On paranoia, virology, conspiracy theories, & lemmings: my experience reading ‘Gravity’s Rainbow.’

On paranoia, virology, conspiracy theories, & lemmings: my experience reading ‘Gravity’s Rainbow.’

gravitys rainbow at whitney

Shortly before I turned sixteen, I read an article in the Indianapolis Star describing a piece of artwork temporarily showing downtown. Fred Tomaselli’s Gravity’s Rainbow, as inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s book. The description in the paper was rapturous. Beautiful, deep, dark, mysterious. A giant canvas with covered in fluorescent parabolas of … pills?

Street drugs, pharmaceuticals, and fakes, all strung vibrantly together.

I was enthralled. After a week of pleading, my parents took me to see it. And… well, sure, I was disappointed. I was just a kid. I hadn’t read the book. Just like Marcel when he finally saw La Berma, I felt let down because I didn’t have the background needed to see as much in the artwork as the article implied.

But I did resolve to read the book.

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I’m not sure what image best illustrates the opera performance of a fictional character, so here’s Alexandre Cabanel’s Phedre. This is the role Marcel first saw La Berma perform, at which point he felt disappointed by her apparent lack of artifice. Good acting means acting naturally??

At the time, my hometown library didn’t have a copy. The only bookstore I frequented was Half-priced Books, which has very haphazard inventory. Later, when I didn’t have an influx of babysitting money supporting my habit, I became even stingier and only shopped at library booksales. Paperbacks for a quarter! Hardbacks for fifty cents! The only problem being total inability to predict what you’ll find.

5628951142_cc4759b4dc_oLet me tell you: if you’re hunting for a mammoth, oft-discussed-but-rarely-read cult novel, you’ll have to visit a whole lotta library booksales before you’re likely to find a copy. Over the years I’ve found V and The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice and even a guide purporting to demystify Gravity’s Rainbow, but never the book itself.

Of course, now I live in a town with much better libraries than where I grew up. The library here has a copy. We even have an audio version in case you’d rather spend thirty-eight hours listening to it in your car than sit down and read the thing.

The book follows, among numerous others, the travails of ex-military man Slothrop, a paranoid drug-gobbling sex criminal (I could’ve used fewer gleeful paeans to pedophilia, but I can’t expect every author to cater to my reading whims) who feels himself to be — and perhaps is — enmeshed in a dark conspiracy that spans decades, transcends nationality, and takes precedence over even the war.

The evocation of paranoia is charming. Indeed, within novels, it’s often the case that everything really is connected, that even the most outlandish coincidences were inevitable. Excepting works like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s serially-published & sketchily-planned The Idiot, novels are sculpted by an all-powerful author dictating the course of action. Slothrop is right to be afraid… of Pychon, if no one else.

The novel reels through numerous “Proverbs for Paranoids,” but to my mind the most chilling passage is the following:

The basic idea is that They will come and shut off the water first. … Shutting the water off interdicts the toilet: with only one tankful left, you can’t get rid of much of anything any more, dope, shit, documents. They’ve stopped the inflow / outflow and here you are trapped inside.

. . .

So it’s good policy always to have the toilet valve cracked a bit, to maintain some flow through the toilet so when it stops you’ll have that extra minute or two. Which is not the usual paranoia of waiting for a knock, or a phone to ring: no, it takes a particular kind of mental illness to sit and listen for a cessation of noise.

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Paranoiac by adricarra on deviantart.

This passage is frightening because it sounds so reasonable — maybe secret agents would take precautions to keep you from destroying evidence — yet only someone with a totally hyperactive connection-seeking mind would actually thinking to monitor the trickle of a leaking toilet, fully expecting the noise to someday stop.

The human mind evolved to find meaning in the surrounding world, but to my mind the root of schizophrenia, more dire than sounds perceivable to no one else, is the tendency to find meaning too often. So much is happening every second that connections and coincidences will always be there, if you demand them to be.

In the paranoid world of Gravity’s Rainbow, even World War 2 bombings were planned for, and were necessary to enable devious machinations. This sounds deranged, and yet it’s actually very similar to something that happens in nature.

