According to the 1890 census, the U.S.
American land mass was officially filled from coast to coast, the frontier no longer open.
The American Century began with a closure. It is therefore reasonable to speak of
boundaries rather than frontiers. And this is exactly what this essay is about: a
discussion of inner boundaries, or bindings, of double binds - and of
individuals locked up inside their own psychic landscapes as presented in literary
testimonies before and after the geographical closure. Double bind situations are
responsible for mental diseases as schizophrenia, says English anthropologist Gregory
Bateson, who subsequently subdivides schizophrenia into three different types: the
catatonic, the hebephrenic, and the paranoid (cf. Bateson 1972, 211). I will limit to the
depictions of paranoia in Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland of 1798, Joseph Heller's
1955 novel Catch 22, and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow of 1973, and
will outline the development the concept has taken from one that can successfully be
overcome in the pre-1890s era to one which unfolds its irrefutable and irresistible
mechanisms on the figures' minds in the postmodernist works mentioned.
Admittedly, the paranoia concept
[...] has been at the center of
considerable classificatory turbulence. [...] More than any other psychoanalytic term, paranoia
has been the focus of a nosological disarray not unlike the symptomatic panic of paranoia
itself [...] (Bersani 1989, 99).
One can, however, point out at least two
significant characteristics: for one, it depends on the paradoxical arrangement of two
contradictory aspects (as Bateson's double bind theory stresses, according to which
the paranoiac regards himself as torn between two opposing, yet each by itself reasonable
alternatives); moreover, it lacks contures and a "form", thus appears an
abstract and delusionary structure of thought rather than an evident, or concrete,
system. As a consequence, it is usually impossible for the paranoid individual to decide
whether the symptoms he or she develops are the result of a self-delusion, or were imposed
on her or him from outside - all the individual knows is that these symptoms are real
and own a self-eternalizing dynamism, and as a consequence appear an endless mechanism
overtaxing the individual's mental capacities.
In her recurrent reflections on the uncanny
events going on in her family, Clara, the first person singular narrator in Wieland,
outlines both the double binding forces, one exerted on, the other executed by
her, and the allegedly superior quality of that structure of thought: "had I not
rashly set in motion a machine, over whose progress I had no control, and which experience
had shown me was infinite in power?" (Brockden Brown 1994, 197, hereafter quoted as W).
Clara soon recognizes the underlying mechanism of her delusions: "Thus was I
distressed by opposite conjectures: thus was I tormented by phantoms of my own
creation" (W 76). The emergence of paranoia is the result of unfavourable
external circumstances combined with specific internal, psychic predispositions. Says
Emory Elliot: "people readily accept evidence which seems in accord with their
pre-established intellectual assumptions" (Brockden Brown 1994, xxi). Step by step,
however, Clara realizes the very nature of the threatening thought structure. She
understands its disturbing and seemingly overtaxing quality ("My mind seemed to be
split into separate parts, and these parts to have entered into furious and implacable
contention", W 129, or: "My mind was full of rapid and incongruous
ideas", W 191), and she discloses its source ("I believe the agency to be
external and real, but not supernatural", W 163). Also her intuitive suspicion
that paranoia might grow epidemic proves right, as shows the passionate appeal to her
brother, the tragic title figure of Theodore Wieland:
Man of errors! cease to cherish thy
delusion: not heaven or hell, but thy senses have misled thee to commit these acts [of
slaughtering his wife and children]. Shake off thy frenzy, and ascend into rational and
human. Be lunatic no longer (W 210).
The appeal proves fruitful - if not for
Theodore, who commits suicide only a few moments afterwards, then for Clara herself. She
ascends into the rational again, she recovers from her mental disorder, she sheds the dire
strainings exerted on her mind, and defeats the maddening implications of the paranoia
thought structure. In other words, Clara manages to wedge open the boundary drawn around
her by "disentangl[ing] the maze" (W 103), and correctly ratiocinating
upon who might have been the agent employing the structure of thought as a weapon against
her mental sanity. She ultimately recuperates by demasking sinister Carwin as the root,
and his ability to apply "biloquism" as the tool, of all paranoia-inducing evil
("biloquism" being the art of ventrilocution which Brockden Brown himself
characteristically describes with words that echo the elusive nature of paranoia:
"The power is difficult to explain, but the fact is undeniable", W 182).
