hierophanies

“As things developed, she [Oedipa Maas] was to have all manner of revelations,” we are told in the first chapter of The Crying of Lot 49, and as Edward Mendelson pointed out long ago in an essay I’ve already mentioned, the language of the novel is relentlessly religious.

Here’s a passage from Chapter 2:

She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding. Smog hung all round the horizon, the sun on the bright beige countryside was painful; she and the Chevy seemed parked at the centre of an odd, religious instant….

She gave it up presently, as if a cloud had approached the sun or the smog thickened, and so broken the “religious instant,” whatever it might’ve been….

And a little later, when she sees a commercial for a housing development that her former lover, Pierce Inverarity, had invested in:

A map of the place flashed onto the screen, Oedipa drew a sharp breath, Metzger on the chance it might be for him looked over. But she’d only been reminded of her look downhill this noontime. Some immediacy was there again, some promise of hierophany: printed circuit, gently curving streets, private access to the water, Book of the Dead….

As Mendelson comments, Pynchon seems to have borrowed the term “hierophany” from the scholar of religion Mircea Eliade, who writes in his book The Sacred and the Profane: “To designate the act of manifestation of the sacred, we have proposed the term hierophany…. From the most elementary hierophany — e.g., a manifestation of the sacred in some ordinary object, a stone or a tree” — or a printed circuit, or a map of a housing development — “to the supreme hierophany (which, for a Christian, is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ) there is no solution of continuity.” That is, there is no possibility of accounting for what has been revealed within the structures of everyday experience, no means of domesticating what has shown itself. “We are confronted by … the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural ‘profane’ world” (p.11).

Another way to put this is that the hierophany happens within ordinary space but suggests something beyond ordinary time, something that belongs to or comes from a different temporal order. Therefore, “religious man lives in two kinds of time, of which the more important, sacred time, appears under the paradoxical aspect of a circular time, reversible and recoverable, a sort of eternal mythical present that is periodically reintegrated by means of rites” (p. 70). Eliade claims that such experiences are “inaccessible to a nonreligious man” (p.71), which would suggest that Oedipa is a religious person — and yet she shows no evidence of participating in any “rites,” any communal worship. This may help to explain her obsession with the possible existence of the Trystero as an organization, a secret community, that bears and transmits revelations of the sacred. Oedipa, like her namesake Oedipus, thus becomes a seeker of truth, a pursuer of religious possibility — a homo religiosus, and perhaps even an anima naturaliter christiana, in this respect not unlike Psyche in Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, following her blurry vision from within a kind of cloud of unknowing.

Eliade taught at the University of Chicago for many years but was a native Romanian, and as a young man was an enthusiastic advocate for Romania’s fascist Iron Guard — a fact he later took great pains to obscure. A decade ago Joseph Frank summarized Eliade’s story, along with those of his countrymen Eugene Ionesco and E. M. Cioran, in an essay-review that’s very much worth reading. Here’s a key passage:

Sweeping aside all the ideas of the past that had been destroyed in the carnage of World War I, Eliade wrote: “The myth of indefinite progress, the faith in the aptitude and power of science and technology to establish widespread peace and social justice, the primacy of rationalism and the prestige of agnosticism, all this has been shattered to pieces in every area in which it has been contested.”

Frank goes on to argue that Eliade’s belief that the fascists alone had the power to overcome the secular “myth” and “faith” of modernity led him to endorse anti-Semitism, not just politically but also intellectually:

Nothing blatantly anti-Semitic can be found in Eliade’s postwar writings, but the prejudice is transposed into a much more scholarly key in his theory of religion. One of the cornerstones of his doctrine was that archaic man lived in a world of cyclical time, whose recurrences were marked by festivals of one kind or another in which “sacred time,” the time of religious experience, was re-created. The modern world has largely lost this ability to relive “sacred time” because the Hebrews (as Eliade now calls them) broke with the cyclical time of “the eternal return” by linking God with linear time. “The Hebrews,” he writes, “were the first to discover the significance of history as the epiphany of God,” and this discovery of history ultimately led to all the ills of the modern world.

It’s not clear to me that this is correct: In The Sacred and the Profane Eliade emphasizes the continuity between Judaism and Christianity, especially in contrast to other world religions (p. 71), and says that Christianity “goes even further” than Judaism “in valorizing historical time” (p. 110). But I don’t know that much about Eliade, and we need not settle that matter here; I just felt that I needed to acknowledge the possibility that there is an even darker side to Eliade’s thought than I know. And in any case the tendency of religious people to accept authoritarian political figures as bulwarks against secularism has a certain currency.

But: What matters for my attempt to make sense of Pynchon is that the Christian model of time — “The Christian liturgy unfolds in a historical time sanctified by the incarnation of the Son of God” (Eliade, p. 72) — effectively repudiates “the myth of indefinite progress, the faith in the aptitude and power of science and technology to establish widespread peace and social justice, the primacy of rationalism and the prestige of agnosticism.” To reassert the power and validity of hierophany is at least to begin to emancipate oneself from the claims of technocracy to account for and then govern the whole of behavior. (It is vitally important here that governance and control are the key terms of cybernetics.) It may seem odd that someone as concerned with emancipation from governance as Eliade was would endorse fascism, but presumably he held some analogue of the Kirkpatrick doctrine: a distinction between authoritarian regimes that, as Auden put it, “leave the self alone” and totalitarian ones that leave nothing alone — secularism and technocracy being on Eliade’s account totalitarian.

