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Altered States of Reading (Part 2): Pynchon and the Psi Reflex


Thomas Pynchon’s sprawling unfinished 1972 novel Gravity’s Rainbow centers on an American army lieutenant, Tyrone Slothrop, whose amorous conquests around WWII London infallibly predict German V2 rocket strikes in an otherwise random distribution throughout the city. Slothrop’s weird ability puts him under the scrutiny of “Psi Section”—a division of military intelligence—who link his strange gift to Pavlovian conditioning he experienced as an infant in the laboratory of a legendary mad-genius professor, Dr. Laszlo Jamf.

Over two decades earlier, Jamf had (it is suggested) used the infant Slothrop’s erections as the “target reflex” tied to an unspecified conditioned stimulus “X.” If not reinforced, conditioned responses (like having an erection when presented with whatever X is) tend to diminish or “extinguish”—albeit often not completely. However, a theoretical possibility suggested by Pavlov in a letter to Pierre Janet is that the conditioned response could extinguish more than completely, or “beyond the zero.” The idea in the novel is that Slothrop’s adult sexual response is the result of his infant conditioning extinguishing beyond totality and into a mysterious negative “transmarginal” realm, and this is the object of much speculation in the 760-plus pages of the novel.

I call Gravity’s Rainbow “unfinished” because no one who starts the novel ever gets to the end. What starts out as fascinatingly crazy becomes boringly crazy about half the way through, and the reader’s interest, so to speak, detumesces. Revisiting the book recently, however, I confirmed what I had already suspected, which is that the secret of Slothrop’s condition(ing)—the mysterious X—remains unanswered all the way through to an increasingly ambiguous outcome, in which the character descends into madness, and even the circumstances of his childhood—including the very existence of Dr. Jamf—are called into question.

This is to be expected: One of the unwritten rules of literary fiction has always been: Thou shalt not use ESP seriously as a plot device. Writers breaking this rule quickly get relegated to the ghetto of SF, which up through Phil Dick’s day remained very much a “trash stratum.” The genre gods exist to serve the dominant mechanistic paradigm. Pynchon scrupulously avoided Dick’s fate by keeping the real nature of Tyrone Slothrop’s “gift” ambiguous, and surrounding that character with materialists (e.g., Dr. Pointsman) bent on explaining it away rationally.

Yet Pynchon clearly had a genuine fascination with parapsychology—he also wove PK experiments into his previous, much shorter novel, The Crying of Lot 49—so his ambivalence produced a kind of literary neurosis: Without descending into tepid realism, the only acceptable literary alternative is to postpone the answer, and keep postponing, in an endless spiral. The result is the kind of wordy symptom always produced by inability to be rid of a fascinating-yet-repellant remnant of the Real: A profusion of words and ideas that circle endlessly the void at its heart. (This unwillingness to accept or acknowledge the paranormal implications of the Real also accounts, I believe, for Slavoj Žižek’s descent into frenetic wordy repetition over the course of his career, but that’s another story.)

Yet neuroses can create a secure terrarium environment in which prophetic jouissance can sprout and even bear very interesting fruit; somehow Pynchon managed to quite uncannily precognize (or at least, anticipate) some of the most interesting modern developments in a theory of psi, which partly emerged from research conducted in the 1970s in California at Stanford Research Institute (SRI).

Standing at Attention

For example, at SRI and in his time on the Star Gate program, physicist Edwin May noticed that when remote-viewing targets somehow involved high-energy discharges like nuclear tests, electromagnetic pulses, or rocket launches, the viewers were almost always dead on—much more accurate than with other targets. As a result, May has theorized that psi either orients toward, or is actually carried by, signals of extreme entropy change, things moving rapidly from a state of order to a state of disorder. May has also argued that, even when it seems to take other forms, psi is always basically precognition.

The idea that psi is linked to entropy gradients could, May suggests, find some theoretical rationale in classical physics, where time itself is often understood as tantamount to the inexorable increase in entropy dictated by the second law of thermodynamics. Interestingly, in The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon had already homed in on the key entropy-vs.-information aspect of psi with his “Nefastis Machine,” a perpetual motion device whereby “sensitives” raise the internal temperature of a box and move a piston inside by focusing their attention on a picture of physicist James Clerk Maxwell affixed to its side. But the linkage of Slothrop’s premonitory organ to V2 strikes—which, because the rockets are supersonic, actually precede any audible warning—is a purer (and really, genius) expression of this linkage.

May clearly has hit on something important about psi. I’ve noticed that my most uncanny precognitive dreams and other premonitory experiences usually involve an entropy gradient of some sort, such as deaths, landslides, rocket launches and mishaps, explosions and fires, and breakages of household items. My life isn’t actually very exciting, fortunately, so more often than not I seem to be keying in on news reports of these events, or their signs and traces, not the events themselves (except for the breakages). This leads me to think that our unconscious preferentially attends to information about entropy gradients, whatever sensory channel we get it from, because it is relevant to our survival, and thus is part of a primitive threat-vigilance orientation.

In other words, I doubt the actual psi signal is somehow carried from the future via entropy or changes in entropy; in terms of May’s “multiphasic theory,” this would mean entropy gradients belong to what he calls the neuroscience domain, not the physics domain. (I discuss this question in the current issue of EdgeScience magazine as it applies to 9/11.) Recent advances in quantum computing provide a plausible (albeit still hypothetical) mechanism for how the brain could exchange information with itself through time, which I will discuss in a future post.

Pynchon was also prescient in linking psi to the most unconsciously willed of reflexes, the sexual response. Another big advance in parapsychology in recent years is the “first sight” theory of James Carpenter, a clinician and researcher at the Rhine Center in North Carolina, who assigns psi to the unconscious/preconscious realm as part of our basic adaptive mechanisms. Carpenter describes psi as the “leading edge” in our perception, and underscores how it operates in tandem with PK as really the root and basis of our engagement with the world. Carpenter doesn’t link it to sex per se, but his theory makes good sense of why psi seems to manifest itself most clearly in rewarding flow states and skilled engagement, a kind of enjoyment for which Slothrop’s compulsive amorous activity is a perfect metaphor.

As argued in the previous post, it may not be accidental that the most prophetic writers have also been the most frenetic, churning out creative material at a rapid pace in order to bring in a meager income—which suggests that they (a) love it and (b) don’t have any better job prospects and (c) cannot be thinking too much about what they are doing. (An extreme form of this principle is automatic writing—or in our day, automatic typing—which is an exercise that can produce very interesting unconscious and precognitive material.) Again, this would link precognition specifically to the reward system of the mesolimbic areas of the brain, and to the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is released in these areas precisely to entrain our attention and activity on “the next thing,” whether threatening or rewarding.

Dopaminergic circuits are also involved in Pavlovian conditioning—the substitution of new behaviors and stimuli for more basic rewarding or aversive behaviors. As may have been the case with Tyrone Slothrop, the behaviors that become associated with presentiment in adulthood may be culturally conditioned reflexes associated specifically with the repression of our psi functioning during the first few years of life, when normal socialization (parental reward) compels us to be linear and reasonable in our thinking. Psi is both driven into the unconscious and possibly also somatized, leading to the hypothesis that many “hysterical” physical symptoms such as those Freud investigated in his patients could actually be precognitive signals that lack more straightforward expression. More generally, such signals could take the form of the completely nonverbal and non-verbalizable behavioral complexes that psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas called the “unthought known.”

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