Don DeLillo’s White Noise: The natural language of the species
Bonca is editor of the literary journal Jacaranda. He has published essays on Angela Carter, Saul Bellow, and the canon controversy.
White Noise is probably the only novel written by a white male American in the last fifteen years to have consistently broken through to reading lists at colleges and universities in the United States. Given the canon quakes of the last decade, this stands by itself as a cultural fact worthy of mention. And given the enormous range and high quality of writing by other white males-from old guardists like Mailer, Bellow, Roth, Updike, and Doctorow, to graying eminences of experimentation like Barth, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Coover, Hawkes, Gaddis, and Gass, to bold younger writers like Richard Powers, Ted Mooney, Steven Erickson, and William Vollman-the book’s emergence is all the more remarkable. It is my sense that White Noise has begun to replace The Crying of Lot 49 as the one book professors use to introduce students to a postmodern sensibility. I have taught the book at two universities, to a wide variety of students from different backgrounds, to freshman, upperclassmen, and graduate students, and I can only describe their response to it as rousing. I can’t say it is my teaching that makes this so; I’ve done my share of teaching good books to stone silence. Yet the novel seems to draw out a certain buried awareness in my students that the most familiar aspects of their livesshopping malls, television, families, and the languages of these things-harbor deep and resonant mysteries. It affects them, I think, as a sustained defamiliarization of their own lives. After reading it, it is (or should be) impossible to shop in a supermarket the same way, to watch a televised disaster the same way, even-and this is crucial-to listen to a baby’s cry the same way. Preposterously funny, immediately accessible, yet deeply sophisticated on a formal and stylistic level, White Noise is one of the few novels capable of mastering-perhaps taming-our schizoid confusions about the mass media experience. It is a novel which, because of its wide-ranging explanatory power and uncanny compassion, somehow helps.
Critical appreciation for DeLillo and White Noise continues to mount. We have Tom LeClair’s In The Loop and Arnold Weinstein’s Nobody’s Home, with their explicit or implicit intentions to put DeLillo in the company of the masters of contemporary fiction. Frank Lentricchia’s two collections of essays, one “introducing” Don DeLillo’s corpus as a whole and the other discussing White Noise alone, produce an array of superlatives. Finally, there is a growing number of so-far uncollected essays, the best of which is probably Leonard Wilcox’s “Baudrillard, Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and the End of Heroic Narrative.” However, as Wilcox’s title suggests, and as a perusal of Lentricchia’s and LeClair’s books will bear out, these critics celebrate the novel largely because it seems to illuminate reigning theories of cultural postmodernism, as if it were written as an example of what Fredric Jameson, Jean-Francois Lyotard, or Jean Baudrillard have been saying about our sociocultural condition: White Noise as postmodern prototype. This tendency may have something to do with the fact that White Noise was published in 1985, seemingly in the wake of a number of exciting, much-Xeroxed and muchdiscussed theoretical essays, among them Baudrillard’s “The Ecstasy of Communication,” Jameson’s “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” and Lyotard’s “Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism?” “White Noise and Libra,” writes Wilcox,
with their interest in electronic mediation and representation, present a view of life in contemporary America that is uncannily similar to that depicted by Jean Baudrillard. They indicate that the transformations of contemporary secrets that Baudrillard described in his theoretical writings on information and media have also gripped the mind and shaped the novels of Don DeLillo. (346)
In his “Libra as Postmodern Critique,” Frank Lentricchia calls “the most photographed barn in America episode” from White Noise one of DeLillo’s “primal scenes,” insofar as it signifies that “the environment of the image is the imageit is what (for us) ‘landscape’ has become, and it can’t be turned off with the flick of a wrist. For this environment-as-electronic-medium radically constitutes consciousness and therefore (such as it is) contemporary community-it guarantees that we are a people of, by, and for the image” (Introducing Don DeLillo 195). This kind of analysis comes right out of Baudrillard, with his grandstanding hyperbole about the postmodern world as pure simulacral system, and also recalls Jameson, with his notation of “the fragmentation of the subject,” “a new depthlessness” and “the logic of the simulacrum.”2 Finally, John Frow sees White Noise’s Airborne Toxic Event as an instance of what Lyotard calls postmodern writing (“presenting the unpresentable in presentation itself”), and sees a whole series of episodes in the novel through the lens of Baudrillard’s and Deleuze’s ideas of simulacra (176, 180-83).
