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Hendershot, C. (1997). Paranoia and the Delusion of the Total System. Am. Imago, 54(1):15-37.

(1997). American Imago, 54(1):15-37

Paranoia and the Delusion of the Total System

Cyndy Hendershot

Post-World-War-Two American society is popularly and frequently defined by the symptom of paranoia. The paranoia which pervades the McCarthyist witch hunts, the “duck and cover” policy of civil defense, and postwar representations of the alien invader characterize late twentieth century perceptions of 1950s America. Science fiction is the genre most commonly invoked now to represent 1950s paranoia and within 1950s culture it stood as a genre conducive to expressions of fear and paranoia. Los Alamos and the development of the atomic bomb gave rise to numerous cultural texts which attempted to represent what was frequently perceived as the unrepresentable—atomic power. The prehistoric monsters, giant ants, pod people, and other horrors which people 1950s science fiction films attest to what had already been a strong interpenetration between physics and science fiction. The fact that science fiction and paranoiac discourse have affinities becomes manifest in 1950s popular science fiction. Yet the links between the totalizing, systematic worlds of science fiction and the delusional systems constructed by the paranoiac have more subtle connections. Science fiction authors construct comprehensive worlds much as Daniel Paul Schreber creates a complete delusional world in his Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903).1 Yet our very conception of paranoia emerges from a discourse located on the boundary between science and fiction—psychoanalysis. In fact Schreber's most famous interpreter, Sigmund Freud, notes the uncomfortable similarities between Schreber's theory and his own.2 In this study I focus on a postwar American text in which issues of science (represented by the atomic physicist), science fiction, paranoia, and psychoanalysis converge: Robert Lindner's fictionalized account of his analytic sessions with a Los Alamos physicist, “The Jet-Propelled Couch,” contained in his collection of “true psychoanalytic tales,” The Fifty Minute Hour (1954).

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