Take influenza. The influenza virus can’t reproduce until it enters a host’s cells. But the viral protein that latches onto cells, in its standard form, doesn’t work. The virus is produced with a “fusion-incompetent precursor.” Only after the viral protein is attacked by its host — chewed on by a protease that’s attempting to destroy the virus — does it become functional.

3-dimensional-model-of-influenza-virus
Hemagglutinin molecules — blue pegs on the outside of this model — need to be severed by a host endoprotease before the flu virus can dock & conquer.

Influenza is harmless … until the host fights back. If you’ll excuse me a touch of anthropomorphism here, influenza is so devious because it knows the host will fight back, and plans for that, and uses the host defense as part of its own strategy.

The paranoiacs in Gravity’s Rainbow fear that weapons facilities were constructed the same way. That bombings were anticipated, and planned for, and the structures assembled precisely so that the bombings would activate the facility:

Zoom uphill slantwise toward a rampart of wasted, knotted, fused, and scorched girderwork, stacks, pipes, ducting, windings, fairings, insulators reconfigured by all the bombing, grease-stained pebblery on the ground, rushing by a mile a minute and wait, wait, say what, say “reconfigured,” now?

There doesn’t exactly dawn, no but there breaks, as that light you’re afraid will break some night at too deep an hour to explain away — there floods on Enzian what seems to him an extraordinary understanding. This serpentine slag-heap he is just about to ride into now, this ex-refinery, Jamf Olfabriken Werke AG, is not a ruin at all. It is in perfect working order. Only waiting for the right connections to be set up, to be switched on … modified, precisely, deliberately by bombing that was never hostile, but part of a plan both sides — “sides?” — had always agreed on …

These musings must strike most people as deranged. The likelihood of a single organization willfully orchestrating World War 2 is pretty low. But this idea isn’t dramatically more bizarre than other common conspiracy theories.  Large numbers of people believe that the moon landing was faked, that the CIA killed JFK, that the mass shooting at the Batman film in Colorado was planned by the U.S. government …

The United States is rife with conspiracy theorists. With X-Files back on air, perhaps there’ll be a resurgence in the number of conspiracy theories involving extraterrestrial life — those seem to have faded in popularity since the late nineties.

suspicious mindsA few books have been published recently examining why so many Americans believe in conspiracy theories. The latest (that I’ve noticed) is Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds, which examines the way quirks in our brains promote belief in conspiracy theories.

For instance, pattern-seeking: it makes sense to assume that individuals best able to look at their surroundings and see patterns — This berry patch has a lot to eat every spring! Everybody who’s gone to that water hole at twilight has been eaten by a tiger! — would’ve been most successful through evolutionary time. The only drawback is that our brains are so good at finding patterns that we often see them when they aren’t there — In our last three games, my team won both times I was wearing these socks, and lost when I wore different ones… I’ll never take these socks off again! — letting us ascribe deep meaning to random happenstance.

Honestly, believing in happenstance can be terrifying. If you believe that bad things happen to good people because a watchful god is angry, you can make overtures to appease that god. Maybe the suffering will stop. But if the universe is a chaotic, value-less place, then there’s nothing you can do to stave off random disaster.

When I read Suspicious Minds, I felt like Brotherton left out a potent explanation for our abundance of conspiracy theories. Yes, evolution seems to have molded our minds to readily believe in nefarious conspiracies. Brotherton cites psychology research into the nature of these beliefs, suggesting the propensity is innate. In addition to all the usual caveats you should keep in mind when reading pop psychology, it’s especially important to recall that most study subjects for this research come from the same culture … and this culture actually trains young people to believe in conspiracies.

The basic structure of most conspiracy theories is that the standard explanation for something — Barack Obama was born in the United States, vaccines don’t cause autism — is a lie, and a cabal of authority figures is working hard to prevent people from uncovering the truth.

santa and his cauldronIn the United States, many people go through this same experience as children. We’re taught to believe in Santa Claus, for instance, and over time might notice adults winking at each other as they discuss the flying reindeer, or the cookies he’ll eat, or presents he might leave… until one day it becomes clear that the authority figures were making the whole thing up. It was Dad eating all those cookies!