Now all these analyses are certainly helpful, an apparent case of the visions of the novelist and the theorist happily dovetailing to mutually illuminating effect. I read White Noise along these lines for several years myself. Yet gradually the congruities between the novel and theories of postmodernism began to slip. It no longer seems to me accurate to call the world of White Noise a “mediascape” or a “mediocracy,” for instance, or to see a smoothly homologous relationship between the “white noise” of the novel and Baudrillard’s concept of simulacra (Wilcox 346; Crowther). Something else is operating in the novel that has been escaping our notice. That something is complicated and can’t be reduced to a single statement, but let me begin by noting that DeLillo’s ideas about language are quite different from those of the postmodern theorists I’ve mentioned. Beginning with The Names, and then in White Noise, Libra, Mao II, and the novella “Pafko At the Wall,” DeLillo has been exploring the idea that language is something more than a ceaseless flow of signifiers with no resting place; furthermore, he’s been suggesting that the “white noise” of consumer culture is saying something far more compelling than that our minds have been colonized by the static of late capitalism. I’d like to explore the proposition that the phenomenon of “white noise” is not merely the cultural dreck of consumerism, nor the demotic language DeLillo’s characters use to shut themselves off from their terror that they will die-far from it, in fact. “White noise” is for DeLillo contemporary man’s deepest expression of his death fear, a strange and genuinely awe-inspiring response to the fear of mortality in the postmodern world.
DeLillo doesn’t articulate a systematic theory of language-few American novelists do-but he has focused increasingly on language not as a system of signifiers and signifieds (that is, as a system of denotation), but as something with a much grander scope: he now appears to see language as a massive human strategy to cope with mortality. In his first few novels, this isn’t true: it was only with his second novel End Zone, DeLillo himself admits, that he even began to realize that “language was a subject as well as an instrument in my work” (Le Clair interview 21). Subsequent novels like End Zone and Great Jones Street fit pretty comfortably into poststructuralist paradigms of language, in which linguistic systems and media culture rigidly constitute the self, reality, and meaning.3 However, even from the beginning DeLillo has been fascinated by the kinds of language that elude systems, classification, or semiotic analysis: consider the hilarious pre-game grunts of the football players in End Zone; Bucky Wunderlick’s “pee-pee-maw-maw” lyrics in Great Jones Street; the babbling domestic intimacies of Lyle and Pammy in Players (“They jostled each other before the refrigerator. `Goody, chedder.’ `What’s these?’ `Brandy snaps.’ ‘Triffic.’ `No you push me you.”‘ ); the glossolalia in The Names; White Noise’s media blips; the avalanche of unprocessable information burying Nicolas Branch in Libra; the ululating crowds in The Names, Mao II and “Pafko At The Wall.” Gradually, I think, this fascination with non-denotative, perhaps “pre-lingusitic” language has begun to occupy the center of DeLillo’s curiousities as a novelist, as if these kinds of utterance speak to, and perhaps of, some mystery that is vital to understanding postmodern culture.4 It is as if DeLillo now listens less to what his culture is saying than to the roar of its saying it. In White Noise’s supermarket, amidst “the toneless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and coffeemaking machines, the cries of children,” Jack Gladney hears “over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension” (36). It is this mysterious “swarming life,” whatever it is, swirling amidst us in the noises we make, that DeLillo seems to be after.5
At the conclusion of Players, Pammy Wyant only understands the meaning of the word “transient” (which defines her better than any other word) when the word itself takes on “an abstract tone” for her, and begins to “[subsist] in her mind as [a] language [unit] that had mysteriously evaded the responsibilities of content” (207). This swerve away from the denotative content of language evolves into something of a conscious strategy for both DeLillo and some of his characters starting with The Names. The novel is a breakthrough book insofar as it articulates for the first time a virtually religious sense of awe before the very fact that language exists, as if DeLillo had discovered an extraordinary mystery in the utterly familiar act of human utterance.6 DeLillo has both James Axton and Owen Brademas learn to attend to language not as attempts to communicate specific meanings but as aural or palpably physical phenomena, whose meanings are less important than the “swarming life” or “being” that seems to emanate from them.7 A fine example of this occurs early in the novel when James, in a typically uncontextualized eruption of wonder, listens to a crowd of Athenians “absorbed in conversation.” It occurs to him that Conversation is life, language is the deepest being. We see the patterns drive the words, the gestures drive the words. It is the sound and picture of humans communicating. It is talk as a definition of itself. Talk. . .
