Pynchon and Paranoia

I read an interesting critique by Leo Bersani called Pynchon, Paranoia, and Literature that not only discussed Pynchon’s use of the word “paranoia” but the very idea of paranoia itself. He also engages in countless questions about the true meaning of Pynchon’s writing, and even asks, “What is Gravity’s Rainbow?” (Bersani 107).

Bersani begins by talking about the complexities of paranoia. While it has a medical, psychiatric, and psychoanalytic definition, he claims that Pynchon tends to use it as a synonym for “unfounded suspicion about a hostile environment…” (99). Using paranoid in the sense of that definition, I would most definitely say that all of the characters in Gravity’s Rainbow are indeed quite paranoid. In fact, one might say that reading the book itself could make the reader paranoid, using it in the synonymous definition. By our desire to to connect each event in occurring in the story, keep track of the multiple plots and their interconnectedness – by that definition, we are all indeed paranoid as well.

Bersani continues on to state that “Pynchon is less interested in vindicating his characters’ suspicions of plots than in universalizing and, in a sense, depathologizing the paranoid structure of thought.” (101). By doing this we are lead to believe that Pynchon doesn’t want to verify his characters’ suspicions to merely prove a political point, and Pynchon’s use of paranoia is much more complex than that. Pynchon even writes that war is just a cover up, a “spectacle”, or “diversion from the real movements of war”, confirming his own paranoid beliefs (102). Paranoia is a intuition of “invisible interconnectedness”, and leads one to believe that there are reasons behind visible occurrences, and secret connections of events.  Bersani says that by trying to escape paranoia would to be like trying to escape the movement that is life, leading me to believe that paranoia is almost a necessary characteristic to our lives (if we use paranoia in the definition of believing everything is connected).

Gravity’s Rainbow is “obsessed” with the idea that paranoia is a necessary product of all information systems.  There would be no “They” without a “We”, and vice versa. Bersani proposes the question “Can we escape being manipulated – perhaps even destroyed – by such systems?” (103). There are always those who are suspicious and suggest an alternative to the “way of life” but is there truly another way? Power depends on the control of information, and without that control and power, what would there be? Chaos?

The most interesting question I found in this piece by Bersani was, “And whose side is Pynchon on?” (107). This novel seems to be so clearly against the control of information and machines, but yet Bersani suggests that Pynchon is one of “Them”. Is this because Pynchon is orchestrating the occurrences and paranoia in the novel? Bersani says that it is because Pynchon “willingly tortures his characters” (107). What are your thoughts on that? Is Pynchon part of the preterite? Or is that idea ludicrous based on the very idea of this novel?

And my final question: Is paranoia inescapable?


Bersani, Leo, “Pynchon, Paranoia, and Literature,” Representations 25 (Winter 1989): 99-   118.


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2 Responses to Pynchon and Paranoia

  1. msk58 says:

    I find it surprising that the author of this essay considered Pynchon to be a part of Them. I guess I could see it, as his role of the author allows him to oversee and manipulate the lives of his 400+ characters. It is a question I never considered while reading this book. I kind of saw Pynchon as neither an advocate for the Preterite nor for the Elect; instead, he seems to be an equalizer trying to abolish the boundaries separating these two groups. I suppose when he makes members of the Elect suffer, forcing them into the Preterite category (I assume that’s what the author means by torturing the characters), he could qualify as a part of them, because he is an unseen force which brings his characters to their fates. However, even if Pynchon is a part of them he seems to put a greater emphasis on the significance of the Preterite as opposed to the importance of the Elect. So Pynchon could be a part of Them, but perhaps he is a part of them which supports the Periterite, an advocate for “condemned” (if such an option could exist).

  2. Steph Roman says:

    This sounds like a really interesting article and if you haven’t read Patricia’s summary of Tony Tanner’s criticism, I think that would be extremely helpful if you plan to write about paranoia for the final. I think these two articles speak to each other very well, and something cool could be drawn from them.

    As to the somewhat startling (but I should have realized this, right?) questions in your conclusion, I think this critic and yourself have hit on something really important: IS Pynchon preterite or elect? Does his power and manipulation as author automatically categorize him as elite?

    I’m not so sure he’s really advocating that we need to bridge the gap between elect and preterite, but that’s my reading–I see him much more in support of the common man and highly critical of the elite, which of course becomes the greatest irony when more than once Pynchon points out his role as storyteller (“torturer” according to Bersani). But the simple fact is that yes, GR would never happen without Pynchon pulling the strings. In that sense, in that very paranoid sense, everything has to be connected, everything is, and everything will be, because Pynchon IS the master of GR, and none of us would be here talking about it without his elite presence as author.

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