Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

Hard Science and the Paranormal in Gravity's Rainbow: Precognition Machines, Cockroaches, and Not That Helmut Schmidt

Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

Hard Science and the Paranormal in Gravity's Rainbow: Precognition Machines, Cockroaches, and Not That Helmut Schmidt

Article excerpt

Among the things that strike first-time readers as strange, unique and most certainly fictitious in Gravity's Rainbow (hereafter GR) are the ways Pynchon links hard science and the paranormal, or what Steven Weisenburger refers to as "[t]he points of connection between (on the one hand) procedures of science and technology and (on the other) the rituals of religion and occultism" (2). In the Zeitgeist of GR, the rational, quantifiable world of physics, engineering and rocket science coexists with the mysterious, occult demimonde of "The White Visitation," a bizarre locale characterized, from Brigadier Pudding's point of view, as

   a disused hospital for the mad, [containing] a few token lunatics,
   an enormous pack of stolen dogs, cliques of spiritualists,
   vaudeville entertainers, wireless technicians, Coueists,
   Ouspenskians, Skinnerites, lobotomy enthusiasts, Dale Carnegie
   zealots, all exiled by the outbreak of war from pet schemes and
   manias damned. (GR 77)

With its collection of eccentric Pavlovians, Freudians, neurologists, statisticians, technicians, psychometrists and seance devotees, "The White Visitation" is a site where discourses concerning hard science and the paranormal first converge and interact. As the novel progresses, the seemingly disparate languages of the two systems--what Weisenburger calls the "professional jargon" of hard science and the "esoteric cant" of the paranormal (6)--become so inextricably interwoven that they may be seen as interdependent, interchangeable and, to a certain extent, symbiotic.

Readers familiar with Pynchon's first two novels will recall earlier versions of this theme. In V., for example, chapter 4 begins with Esther's ruminations on The Search for Bridey Murphy, a book, the narrator notes,

   written by a Colorado businessman to tell people there was life
   after death. In its course he touched upon metempsychosis, faith
   healing, extrasensory perception and the rest of a weird canon of
   twentieth-century metaphysics we've come now to associate with the
   city of Los Angeles and similar regions. (95)

In The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon develops this theme further with the Nefastis Machine, "a box with a sketch of a bearded Victorian on its outside, and coming out of the top two pistons attached to a crankshaft and flywheel" (85-86). With the Nefastis Machine, a sort of Isaac-Newton-meets-Rube-Goldberg contraption, Pynchon parodically conflates thermodynamics and telekinesis:

   [Koteks] went on to tell how the Nefastis machine contained an
   honest-to-God Maxwell's Demon. All you had to do was stare at the
   photo of Clerk Maxwell, and concentrate on which cylinder, right or
   left, you wanted the Demon to raise the temperature in. The air
   would expand and push a piston. The familiar Society for the
   Propagation of Christian Knowledge photo, showing Maxwell in right
   profile, seemed to work best. (86)

Koteks, of course, asserts that Nefastis is a real scientist, "'somebody who still invents things'" (85). But, although he offers to show Oedipa the patent as proof, the seriousness of the representation is undermined when Koteks says that the machine works--responds to telekinesis--only under the influence of "'"Sensitives"'"--"'people with the gift'" (87). Such serio-comic representations, far more fully elaborated and complex in GR, indicate Pynchon's interest both in contemporary scientific developments and in popular interest in the paranormal.

Our aim in this essay is to further the discussion of Pynchon's representations of science and the paranormal in two ways. First, we call attention to and discuss the work of Helmut Schmidt, a physicist who developed experiments and machines designed to test and measure precognition and psychokinesis while working at Boeing Scientific Research Laboratories from 1966 to 1969. Second, we illuminate some remarkable parallels between Schmidt's work and parts of GR. …

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