Subscribe to our e-mail newsletter

August 2008


Daniel Albright
Meena Alexander
David Dabydeen
Alice Fulton
Richard McKane
Jonathan Morley
Michael Schmidt
Tuğrul Tanyol
Alan Wall
Marina Warner
Edwin Williamson
Xu Xi
Gao Xingjian

Founding Editor: Peter Robertson
Art Editor: Calum Colvin
Consulting Editor: Marjorie Agosín
Consulting Editor: Jill Dawson
Consulting Editor: Beatriz Hausner
Consulting Editor: Mimi Khalvati
Consulting Editor: Suzanne Jill Levine
Associate Editor: Neil Langdon Inglis
Assistant Editor:
Jeff Barry
Assistant Editor: Ana de Biase
Assistant Editor: Sophie Lewis
Issue 4 Guest Artist: Arturo Di Stefano

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. The Uses of Paranoia by Alan Wall  

‘This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time.’

                                                                             King Lear

In Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors in the National Gallery in London there is a distorted skull at the foot of the canvas. In one sense this is not in the picture at all: it is an anamorphic projection and can only be seen if the viewer moves over to one side of the picture and stares skewiff along it. To see the skull you have to stop seeing the rest of the painting clearly; and if you are seeing the rest of the painting clearly then you cannot see the skull. You see either the living beings or the emblem of their forthcoming death, but you cannot see both simultaneously. The ambassadors and the skull are not viewable without a change of visionary angle. It is as though the painting exemplifies Wittgenstein’s observation that death is not an event within life.

There is an air of melancholy about the composition. The two figures are evidently men of wealth and prestige, their heavy clothes and accoutrements bespeak social status. The objects between them are instruments of power and control: a celestial globe, a terrestrial globe, a quadrant, a polyhedral sundial, a torquetum - these are means for mapping out the knowable universe, for measuring heaven, earth and time. They are attributes of worldly control, knowledge and trade, all except for the lute with its one broken string, insisting tunelessly upon its solitary entropic message, and the crucifix which is tucked away in a corner, out of the sway of stately power, containing its own theme of sacrificial suffering. And of course the anamorphic skull, which requires a change of perspective to come into focus at all.

David Gascoyne wrote in his Short Survey of Surrealism: ‘Dali claims that it is the paranoiac faculty that enables him to discover a head where there was, until he looked at it, only an African village.’ Only here is efficiently employed; the paranoid vision often finds the unparanoid one curiously impoverished. It seems to leave so much out. Dali could not have seen the shape of the skull beneath the village, had it not been for the paranoia. And according to T.S.Eliot:

            Webster was much possessed by death
            And saw the skull beneath the skin.
            And breastless creatures under ground
            Leaned backward with a lipless grin.
To be thus possessed by death is to be afflicted or blessed with that faculty for anamorphosis which provides the alternative perspective in the Holbein painting. And to view life so relentlessly skewiff is a paranoid propensity, indeed a paranoid sine qua non. It removes one from the realm of affability, with its four-square, full-frontal progress from nativity to peripeteia. Such straightforward stories can perhaps too often be told with the affability of self-serving cant which oils the wheels of a rotten society, this being precisely the bone of contention between Hamlet and his mother:

   Queen: Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
          Seek for thy noble father in the dust.
          Thou know’st ’tis common: all that lives must die,
          Passing through nature to eternity.

  Hamlet: Ay, madam, it is common.

Gertrude’s liturgy of days, her book of hours, has degenerated into a phrase-book of the glib and trite. The common has coarsened into the commonplace. Her words have lost their gravitas; they float too easily up and away in an atmosphere of self-absolution. This is a world in which Hamlet will need to put an antic disposition on, in order to defy the gravity-defying abrogation of tragedy all around him. To bring the tragedy back into focus he’ll have to become his own clown, for he kills the only other candidate for the post in the shape of Polonius, though he does subsequently stare into the blank sockets of another one’s skull and finds some hard, unwarming humour there:

   Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of
   infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore
   me on his back a thousand times, and now - how abhorred
   in my imagination it is. My gorge rises at it. Here hung
   those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where
   be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes
   of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?
   Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chop-fallen?
   Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her
   paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come.