This is a way of speaking that takes such pure joy in its own openness and candor that we begin to feel these people are discussing language itself. What pleasure in the simplest greeting. It is as though one friend says to another, “How good it is to say, `How are you?”‘ The other replying, “When I answer, ‘I am well and how are you,’ what I really mean is that I’m delighted to have a chance to say such familiar things-they bridge the lonely distances.” (52-53) Here James lets language evade the responsibilities of content until it become something else-a broad signifier of something behind or immanent in all denotation (“over it all, or under it all” is another way to put it). In this case, language becomes that which “bridges the lonely distances” between people, that which literally consoles them in their mortal states.
This particular view of what language “really means,” the message hidden though immanent in its very sound, becomes clearer as the novel proceeds. During their exhausting (and beautifully rendered) marital quarrel, James realizes that amidst the pettiness of their accusations, “the pain of separation, the fore-memory of death” hovers over and under their talk (123). “Kathryn dead, odd meditations, pity the sad survivor,” James thinks. “Everything we said denied this. We were intent on being petty. But it was there, a desperate love, the conscious hovering sum of things. It was part of the argument. It was the argument.” Immanent in their language is the apprehension of death: “It was part of the argument, It was the argument.”
Later, Owen and James (after his separation from Kathryn) become fascinated by the names cult, a terrorist group which randomly matches up the initials of towns with the initials of people passing through them, and then ritualistically murders the people because of the coincidence. The group is playing a nihilist end-game with the idea that language is arbitrary, that signifiers and signifieds lack any essential connection. Owen is at first transfixed with the cult’s ideas, sensing a kinship between their mocking but inexorable terror-logic and his own haunting despair brought on by his sense that he himself can never link signifier to Signified, word to Word, as his tongue-speaking Pentecostal forebears were apparently able to do when he was a boy. He follows the cult to India, and in a capitulation to his own nihilism, does nothing while the cult murders one more victim. The game, he then realizes (too late), is up. He can no longer bear what the cult stands for, and makes his own stand against them. He tells James: “[The cult’s] killings mock us. They mock our need to structure and classify, to build a system against the terror in our souls. They make the system equal to the terror. The means to contend with death has become death” (308). This speech, one of the high moments in DeLillo’s work, tells us that language, whatever it specifically denotes, and however it may be used to “subdue and codify” human beings, remains in the broadest sense a manifestation of “our need to build a system against the terror in our souls.” Language is “our means to contend with death,” and therefore the only responsible use of it comes from understanding that this terror dwells in all human utterance. Any other use mocks language. In the simplest terms, then, we need language because it bridges the lonely distances created by the fact that we are all going to die.
