Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

Subliminal Cues: Psychoanalysis and Entropy in Pynchon's Novels

Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

Subliminal Cues: Psychoanalysis and Entropy in Pynchon's Novels

Article excerpt

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In one of Robert Gernhardt's humorous sketches, a man calls on Sigmund Freud to consult him and tells him about a strange dream. In this dream, his id expressed libidinal urges which the superego tried to repress and the ego finally sublimated. Freud claims that the interpretation of the dream is quite simple: the man's id was repressed by the superego when it expressed libidinal urges which the ego finally sublimated. The patient rejects this interpretation, declaring that it is not an interpretation but the dream itself. Freud gets upset and sends away the patient, who is thenceforth tormented by a terrible inferiority complex (140-41).

Gernhardt's sketches do not necessarily call for a serious reading, but this one does raise a valid point: what happens to the interpretation of an otherwise deeply hidden structure once that deep structure is transferred to the surface? When Freud began to write about psychoanalysis, he faced severe resistance on various fronts, ranging from the ridicule of his colleagues to the moral scorn of a bourgeois society unwilling even to consider the possibility that humanity shares more with the animal world than some physiological features. Nietzsche's dictum that man rests in ignorance suspended in dreams on the back of a tiger (376) was provocative enough without being reformulated as the basis for psychoanalytical, that is, medical treatment.

But by now things have changed considerably. The Western world and the United States in particular seem saturated with psychoanalytical knowledge and terminology. Formerly intimate and embarrassing personal traits and experiences have entered fashionable parlance, while the principles of psychoanalysis have become cliches in amateur diagnosis. Possibly as a consequence of this development, many authors have professed an open scorn for Freud and his theory. Vladimir Nabokov (who may or may not have been Pynchon's teacher at Cornell), for instance, attacked Freudianism as "one of the vilest deceits practiced by people on themselves and on others" (23-24), and listed Freudian symbolism as an example of poshlost, which comprises "vulgar cliches ... bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature" (101). Nevertheless, psychoanalysis has become a fairly common literary topic, explored and satirized by authors as different as Philip Roth and Philip K. Dick, the latter of whom introduced the portable computer-shrink as early as 1964, in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. (1) In fact, the analyst has turned into a stock item in the vast store of literary cliches.

References to psychoanalysis abound in Pynchon's works. The most obvious example is probably the name Oedipa in The Crying of Lot 49; (2) the link to psychoanalysis is further stressed by the introduction of her analyst. In V., the name of the psychodontist, Eigenvalue, has a psychoanalytical ring to it. In Gravity's Rainbow, the names Weissmann and Thanatz, the latter first encountered on the ship Anubis, obviously allude to Freud's death instinct (Plater 247); (3) but then this is a rather trivial discovery, as the text is rife with images of death, including a literal image of the collective death instinct: "Living inside the System is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide" (GR 412). Vinelandseems to lack such obvious allusions to psychoanalysis, but frequent references to the Yuroks indicate that Leif Erikson, the mythical discoverer of "Vinland the Good," may be far less important than Erik H. Erikson, the author of Childhood and Society and the well-known if inaccurate study of the Yuroks it contains. (4) Once this connection is made, other features fall into the pattern, especially Vineland's depiction of the American family. Frenesi Gates, the mother of the novel's heroine, exemplifies Erikson's typical Morn, a cold, dominant and rejecting mother, while Zoyd Wheeler fits the image of her common counterpart: he is dominated by even the absent Frenesi; he is the one who offers tenderness and understanding to their child, Prairie, but even so, he is ultimately disappointing as a father (cf. …

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