Was Hamlet, with his emblem-book ribaldry, paranoid to see all humanity through the optic of the skull, to read it backwards like this from posthumous silence to natal squeal? By the same ironic reversal he sees through the lovely charms of Ophelia to the unloving schemes of her manipulative father, then he kills him, which in turn kills her. Whether his mind-set could be termed paranoid depends on the facts, but not merely upon them, for it also depends on which perspective we choose - from which stance we elect to focus the facts. It could after all be the case that the Ghost has been providing Hamlet with spurious information; could be that this is a malignant spirit of that superstitious medievalism which reformed religion had seemingly purged away. Hamlet himself considers this possibility, though not for long. Only by asking murderous questions can he actually discover the truth. In dramatic and psychological terms, he must behave like a paranoiac in order to prove that he isn’t one. Establishing the facts in such a theatre of battle can be lethal.

The survival strategies of what is clinically deemed to be paranoia and those of the labouring imagination in the era of modernity would appear to have a great deal in common. David Swanson in The Paranoid characterised paranoia as being constituted by the following characteristics. (1) A projection outwards on to the world of self-criticism. (2) A conviction of the hostility of exterior reality towards the subject. (3) A profound suspicion of the world and its intent, often resulting in the discovery of elaborate schemes of esoteric malice. (4) A marked conviction of the centrality of the subject. (5) Systematic, and frequently plausible, delusions. (6) The great fear of having one’s own autonomy constantly undermined. (7) An inflated and deformed sense of self-worth, exacerbated by a sense of imputed inferiority.

All seven of these characteristics could be ascribed to much of the work, and much of the lives, of Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Does that then entail the inauguration of modernist poetry being facilitated by paranoia? Is there a fundamental link, in the era of modernity at any rate, between the paranoid and the poetic?

Paranoiacs make complete sense of their world, even if they are forced to do so by anamorphic projection. ‘Only connect’ Howard’s End eirenically enjoins us, and the paranoiac and the poet immediately nod in agreement, however far they may be from the liberal declivities of Forster’s Cambridge (Leavis’s Cambridge, a spiritual laager against both encroaching incivility and Bloomsbury insouciance, may be nearer the paranoid mark). And if the only sense that can be made is one characterised by hostility and suspicion, if the objective reality confronted by the writer is belittling in both its scorn and its enticements, then poiesis and paranoia must share the same starting-point. Like Mandelstam’s bees, they must both weave the honey back to sunlight or be stuck in amber forever. Hamlet’s disproportionate consciousness in regard to the action of the play (which some have found a fault, others a prophetic imbalance) starts to appear as the herald of modernity. Paranoia in its strategies of defence and interpretation already has something in common with certain modern literary strategies, and that is before the conscious deployment of paranoia as a writing strategy.

John Gardner’s Grendel might well turn out to have been a far more influential text than is often acknowledged. It achieved a particular tone which has been much imitated since, though seldom matched by the same consistency of hostile estrangement, a lexicon and a syntax of disenchantment. By grafting the human consciousness of isolation and alienation on to the inhuman subjectivity of Grendel, an entirely cogent and entirely belligerent view of humanity is facilitated. Grendel combines the instinctive potency of a non-linguistic creature with all the world-weariness of a highly sophisticated linguistic one. The effect is as if Jacques in As You Like It had been infused with the demonic energy of Satan in the first books of Paradise Lost. Gone is the salty collective heroism of the Beowulf poet, however elegiac; instead humanity is viewed dyspeptically, as by one outside the magic ring of its myths and comforts, and yet knowingly, as though by a cynical insider. This allows for a peculiarly effective purchase on the human agents in the original poem. This optic provides an unblinking meditation upon the self-serving, self-deceiving, self-mythologising ways of men. This narrative need never be compromised by charity. We are always seeing the skull here, but like a revenant from an emblem book, it howls.