It becomes a rite of passage. At six, you learn that your house wasn’t actually visited by Santa Claus. At eight, maybe you learn that there is no Easter Bunny. Seems like every kid’s favorite pizza topping is pepperoni until one day a slightly-older kid on the bus leans over to whisper, “Do you know how they make pepperoni?” So why would it be strange for people to grow up and think, at twenty you learn that there was no moon landing? At twenty-five you learn that the feds have been putting mind control reagents into childhood vaccines?

Moreover, sometimes there really is an attempt to hide the truth. Researchers employed by cigarette companies tried their darnedest to distract from the various ailments caused by smoking. Researchers employed by oil barons are still trying their darnedest to distract from the planetary ailments caused by combustion.

Or, in matters slightly less dire, there’s lemmings.

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Lemming imagery shows up repeatedly in Gravity’s Rainbow, like the farmer depressed by all his pigs “who’d rushed into extinction like lemmings, possessed not by demons but by trust for men, which the men kept betraying”, or the Europeans befuddled by an African tribe’s apparent desire to fade away together rather than die off one by one, “a mystery potent as that of the elephant graveyard, or the lemmings rushing into the sea.

Given that so much of the book is about paranoia and blind trust and suicide, it makes sense for lemmings to have a star appearance. The main character, Slothrop, the Harvard-educated pedophile, even takes a moment to explain why lemmings kill themselves the way they do:

Well, Ludwig. Slothrop finds him one morning by the shore of some blue anonymous lake, a surprisingly fat kid of eight or nine, gazing into the water, crying, shuddering all over in rippling fat-waves. His lemming’s name is Ursula, and she has run away from home. Ludwig’s been chasing her all the way north from Pritzwalk. He’s pretty sure she’s heading for the Baltic, but he’s afraid she’ll mistake one of these inland lakes for the sea, and jump into that instead —

“One lemming, kid?”

“I’ve had her for two years,” he sobs, “she’s been fine, she’s never tried to — I don’t know. Something just came over her.”

“Quit fooling. Lemmings never do anything alone. They need a crowd. It gets contagious. You see, Ludwig, they overbreed, it goes in cycles, when there are too many of them they panic and run off looking for food. I learned that in college, so I know what I’m talking about. Harvard. Maybe that Ursula’s just out after a boy friend or something.”

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Lemmings by Tao Lin on Flickr.

And the reason I bring this up in conjunction with conspiracy theories? It isn’t true. Lemmings aren’t the suicidal little furballs that I, for one, always believed them to be.

In 1958 Disney released a documentary film, White Wilderness, that showed lemmings committing suicide. The voice-over explained weren’t actually suicidal, but that they single-mindedly launch themselves into the water to drown because they assume they’ll be able to swim across:

It is said of this tiny animal that it commits mass suicide by rushing into the sea in droves. The story is one of the persistent tales of the Arctic, and as often happens in Man’s nature lore, it is a story both true and false, as we shall see in a moment.

What the audience then sees are close-ups of lemmings jumping off a cliff into the sea. Except… well, because this doesn’t really happen, the filmmakers instead trapped a few lemmings on a big slippery snow-covered turntable and spun it in order to fling the poor critters over the edge.

Lemmings do migrate, and like most migratory species, when venturing into unfamiliar territory they sometimes die. Their occasional deaths are more reminiscent of the unlucky members of the Donner Party than the folly I was trained by Lemmings (the computer game) to believe in.

The original lemming myths seem to have been caused by humans seeing huge numbers of lemmings, noticing that some were migrating to less-populous areas, and then finding that the population had plummeted to almost nothing. Where did the others go? Maybe they committed suicide!

Well, no. Their population booms and busts, like those of most prey species, seem to be caused by the population density of their predators. It’s the predators who mindlessly exploite abundant resources.  When lemmings are plentiful the well-fed predators breed profligately, certain they’ll be able to support their brood, and then the overpopulous predators eat the lemmings nearly to extinction, at which point the unlucky predators will starve, their population plummets, and the lemming population can rebound.

