Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Pynchon notes II

Language hat has recently hosted a discussion of the psychiatric concept of apophenia, “the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena.”

The interesting part of the discussion concerns whether apophenia might solve some usage problems with paranoia. Apophenia captures the core sense of paranoia, it is claimed—the apparent perception of an order of ideas that is pervasive, non-obvious, and important. And it leaves out the less tasteful stuff—delusions of persecution and conspiracy—that forms the average understanding of paranoia.

Apophenia suffers a little, since it’s more as a term of art than a word in our language, but it would be a welcome addition to the lexicon of Pynchon and DeLillo studies. Bucky Wunderlick is paranoid; Murray Jay Siskind is apophenic. The Names and Libra are paranoid; Mao II and Underworld are apophenic.

(The Body Artist and Cosmopolis might be something else entirely. Neither is primarily concerned with orders of ideas (except negatively). The former is preoccupied with questions concerning the possibility of immediate, pre-semantic experience, and the liberation that such experience (or the idea of it) represents. The latter is preoccupied with the kind of reality to which the body remains connected even when conscious agency is sleeping furiously in empty semantic experience. Maybe atavism is the concept one needs for these recent novellas, a regression to some lost way of being that is scary and raw. (For a more substantive treatment of Cosmopolis, consider John's review, some parts of which he has since disavowed.)

Let this, then, serve as a warm-up for my second post on The Crying of Lot 49. (Here is the first; it is about apophenia, though I didn’t know that word at the time.)

1. A mind is a beautiful thing to WASTE

Perhaps the novel’s only paranoid in the vulgar sense, Oedipa’s psychiatrist, Dr. Hilarius, renounces his Freudianism as he realizes that his own demons cannot be exorcised with a talking cure.

Driven down “into the darkened oubliette” of his conscience by the experiments in insanity he conducted on Jewish subjects at Buchenwald, Hilarius had placed his hopes for forgiveness and mental survival in his submission to the “literal truth” of Freud’s rationalist doctrine of the intelligibility of unconscious desires:
And part of me must have really wanted to believe—like a child hearing, in perfect safety, a tale of horror—that the unconscious would be like any other room, once the light was let in. That the dark shapes would resolve only into toy horses and Biedermeyer furniture.
Freud imagined that explanations of the workings of the unconscious were in principle no different from common sense explanations of manifest human action. But no narrative of the unconscious, teased out over however many sessions, could give reasons for, among other things, Hilarus’s enthusiasm for Nazi psychiatric experiments.

We can’t explain away our fantasies and horrors and perversions; nor should we want to. Oedipa goes to Hilarius hoping that he could convince her that her belief in the Tristero system is a mere projection, but he insists that only fantasy can save us from anonymity and dissolution.
What else do any of you have? Hold it tightly by its little tentacle, don’t let the Freudians coax it away or the pharmacists poison it out of you. Whatever it is, hold it dear, for when you lose it you go over by that much to the others. You begin to cease to be.
I imagine that Pynchon is speaking in these Emersonian lines. He may not have, or encourage, much sympathy for the characters in this novel that have names, but the nameless ones, the disinherited who wander the margins of the text as they wander along our highways, the “drunks, bums, pedestrians, pederasts, hookers,” the lost and lonely whose great hope is that their WASTE mail might be delivered and their severed connections restored—they and their fantasies are handled with care.

Our prospects for knowing the minds of others and holding them in language are dim (and we’re not much better off when it comes to our own minds), but that others have minds, fantasies unknowable to us, untranslatable and unrepeatable, vivid and fragile and complete, and that for this reason, those others are valuable—this is the conviction that rescues The Crying of Lot 49 from its solipsistic tendencies, and the core of Pynchonian humanism, such as it is.

2. God Save the Village Green

If you only made it as far as page 5, you might guess that Lot 49 is the used car lot where Mucho was once a salesman, and that the crying, if not actually Mucho’s, belongs to the aura of the place in a way that Mucho was best equipped to understand.

Mucho “had believed in the cars,” not in the sense that he stood by the quality of his product—just the reverse—but that he saw vividly the material reality they documented, the way that each poor family’s trade-in encoded in the junk left under the seats and between the cushions a whole history of private oddities and desires and attempts to make things right for a time:
clipped coupons promising savings of 5 or 10¢, trading stamps, pink flyers advertising specials at the markets, butts, tooth-shy combs, help-wanted ads, Yellow Pages torn from the phone book, rags of old underwear or dresses that were already period costumes, for wiping your own breath off the inside of a windshield so you could see whatever it was, a movie, a woman or car you coveted, a cop who might pull you over just for a drill, all the bits and pieces coated uniformly, like a salad of despair, in a gray dressing of ash, condensed exhaust, dust, body wastes
For Mucho, depression takes the form of a sort of sense modality, a retrospective second-sight that holds in view the material lives that his customers have jettisoned, a visionary reconstruction that briefly preserves each family’s unique sadness from the entropy they come to Mucho’s lot to hasten.

Mucho watches the “endless rituals of trade-in” unfold as his customers cannot, as each lines up “to exchange a dented, malfunctioning version of himself for another, just as futureless, automotive projection of somebody else’s life.” The transaction represents progress to the customer, but for Mucho, who grasps whole the entropic succession of these transactions, it is just another pictorial station in sort of a frieze or timeline of “[e]ndless, convoluted incest.”

In his depressive-materialist vision, Mucho is the sort angel of history Walter Benjamin imagines:
Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.
Pynchon’s primary figure for impossible preservation is of course Maxwell’s Demon, the novel’s true and unthinkable angel of history. The Demon would flout the second law of thermodynamics and preserve improbable concentrations of energy from entropic decay. It would know the position of each molecule in a closed system and separate out the high-energy molecules from the low-energy ones, thereby reforming diffuse waste heat as useable energy.

All kinds of thermodynamic and computational problems attend the concept of such a being, and this is part of the point; the fantasy of a permanent archive of the real is incoherent, flawed in its nature, and the concatenations of atoms into dream and flesh that mean so much for a time cannot be held permanently together even in the wildest projections of science.

That this fantasy is what moves Oedipa, and that the experience of its loss is inseparable from the experience of caring for others, perpetually dying in life (you see what kind of transcendental philosophy we conduct here!)—that will be the subject of the next installment of Pynchon notes.

For now, however, let us turn to a related and probably more urgent concern—the fate of libraries and archives in war zones. A friend has collected links on this subject here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pynchon is a good sort and COL49 is entertaining if unfocused, but I asked you a pregunta; how can a synthetic a priori knowledge of nature occur? And can the SAP be read as innateness (genetic?) or is it necessarily "noumenal"---

por favor

4/07/2005 1:07 PM  

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