On page 90 of my edition of Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, Pointsman describes what he believes to be the cause of the relationship between Tyrone Slothrop’s sexual encounters and the V-2 hits, “…well, Pavlov believed that obsessions and paranoid delusions were a result of certain–call them cells, neurons, on the mosaic of the brain, being excited to the level where, through reciprocal induction, all the area around becomes inhibited. One bright, burning point, surrounded by darkness…Cut off, this bright point, perhaps to the end of the patient’s life, from all other ideas, sensations, self-criticism…He called it a ‘point of pathological inertia.'”
To begin an analysis, I will first define some Pavlovian terms, the “paradoxical phase” is a point in which an animal will lose its reactions to strong stimuli entirely but react normally to weak stimuli. In other words, the dogs would not begin to salivate at extremely loud bell rings but would salivate regularly at a low decibel noise. The “ultramaximal phase” which I believe is equivalent to the “ultraparadoxical phase” that Pynchon mentions is when the stimuli produces an opposite effect, so the bell ringing would cause the dog to become inhibited rather than salivating. “Reciprocal induction” occurs when a conditioned stimulus which has already been excited becomes more excited when a similar stimuli occurs elsewhere in the cortex. The “point of pathological inertia,” therefore is the exact area (neuron) in the brain that has now been overexcited to the point where nothing else in the brain is active at all.
All of this centers around Pavlov’s idea of confusion. That a dog/patient would mix up the stimuli and reaction, begin to seek the stimuli even when it is not there, makes up Pavlov’s theories of confusion and opposites. Pointsman wants to carry on Pavlov’s study of opposites by using Slothrop. Slothrop may have been conditioned to be sexually excited at the sound of a loud bang, or perhaps, it’s something in the air, Pointsman doesn’t know what this “x” stimulus is, or even if there is one. But his theory is that if he can get Slothrop through the three phases and find his point of inertia, he will be closer to understanding the warning signs of the V-2 rockets or why they fall where they do, although he admits his research is really more about personal scientific advancement than helping the rocket cause.
I believe all of this ties into two themes of Gravity’s Rainbow, paranoia and opposites. Paranoia, because the more Slothrop undergoes these treatments, the more paranoid he becomes. Perhaps it’s Slothrop’s paranoia that triggers his strong reaction, and if this is the case, he may begin to act oppositely (not becoming sexually aroused?) as he progresses through Pointsman’s “phases.” Secondly, the theme of “us v. them,” that every reaction must have its opposite ties into paranoia and Pavlov’s research. Just the fact that there is an “opposite” allows for paranoia in that the characters of the book are constantly living in fear of being hit by some greater power which has the ability to annihilate them entirely without even a warning. Slothrop’s “point of inertia” could be a symbol for London itself, as the opposite of its axis enemies and the target for the V-2 rockets.
I’m having a hard time dissecting the ideas presented in this paragraph but I certainly feel as if there is a strong correlation between Pointsman’s studies on Slothrop and the dogs, his obsessive desires to find a cause and effect relationship between everything, and the point of pathological inertia that could cause Slothrop’s mental tendencies.
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