Zeitschrift für Literatur und Philosophie
Bruno Friedrich Arich-Gerz
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 223).
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 Daneeka,
'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.'
'They're crazy.'
'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 39f.).
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 insanity-inducing implications:
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 (C 40).
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 highly subversive.
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.

Works Cited

Bateson, Gregory, Steps to an Ecology of Mind; New York: Ballantine, 1972.
Bersani, Leo: "Pynchon, Paranoia, and Literature". Representations 25 (1989): 99-118.
Brocken Brown, Charles: Wieland, or: The Transformation. London 1994.
Derrida, Jacques: Of Grammatology; Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997.
Elliot, Emory: "Introduction" to Brockden Brown 1994, vii-xxx.
Heller, Joseph: Catch 22; New York: Laurel, 1990.
Pynchon, Thomas: Gravity's Rainbow; London: Picador, 1975