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December 24, 2012 at 3:30 PMComments: 1 Faves: 1

Pynchon's Demon: Sorting Information in "The Crying of Lot 49"

By Kyle McCarthy from SLN More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the Culturology Blog Series

"Why should things be easy to understand?" - Thomas Pynchon

Chaos Theory and Literature

Thomas Pynchon is a master of purposeful misinformation, and his opus of communication entropy is The Crying of Lot 49. While the novel is nominally a mystery about the relationship between the death of our protagonist's (Oedipa Mass) ex-lover and a secret mail-carrying operation known as Trystero, the subtext is concerned with how we sort and interpret information in highly entropic systems. The mounting mysteries that Oedipa encounters in Southern California provide a forum that Pynchon has created in order to display his ideas about chaos theory as it relates to literature.     

When we talk about a highly entropic system as it relates to communication theory, we're really talking about the correlation between chaos and information. As chaos increases, more and more information is produced, but it also becomes more and more difficult to understand. As the degree of information increases, the likelihood of successfully interpreting the meaning of it decreases. Thus, the onus is on the reader to separate mere distraction from essential meaning.   

Maxwell's Demon and Informational Entropy

In the realm of theoretical physics, a Maxwell’s Demon exists as a hypothetical being that is able to identify and sort through infinitely minute particles of energy in a closed system in order to violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics (thermodynamic equilibrium). If a Maxwell’s Demon were able to exist in the literary world, it would have the capability to accomplish the separation of information and meaning on any scale in much the same way that it could separate hot and cold energy in science.

Entropy

Paramount to understanding the role that Maxwell’s Demon plays in both science and in literature is understanding how entropy works in chaotic systems. Entropy is the degradation of energy that occurs in any exchange. For instance, although the amount of heat remains nearly constant in a closed system, the heat becomes so spread out that it is no longer actually useful. So, as the energy lost in a heat transfer increases, so does the degree of entropy. Eventually, all of the heat in the universe will become so dispersed that no planet will be capable of supporting life due to the freezing temperatures - commonly referred to as “heat death.”

In literature, entropy is viewed as a term linked with the randomness of information. Just as heat will inevitably become less and less useful throughout any transfer, so too will information, until, finally, the rate of entropy becomes so high that the messages received can no longer be interpreted with any degree of certainty. In the same way that a constant decrease in heat will result in the inability of the universe to support life, a constant decrease in meaning will result in the inability of message receivers, like Oedipa, to understand information.

Mucho the Demon

As Oedipa’s husband Mucho becomes addicted to LSD, he is transformed into a Maxwell’s Demon through the hallucinations that he experiences as a result of ingesting the drug. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen explicitly, but given Pynchon's literary and scholastic background, I believe this is a fair assumption.

Mucho’s passion lies in music, and, through his use of narcotics, he is able to hear, interpret, and organize various pitches and tones that human beings living in reality cannot, a task made all the easier through his day job as a radio disc jockey.

Music

For instance, he understands the manipulation of sound spoken through a microphone and distributed through the radio. This is hinted at when he refers to his wife as Edna Mosh over the radio after a standoff with her psychiatrist, Dr. Hilarius. When she asks him why he called her such a strange name, he simply replies, “It’ll come out the right way.  I was allowing for the distortion on the rigs, and then when they put it on tape.” 

With the aid of the effects obtained through the use of LSD, Mucho can orally interpret the desired outcome of the information that he transmits over the air and the resulting information that is received by his listeners. LSD places Mucho within the channel of the sounds he hears and he's able to separate and categorize them “into all the basic frequencies and harmonics, with all their different loudnesses, and listen to them... all at once.”

The Demon in the System

In order to completely comprehend any system, a person must be able to trace the precise origin of the system. With his ability to place himself into the different channels of sound and break them down on such microcosmic level, Mucho is able trace the origins of the sounds.  Therefore he is able to see how the synthesis of these sounds can create a larger system that is capable of being fully understood.

Pynchon may or may not have been an advocate of LSD, but his stance on hallucinogenic drugs is irrelevant. In Lot 49, he needed to show the role that Maxwell’s Demon plays in chaos theory as it relates to literature. Since the creation of such a being appears to be out of the realm of normal human anatomy, Pynchon used the effects of LSD on Mucho to provide a character in the story that is capable of sorting information in a highly entropic system.

Through this brief mention of Mucho’s drug dependency, the reader is given a glimpse of what the world would look like through the eyes of Maxwell’s Demon. In essence, we are given the cipher to discerning even the most (seemingly) random bits of misinformation.

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1 Comment

  • Interesting that Pynchon would use the Demon in a social commentary. Brilliant really, as the the Second Law of Thermodynamics provides insight into the mediocrity of society. The law demonstrates two separate heat sources coming together and eventually evening out to the same temperature within a isolated system, much like diverse cultures combining and losing much of what made them unique.

    I dig the thought.

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