From hindsight, Clara finally resumes
[...] that the evils from which Carwin
[...] w[as] the author[-], owed their existence to the errors of the sufferer (W
There is an obvious connection between
Clara's escape from paranoia and the final discovery of its "author", the
biloquist Carwin. The thought structure loses its binding grip immediately once the double
bound victim identifies the executive force behind it, and this type of dis-closure equals
in a very literal sense opening.
Brockden Brown gives a name and a face to
the sinister agent who is ultimately responsible for his heroine's temporary lapse into
mental disarray - Joseph Heller, in turn, leaves the source of this evil in the dark; all
he does is give a nickname to the malicious structure of thought itself. He calls it Catch
22. Despite the higher skepticism of Heller's central figure, combat pilot Yossarian, the
working principle of the untraceable, but apparently existent mental structure bears
striking resemblance to that in Wieland:
Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of
that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and
that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse,
criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up
(Heller 1990, 410, hereafter quoted as C).
Yet, however, there are significant
differences between the two novels. The paranoiacs in Heller's novel seek their own
interests in a considerably higher measure, and enact no longer as mere passive sufferers.
Rather, they actively and deliberately follow their own selfish motivations, however
understandable, reasonable, and justifiable these may be. If in Wieland, the
thought structure itself triggered off, or imposed, paranoia in and on Clara, in Catch
22 the roles are reversed: here the victims-to-be themselves take the first step, and
unbind the vicious mechanism which ultimately double binds and encloses them. Here,
it is Yossarian himself who, keen on being "grounded", i.e. getting his
discharge papers, initiates a cunning roleplay in front of his superiors by pretending to
be mentally insane. Yet, the attempt proves fruitless and vain; the colonels and military
doctors in their reaction artfully employ Catch-22 on (and ultimately turn the
table against) the combat pilot, as in the scene where Yossarian asks army doctor
'Can't you ground someone who's crazy?'
'Oh, sure. I have to. There's a rule saying I have to ground anyone who's crazy.'
'Then why don't you ground me? I'm crazy. Ask Clevinger.'
'Clevinger? Where is Clevinger? You find Clevinger and I'll ask him.'
'Then ask any of the others. They'll tell you how crazy I am.'
'Then why don't you ground them?'
'Why don't they ask me to ground them?'
'Because they're crazy, that's why.'
'Of course they're crazy,' Doc Daneeka replied. 'I just told you they're crazy,
didn't I? And you can't let crazy people decide whether you're crazy or not, can you?' (C
Thus, the discursive entanglement of the
individual-victim Yossarian works along an intricate mixture of reliance on
"rules" and "common sense", combined with the inflationary use of, and
reference to, the principle of rationality as standing against irrationality (which marks
another difference to Brown's typical Age of Reason novel, where "ratio"
maintains its binding character and universal validity). Applied like this, the thought
structure grows into an infinite rhetorical regress, and becomes utterly inviolable - a
hermetically closed pseudo-system, a catch inside which the chances are immeasurably
higher to lose one's orientation and brains than to disentangle from. The structure
appears so watertight and irrefutable that those applying and executing it on their
victims candidly admit its existence, and allow themselves an "illustration" of
its coercive momentum, as Doc Daneeka does when he refers to yet another victim,
Yossarian's colleague Orr. Just like Yossarian, Orr, who even in Daneeka's own opinion
"has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he's
had" (C 40), enjoys the same right, namely that of being grounded if the
circumstances should speak in favour of such a step:
'But first he has to ask me to.'
'And then you can ground him?' Yossarian asked.
'No. Then I can't ground him.'
'You mean there is a catch?'
'Sure there's a catch,' Doc Daneeka replied. 'Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out
of combat duty isn't really crazy.' (C 40).
Eventually Yossarian begins to assimilate
the thought structure's working principle himself - a remarkable exercise of ratio tipping
over into irrational, and of self-imposing the delusionary and ultimately
There was only one catch and that was
Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that
were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be
grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and
would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he
didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't
have to, but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to (C 40).
