Gravity’s Rainbow

I’ve been putting off this post all day. I finished Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon today. It was part of my “Gravity’s Rainbow Challenge” to read the novel in under two months. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do a post on it, but I felt that it is too major not to. It is said that people have written entire Ph.D. theses on just a single page of this novel. This is unverified rumor, but it wouldn’t surprise me. This leads me to a dilemma.

Dilemma: If I take something small and doable for a post, maybe just a detail somewhere, then it is pointless for people who haven’t read the book. There is no reference point. If I do just a general review, then it would be to miss the point.

So most people consider this to be THE postmodern novel. Some would say the greatest novel of the twentieth century (although I think Beloved officially won that or something). This was not my first Pynchon experience, so I sort of new what to expect. I also went in prepared with resources for help if I needed it. Overall, it wasn’t as hard as people make it sound. There was surprisingly a clear main character and also clear other main characters that weren’t quite as main as that one (Tyrone Slothrop).

I guess I’ll just offer advice. If you are thinking about reading it but are worried, don’t be. Just do it. It isn’t that hard. You may come out having no idea what it was about, but there is a story and you should be able to get that. For at least 200 pages, keep a list of main characters and how they relate. You probably won’t need it after that, but it will save time in the beginning with all the switching around that is done every couple of pages. I used a blank sheet of computer paper. After I was done trying to keep track of characters, I used it to keep track of ideas or details that I thought were important.

For a more advanced reading, I’d say to try to figure out how each of the quotes at the beginning of the section and the name of the section are pertinent. Trust me, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. I have at least three distinct interpretations of Part I: Beyond the Zero now. If you don’t know German or Spanish, look up the parts that are in these languages. It may be important. Read Rilke’s Duino Elegies before starting. Be familiar with Kabala and Tarot traditions. The names of things and the act of naming something is important.

For a super advanced reading, I’d say learn calculus (and the philosophy of infinitesimals), quantum mechanics, differential equations, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Maxwell’s Demon/entropy and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Now I call this a “super advanced reading,” but in my interpretation, you miss the whole point if you don’t relate it to incompleteness of formal systems and uncertainty in infinitesimals.

What did I think? Well, it is without a doubt worth the effort. It is the most impressive work of literature I’ve ever read. It was mostly enjoyable, too. I was expecting pure unreadable erudition, but it really wasn’t. In fact, the style of writing changed to fit what was necessary for the section. Often times it would switch to screenplay, play, poem, song, letter, and more as the format of writing. I lost many nights of sleep working out what I consider to be the main theme. I actually wish I could write a big paper on this right now, since I think it has been largely ignored. I truly feel that it is an embodiment and expression of how the incompleteness theorem and uncertainty principle affect our everyday lives.

There is also a very interesting theory proposed that not only are unobserved particles wavefunctions, but we as humans are wavefunctions. It is sort of zen-like. He claims that the more we live in the moment, the more our wavefunction is spread out. The more we pay attention to the past and cling to things, the more instantiated our wavefunction is. The act of achieving enlightenment is to be completely in the moment which means your wavefunction is completely everywhere and thus you are one with everything.

Note that I have not said the slightest thing about the plot. This was on purpose. If you go and read a plot summary somewhere after reading this, just know that it is not accurate. There is no such thing as a plot summary and to try to say the slightest thing about the plot would be to miss the point of the novel completely. It is an experience rather than a work of literature. I highly recommend experiencing it if you have the time and energy to devote to it.


A Letter to Sam Harris

If you are unfamiliar with Sam Harris, I highly recommend him. He has ethical concerns for people who consider themselves to be rational human beings, but do not stand up to unreasonable action and thought. I won’t go into the details or else this could turn into a thousands of words post.

Dear Sam,

I am a big fan of yours and align myself pretty completely with your views. I am sure that you get tons of letters everyday from people criticizing your ideas, so it is possible you won’t even read this. Following your lead, I feel that I need to point out a flaw in your argument for upholding spirituality (in the form of isolated meditation). Now I just saw you roll your eyes, since this has probably been your most received letter since your talk at the 2007 AAI Conference.

First off, I said I aligned with you, and this is true on the point of spirituality in that I am a practitioner of Zen forms of meditation. My point is that you cannot use the argument you do to uphold this position. My argument comes from the theory of cognitive dissonance, so if you do not subscribe to this, then my point may be moot.

Your seem to have two main claims. One being that through experiences such as isolation and meditation, we can achieve greater awareness of ourselves and our nature. Or, before you jump on that, at the very least, it is possible for every human to test for themselves whether or not this is a true statement. If you find that it isn’t true, then we can’t totally dismiss it, because as with a great athlete, the training required might be much more than what the individual put in. The second claim being that people that claim to have this higher awareness, are in general happier, selfless, etc making the pursuit a worthy one.

Please keep reading even if the details of the above are not correct, as I feel my argument is not in the details but the general. Suppose someone goes off to live in isolation for a year. He meditates for 15 hours every day. Nothing is happening. Isn’t it possible that some cognitive dissonance is building up? The person is told that they will become enlightened if they put the time and effort in. After months of nothing happening, there is a change. The things that people said will happen are happening: the loss of the sense of self, and more. Isn’t it possible that to resolve the cognitive dissonance that this person has sat alone in isolation for a year with no results, the brain has decided to make the fiction a reality?

If the above is even of slightest, remotest, possibility, then we have a problem. This is quite possibly what goes on in other religions as well. You pray every day of your life, then one day you have a life altering religious experience and “know the truth.” This sounds very similar to the person that meditates and has a life altering experience. According to your own viewpoint, if we condone the “non-religious” spirituality, then we necessarily cannot make an arbitrary distinction and condemn the other (especially if the same cognitive mechanism drives both of them).

What about the outcomes? I believe that it is also your opinion that outcome is irrelevant to justification. Even if it is, there are plenty of Christians (insert religion of choice) that due to their very belief in God do positive things in the world. “It gives meaning to their life.” Can you explain how it is different from when the ascetic gains meaning to their life through meditation?

To end on a more positive note, I still consider myself in alignment with you. But as someone who practices rationality, I feel that I cannot use the reasons you have provided to justify my spirituality. They seem to be too close a variant on the irrational arguments (and possibly the same mechanism) that organized religious people use.


I am going to send this to him, but I would first like to hear if I am missing something major. If you are unfamiliar with Sam Harris, then you probably will have trouble following this post.