Owen’s speech revivifies James Axton: “I came away from the old city feeling I’d been engaged in a contest of some singular and gratifying kind. Whatever [Owen had] lost in life-strength, this is what I’d won” (309).8 Upon his return to Greece, he is finally able to confront the Parthenon (as well as many other things), a monument he’s avoided the entire novel because it has always felt to him too “exalted:” “It is what we’ve rescued from the madness. Beauty, dignity, order, proportion” (3). Yet this time, with the help of Owen’s affirmation of what language’s immanent message is, he can face it. The Parthenon no longer seems to him monumental, “rescued” from history and placed at an imposing remove from human discourse. Now he sees it as part of the human crowd that surrounds it, as part of the babbling white noise of human beings who congregate around beauty, dignity, order, and proportion as a way of handling their own death fears. The result? “I hadn’t expected a human feeling to emerge from the stones but this is what I found, deeper than the art and mathematics embedded in the structure, the optical exactitudes. I found a cry for pity. This is what remains to the mauled stones in their blue surround, this open cry, this voice which is our own” (330). It is a lovely passage, stripped clean of the studied neutrality or corrosive cynicism that has characterized the bulk of DeLillo’s fiction till now. James is able to overcome the monument’s authoritative aura, and to sense in the Parthenon a merely human cry for pity, a testament to our common mortal terror and longing. And he’s able to do this not despite but because of the tourists who talk and snap pictures along the upright fragments of the ruin: “This is a place to enter in crowds, seek company and talk. Everyone is talking. I move past the scaffolding and walk down the steps, hearing one language after another, rich, harsh, mysterious, strong. This is indeed what we bring to the temple, not prayer or chant, or slaughtered ram. Our offering is language” (331). This passage, which ends the novel proper (and precedes the excerpt from Tap’s novel) is the culmination of the novel’s exploration of what DeLillo feels lies immanent in language. Language is the organized utterance of mortals connecting themselves to other mortals. However humans may use language to exploit each other, it is also what binds them in life against the terror of death, and in that respect, it is “the deepest being.” What is so powerful is DeLillo’s serene sense of celebration. Nowhere in DeLillo’s work have his narratives moved to such a sense of climax and epiphany. The Names is itself a kind of annunciation, a novel which takes delight in its selfconscious effort to share the cry of pity which is language, to speak language’s death-echoes while announcing that to speak them is precisely to live most boldly.
The novel’s coda, called “The Prairie” and written by James’s son Tap, is a pure and generous “offering,” a ten year-old’s effort to tell Owen Brademas’s story of how as a boy he was unable to speak in tongues at his Pentecostal church meetings. The text, replete with misspellings, reveals not just language’s slippery multiplicities (as a Joycean text does) but Tap’s own cry for pity. Tap’s own aliveness-his attempt to bridge the lonely distances-keeps poking through the curtains of standard English. Earlier, James says that he finds the “mangled words” of Tap’s novel “exhilirating.” “He’s made them new again, made me see how they worked, what they really were. They were ancient things, secret, reshapable” (313). “The Prairie” is about falling from grace, of course, about a boy’s recognition that he’s filled not with the Word, but simply words. While “worse than a retched nightmare,” this very recognition brings him into the “fallen wonder of the world” (my italics)-which is finally the world of The Names itself, where language, fallen indeed, remains a matter of wonder because, with every utterance, it speaks the mystery of human beings grappling with time and nothingness. And with such a recognition can come the awareness that the human scene is everywhere and always a matter of pity and awe.
The ideas about language that surface in The Names and which pervade White Noise as well are not exactly commensurate with theories propounded by postmodernists. For DeLillo in his later work, language emerges from a definable though mysterious source-the human terror of death-and whatever it denotes, utters under its breath, “I speak to bridge the lonely distances created by our mortality.” This may sound unnecessarily reductive, but there’s good reason, aside from the textual evidence above, to suggest why DeLillo finds such ideas compelling. Tom LeClair notes that Ernest Becker’s book The Denial of Death “is one of the few ‘influences’ [DeLillo] will confirm.”9 Becker’s simple and powerful thesis is that “the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity-activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man” (ix). The death fear is with us from birth, and all human “projects”-especially the language we use to help us construct our belief systems-are designed to evade or deny or conquer the fear of death. Becker’s ideas shadow White Noise at every turn, and help explain some key episodes in the novel.
