Thoughts & Insights
Beyond Zero – Entropy and Transcendence
"Nature does not know extinction; it only knows transformation. All that science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death." - Wernher von Braun
The first chapter of Thomas Pynchon’s monumental novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, is preceded by this quote. The title of the first chapter is Beyond the Zero, and after reading just a short section, it opens up all kinds of questions that were never even asked in math class, let alone answered.
As you continue to read the novel, you experience a wild ride through the times of chaos and order in the final stages of World War II. London, Los Angeles, but above all Nazi Germany, which was obsessed with ultimate victory through the use of the V2 annihilation rocket, for which they strived. In between, plenty of historical excursions into the darker sides of history: evolution, religion, revolution, colonialism. A complex network of relationships between organizations and people. And far and wide no figure with whom one can identify. Some go under, evaporate or lose their way, others continue to manipulate, unabashedly and unflinchingly, to the very end, their own interests always firmly in view. Above all, symbolically, there is the ballistic trajectory of the rocket – the parabola that Pynchon describes much more poetically as a rainbow in the title of the novel. As the reader, I am left amazed, confused, frightened and sometimes appalled, but always alone. Keeping it up to the end is exhausting, but worth all the effort.
I was unaware, when I started reading, that this novel, which was written in the sixties and first published in the original edition in 1973, almost fifty years ago, and has been subjectively interpreted by exegetes again and again, with great delight in their own view of this world, is now considered a masterpiece of 20th Century American literature. I had not even heard the name Thomas Pynchon until then. So I began to read without thinking about all of that, which was a good thing.
The one who caused me to dedicate a considerable part of my limited lifetime to these 1,200 or so pages, printed on gossamer-thin hymnal paper, was OUBEY. He bought the novel before the fatal accident, which meant that he would never be able to read it himself. When I first held the book in my hands, by chance, while cleaning up or rearranging a few years ago, I was as fascinated by this find as I was by the blurb on the dustjacket.
The interplay of chaos, order and entropy in the interaction of dynamic complexity, as it is scientifically studied in thermodynamics, was one of the topics that occupied OUBEY very early and particularly forcefully. Fascinated by turbulence of all kinds, in which this interplay of forces takes shape as wildly as mathematically calculable, he developed his own technique to reproduce his insights and feelings in colors and structures, which he transferred to the coated hardboard as his own artistic expression.
This is exactly what Thomas Pynchon does in Gravity’s Rainbow. He uses his own unique language technique, full of references to poets, philosophers and novelists, to lend his own literary expression to the interplay of the forces of chaos and order, and the dynamic complexity of world events.
In the end, entropy, the force of self-destruction, which is probably inherent in all dynamic-complex systems, no longer appears to be something threatening, but rather something that is almost natural and essential. For it opens the alternative perspective of transcendence. Not for everyone, but for all who attain a second level of reality in their lives, that goes beyond the two-dimensional linear course of earthly events. These are the people who, according to Pynchon, are those who have been “struck by lightning”, in a figurative sense, during their lives – who have experienced and survived an impact that called everything, including their own existence, into question. This experience opens up an individual way out of entropy, through the possibility of transcendence.
And yet, it has something good, this immanent movement towards entropy. If it did not exist, mankind would possibly still be at the point of development where we were many thousands of years ago. Instead, we have experienced and historically documented the downfall of so many glorious systems – from the Mayans, Aztecs and Babylonians to the Greeks and Romans to the “Thousand Year Reich” – and in our collective consciousness, we are actually not much further along than we were a few thousand years ago. Technically, however, we are, not least of all because we are waging industrially and economically desirable wars, such as were not even remotely imaginable one and a half centuries ago. And this is what the novel is about.
But what role does nature play in this story of the rise and fall of human empires? What about our understanding of nature? In Pynchon’s work, nature is a true refuge and solace for those who have been disregarded. At the very end of the novel, on Page 1,150, it says: “trunks and branches groan, full of grief over the technical wound that has been cut through their terrain.” More than fifty years after the publication of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, nature no longer merely groans and sighs – she rebels, and she is trying to teach us a lesson that man may not learn until it is too late – for him, not for nature. Man, whom Pynchon calls a “devastator,” is approaching the “tipping point” of his own existence, solely due to his own actions, intentions and a fatal lack of understanding of interrelationships. Real entropy in sight.
In 1992, OUBEY led and recorded a discussion, it which he also made clear statements about the relationship of human beings to nature and their home planet, Earth. I think I understand why this novel interested him so much that he wanted to read it – and that happened extremely seldom. How exciting it would have been, for exactly this reason, if OUBEY could have read the novel himself and commented on it. What a pity, that this was no longer possible.