Book_of_Genesis_Chapter_41-6_(Bible_Illustrations_by_Sweet_Media)Humans are very similar to most other predators this way.  A bit foolish, we are.  We live large in the good times. Genesis 41, in which Joseph interprets the Pharaoh’s dreams, is so striking precisely because few humans would have the foresight to plan for seven years of drought and famine. Indeed, in the contemporary western United States, we divvied up water usage rights during particularly lush years and are now squabbling over who should actually get water when there isn’t enough to satisfy everybody’s usage permits. The human population is still rising — indeed, many religious leaders still purport that their followers have an explicit directive to “go forth and multiply” — despite the fact that we’re already taxing the planet near its limits.

So it goes.

The point being, at the moment, not that we’re all doomed… who knows, maybe we’ll come together and shape up our act? But that the abundance of actual lies — why would anyone even feel the need to lie about lemmings? — makes it that much easier for people to believe in nefarious conspiracies. We’re trained from youth to believe that the authorities and experts — our parents — are hiding the real truth. Why would we expect politicians or scientists to act any differently?

In related news, I’m trying my best not to lie to my kid. The world is already plenty strange — I think she’ll still have fun despite a healthy dollop of truth.

On witchcraft and mass psychogenic illness.

On witchcraft and mass psychogenic illness.

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Because she is N’s best friend’s grandmother, I recently had the pleasure of meeting the researcher who first proposed that the Salem witchcraft trials were inspired by ergot poisoning of rye crops.  And that, of course, is one of the papers I read while researching mass psychogenic illness / conversion disorders / violence against women.

Does it seem controversial to throw that last categorization in there?

Here’s a quick summary: mass psychogenic illness is typically diagnosed when people exhibit strange behavior and those who are making the diagnosis do not know why.  If an episode involves more women than men, that’s considered an indication of mass psychogenic illness — even for contemporary diagnoses, actually, although we now know that women & men metabolize many small molecules differently, which means that equal ingested dosage will often result in higher blood levels for women.

Maybe you read about the recent episode in New York (if not, I’d recommend another lovely article by Susan Dominus, “What Happened to the Girls in Le Roy”).  Teenagers started twitching.  Mostly young women were affected, environmental analysis identified no known toxins, doctors decided it was mass psychogenic illness.

There are non-psychological reasons to believe that certain episodes of strange behavior, tics, convulsions, etc., would affect primarily women, but ever since the diagnosis of “hysteria” was first proposed (in which the womb forgets that it’s supposed to reside near a woman’s belly and begins to wander her body, eventually latching onto the brain and causing her to act strange) the medical community has assumed that most women’s problems are in their heads.

Which isn’t to say that strange behavior like tics, convulsions, etc., cannot have an exclusively neurological cause.  It can.  There are physiological problems that can be caused solely by the brain — usually the initial onset is accompanied by high stress — and, unfortunately, the symptoms also recursively change the brain.  It’s a little bit silly to try to distinguish between psychological and physiological problems, what with the brain also being part of the body, but with conversion disorders an ailment that began as thought will eventually become detectably imprinted in matter.

In case you’re interested, here’s a nice open-source reference by Ali et al. discussing this loop.

Despite my reflexive distaste for most of Malcolm Gladwell’s pithy summaries about how the world works — I’ve read enough social psychology papers to know that the findings are often much weaker than they seem when filtered through popular writing — that lovely phrase “the tipping point” seems very appropriate when thinking about mass psychogenic illness.  There are two stable equilibria that you could roughly designate “acting strange” and “acting normal,” and at some intermediate point they transition sharply from one to the other.

Here, I can draw a graph for you, using tarantism as a model case.  Tarantism, you ask?  People thought that spider bites would be fatal unless those bitten began to dance… so circa the 1380s, every summer there was wild, obscene dancing from Italians trying mightily to stave off death.

