Conspiracy and epistemology


A fascinating story from Ron Rosenbaum published last month in Smithsonian magazine about the conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy’s assassination, and especially the questions raised by the Zapruder film.

The story is not “pro-conspiracy.”  Instead it ends up being about the need to examine what happened, to make sense of it–about why some people are drawn to the idea that there’s a conspiracy, what need it fulfills.  Rosenbaum suggests (along with Errol Morris, the documentary filmmaker he interviews for the piece) that a conspiracy is somehow easier for us to process, it reduces things to a good vs. evil form that makes a lot more sense, and is a lot less terrifying, than the possibility that the world can be shattered without any malevolent force pulling the strings.

Rosenbaum never mentions Pynchon or The Crying of Lot 49, but the closing (a quote from Morris) is a perfect re-framing of the dilemma posed by Pynchon’s novel.

“Here’s my problem,” Morris replies. “My article of faith is that there’s a real world out there in which things happen. The real world is not indeterminate. I don’t want to hear people misinterpreting the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Something happened. The problem is not about the nature of reality. We know somebody killed Kennedy and there’s an answer to the question of who and why.

“Another thing we know is that we may never learn. And we can never know that we can never learn it. We can never know that we can’t know something. This is the detective’s nightmare. It’s the ultimate detective’s nightmare.”

(The “detective’s nightmare” sounds like it could be an alternate title for Pynchon’s novel.  Except that it’s a dumb title.)

Good story.

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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