This summer I read Thomas Pynchon’s legendary, post-modern novel Gravity’s Rainbow. Published in 1973, the novel takes place during the latter part of WWII, beginning in London and eventually traversing the European (and occasionally other) landscapes. Pynchon’s work is of such a non-traditional nature that describing a plot is a preposterous attempt; but the novel’s linchpin is the Germans’ rumoured Rocket 00000, and the hitherto unknown power and destruction it may contain. Gravity’s Rainbow is replete with characters and circumstances pertinent to those interested in the history of science, particularly psychology. Though the author attends to and obsesses over the esoteric verbiage and theories of physics, engineering, and espionage, Pynchon devotes a considerable amount of his novel (and the characters therein) to matters related to Psychology. Indeed the main character, Tyrone Slothrop, is at the forefront of this novel due to his intimate physiological and psychological connection with Rocket 00000 (and the Schwarzgerät [AKA ‘black device’] within it). This conditioned connection was wrought when Tyrone was a neonate—the experimental situations of such reflexive conditioning emphasizing Pavolvian theory, while echoing the setting of Watson and Rayner’s Little Albert experiments. An entire club of scientists in this book revere Pavlov as a demigod, and rotate their lone copy of his Lectures on Conditioned Reflexes, simply referring to it as ‘The Book’.
Pynchon also includes scenes of the supposedly supernatural, where the faithful and the skeptical alike attend séances. These scenes mirror Psychology’s early history of actively debunking supernatural occurrences, unmasking the deceptive charlatans; concurrently there are other organizations, such as the Psi Section(s), that are professionally interested in the parapsychological for potential military and espionage tactics. Other characters and scenes concentrate on statistics and probability, and their predictive utility in the unpredictable chaos of war (with a particular focus on the Poisson Distribution). Many of these scenes recall the involvements of psychologists in military and government matters, and shines a light on their bizarre and variegated positions within the national and transnational bureaucratic machines of WWII.
These are a smattering of how the history of Psychology makes it way into Gravity’s Rainbow, and Pynchon develops the complex ramifications of these new theories and technologies for his seemingly endless assemblage of characters. These examples related to the history of psychology are ensconced within a fictional world that reflects the consequences of our scientific and technological progress: the fragmentation and disorganization of our selves and our societies that result from our systems of unification and organization. Tyrone Slothtrop’s continually evolving and confused selves, his nomadic lifestyle leading to places that are in constant destruction and reconstruction, and Pynchon’s own ceaseless change in narrative genre, tone, and syntax, illustrate the dizzying fragmentation-reorganization cycle that revolves more quickly the further we progress in our sciences and technologies. This book is Pynchon’s attempt at capturing the impossibly convoluted state of our post-WWII and post-modern lives.
Though Gravity’s Rainbow encompasses much more than only issues related to disciplinary Psychology, I would still like to recommend it as an excellent source of interest, inspiration, bewilderment, and discussion for anyone interested in the history of Psychology.
Buy it here.
Page-by-page annotations here.
Page-by-page artwork by Zak Smith here.
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