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It’s the fact that the amount of dancing in turn contributes to the likelihood of more dancing, that lends the situation a tipping point.  All else being equal, a world in which not many people are dancing will result in little dancing in the future, a world full of revelry will produce more rambunctious behavior.

And there’s a point in the middle, when a small number of people have been affected, that could just as easily swing one way or the other… by next week the “danger” may have passed, or there might be a tremendous outbreak of tarantism.

(Also, my apologies to any math people out there … I realize that this is a nonstandard way to represent an ODE.  I’ve been working on a post about the uncertainty principle and trying to think of ways to use basic math to convey a decent “feel” for complicated equations.  Which is difficult, and is made even more so by the fact that I am so out of practice; since beginning my thesis research project, I’ve never had professional reasons to use anything more complicated than statistics.)

To reach a tipping point, though, there have to be many people experiencing similar levels of stress, along with whatever else might be needed to initiate a conversion disorder.  Which is why I think it’s reasonable to think that outbreaks of mass psychogenic illness are a symptom of pervasive violence against women.  They tend to occur primarily amongst people who have limited opportunities for self-expression: overworked schoolchildren, prisoners, convent residents, and women living in restrictive societies.

Salem_Witch_trial_engravingAnd it is of course possible for other factors to contribute.  That’s the main message I took away from Caporael’s ergotism study — for young women living in puritanical New England, who believed that witchcraft was a very real threat, it wouldn’t take much to push them over the edge.  Exposure to a psychedelic drug could potentially do it.

Which isn’t to say that lysergic acid makes people condemn their compatriots as witches.  Like most drugs, its effects are dictated largely by the mindset of whomever ingests it.  I think this passage from Ronald Siegel’s Intoxication (a somewhat strange book discussing drug use by a variety of animal species) phrases this well:

“Violent people are often intoxicated but the violence is usually rooted in the personality, not the drug.  People may panic under the influence of LSD or any other drug that makes them feel different. . .”

Caporael addressed this in her paper — the idea that neither ergot alone, nor a belief in witchcraft alone, would have resulted in the trials — and suggested that the paucity of similar accusations during that time period lends further credence to the ergotism hypothesis.

“The Puritans’ belief in witchcraft was a totally accepted part of their religious tenets.  The malicious workings of Satan and his cohorts was just as real to the early colonists as their belief in God.  Yet, the low incidence of witchcraft trials in New England prior to 1692 suggests that the Puritans did not always resort to accusations of black magic to deal with irreconcilable differences or inexplicable events.”

Altogether, it’s a nice little paper.  Plus — and this is something I didn’t realize when I first read it — it’s a single-author Science paper written by a twenty-something year-old graduate student based on research she’d done as an undergrad.  The only publication I have from my undergraduate research is an author contribution buried somewhere in the middle of a long list of researchers… for an article that landed in Blood.  Somewhat lower tier than Science.

Ergot growing on rye.

In fact, my only real objection to Caporael’s paper doesn’t address the underlying research.  It’s that I believe the ergotism hypothesis lets the perpetrators of the Salem witchcraft trials off too easily.  Hearing that the accusers might have inadvertently ingested psychedelic drugs (for months!) might make their actions sound less heinous.

And, look, we’ll never know for sure.  Salem’s inhabitants might’ve been under the influence of lysergic acid for that whole time period.

But I think it’s worth pointing out that similar abuses have occurred in the absence of any confounding psychedelics.  Outbreaks of a wide variety of diseases in Europe caused people to blame and murder their jewish neighbors.  Outbreaks of a wide variety of social strife in the United States caused people to blame and murder their black neighbors.  Even the Stanford Prison Experiment documents how easily an imposed worldview can bring forth evil.

If those Stanford students had been indoctrinated from birth to believe in witchcraft and an omnipresent Satan striving to destroy their society, they probably could’ve been convinced to start dunking their classmates in order to identify the witch.

My brother & me. Luckily no one accused us of witchcraft; given our garb, I doubt we coulda beat the rap.
My brother & me. Luckily no one accused us of witchcraft; given our garb, I doubt we coulda beat the rap.