However, before I explore these episodes, I want to flesh out what “white noise” means in this novel, since I think a limited idea of the term has kept many readers from appreciating the full range of DeLillo’s exploration of postmodern culture. We can begin with the obvious. White noise is media noise, the techno-static of a consumer culture that penetrates our homes and our minds (and our serious novels) with ceaseless trinities of brand-name items (“Dacron, Orlon, Lycra Spandex”) and fragments of TV and radio talk shows (“‘I hate my face,’ a woman said. `This is an ongoing problem with me for years”‘) (White Noise 52, 263). It includes “the human buzz” of transactions taking place at the shopping mall, the “incessant clicking of shutter release buttons” that surrounds the Most Photographed Barn in America, as well as the utterance of a phrase-“Toyota Celica”- by a girl who is coping in sleep with something as terrifying as the Airborne Toxic Event (84, 13, 155). Now, from the point of view of contemporary Marxism or the Frankfurt School, white noise is the manifestation of the final triumph of capitalist appropriation, specifically of late capitalism’s “prodigious expansion . . . into hitherto uncommodified areas….One is tempted to speak in this connection of a new and historically original penetration and colonization of Nature and the Unconscious.” (Jameson, “Postmodernism” 78). From Baudrillard’s perspective, white noise is the realm of the ecstasy of communication, of mass culture’s signifying swirl which disperses the subject into links in the signifying chain, into a mere terminal in Communication’s Mainframe. In such a scenario, life and death have no subjective reality unless they are confirmed by the System. Certainly DeLillo pays at least lip service to such powerful interpretations when he has Jack hear from a medical technician that “death has entered” his body. “You are the sum total of your data,” the man says. “No man escapes that” (141). Jack thinks: “It is when death is rendered graphically, is televised so to speak, that you sense an eerie separation between your condition and yourself. A network of symbols has been introduced, an eerie awesome technology wrested from the gods. It makes you feel like a stranger in your own dying” (142).
Yet clearly Jack will not be a stranger in his own dying-the entire novel is about a man whose death sensations are all too familiar-and the phenomenon of white noise goes far beyond “neutral and reified mediaspeech” or capitalist appropriation (Wilcox 347). White noise manifests itself in much subtler ways, in ways that have little to do with consumerism, mass media, or high technology. It isn’t merely imposed from without by socioeconomic or communicational systems, but emerges from sources originating within the characters, from the same organismic death fear that we find operating in The Names. White noise, therefore, encompasses a wide variety of human utterance, both denotative and not. Examples are everywhere: the melancholy “homemade signs concerning lost dogs and cats, sometimes written in the handwriting of children;” the Gladneys’ charmingly fact-bending family chats (the result of “overcloseness, the noise and heat of being”); the “lowlevel rumble that humans routinely make in a large enclosed space;” Vern Dickey’s parting speech to Babette and Jack (“`Don’t worry about me,’ he said. `The little limp means nothing,”‘); the discussions of the New York emigres (“Did you ever brush your teeth with your finger?”); the “love babble and buzzing flesh” that Jack imagines went on when Babette slept with Willie Mink (4, 81, 137, 255-6, 67, 241). What all these phenomena share is a passion for utterance to “bridge the lonely distances,” to “establish a structure against the terror of our souls.” It is language as the denial of death, as the evasion of what cannot be evaded. “Pain, death, reality,” Murray Jay Siskind will say: “we can’t bear these things as they are. We know too much. So we resort to repression, compromise, and disguise. This is how we survive in the universe. This is the natural language of the species” (289).
