At the onset of Leo Braudy’s essay entitled Providence, Paranoia, and the Novel, Braudy begins to explain the importance of providence in the pre-17th century world, and thus in pre-17th/18th century works of fiction. Providence, Braudy claims was “the all pervasive order that held the world together” (Braudy 619). In other words, the world was assembled by an order, no matter what history took place, what book was written, ultimately there was still a religion and therefore a God holding it all together and as an explanation for the succession of events in time. However, somewhere between the 17th and 18th century, providence became a less verifiable explanation for the Way Things Work. Whereas scholars, biologists, and the like had previously been able to study and appreciate science in one compartment and the existence of a God in the other, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes came to define religion as an excuse created by the state in order to justify not only its actions, but its existence. With the rise of the Gothic novel and Methodism, states Braudy, “spiritual” came to be a term that defined anything remotely emotional, or anything that wasn’t scientific. It was with this decline in the belief of a providence that the stage was set for a new paranoia that found itself manifested in the narrative. Hobbes described fiction as a way to repress the “non-sociable self” (Braudy 621). Basically, what this means is that the novel became a way for authors to escape society’s views of what was or wasn’t acceptable and express their feelings/thoughts/emotions through characters that could be separated from the authors themselves. Braudy suggests that novelists used language as a technique against determinism and the “Designer God,” finding a midpoint between “injured merit” and the outside world through the creation of a narrative. Injured merit, for the record, is mentioned in John Milton’s, Paradise Lost, a work that is routinely referenced throughout this essay, as the sense that Satan gets after he is rejected by God in favor of Christ. I believe Braudy is using the term “injured merit” to refer to the novelist’s loss of self-worthiness and sense of paranoia or isolation with/from the outside world. “The way out of this bind,” writes Braudy, is “the creation of the work itself to stand between the isolated, unappreciated self and the distant, uncaring world” (Braudy 622). Thus, the creation of a fiction novel gives an author the ability to give order to a world that no longer has meaning and therefore no longer gives the author’s life a meaning or providence to aspire to.
As Braudy begins describing the relations between the novel and society, he delves into the post-WWI west where he divides “modernist European authors” and “naturalist American authors.” Europe, a country with its own history and background, breeds modernist writers who do not attempt to include many characters in their works, instead they go beneath the discontinuities of modern life and try to find relationships that have persisted throughout time. Meanwhile, America’s lack of historical context creates naturalist writers who, by trying to encompass multitudes of characters from all professions, personalities, and walks of life, attempt to create their own history. After WWII however, America has a history, not only that but we become enveloped by it. Braudy writes that people felt swallowed by the vast amounts of knowledge and “things” that had come into the world, pushing the novelist to create new worlds with their art that could “absorb, explain, and transcendently settle accounts for his loss” (Braudy 626). Paranoia became the only way to solve what was happening in your life. This sentiment is perfectly embodied in the protagonist in Gravity’s Rainbow, Tyrone Slothrop. Slothrop is not a character that moves through life according to his own will; instead he is “merely the object of everyone’s tracings,” with the constant notion that something (perhaps someone) is always looming over his shoulder (Braudy 631). What’s more, Braudy compares Thomas Pyncheon to Nornam Mailer, making Mailer the naturalist self-exposer and Pyncheon the elusive modernist who escapes from the public eye but may speak through his works instead. Because readers are so aware of who Norman Mailer is as a person, they see him not as the creator of a time and space, but as its narrator-only a record-keeper, thus allowing his readers to find solace in the existence of a higher order while Pyncheon “will not allow his presence to solace for us the coherence of his creation.” Much like his works, which feature characters trying and failing time and time again to get to the bottom of a deeper meaning of life, readers trying to search for the man who can give reason to a complex, interwoven web of historical, fanatical, and fictionalized text will be misled, misdirected, and ultimately met with no answers. The “comfort of pattern” summarizes Braudy will ultimately allow us to absolve of our responsibilities and become pawns in history rather than playmakers, so paranoid fiction, through all its limitless channels, acts as a “revenge against society,” the novelists’ own personal way of creating an alternative reality, “engaging intelligence rather than perception” where providence fails to give meaning and when they cannot understand nor manipulate their own.
I think the claim that Braudy is making is two-fold. Firstly, that understanding paranoid fiction such as Pyncheon’s will prove as fruitless as trying to connect the strings of time to find coherence. Secondly, we should do as Bard does in the end of Paradise Lost and, at least at times, step down from a position of describing, analyzing, and portraying history as it happens to instead create personal history. If this is what Braudy is arguing then I have to agree. Instead of falling to the fate of Tyrone Slothrop, who becomes dissolved from trying too hard to step outside of himself and look forward, ahead, and at the present which may or may not involve him, it may be better to play a less observant role in time by choosing our own destinies, be it through building a family, a career, chasing a secular dream, etc. In this way we do not become the prisoners of time but instead flow with it as equals and at times manipulators. The paradox occurs when the novelist, acting as a creator of worlds writes a book in which to counter the reality that already exists, yet within this book, by giving meaning to an otherwise unexplainable existence, the author is protesting against the complexity of actual life and choosing instead to turn against it, to a midway point that he has developed.
Here is where one may challenge Braudy’s argument as was brought up in class. Braudy seems to believe that sex has no importance in society according to Gravity’s Rainbow other than as another part of the system, another unavoidable mode of destruction. However, Pynchon seems to suggest, as we talked about in class on page 737 (Penguin edition) that, “Because submission and dominance resources [the Structure] needs for its very survival. They cannot be wasted in private sex…It needs our submission so that it can remain in power” (Pynchon 737). In this assertion, Pynchon seems to suggest that finding joy in this necessary game of the machine is a way of rebelling, revenging (raging, if you will) against the machine. If this is the case then perhaps Pynchon is not trying to link sex and destruction but rather sex (real, impassioned sex among partners who are both enjoying themselves) and survival. Perhaps, Slothrop isn’t bringing about the bomb strikes through his sexual encounters, but rather just narrowly missing them. If this is the case, then just as Jessica and Roger seem to rebel against the war, thus keeping themselves alive with their acts of love, Slothrop may be surviving the bomb hits by…having sex? Just a thought.
This post has gotten pretty long but the last point Braudy seems to make is that the creation of a different history or reality is a move towards progress while delving into deeper layers of actual society leads to stagnation. Writing may be a way of transfiguring ideas in society and thus constantly recreating its boundaries while it could also act as a mode of focusing for too long and with too much effort and why we’re here and what has happened in the past. This piece is full of contradicting ideas and irony, but I feel like I’ve gotten a feel of its scope in terms of Gravity’s Rainbow, however difficult it may be to articulate in a blog post of my own.
Braudy , Leo . “Providence, Paranoia, and the Novel .” Johns Hopkins University Press 48.3 (1981): 619-637 . Print.
Milton, John. Paradise lost. Waiheke Island: Floating Press, 2008. Print.
Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s rainbow. New York: Viking Press, 1973. Print.