable to distinguish common sense from unmoored meaning.[31]  Slothrop at one point sees a rainbow, a stout rainbow cock driven out of pubic clouds into Earth, green wet valleyed Earth, and his chest fills and he stands crying, not a thing in his head, just feeling natural(GR 626).  Reading Gravitys Rainbow through the specular paranoia that is language we become aware of our interpretive deficiencies and stand aloof, not a thing in our head, just feeling natural.  But before that point there is a moment, after Pynchon has written and before we have read, where the novel exists on its own.  That is t.

            .  Beholding the t from afar allows us to see the méconnaissance inherent in the novel as film.  Pynchons sense of haste, his narrative style so complex it is difficult to gather even superficial plot development, is modeled after film.  Benjamin wrote that, The painting invites the spectator to contemplation: before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations.  Before the movie frame he cannot do so.  No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed.[32]  But calculus allows us to freeze-frame the t.  It is the quintessential disruption that film gives us of reality.  Books have done the same for thousands of years, but through Pynchon the technique is fully realized.  It is only through this freeze-frame that we can step back and laugh at an irony that is more than beautiful, for the triumph over beauty is celebrated by humourthe Schadenfreude that every successful deprivation calls forth.  There is laughter because there is nothing to laugh at.[33] 

Schadenfreude, one of Pynchons favorite words, is the principle humor enjoyed by man: laughing at anothers (an Others?) expense.  Thus the méconnaissance leads to a better representation of the Real than a clarity of speech would.  The méconnaissance is in fact the Real, and to step back one step further I must ask the question: is this Real which we perceive, which is hopelessly marred by méconnaissance, not only not the way things were supposed to be, but rather is it the very dissonance that this makes within us that causes us to laugh at méconnaissance and wish for simpler times, when we should see, not specularly, but face-to-face?  For at the end of the novel, just as at its beginning, we can hear the rocket fall.  Pynchon tells us early on that you never hear the one that gets you.  If we can hear it, then it is not us that is being destroyed. 

There is an old Jewish proverb that says that if you are coming home and see a house on your street burning down, you are not allowed to pray that it is not yours.  Our schadenfreude gives us the only solution, though it is not a great one at that.  We do not pray that it is not ours, but upon recognizing it as not ours, we laugh.  We smile and cry and feel natural.  It is the reason that the t gives us power.  We can now see the connections for what they are: paranoid uses of language, nothing more.  In that miniscule moment the impossible happened and one became the Other.  But that moment is indescribable.  It is punctuated by the t, and it is the reason that so many of Pynchons chapters and even the novel it self end in ellipses or double-dashes.  When we see the t we transcend the reading experience, and the novel becomes a part of the Real, through the reading experience.  Yet I would counter with the words of John Donne:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.[34]


The fact that we can hear the rocket means that we can do something about it before our time comes, but in the end Pynchon misses this and laughs at the best warning he ever had.  Nunc lento sonitu dicunt, Morieris.[35]

[1] Pynchon, Thomas, Gravitys Rainbow, Penguin Books, 1973, p. 738.  All subsequent references, found within the text, will be from this edition, identical to the Viking Press Hard and Soft cover editions.  The Bantam page numbers may be found by multiplying by seven-sixths.

[2] I have often used it to describe the point at which someone becomes a Christian.  There is some moment when someone stops going one direction (death) and begins going another (life) though that point is not always the same point at which they prayed the prayer.

[3] Sanders, Scott, Pynchons Paranoid History, Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon, ed. by George Levine and David Leverenz, Little, Brown, and Co. 1976, p. 149.

[4] Mendelson, Edward, Gravitys Encyclopedia, Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon, ed. by George Levine and David Leverenz, Little, Brown, and Co. 1976, p. 190.  In this he is alluding to and, I feel, misinterpreting the passage from Gravitys Rainbow immediately following.

[5] In fact, every review I have read of it fails to go far enough.  Most are too humanistic and call it pessimistic.  Leverenz writes, From having been first intimidated, then annoyed, I could dismiss the book as a sermon that was, quite simply, wrong. (Leverenz, David, On Trying to Read Gravitys Rainbow, Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon, ed. by George Levine and David Leverenz, Little, Brown, and Co. 1976, p. 242.)

[6] Ibid. 244-5.

[7] Ibid. 248.

[8] Ricoeur, Paul, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, Tr. By Denis Savage, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970, p. 6.

[9] Ibid. 9.

[10] Ibid. 29.

[11] Ibid. 31.

[12] Bersani, Leo, Pynchon, Paranoia, and Literature, Thomas Pynchon, ed. by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 2003, p. 154.

[13] Auchincloss, Elizabeth L. and Weiss, Richard W. Paranoid Character and the Intolerance of Indifference, Paranoia: New Psychoanalytic Perspectives, ed. by Johyn Oldham and Stanley Bone, International Universities Press, 1994, p. 28.

[14] Ibid. 28.

[15] Ibid. 31.

[16] Ibid. 32.

[17] Ibid. 37.

[18] Lacan, Jacques, Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis, Écrits: A Selection, tr. by Alan Sheridan, W.W. Norton & Company, 1977, p.16.

[19] Ibid. 21.

[20] Ibid. 21.

[21] Ibid, 23.

[22] Auchincloss and Weiss, 31.

[23] Lacan, 28.

[24] Cf. Deleuze, Gilles, and Guittari, Felix, Anti-Oedipus, University of Minnesota Press, 1983, p. 27.  Possibly a more Biblical way to state it would be that entropy introduces lack, without which desire is not only acceptable but ideal.

[25] Brown, Norman O. Life Against Death, Vintage Books, 1959, p. 29.

[26] Ibid, 139.

[27] Leverenz, 244-5.

[28] Brown, (quoting Roheim) p. 143.

[29] Deleuze and Guitarri, p. 23.

[30] iek, Slavoj, The Sublime Object of Ideology, Verso, 1989, p. 93.

[31] Eco, Umberto, Foucaults Pendulum, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1989, p. 43.

[32] Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,

[33] Adorno and Horkheimer, The Culture Industry,

[34] Donne, John, Meditation XVII, The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne, The Modern Library, 1952, p. 441.

[35] Now, this Bell tolling softly for another, saies to me, Thou must die, Donnes translation, ibid, p. 440.

Copyright (c) 2003 Jason Helms.
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "
GNU Free Documentation License".

Copyright (c) 2004 Jason Helms.
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "
GNU Free Documentation License".