Footnotes from Beyond the Zero, Part V

I recently finished off Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and since my brain has stopped hemorrhaging, I figured it was time to go back and continue cataloguing items of interest, quotes, and other footnotey type stuff. I’ve been doing this since I started the novel, about a year ago. See: [part I | part II | part III | part IV]

  • Zipf’s Principle of Least Effort: George Kingsley Zipf studied word frequencies and found that analyzing texts in many different languages throughout history produced strikingly similar results, which when graphed were always close to a straight line. Zipf’s 1949 book Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort states the mathematics of Zipf’s Law, but also “crosses a line, blending statistics with paranoia as Zipf – not sounding at all like a statistician – pleads to the reader that his Principle lays bare nothing less than the secret structure of all social relations – not just linguistic, but economic, political. etc. He waxes utopian about the explanatory power of the Principle.” Basically, what this means is that most people, most of the time, will not take the time to overcome small challenges. “To be habitual, an action must be relatively effortless or carry a particularly large psychic reward.”

    Or, as Robert Heinlein wrote in Time Enough for Love: “The Principle of Least Effort: ‘Progress doesn’t come from early risers–progress is made by lazy men looking for easier ways to do things.'”

  • At one point Pynchon refers to “The American vice of modular repetition”, which I though was just a fantastic way of putting American ingenuity during the war. Our equipment during the war wasn’t always the best, but we invariably made one hell of a lot of them (taking advantage of “modular repetition”), and they were robust, simple to repair and maintain.
  • A quote (page 350): “Simple talion may be fine for wartime, but politics between wars demands symmetry and a more elegant idea of justice, even to the point of masquerading, a bit decadently, as mercy.” Nowadays, talion doesn’t cut it during wartime, but its an interesting quote nonetheless.
  • Yet another quote (page 434): “If there is something comforting – religious, if you want – about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.” Paranoia is one of the main themes running throughout the novel, and probably warrants a discussion of its own…
  • And another (page 587): “Non-Masons stay pretty much in the dark about What Goes On, though now and then something jumps out, exposes itself, jumps giggling back again, leaving you with few details but a lot of Awful Suspicions. Some of the American Founding Fathers were Masons, for instance. There is a theory going around that the U.S.A. was and still is a gigantic Masonic plot under the ultimate control of the group known as the Illuminati. It is difficult to look for long at the strange single eye crowning the pyramid which is found on every dollar bill and not begin to believe the story, a little.” Imagine the fun the “Bush Lied!” folks could have if Bush was a Mason. Alas, he is not… yet the conspiracy theories march on. There is a “Masonic Home” about a mile down the road from me. Very strange buildings; they look almost majestic, yet forbidding. I wonder sometimes if I should worry about that.
  • Gravity’s Rainbow is a strange book, in that it is at times incomprehensible and deadly serious, while other times lighthearted, goofy and even humorous (often times simultaneously incomprehensible, lighthearted, funny, and deadly serious). For instance, Pynchon seems to delight in naming people and places and things such as Seaman Bodine’s ship: the U.S.S. John E. Badass, a place where they hold Runcible Spoon fights. Or Dr. Lazlo Jamf, whose last name is an acronym for “Jive Ass Mother Fucker”, which lets you know just how trustworthy the man is…

Well, that about does it for this installment. I think theres enough here for at least one or two more entries, and a review is coming as well. See also: [part I | part II | part III | part IV]