"Spot this Mumbo Jumbo": Thomas Pynchon's Emblems for American Culture in "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna"



Before World War I, as early as 1910, Bertrand Russell, one of the founders of logical positivism, had characterised "the world which science presents for our belief" as "purposeless" and "void of meaning." He claimed that "Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; … and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins." Such things are not beyond dispute, but "so nearly certain" that "only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation be safely built" ("A Free Man's Worship"). But worse was to come. After World War II, Gilbert Ryle claimed that even the belief in the soul was a logical error, a category mistake. The soul was insubstantial, not even "the ghost in the machine" of the human body (Concept of Mind [1949]). Following that lead, the influential Norbert Wiener, in his The Human Use of Human Beings (1954), resolved to avoid "all question-begging epithets such as 'life,' 'soul,' 'vitalism,' and the like," since "such words as life, purpose and soul are grossly inadequate to precise scientific thinking." It was no longer even to be possible coherently to state Russell's original "unyielding despair" concerning the soul's proper habitation in a purposeless life.


How to Cite: Tylee, C. M. (1985) “"Spot this Mumbo Jumbo": Thomas Pynchon's Emblems for American Culture in "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna"”, Pynchon Notes.(17). doi: