The Equation Only For Angels

The rockets are distributing about London just as Poisson’s equation in the textbooks predicts. As the data keep coming in, Roger looks more and more like a prophet. Psi Section people stare after him in the hallways. It’s not precognition, he wants to make an announcement in the cafeteria or something . . . have I ever pretended to be anything I’m not? all I’m doing is plugging numbers into a well-known equation, you can look it up in the book and do it yourself . . . (Pynchon 55-56)

While talking to Jessica about basic statistics and how, no, there’s no way to find raid-proof locations in London, Roger bemoans how this conversation is just another example of the dozens of instances in which people think statistics somehow oversteps its bounds in what it can figure out. He does not find anything particularly eerie or oracular in what he’s doing, it’s just number crunching to him. These thoughts culminate into a flashback of a debate he had with Dr. Pointsman over statistical independence, or the idea that events aren’t connected; if a city block is struck a hundred times in one day, that doesn’t mean the Nazis will cut the block some slack the next day.

Initially, I felt bad for Roger and how he saw himself as the odd man out for using hard math in a department that’s studying parapsychology. It’s a ridiculous contrast to see the most science-driven character in this episode being considered “a prophet” while he’s surrounded by people who are trying to find a link between German air strikes and some schlemiel’s sex life. Why can’t everyone just calm down, read up on statistical methods, and see that anyone can do what he’s doing? Don’t shoot the messenger, it’s just science!

Then I realized that maybe it isn’t just Roger’s application of statistics that everyone’s having a problem with. While most of the Psi Section people and Jessica have no clue what statistics are about and could “look it up in the book” to ease their minds, I don’t think that solve their problems with him entirely (at least not with Pointsman and Jessica).

Though there is a high usage of ellipses throughout the episode, the most telling ones, in my opinion, are the ones tied to Roger’s thoughts and dialogue. There are two in the passage I’ve chosen (the third and most important one to my argument, unfortunately, comes on p. 58 in “it’s just an equation . . .”). The first ellipsis comes before “have I ever pretended to be anything I’m not?” and shows Roger’s transparency with his section that he’s not pulling any magic tricks, he’s just doing his job and doing it well. There are no facades here, he’s just your average workplace Joe who trusts in science. The second ellipsis comes after “do it yourself,” showing Roger’s frustration in everyone thinking there’s more to Poisson’s distribution than what it is, as well as his attempt to remove himself from the silly position of clairvoyant.

What Roger misses here is that people already understand all that about math and science, at least to some extent (I don’t have a clear verdict on Pointsman yet). They know that these are what the mathematical discoveries are and this is how you apply them. But that’s where Roger’s analysis ends. He applies the equation and is done with it. He doesn’t see anything in his work comparable to the will of the gods or attach any sense of deeper meanings about life in what he does; everything just is what it is.

He fails to see the greater consequences of what he’s uncovering. The first line of the passage I chose is simply “The rockets are distributing about London just as Poisson’s equation in the textbooks predicts,” a straightforward sentence in which the main point is an affirmation of the statistical method and its accuracy. It’s not a sentence about death tolls, destroyed historical markers, number of displaced peoples, or what have you. Roger’s just concerned with the numbers and how they stack up, context is secondary. And people have a problem with how easily he takes that. He doesn’t think there’s a way to save yourself from a strike any more than he thinks there’s reason to think himself a prophet. Things just happen.

When you’re working with psychologists (particularly Pavlovians) who can’t leave such scenarios unexamined, who want reasons for their outcomes and causes to their effects, Roger isn’t the odd man out because of his belief in statistics—he’s the odd man out because of his blind, unquestioned belief in statistics, which, unlike the religious undertones to his budding reputation, is a belief that there’s nothing you can do to save yourself from an air strike, everything’s predetermined. There are no reasons, just patterns and distributions. We’re all just data that adheres to a textbook equation and we should accept that.

Pynchon isn’t putting down statistics or a firm belief in science with Roger, he’s simply saying that we need to keep in mind what our discoveries in such fields really mean. Roger’s so far removed from the human lives he’s analyzing, even if he’s the one in the section who is best at predicting what happens to these humans. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that Pynchon is arguing against predetermination here, as the episode later goes on to give a very pro-predetermination ramble and some less-than-scientific views from Pointsman, but Pynchon does present a very interesting extreme in Roger that I believe he wants us to avoid.

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2 Responses to The Equation Only For Angels

  1. krr58 says:

    I agree with the claim that Roger does not try to connect his statistical analysis abilities to something greater, but there may be a reason for that. From I have read so far in this novel, I have not actually seen anyone try to give him a reason to care for anything beyond mathematical probabilities. They just want him to do his job, and predict where the next V-2 rocket is most likely to strike.

  2. moniquebriones2014 says:

    I wish we weren’t so limited to a single passage because I would have picked other sections that encompass Episode 9 much more wholly, but if you look at the post right after mine, “Pavlovian vs. Statistics,” it starts to go into great (and very insightful) detail about the argument that Roger and Pointsman have in the same episode of the passage I chose. While the other Psi Section people may be scared of him but not care about confronting him since he’s so good at his job, Dr. Pointsman explicitly seeks him out (“it’s a visit he must make” p. 57) and tries to show Roger that he’s almost playing God in a way and not taking into account the “network of death” he’s mapped out (again, the post after mine is very good at showing Pointsman’s side in this). Roger’s internal response is “it’s just an equation . . . ” and he later rants about the “damned Calvinist insanity” of thinking that some sort of moral worth or otherwise un-scientific intervention will save people from an air strike (p. 58). I think it’s definitely more on Roger’s part that he refuses to acknowledge what his findings mean in the larger sense of the war and humanity; while Pointsman gives a flawed, reactionary argument, I feel like he tries very hard to get Roger to think past his job and responsibilities and how his nihilistic principles in statistics show a lack of empathy towards human nature.

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