As a result, Yossarian's mind runs on the
blade's edge between temporary admiration for the thought structure and its fascinating
working principle, and intermittent collapses and breakdowns - this tight wire act being
just another indicator of his double bind situation, his being torn between the external
force and his own self-involvement in its arrangement:
Yossarian saw it clearly in all its
spinning reasonableness. There was an elliptical precision about its perfect pairs of
parts that was graceful and shocking, like good modern art, and at times Yossarian wasn't
quite sure that he saw it all, just the way he was never quite sure about good modern art
The major difference between the paranoia
depicted in Wieland and the illustration of its underlying mechanisms in Catch
22 is that in Brown's book, the inaugurating force, the source of all paranoid evil
finally finds debunking. Despite the superiors that execute the mind-catching
Catch-22 onto its victims, there is no revelation of the primal root, be it an institution
or a person, for the initiation of the thought structure in Heller's novel. Catch 22
lacks "its" biloquist Carwin, no opening disclosure takes place for those
suffering the catch condition, the vicious circle remains unbroken even beyond the
narrative's boundaries. Here, the structure of thought has grown gigantic and ubiquitous
for good, it appears a self-engendering mechanism, a forceful, pseudo-cybernetic, strictly
rational shadow system that artfully explores the limited range of the individuals'
understanding capacity and the discursive interaction with its own negative,
irrationality. The individuals' psychic boundary stays tightly closed; Heller refuses
Yossarian the redeeming, recuperative opening again of his inner frontier. This, in turn,
effects the establishing of a new condition: incertainty about the "real"
existence of an initiating force, or act, and subsequently the questionability of the
prevailing logico-rational parameters. New circumstances, then, demand new modes of
handling these, as shows the Catch 22 experience, which consisted of the perpetual
binding, and not the ultimate opening, of the paranoia knot.
In the fourth and last part of his novel Gravity's
Rainbow, significantly titled "The Counterforce", Thomas Pynchon picks up
this ball and drives it further towards an efficient, if unconventional, outcome.
Similar to Heller's novel, there are
oppressors and oppressed, a superior grouping and its opposite number, a cluster of
characters inferior to these, in Pynchon's book too. An anonymous group of oppressors, the
elect whose ontological status notably remains questionable and flickering, are set
against the preterites around secret agent Pirate Prentice, statistician Roger
Mexico and adroit handyman Osbie Feels. The two opposing forces are denoted as
"They" and "We system", as Prentice explains to "novice
paranoid" Roger Mexico: "Of course a well-developed They-system is necessary -
but it's only half the story. For every They there ought to be a We. In our case there
is" (Pynchon 1975, 638 hereafter quoted as GR). The awareness, or
self-understanding, of the individuals as a system, i.e. the foundation of a
"We" consciousness soon becomes indispensable: only a system, however vaguely
defined and "poorly" organized, can oppose the oppressive "They".
These latter, in turn, apparently operate
by employing the same means as the superiors in Catch 22. There are
"rules" based on common sense standards, e.g. crazy/sane, that are universally
acknowledged ("Needless to say, 'delusions' are always officially defined", GR
638). Then there is at the centre of "Their" power the gigantic, system-like
structure of thought itself, kind of a software, not a hardware, on whose status, fact or
fiction, it is vain to speculate - a mental structure equalling the one-and-only catch,
"Catch-22". Prentice's remark shows that he has analyzed and with that debunked
the structure's immanent programme:
We don't have to worry about questions of
real or unreal. They only talk out of expediency. It's the system that matters. How
the data arrange themselves in it. Some are consistent, others fall apart. (GR 638)
Just like in Catch 22,
"Their" system as well as "Their" major weapon, the quasi-systemic
structure of thought mentioned, work along strictly logical, reasonable lines. Roger, the
novice paranoid, stands up for copying the logic of "Their" system for the
purposes of his own, of the "We" system ("if this is a 'We-system,' why
isn't it at least thoughtful enough to interlock in a reasonable way, like They-systems
do?", GR 638). But this is apparently not what old hand paranoiacs seek.