Grendel is a philosopher in his flinty isolationism; he is a solipsist of bestiality and a poet of natural vastation:

   I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone
   exist. All the rest, I saw, is merely what pushes me,
   or what I push against, blindly - as blindly as all
   that is not myself pushes back. I create the whole
   universe, blink by blink.-An ugly god pitifully dying
   in a tree!    

There is a sadness to the text, a melancholy tone that in fact conjures the elegiac timbre of much Old English verse, with its ubi sunt formulae, its sense of a world almost devoid of men, a world captured in The Wanderer and The Seafarer and parts of Beowulf itself.

The allegorised paranoiac who is Grendel permits a high degree of what the Russian Formalists called defamiliarization, that distancing and alienating optic which Swift employed so startlingly in Gulliver’s Travels. Everything that might be seen in standard perspective is viewed instead through the anamorphic projection. Many of Ted Hughes’ animal poems do precisely the same thing.

Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 is also an allegory of paranoia, but of a very different sort. Here the picaresque narrative of modernity gradually reveals a secret society, held together by codes and cryptic assignations, and through the gradual revelation of this invisible fraternity and sorority the oppressive features of the greater society are made manifest. Oedipa Maas, the book’s heroine (though no more heroic a heroine than Leopold Bloom was a hero) comes to assemble in her mind the significance of the Tristero from the fragmentary clues she is given. The Tristero provide the valency of the book’s paranoia: they are either the outlaw rebellion which a system of total control has engendered, or they are the symptoms of Oedipa’s increasingly frenetic mental collapse. The book’s ambiguity leaves open either reading. What the Tristero represent, assuming that they have a reality outside Oedipa’s mind, outside her obsessive making of connections, is the need to win back the basic terms of communication from a state which has seized the entire infrastructure of intercourse for its own consolidation. The Tristero represent, even embody, a form of communication outside the control of the state. They are epistolary bandits. In discovering what they mean Oedipa comes to understand for the first time what the society to which they are opposed means. She learns at last to read: she discovers vernacular hermeneutics.

Reading itself, the battle between the authorised versus the unauthorised version, is often a key thematic of the paranoid text. In Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the strategy of reading itself is paranoid, though paranoid in the manner of many Freudian readings, which is to say refusing to allow for the possibility of the random or gratuitous. Contingency, that which is neither impossible nor forbidden, has no place. There are no grace notes, only symptomatic expressions of the deviously self-revealing subject. All manifest expressions carry within them their own coded esoterica. The paranoid text, like the paranoid world, is claustrophobic with meaning. It is suffocatingly full of intention.

In Don De Lillo’s Running Dog, the sought-for pornographic film of Hitler operates thematically as emblematic of the pornographic pull which the subject of Nazism exerts on our present day media. It is as though the dark secret of history were here to be revealed, in the demonstrably, nakedly human aspects of history’s most sought-after demonic. It is as though there is a secret interior to humanity’s chronicle, a kernel of esoterica, and an inverse grail quest might lead us at last to discover the arcana of villainy, much as we enter into that realm with Shakespeare’s Richard III, though Richard himself is not paranoid: in that play we merely become privy to the monstrous instrumentalism of a particular king’s mind as it applies itself to history.