In any case, hierophany is ungovernable — and in this sense is the counterpart of the anarchic Brownian motion of the Whole Sick Crew in V. We could say that the Whole Sick Crew are living in a kind of permanent carnival — which means, as Bakhtin never tires of explaining, that they are not living a true carnival at all, because the healthy and vigorous carnivalesque never rejects and indeed is wholly dependent on the religious structures that prompt its laughter. And indeed this is why the Crew are “sick” instead of vital. They evade technocracy but (and this is the perennial problem of anarchy) have no alternative structure of meaning and value with which to replace it. They have the community but not the hierophany; Oedipa has the hierophany but not the community. The Crew and Oedipa alike enact signs of contradiction, but what they signify is partial, incomplete. Eliade would suggest that lived Christianity, especially in its liturgy, is the truly effectual sign of contradiction because it unites hierophany and community. Pynchon has not stated his views on this topic.

However, what seems to be held out as possibility in CL49 is something other than either pure anarchy or formal organizational structure. Jesús Arrabal of the C.I.A. — the Conjuración de los Insurgentes Anarquistas — says that a miracle is “another world’s intrusion into this one,” which clearly invokes Eliade’s definition of hierophany, but then he explains what happens when such a miracle occurs: “revolutions break out spontaneous and leaderless, and the soul’s talent for consensus allows the masses to work together without effort, automatic as the body itself.” I spoke in a previous post about the cyberneticists’ interest in the simple rules from which complex behavior emerges without being planned or directed, and Arrabal envisions what we might call spiritual emergence: anarchy is for him not the goal but the precondition for spontaneous and therefore genuine order.

And isn’t this reminiscent of what happens in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit descends to empower “the soul’s talent for consensus” among the variegated disciples of Jesus the Christ? I think of W. H. Auden’s comment on that passage:

The Christian church came into being at Pentecost. The gift of the Holy Spirit on that occasion is generally called the gift of tongues, but it might equally as well be called the gift of ears…. As writers, readers, human beings, we cannot speak to or understand each other unless we are first prepared to listen. Of all the gifts that the Holy Spirit is able to bestow, the one for which we should first and most earnestly pray is humility of ear.

And I think it tells us a lot about Pynchon that the closest approach Oedipa Maas makes to experiencing this emergence of spontaneous order from anarchy does not involve either tongues or ears, but rather when she stumbles into a group of wildly, incomprehensibly dancing deaf-mutes.

Pynchon, entropy, cybernetics

American Society for Cybernetics

A great deal of learning underpins Pynchon’s fiction, and if you’re not careful, reading him can pique your curiosity about some of his references and riffs and send you down endless rabbit trails. (And it’s all on the internet now! And Pynchon wrote almost all these immensely learned books before the internet! Dude must have spent years in libraries, like scholars used to back in the old days.)

When SHROUD tells Benny, “Me and SHOCK are what you and everybody will be someday,” it’s talking about entropy. Pynchon wrote a story called “Entropy” and he seems fascinated with the concept: I suspect that at least half of the undergraduate papers about Pynchon ever written have taken entropy as their theme. In the long introduction to Slow Learner that I’ve already mentioned a time or two he acknowledges this interest and mentions that he learned a lot about entropy by reading Norbert Wiener’s book The Human Use of Human Beings, so I took some time out from reading Pynchon to read Wiener.

It’s an interesting book in some ways, a semi-popular rewriting of his earlier book Cybernetics and a celebration of all the problem-solving the application of cybernetics will achieve. It’s rambling, though, and burdened by a woefully inadequate account of language. For Wiener, language is a matter of communication, communication is a matter of messaging, messaging is a matter of information, and information (as Wiener learned from his collaborations with the great Claude Shannon) is a matter of bits. So for Wiener language is simply the transfer of bits. I think Pynchon, whatever debt he may have owed to Wiener, resists this model of language — but more about that in later posts.

Anyway, it seems clear to me that the primary illumination Wiener offers Pynchon may be found, in condensed form, in this passage:

Messages are themselves a form of pattern and organization. Indeed, it is possible to treat sets of messages as having an entropy like sets of states of the external world. Just as entropy is a measure of disorganization, the information carried by a set of messages is a measure of organization. In fact, it is possible to interpret the information carried by a message as essentially the negative of its entropy, and the negative logarithm of its probability. That is, the more probable the message, the less information it gives. Cliches, for example, are less illuminating than great poems.