Rather, the Prentices and Osbie Feels want to usurp Their structure of thought without
adapting its underlying principle of "reasonableness", ratio, or logic. They
don't intend to assimilate or incorporate this structure of thought, they just want to move
inside it, move inside it against its rational grain. They want to remain
undercover visitors, not owners of the structure:
'That's exactly it,' Osbie screams [...], 'They're
the rational ones. We piss on Their rational arrangements.' (GR 639)
Prentice names this strategy, which is one
of subtly turning the tables once again, "creative" paranoia:
"Creative paranoia means developing at least as thorough a We-system as a
They-system" (GR 638). After realizing the inherent menace evolving from the
structure of thought, Prentice's concept of creative paranoia stands thus for a
step beyond the mere analysis of the disturbing, paranoia-inflicting structure. It
symbolizes a reaction that is action again, and thus breaks with the
subjects' passivity in the face of intricate, yet palpably hostile, thought terror. For
them, creative paranoia owns the potential to break a spell - the spell of being subjected
to a seemingly invincible, superior force for good.
The comparison of the analyses of the three
novels undertaken here will bring about one strange coincidence - that of a double
closure. As much as the American Century began with a closure, so did, in the fields of
prose fiction, the depiction of the mechanisms of the paranoia concept and the quality of
its preposterous influence on those infected with it. A hundred years before the beginning
of the American Century, Brown's Clara succeeded in recovering from insanity by tearing
open again the boundary drawn around her, and by identifying its malicious initiator,
Carwin. Since then, however, things have changed, and at the close of the American Century
the symptomatic thought structure has evidently turned into an irresistible, all-enclosing
and ultimately irremediable "reality" for those suffering from it. 20th century
paranoiacs must face, and come to terms with, the fact that there are more than
just one reality sphere, and more than the one, universally acknowledged mode of
reasoning. The loss of the initiating institution (at least the lost insight into
who or what had exposed them to the realities they live in) engendered two rivalling
"realities" for the paranoid, an inside one, undeniably real, but suspectedly
"insane", and an outside one, sane, but beyond the individual's reach, and
therefore of doubtful "reality".
This last sketch only echoes what has
abundantly been elaborated in what one might term the post-era thinking of Postmodernism,
Posthistoire, or Poststructuralism. Indeed the paranoia depictions given in the three
novels seem to mirror the prevailing intellectual climate of their times: Wieland
the trust in and reliance on reason as the supreme category along which Newton, Locke and
Kant shaped their world models; Catch 22 the erosion of these models after what has
become known as the Modernist turn, i.e. the recognition of the incommensurate quality of
two opposing forces, here the individual self and the external world surrounding it; Gravity's
Rainbow, then, the attempts to find a new orientation within a world where at last no
category can claim hegemony over competing ones any longer. The reliance of Brockden
Brown's tale on the supremacy of the rational is as striking as the analogy between
Pynchon's fiction and the approach of Derridean Deconstruction, as shows the parallelism
in the conclusions drawn in fictional practice and non-fictional theory: "We
system" and deconstruction alike operate within a structure of thought against
it, and assume a parasitic attitude towards it. Says Derrida (and it could just as well
have been Pirate Prentice to say this):
The movements of deconstruction do not
destroy structures from the outside. They are not possible and effective, nor can they
take accurate aim, except by inhabiting those structures. Inhabiting them in a certain
way, beacause one always inhabits, and all the more when one does not expect it.
Operating necessarily from the inside, borrowing all the strategic and economic resources
of subversion from the old structure, borrowing them structurally, that is to say without
being able to isolate their elements and atoms (Derrida 1997, 24)
- in the final instance, both prove to be
If, then, a final binding together is
requested, it encloses the following: the emergence of the different shapings of the
paranoia concept seems to be a trustworthy indicator of changes and developments in the
views and thinking manners of the last two centuries. They have found an authentical echo
in the prose writing of the America before and during "its" century: in Brockden
Brown's re-opening of a psychic boundary, in Heller's ultimate closing of it, and in
Pynchon's transgression of its underlying open/close-distinction.