Shakespeare himself would not of course have used the word paranoia, whose first usage is listed in the OED as dating from 1857. But in the etymology of a mind beside itself, even beyond itself, he would have entirely understood the condition, even if he himself would have applied the terminology of passions to it. If Hamlet is paranoid, he has contrived to be so, though the stance once adopted takes on its own momentum. He had to be beyond (para) the nous of a society so resolutely minded to stick to its slothful forgetfulness. He becomes paranoid in reaction to the cultural and moral catatonia all around him, the prison that is Denmark.
Is Lear paranoid? His love-test might be seen as the confrontation of unmediated absolutism - emotional as well as political - with newer, mediated and negotiated forms just then coming into being. What is certain is that it is impossible for Lear to come to know himself without being shorn of his power; his self-knowledge is a catastrophic self-abasement, as catastrophic in its way as Hamlet’s action against the king, when it finally comes. What supervenes at the end of Hamlet is the reign of Fortinbras. Perhaps accommodation might have been a more sensible strategy - it would certainly have been a less lethal one. And Ophelia might have been married instead of buried. But then paranoia and trimming are incompatible.
Returning to DeLillo, he exemplifies a strand in American culture which might be described less as post-war, post-Bomb or post-modernist, than as post-Dallas. The killing of JFK, and the widespread incredulity at the conclusions of the Warren Commission, have probably fuelled the paranoid element in American life as much as the perception of the internecine politics of the Vietnam War. The inheritance is there not only in films like Oliver Stone’s JFK, which deals directly with the subject, but also in others like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation which feed upon the general sense of pervasive, state-organised deception. Paranoid culture gorges on the notion that those in power are mired in mendacity, and the greater their resources the more all-pervasive their lies are likely to be. DeLillo himself tackled the theme in Libra, a book which is simultaneously a study and a product of the paranoid strain in modern writing. In Mao II the writer portrayed is so bitterly estranged from the reality that is his subject, that when he re-enters it, it promptly kills him. It was only his Howard Hughes-style paranoid reclusiveness that had allowed him to go on living at all.
It soon becomes apparent that in finding parallels between certain forms of literary strategy and paranoia the problem is not so much searching for what to include as deciding on what to leave out. Some texts are easy. The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, for example, is an entirely logical paranoid book in that it merely personifies and apotheosizes the gallimaufry of prejudices that constituted Evelyn Waugh. His own hatreds at last break free and gain a kind of autonomy. They turn on him and he merely records their speeches. In Hadrian VII Frederick Rolfe created an exemplum of sacerdotal paranoia which permits him to revenge himself upon the church which terminated his clerical ambitions, by re-fashioning it until it is fit to receive him as pope.
Is there an element of paranoia in Emily Dickinson, from her apocalyptic punctuation to the questions that recur in her letters? How do they (i.e., her neighbours) have the strength, she asks, to tie their shoes in the morning, addressing that great eclipse they call God? And what about Moby Dick? For Ahab the world is a white whale, it is the shape into which a single white whale has now riddled itself; the world must be crossed and re-crossed until that shape, like the sculpture hidden in Michelangelo’s white marble, emerges. This obsessiveness, this persecuted and persecutory spirit, redeems Ahab from the mere utility of slaughter. The unanswerability of his passion makes him the whale’s equal and finally, as the great white shape descends into its formless habitat with its one-legged captive, the whited monster’s groom. Ahab’s lethal romance with the whale is a celebrated mourning for his wound; his fascination is with the world as a hole into which the whale has disappeared. The ocean is a constantly shifting hole, a hole forever filled in by tides and observation, and forever capable of rendering forth the longed-for object of desire and loathing.

Fascination is still rooted through its etymology to enchantment and witchcraft. Fascination implies the sinister for enchantment always implies danger and powers beyond human control. And paranoia in fiction always involves a sense of heroic isolation; the discovery of grave significance in every trivial occurrence; a sense of the malice of surrounding reality; most relentlessly of all, it involves suspicion. On this account it is worth remarking that the history of Freudianism represents one of the greatest texts of paranoia of our time, at its heart the embattled and persecuted figure of Freud himself in his lonely confrontation with the sphinx and her mystery. Just as the history of dialectical thought is the course of a particular trajectory of suspicion, finding in all seemingly harmonious wholes hidden conflicts and warring parties.

At its best, as in Hamlet’s case, the paranoid stance becomes an aggressive heuristic principle. It will get to know the truth, as Oedipa Maas perhaps begins to discover it in The Crying of Lot 49, however great the odds are against the revelation. At stake ultimately is the question whether or not there is something hidden, whether or not the paranoid stance justifies the energy it must expend. In Hamlet’s case there was, so his grave suspicion was not merely a paranoid symptom but a justified response, however ‘paranoid’ his behaviour subsequently might have been.