Let’s take up one example of “the natural language of the species”: Babette’s father’s speech to his daughter and son-in-law, which is a comic masterstroke of death-evasion. Now Vernon Dickey is on his last legs, a man with a horrible chronic cough, and the “look of a ladies’ man in the crashdive of his career” (245). Given the man’s health and woefully erratic visiting habits, clearly the reason Babette cries so much when he’s about to leave is because she’s not sure she will ever see him again. But his speech, which rolls off his tongue with a hurling momentum that soon dwarfs the substance of what he’s saying, is pure driven white noise. To capture this essential momentum, I quote at length:
“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “The little limp means nothing. People my age limp. A limp is a natural thing at a certain age. Forget the cough. It is healthy to cough. You move the stuff around. The stuff can’t harm you as long as it doesn’t settle in one spot and stay there for years. So the cough’s all right. So is the insomnia. The insomnia’s all right. What do I gain by sleeping? You reach an age when every minute of sleep is one less minute to do useful things. To cough or limp. Never mind the women. The women are all right. We rent a cassette and have some sex. It pumps blood to the heart. Forget the cigarettes. I like to tell myself I’m getting away with something. Let the Mormons quit smoking. They’ll die of something just as bad. The money’s no problem. I’m all set incomewise. Zero pensions, zero savings, zero stocks and bonds. So you don’t have to worry about that. That’s all taken care of. Never mind the teeth. The teeth are all right. The looser they are, the more you can wobble them with your tongue. It gives the tongue something to do. Don’t worry about the shakes. Everybody gets the shakes now and then. It is only the left hand anyway. The way to enjoy the shakes is pretend it is somebody else’s hand. Never mind the sudden and unexplained weight loss. There’s no point eating what you can’t see. Don’t worry about the eyes. The eyes can’t get any worse than they are now. Forget the mind completely. The mind goes before the body. That’s the way it is supposed to be. So don’t worry about the mind. The mind is all right. Worry about the car. The steering’s all awry. The brakes were recalled three times. The hood shoots up on pothole terrain.” (255-6)
The remarkable effect of his deadpan speech is that Babette breaks up in helpless laughter; she “walk[s] in little circles of hilarity, weak-kneed, shambling, all her fears and defenses adrift in the sly history of his voice” (256). This is what white noise often does: it sets one’s fears and defenses about death adrift within language (which captures and-somehow- neutralizes them), and for a time those fears are assuaged. They can even be turned to laughter, and redeem the moment from the death-fear’s grip. Vernon Dickey knows what Murray knows about the responsibility of dying men: “What people look for in a dying friend is a stubborn kind of gravel-voiced nobility, a refusal to give in, with moments of indomitable humor” (284).
What the novel brings together, then, are two kinds of white noise: that which is a product of late capitalism and a simulacral society, and that which has always been “the natural language of the species”-death evasion-and which now gets expressed in the argot of consumer culture. The result is a vision of contemporary America that bypasses cultural critique in favor of recording awe at what our civilization has wrought. Because for DeLillo, while white noise certainly registers the ways in which Americans evade their death fear, it can also be heard-provided we learn to listen properly-as a moving and quite beautiful expression of that death fear. It becomes nothing less than a stirring revelation of the fear of death, a noise of great (and frankly, unpostmodern) pathos.
At the height of their “major dialogue,” Jack and Babette explicitly connect their fear of death to white noise. Says Jack to his wife:
“How strange it is. We have these deep terrible lingering fears about ourselves and the people we love. Yet we walk around, talk to people, eat and drink. We manage to function. The feelings are deep and real. Shouldn’t they paralyze us? How is it we can survive them, at least for a while? We drive a car, we teach a class. How is it no one sees how deeply afraid we were, last night, this morning? Is it something we all hide from each other, by mutual consent? Or do we share the same secret without knowing it?
Wear the same disguise?
“What if death is nothing but sound?”
“You hear it forever. Sound all around. How awful.”