(If only Wiener had thought through the implications of that last sentence!) The key point here is that entropy comes in two varieties: thermodynamic and informational. And I think it’s Wiener’s intuition that the world of communication and the “external world” are alike governed by the relationship between organization and disorganization that leads him to conceive of cybernetics as a universal science of control. Thus:

Since the end of World War II, I have been working on the many ramifications of the theory of messages. Besides the electrical engineering theory of the transmission of messages, there is a larger field which includes not only the study of language but the study of messages as a means of controlling machinery and society, the development of computing machines and other such automata, certain reflections upon psychology and the nervous system, and a tentative new theory of scientific method.

I find this ambition very interesting, and couldn’t help trotting down some of those rabbit trails. For instance, Wiener praises very highly a book called Design for a Brain by an English psychiatrist called Ross Ashby, and it turns out you can download that book from the Internet Archive. So I did, and read that too, and it’s fascinating to discover that Ashby is one of the first people to conceive of the brain as a kind of computing machine — and to describe the kind of behavior we call “conscious” as something that emerges from a relatively small set of rules, so that the brain is mechanistic but also adaptable. So Ashby anticipates a good deal of later reflection on emergent behavior as well as the deeply misleading notion that brains are computers. You can even see the New Atheists’ denial of free will embryonically present in Ashby. (Curiously, Ashby says he believes in consciousness and may even believe in free will, but he thinks such hypotheses unnecessary to explain the design and functioning of the human brain, as Laplace in explaining celestial mechanics had no need for the hypothesis of God’s existence.)

It’s very important to note that — and this is a topic I have written about before — the ambitions of cybernetics arise from a series of solutions to problems of warfare during World War II, from the encrypting of secret messages to the aiming of artillery. Those who had acquired the know-how to win the war claimed on that ground the privilege of directing the postwar world. The details of these ambitions, of their successes and failures, are traced in a truly remarkable book by Ronald R. Kline, The Cybernetics Moment. Here’s a passage from the Introduction to that book in which Kline describes a photograph of most of the key figures in cybernetics that features the anthropologist Margaret Mead front and center:

It might seem odd to today’s readers that Margaret Mead sat in a prominent place at the now famous Macy conferences and that she would be remembered a half century later as one of the founders of cybernetics. Why would a world-renowned anthropologist with no expertise or apparent interest in mathematics, engineering, and neuroscience attend all ten meetings, recruit social scientists for the meetings, and undertake the tedious job of editing the proceedings? When the group was first organized, Mead shared the enthusiasm of her husband Gregory Bateson that cybernetics would bring the rigor of the physical sciences to the social sciences. They thought cybernetic models could realistically explain the behavior of humans and society because they contained the information feedback loops that existed in all organisms. This belief was reflected in the original title of the meetings: “Conference on Feedback Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems in Biology and the Social Sciences.” Everything that Bateson wrote after the Macy conferences – on a wide range of subjects from psychiatry to animal learning – testified to his belief in the power of cybernetics to transform human ways of knowing. The conferences convinced Mead that the universal language of cybernetics might be able to bridge disciplinary boundaries in the social sciences. The presence of Mead and Bateson among the mathematicians, natural scientists, and engineers in the group photo symbolizes the interdisciplinary allure of cybernetics and information theory….

In the 1950s, scientists were excited that Wiener and Shannon had defined the amount of information transmitted in communication systems with a formula mathematically equivalent to entropy (a measure of the degradation of energy). Defining information in terms of one of the pillars of physics convinced many researchers that information theory could bridge the physical, biological, and social sciences. The allure of cybernetics rested on its promise to model mathematically the purposeful behavior of all organisms, as well as inanimate systems. Because cybernetics included information theory in its purview, its proponents thought it was more universal then Shannon’s theory, that it applied to all fields of knowledge.

This enthusiasm led scientists, engineers, journalists, and other writers in the United States to adopt these concepts and metaphors to an extent that is still evident today…. The traces of cybernetics and information theory thus permeate the sciences, technology, and culture of our daily lives.

Emphases mine. By the way, some elements of this history have featured in writings here at The New Atlantis: see essays and posts by Adam Keiper, Charles T. Rubin, and David Frantz, among others.

So, after this long detour, back to Pynchon. I think Pynchon’s early fiction demonstrates a complicated and ambivalent response to the claims of cybernetics and information theory. There’s no doubt that he owes a lot to his reading of these thinkers, and indeed I would argue that you could see V. and The Crying of Lot 49 as a kind of cybernetic diptych, with the former focusing on entropy as a concept in thermodynamics and the latter on entropy as a concept in information theory.

And I am also inclined to see Pynchon’s recurrent interest in marginal and chaotic figures, tricksters and buffoons, as an implicit critique of the mechanistic models of thinking and language articulated by Ashby and Wiener. The Whole Sick Crew in V. are indeed kinda sick — as one marginal member of the group rightly says, “there is no one of us you can point to and call well” — but they are also exemplary of what Michael Bakhtin called the human surplus, that which is left over after the scientists and mechanists have made all their calculations, that which the calculations of cybernetics can never quite account for. In this light, Pynchon’s praise of Kerouac’s On the Road as one of the great American novels makes a lot of sense. Pynchon stands at the intersection of Kerouac and Wiener, the Beats and the Cyberneticists.