There is a story by Borges called Deutsches Requiem, collected originally in The Aleph, in which Otto Dietrich zur Linde recounts his Germanic lineage and explains his history, including the fact that he is to be executed the following day. He makes sense of his life and the lives of his forebears, of the life of everyone in the world in fact, in terms of the Nazism to which he subscribes. Its temporary failure, and the temporary success of the masters of Nuremburg, is of no account: its truth is inextinguishable. Deutsches Requiem is in one sense a classic paranoid text, not least in its powerful way of making sense of everything. The anamorphic projection holds sway. Only connect.
It is disturbing in the way DeLillo’s Libra is or Shakespeare’s Hamlet might well have been to its contemporaries. Did the Reformation really abolish purgatory and its unquiet spirits? Did the Warren Commission really lay to rest the ghost of the Kennedy assassination? The paranoid vision deliberately employed uses anamorphic projection to discover what more conventional perspective cannot; it uses indirections to find directions out, as Polonius, just as devious in his own way, suggested. The best paranoid writing always raises a question about history. Borges’ Otto Dietrich zur Linde was fictional, but Magda Goebbels wasn’t. She slaughtered her children, not in rage at her lover like Medea, but in quiet protest at the very notion of a world without Hitler. So her final act was to keep her little ones from a de-Nazified future unfit to inherit them.

In Totem and Taboo, Freud writes: ‘It might be maintained…that a paranoid delusion is a caricature of a philosophical system.’ The same urge exists in both to make sense of the world, to find connections where others have found none. And a further similarity exists in terms of modern philosophy, in that the starting-point of both is what Ricoeur calls a hermeneutics of suspicion. Here Pynchon is astute in finding the opposite of paranoia not in normality but in what he calls anti-paranoia: the inability to find any connections at all. Eliot evoked this state, a species of intellectual listlessness and separation, in The Waste Land:

   On Margate Sands.
   I can connect
   Nothing with nothing.
   The broken finger nails of dirty hands.
   My people humble people who expect

The paranoiac expects everything; expects reality to be pleromatic. But then so does the poet and the fiction writer and the religious ecstatic. Pynchon himself began with a highly negative attitude towards paranoia, but has gradually come to sympathise more with it. He seems to feel that given the nature of American reality, paranoia is often the only intelligent response, since there are tranches of hidden information to which the average citizen is denied access. Reality often constructs its own elaborate devices, which might only allow a paranoid interpretation. Some thirty years ago the rumour started to go around that the CIA had attempted to kill Fidel Castro by poisoning his beard. This was described as being at the furthest extremity of  conspiracy theorising. Philip Agee and others have now provided memoirs, and we tend to assume that the plots were hatched, and sometimes acted upon. A similar shroud of sinister bafflement surrounds Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma bombing. In Elohim City there was a paid informer for the FBI, who warned them in advance of the plan. There may have been another, Andy Strassmeir, who actively took part in engineering the attack, but who has mysteriously never been interviewed (or never on record anyway) and returned home safely to Germany. He had been a soldier in the German army, and his father was a member of the German government. Faced with such information, the mind resorts to strategies which are traditionally labelled paranoid. For the fiction writer to portray such a reality, she or he must also portray a state of mind which makes paranoid connections, because those are the only connections open to it. The problem is the same as that with Hamlet: can you put an antic disposition on without letting it become an integral part of your personality? For how long can you portray the paranoid vision with shrewdness and sympathy before paranoia starts to seep into your own psychic machinery?

The filament that separates the paranoiac from the writer of paranoid fictions is, of course, irony. In David Foster Wallace’s story The Depressed Person, the narrator comes, adjectivally and adverbially, to identify herself as the depressed person supposedly being clinically described. By her relentless view of the world as a therapeutic theatre in which she is the central agent she comes to alienate the reader, who looks on in horrified fascination at this monster of self-pity and self-regard. Her therapist is bereaved and fatally ill, but this is read by the depressed person merely as a further assault upon her rightful demands for attention and succour. But where is the writer here? A trench of irony evidently separates the paranoiac narrator from the supplier of words.