“Uniform, white.” (198)
This is a breathtakingly loaded passage, and among its virtues is DeLillo’s hint to the reader about how to listen to white noise-not simply as cultural detritus but as the manifestation of an attempt to communicate one’s fear and hence to “bridge the lonely distances.” Life, Jack says here, is lived in virtually unbroken terror that it will end. How do we survive? By repression, of course-by personal and culture-wide denial of the death-fear. But perhaps, Jack gropes, “we share the same secret without knowing it” (my italics): perhaps we speak our death terror all the time without realizing it. In the mysterious way some couples have of understanding the drift of one lover’s words when even the lover himself doesn’t quite understand what he’s saying, Babette urges them both on to the notion that death itself might just be filled with white noise. And if that is so, what is all the noise-not just media/consumer noise but the noise they make while they “walk around, talk to people, eat and drink”-that surrounds them in life? It can only be their intimations of death; it is the death-fear expressed in the only terms that a postmodern media culture knows how to express it.
Three important passages in the novel reveal that there is wonder and a curious kind of revelation in the recognition that white noise communicates the death-fear. In each one, Jack hears a different kind of white noise, and by a mysterious entrance into its sound, he experiences what can only be called an epiphany. It is not the kind of epiphany which changes his character; Jack enters, each time, into a strange relation with the sound which is seemingly timeless, and has no after-effects in the temporal realm. The epiphanic revelations don’t help him “deal” with his death-fear in any tangible way, especially because Jack doesn’t know what it is he’s experiencing. (This ignorance, incidentally, signifies the major difference between Jack and James Axton, who not only learns to read white noise as an expression of the death fear, but incorporates this knowledge into both his life and the text he writes.) Jack never gathers the revelations together into something he can use in the future.
The first moment comes during Wilder’s seven-hour stint of crying. Ernest Becker spends some crucial early pages in The Denial of Death arguing that even for infants, the death-terror is “all-consuming.”lo When Babette wonders if it isn’t a little silly to contact a doctor just to say “My baby is crying,” Jack, in that marvelously panicked way of his, blurts out, “Is there a condition more basic?” (75). As Jack drives Babette to her sitting, standing, and walking class-Wilder wailing between them-Jack begins to feel that “there was something permanent and soul-struck in this crying. It was a sound of inbred desolation” (77). Becker would give a nod here. But the scene becomes most fascinating when, after Jack drops Babette off, he drives Wilder around. The boy’s “huge lament continued, wave after wave.”
He was crying out, saying nameless things in a way that touched me with its depth and richness. This was an ancient dirge all the more impressive for its resolute monotony. Ululation. I held him upright with a hand under each arm. As the crying continued, a curious shift developed in my thinking. I found that I did not necessarily wish him to stop. (78)
Anyone who has ever borne the sustained bawl of a child will surely wonder about this “curious shift.” What prompts it?
The inconsolable crying went on. I let it wash over me, like rain in sheets. I entered it, in a sense. I let it fall and tumble across my face and chest. I began to think he had disappeared inside this wailing noise and if I could join him in his lost and suspended place we might together perform some reckless wonder of intelligibility. (78)
The boy’s crying becomes a secret inhabitable space which is “strangely soothing.” “It might not be so terrible, I thought, to have to sit here for four more hours, with the motor running and the heater on, listening to this uniform lament” (78). Why? Jack, I’d argue, has hit upon the secret we all share without knowing it. In his hysterical terror, Wilder is expressing (however unconsciously) his death fear, and in a primal way is trying to “bridge the lonely distances.” He is doing what James Axton in The Names says all language does, only here it is in a “large and pure,” prelinguistic form. The connection between Wilder’s crying and language in The Names tightens in the chapter’s last paragraph, when, the crying jag finally concluded, Jack notes that Wilder looks
as though he’d just returned from a period of wandering in some remote and holy place, in sand barrens or snowy ranges-a place where things are said, sights are seen, distances reached which we in our ordinary toil commonly regard with the mingled reverence and wonder we hold in reserve for feats of the most sublime and difficult dimensions. (79)
I don’t think there’s a single note of hyperbole here. Wilder has come back from “a remote and holy place:” the place where death is confronted without the benefit of the protections the ego establishes against it-just as Owen Brademas, who gradually strips himself of ego protections in The Names, confronts it while following the death-cult from Greece to India. And the religious language Jack employs evokes his exalted feeling that sharing his death-terror with his son is a primordial human moment.
