“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.”
— Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
We can’t live and not believe. Beliefs stem from and live past our experiences, imprinted in us, carving out our inner lives. Some may not serve us well, but we have just as many we can’t live without. We can’t sleep without believing we’re safe. We can’t be intimate without believing in trust. It may not be possible to live in a state where nothing is connected—the mind’s ability to make connections is what makes it human. We always believe, whether we know it or not, and regardless of how many times our beliefs change.
What distinguishes the paranoid person that Thomas Pynchon refers to is that they have too many beliefs. This person, the contemporary lunatic shouting imaginary prophecies on the street, belongs in our human history as the shamans or priests of ages passed. Today we say they don’t see, and we have to make them with prescriptions. But in smaller communities, they were a valuable set of eyes into another realm (although in the Middle Ages in Europe, it was a demonic one). Even now with our fixation on treating the mentally ill by numbing them, no one could argue that their beliefs aren’t fascinating. They forge connections we never would.
The American mind has a special inclination to believe in spite of. We love believing for its own sake. In Kurt Anderson’s new book, Fantasyland, he makes a case for why being delusional is synonymous with being American. We came to the continent from Britain in pursuit of gold, searching for thirty years with no proof of its existence other than hearsay from Native Americans trying escape our slaughter. The biblethumpers believed God caused public epileptic fits. We believed Joseph Smith. We created Scientology, the Las Vegas Strip, Disneyland, and pursue illusions above reality simply because it feels better to do so.
In fact, we take our illusions as reality. If given the choice, I’m not sure which one I’d believe. My illusions, that I’m safe, special, and my dreams will come true. Or the reality, which is unknown, constantly changing, perhaps out of my grasp. And I’ve never been one to believe two things at once.
Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.