Irony is the agent provacateur of the suspecting glance. The word contains within it the original Greek sense of dissembling and dissembler. This is all very well as long as there is behind the dissembling and untrustworthy voice an ultimate level voice which vouchsafes reality. Irony is then a tactic contained within a larger strategy which is unironic. This seems to have been Pynchon’s earlier ironic mode. But irony is not without its problems. The gap of credibility between the information we are provided and our ability to accept it can widen with vertiginous suddenness. This is what is referred to in philosophy as infinitized irony. There is no ultimate reference which relativizes all the ironic material and provides an ultimate, trustworthy version of reality. There is no larger perspective within which the anamorphic projection can be contextualized.
The paranoid vision, when it stops being merely a figural strategy in the writer’s terms of deployment, can find itself within the infinitized terms of ironic suspicion, can feel as though, as one writer put it, American society is coming up with more powerful fictions than American fiction. In what is sometimes referred to as the condition of post-modernity, it seems to be reality itself which has become ironic with its readers. Its readers, of course, have no choice but to go on until the end of the text, because the text is their lives. A crucial element of the paranoid vision is that one element of the interlinear text that we call reality has been held back, is being hidden or disguised, making it impossible to translate the data with accuracy. Tradition is being imposed by state authority. But somewhere hidden in modernity’s metropolis there is the grail of the editio princeps, or the hidden manuscript, or the extra layer of language, that will provide the clue. All we have to do is find it.

George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy behaves like the classic clinical paranoiac, distrusting everyone and everything about him, suspecting plots and dissembling from every angle. One of his recurring questions, the lack of an answer to which deepens his suspicion, is who is the translator of Merlin, the new source of information regarding the armed forces of the Soviet Union. All such sources have to be translated, and without knowing who is doing the translating you cannot know what your true source of information is. You have lost one element of the interlinear text. Reality’s mediation is hidden. Smiley isn’t a paranoiac, of course, because his suspicions are proved to be grounded in reality. But then we did finally discover that the CIA had in fact attempted to assassinate Castro by poisoning his beard, so that conviction wasn’t paranoid either, retrospectively. Whether a particular vision is or is not paranoid depends ultimately, not upon all the characteristics ascribed to paranoiacs, but to the facts of the situation to which they are responding. As long as elements of the facts are missing, the interlinear text is incomplete. We need the Rosetta Stone if we are ever to fathom the hieroglyphs.
The decipherment of hieroglyphs is in fact a classic paranoid trope. Pynchon is quite explicit about it in The Crying of Lot 49. After Oedipa has driven to San Narciso we are told: ‘She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, on to a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding. Smog hung all round the horizon, the sun on the bright beige countryside was painful; she and the Chevy seemed parked at the centre of an odd, religious instant. As if, on some other frequency, or out of the eye of some whirlwind rotating too slow for her heated skin even to feel the centrifugal coolness of, words were being spoken. She suspected that much.' This is the beginning of a pattern recognition, an occult perception, which must re-arrange reality in its entirety. All the information is there: one’s hermeneutic technique must be up to de-coding it. But that requires induction to the society.

In the case of the Oklahoma bombing, the missing elements of the interlinear text would be as follows: the identity of John Doe II, seen by many witnesses; the involvement of the FBI in planting agents in Elohim City, who may even have been agents provocateurs; the curious role of Andy Strasmeir and the even more curious lack of interest in him on the part of the FBI. Those who hold conspiracy theories about all this would only be exhibiting paranoid tendencies if they are proved wrong; if they are proved right, then the rest of us were suffering from Pynchon's’anti-paranoia, connecting nothing with nothing, insisting that the world is empty of meaning when it is in fact full of unread meanings. We’re on Eliot’s Margate Sands, or in Hamlet’s Denmark.

The metaphoric reading of Oklahoma might be as follows. In Of Being Numerous George Oppen wrote of America:

   Obsessed, bewildered

   By the shipwreck
   Of the singular

   We have chosen the meaning
   Of being numerous.

In the ancient tradition of rhetoric of Cicero (De Inventione) and Sextus Empiricus (Against the Grammarians), fictio was placed midway between historia and fabula. It wasn’t tied to the actual events in the way that history was, but it didn’t have the freedom of invention of fable and myth either: it needed to qualify to be taken seriously by its verisimilitude. In some way it needed to be like life. Insofar as paranoid fictions are compelling, it is because their narrative is in some sense structurally homologous with some, or many, aspects of life as experienced. They mimic the way we feel reality itself is mediated to us through dissembling voices; they convey the sense that reality itself is treating us ironically. But if reality has become ironic then where is the unironic voicing of actuality that can vouchsafe the truth? It has fled to the realm of secrets, the secrets of the heart and mind, or the inner chamber of the secret society. The obverse of every paranoid vision of deceit and manipulation is the secret world of truth. If Moby Dick can be classified as in some way a paranoid text, it is at least in part because of that moment when the Pequod’s crew take the vow that Ahab offers them. In that evangelical scene of collective frenzy they separate themselves from the rest of the world, from Starbuck’s rational urgings to hunt whales solely for profit. They enter the world of Ahab’s monomania. Within pages we hear of the white whale’s intelligent malignity, and at that point what is once more conjured forth is the world of demonology, whose premise is that every inch of creation is claimed by God and his angels and counterclaimed by Satan and his devils. Yet if Melville had merely written of angels and devils he would have left the world of fiction and entered the world of fable. The same is true of Dostoyevsky’s Demons. Fiction requires verisimilitude. It must, as Hamlet put it, hold the mirror up to nature. There has to be sufficient correspondence with observable reality to provide the basis for transcending the empirical with fiction. (Interestingly, the main attacks upon Pynchon’s work tend to focus on his lack of verisimilitude, even though that quality is evidently a highly deliberated one. Sometimes his writing has more in common with the classic strategy of surrealism: highly naturalistic detail within seemingly impossible juxtapositions. Eustace in Arthur Hugh Clough’s Amours de Voyage fears that what is called love is not love at all but merely juxtaposition and facticity. The Surrealists acted as though this were true not merely of love but of life itself in all its aspects.)

Here is a description of contemporary reality: ‘All power is in the hands of paranoiacs.’ This was heartfelt and came from the pen not of Pynchon or DeLillo, but of that apparently most unparanoid literary strategist, George Orwell. He wrote it in his Diary at the height of the war in 1942. We are oppressed by reality. Pychon is more explicit in V: ‘About the paranoia often noted under the drug, there is nothing remarkable. Like other sorts of paranoia, it is nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected, everything in the creation…’ Paranoia then is one way, a particularly defensive and offensive one, of connecting everything up. The paranoiac is free from the irony which the writer employs. The writer too sees connectedness everywhere, but the summation at least of this connectedness must be ironized, even if much along the way has not been. Poiesis can often be a species of non-psychotic paranoia. In this it is responding to what Walter Benjamin called the decay of experience. So much of the experience of modernity is fragmentary, fleeting, disconnected. It cannot be incorporated into the labyrinth of memory traces; the devices of consciousness merely dispose of it. Wisdom is replaced by information. Much of contemporary paranoia is a response to information overload. There is so much information provided that not only can it not be transmuted into wisdom; it cannot even be digested for the purposes of utility. Much information, while not untrue, is also provided to mislead or baffle. It may be verifiable information but it is provided at the wrong time and in the wrong place, often to prevent the acquisition of more pertinent information.  Information, to be disinformation, does not have to be untrue, merely deliberately misplaced.

