Competing Paradigms – a Quantum Based Analysis of Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49” Essay
Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 is the first truly quantum novel in American Fiction. Written in 1966, the book is penned by a Cornell educated electrical engineer living in the midst of a scientific revolution. Published before the Standard Model of Elementary Particles, the author’s work is a direct representation of the newly accepted uncertainty in pre-quantum physics that dominated scientific discourse at the time. Before both Pynchon’s book and Quantum Theory becoming established, the consensus of the science community was that the production of meaning could only take place on the basis of models.
That is, normal science operates within the framework of a paradigm – a set of partially grounded assumptions, definitions, conventions, questions, and procedures (Palmeri 979). Yet as Pynchon wrote The Crying of Lot 49, Quantum Theory was beginning to show us that allowing science to operate within the framework of a paradigm also allowed for the production of anomalous data which as it accumulated began to call into question the validity of the present model. Science, like any knowledge based institution, was not one to discredit the dominant model until presented with a new one that accounted for such anomalies.
Science was in a period of crisis, normal science was virtually paralyzed between paradigms, the emergence of the new Quantum model revealed the metaphoric nature of all models. The scientist working within the Quantum framework actually sees a different world, for observed data are shaped by the questions the paradigm formulates and the criteria for acceptable answers (Palmeri 979). It is within this space that existed Pynchon’s mind when creating the world of Oedipa Maas. Much like scientific theory, literature too exists within paradigms. Since the beginning of the Historic Era, the written word has existed as a model of explanation.
And much like science, where periods of history and discovery have changed our approach to the model, literary history is defined by works that observe generic conventions and works that combine or invert them. British literary critic Frank Kermode likens the mediations between fictional narratives to the complementarities of scientific theory: by [embracing the Quantum and] proposing that light is sometimes particle, sometimes wave, [Niels] Bohr is really doing what the stoic allegorists did to close the gap between their world and Homer’s, or what St.
Augustine did when he explained, against the evidence, the concord of the canonical scriptures…. Stoic physics, biblical typology, Copenhagen quantum theory, are all different, but all assert complementarities. (62) The development of a new genre or mode of interpretation testifies to the need for cultural accommodation. In works that reshape genres, structural irony masks the reversal of generic conventions. The reader of such texts may at first perceive this irony as bewildering, offensive or meaningless; upon recognition of the reversal he sees another world (Palmeri 980).
Pynchon operates in the same mindset as Kermode. Rather than letting literary paradigms determine what we as the reader perceives he uses his power as the writer to juxtapose competing paradigms in order to challenge the reader’s preconceptions and force them to seek alternatives. To do so, Pynchon writes not from the literary perspective, but from the quantum perspective which allows him to use language more freely than he would otherwise. The primary example of such behavior by the author is The Courier’s Tragedy: Heretofore the naming of names has gone on either literally or as metaphor.
But now, as the Duke gives his fatal command, a new mode of expression takes over. It can only be called a kind of ritual reluctance. Certain things, it is made clear, will not be spoken aloud; certain events will not be shown onstage; though it is difficult to imagine, given the excess of the preceding acts, what these things could possibly be. (50) In this passage which may as well be a thespian recapitulation of Shrodinger’s Cat, we are most clearly witness to the concept of entropy which permeates throughout the entire book.
However, what is so unique about the concept of entropy in The Crying of Lot 49 is that Pynchon choses to think about the concept of entropy rather than with it (Palmeri 981). To do so Pynchon employs minor minor events and characters throughout the text such as The Courier’s Tragedy or the character John Nefastis as a means to approach the concept of entropy from different angles. Nefastis has a black box in which he claims to have discovered and contained the refutation of entropy and a way to perpetual motion in the form of a demon named for the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell.
Maxwell had only hypothetically proven the existence of a small intelligence in order to express a paradox in the thermodynamic paradigm of the mid-nineteenth century. As Pynchon recapitulates, Maxwell supposed that a small creature might sit in a box among air molecule that were moving at all different random speeds, and sort out the fast molecule from the slow ones. Fast molecules have more energy than slow ones. Concentrate enough of them in one place and you have a region of high temperature.
You can then use the difference in temperature between this hot region of the box and any cooler region to drive a heat engine. Since the demon only sat and sorted, you wouldn’t have put any real work into the system. So you would be violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics, getting something from nothing, causing perpetual motion. (Palmeri 981, Pynchon 62) As an engineering student at Cornell in the late 1950’s, Pynchon would have understood that Maxwell’s theory on entropy had been refuted by numerous physicists.
However in examining the character of John Nefastis we see how Pynchon deliberately employs him as an outdated ideologist as yet another means to create the various models of entropy encountered by Oedipa Maas throughout the text. In the case of Nefastis, he is illustrated as a relic from a past period of scientific enlightenment. Nefastis, “had a crewcut and the same underage looks as Koteks, but wore a shirt on various Polynesian themes and dating from the Truman administration” (Pynchon 76).
By projecting Nefastis back into the fifties, his understanding of entropy takes advantage of the conceptual murkiness that marked the introduction of mathematical information theory, a condition that would be predictable in a time of paradigmatic crisis (Palmeri 982). By cognizantly injecting Nefastis as a foil to the popular model of what defines entropy, Pynchon succeeds in his goal of making the reader think about entropy rather than with it via the creation of his own literary entropy in regards to how the model is presented in the book.
To provide a proper analysis of The Crying of Lot 49 one must turn outward to the author Thomas Pynchon in order to provide a justifiable analysis. While we will never fully comprehend the mindset of Pynchon when he created the world of Oedipa Maas, The Trystero or even The Courier’s Tragedy, we can take inference from the world which in which he inhabited. By recognizing Pynchon’s background as a man of science before literature we can begin to unravel the complex story that is The Crying of Lot 49.
It is through the quantum lense that this book is best read and also the lense that must be used to glean any substantive deeper meaning. By recognizing Pynchon’s effort to transcend the constricts of language and the paradoxes of the literary paradigm we begin to uncover the mastery of his work. Upon accepting his deliberate use of paradigmatic fictions – the replacement of metaphors with puns, character’s enigmatic nomenclature, the entropy of the entropic model – we begin to recognize that there is a method to Pynchon’s madness and are left with a novel that is truly.. Quantum.
Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966) 62. Palmeri, Frank. 1987. “Neither Literally nor as Metaphor: Pynchon’s the Crying of Lot 49 and the Structure of Scientific Revolutions. ” ELH , Vol. 54, No. 4 (Winter, 1987), pp. 979-999 Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. 1966. Reprint. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006. Print.