One of the greatest cultural responses to the paranoid vision, the paranoid reality, is surely Dr Strangelove. In a sense the film is a burlesque of paranoia, but it is no less paranoid for that. The world it emblematises reciprocally emblematises itself in the warning the Pentagon insisted must be inserted into the film, to the effect that the film’s events were impossible, and its protagonists unanchored in fact. But the thread of paranoid dread underlying Kubrick’s film treatment of the original book by Peter George, was the information Kubrick uncovered that there were many physicists who, prior to the explosion of the first hydrogen bomb, were firmly of the opinion that such an explosion had a high potential to inaugurate a chain-reaction that would wipe out the planet. The fact that the tests went ahead anyway registered with Kubrick the extent of the globalised insanity which is called the modern world. It was a world which prompted a paranoid response, since a world so anchored in its own paranoia prompts a paranoid reaction large enough to take its measure. The name of the insane officer played by Sterling Hayden is Jack D.Ripper. The whole film is in fact a vast, but very serious joke. It is a paranoid fantasy in a world that is just capable of making it come true. The first half of the film is a desperate attempt to establish the facts beneath the deceptions. This is the paranoid quest sans pareil, for the strength of paranoia is also its greatest weakness: it makes sense of things with manic investigative brio. In fact it often makes more sense of things than is there to be made. But not always.

If the FBI and the AFT between them decide that the Branch Davidian sect at Waco don’t fit the permitted rubric ‘of being numerous’ then the men, women and children of Waco are incinerated. It was this specific event that impelled McVeigh, with or without accomplices, to his own outrage. It is not that the events at Waco were under-reported. If anything the opposite was the case. But in the mass of information that came forth, the judgments were turned in the wrong direction: against the Branch Davidian sect rather than against the murderous actions of the state authorities. The information, in other words, ceased to be true information and became instead what cyberneticists call ‘noise’. It is this noise which the Tristero in The Crying of Lot 49 are intent upon excluding from their communications. They are said to be ‘truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitations of routine, arid betrayals of spiritual poverty, for the official government delivery system.’ Adjusting the noise-to-signal ratio is an act against the state. The lines of the official communications system are so full of noise that true information is swamped, baffled, obscured. Information, to become valid once more, must become unofficial, to the point of being outlawed. It becomes an anamorphic projection which can only be detected if you have the clue, the interlinear text, the editio princeps which has been hidden for so long. This clue was once the word clew, and it made up Ariadne’s bobbin, the same one she handed to Theseus so that he might enter the labyrinth and slaughter the beast that was eating the island’s children.

The Warren Report on the Kennedy assassination might be taken as one of the founding texts of American paranoid fiction. It opened a gap between information and credibility into which the fiction and the irony have never ceased rushing ever since. The present status of the commissions and reports into 9/11 doesn’t give much hope that they will do more than fill a parallel slot in the psyche. Here is a vision that might be of relevance:

   Falling towers
   Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
   Vienna London

This is the end of the civilisation we have known, as envisaged by T.S.Eliot in 1922. And a video could be played of the twin towers falling, to two different audiences, without any soundtrack or form of indication as to the required response. One might be played in an auditorium somewhere in New York and the other on an estate in a run-down part of Coventry’s inner city. The tears of the one audience could well be replaced by the cheers of the other. Two perspectives so radically opposed are in a state of contradiction. You can’t see both the rectified vision and the anamorphic projection at the same time. It’s like the duck/rabbit image that so obsessed Wittgenstein all his life. You can choose to set up the parameters of your mind thus or thus, but you simply cannot combine the two options simultaneously. Such images are liminal hieroglyphs. They point simultaneously in two directions, like Janus on the demarcation line, and you cannot elect to go in both directions at once.

The question then is this: is your version of reality the standard model, or is it an anamorphic projection, encrypted so as to baffle the outsider? Is that paranoia we are witnessing or a justified rage against injustice? The Pynchon and the Kubrick versions remain fictions, which is another way of saying that irony protects us there against too much actual damage. Fiction as non-psychotic paranoia, then. But irony didn’t protect Magda Goebbels’ children. Which only goes to show that when history itself turns paranoid, it outruns the imaginings of Euripides.

Dissimilar in many other respects, Emily Dickinson and Bob Dylan are both artists of the anamorphic projection, the occulted glimpse. They both share the conviction that something in the nature of modern reality defeats the artist if met head on. Here is Dickinson:

   Tell all the truth but tell it slant
   Success in circuit lies
   Too bright for our infirm delight
   The truth’s superb surprise

And here is Dylan:

   The truth was obscure
   Too profound and too pure
   To live it you had to explode