A second epiphanic moment comes during the Airborne Toxic Event. Jack, having had a computer confirm just minutes earlier that “death has entered” his body, overhears his daughter Steffie whisper in her sleep the words “Toyota Celica.” He responds by saying that “the utterance struck me with the impact of a moment of splendid transcendence” (141, 155). Critics so far have been baffled by what seems to them Jack’s outsized response to his daughter’s words, but if we see Steffie’s outburst as an example of the death-fear speaking through consumer jargon, then Jack’s wondrous awe will strike us, strange as it may seem, as absolutely appropriate.ll It is tempting, particularly if one is used to ironizing any talk of transcendence in a postmodern novel, to say that Jack’s desperation in hearing that Nyodene-D has entered his system has simply overcome him, and that he is already predisposed to expect the hieratic from sleeping children:
Watching children sleep makes me feel devout, part of a spiritual system. It is the closest I can come to God. If there is a secular equivalent of standing in a great spired cathedral with marble pillars and streams of mystical light slanting through two-tier Gothic windows, it would be watching children in their little bedrooms fast asleep. Girls especially. (147)
However, the shock Jack feels when he hears what Steffie has spoken goes beyond even what he expected: “A long moment passed before I realized this was the name of an automobile. The truth only amazed me more” (155, my italics). Something splendid, if not transcendent, is indeed going on. We have to remember, first of all, that Steffie is seven years old, and living without her real mother-which we know troubles her because, while perfectly capable of watching TV disaster footage with the rest of the family, she runs out of the room whenever a sitcom Dad argues with a sitcom Mom. The novel doesn’t dramatize her vulnerability (DeLillo is never sentimental), but it hardly needs pointing out that the Airborne Toxic Event has terrified her. Steffie is less equipped to handle the cloud’s terror than anyone in the novel, even Wilder, who is too young to register this external deaththreat. Steffie incorporates the terror of the entire day’s events, and in sleep communicates her fear in the only way she knows: by babbling “Toyota Celica.” It is as if she has-with the wisdom that DeLillo attributes to Wilder in this novel and to children in general in an interviewl2 -understood what the hopped-hysteria of mass advertising has really been saying all along (beneath, below or above it all), which is this: You are afraid of dying; let this phrase, this sound-bite, this whirling bit of language so pervasive worldwide that it can serve as common coin in Sri Lanka or Schenectady, Rio de Janeiro or Reykjavik-let it soothe your fears; let your dread dissolve in the chanting of this media mantra.
The language DeLillo uses to lead up to Jack’s moment is telling. Steffie’s utterance “was beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder. It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform” (155). This description recalls the hieratic language of The Names, of course, and Owen Brademas’s desire to touch the stones that had been etched with hieroglyphics by ancient tribes. “It made me feel that something hovered,” Jack says. “But how could this be? A simple brand name, an ordinary car. How could these near-nonsense syllables, murmured in a child’s restless sleep, make me sense a meaning, a presence?” (155). Jack cannot answer, but a reader informed about DeLillo’s sense of language surely can. Jack has touched the quick of his daughter’s death-fear here just as he had with Wilder earlier. What is so splendid about the scene is that the most demotic language speaks the death fear in a way that is at once wondrous, comic, and pathetic (in both senses of the word). It is a moment of powerfully charged ambivalances: pathetic that Steffie has had to express her fears this way, but amazing that she does; awe-inspiring what strange psychic trails she had to follow to make her deepest fears heard, equally wondrous that on some level, they are heard.l3
The third epiphanic moment I’d like to discuss takes place near the end of the novel, after Jack has shot Willie Mink and is being treated by Sister Hermann Marie for a flesh wound to his wrist. Jack has shot Willie in a psychological re-enactment of a Nazi’s efforts to conquer his own death fears by killing others. Jack has wounded Willie in a state of psychopathic omnipotence-then is shot in return. However, this is not one of those shootings where a man discovers his own human connection to another person through the spilling of blood. Jack only comes to a sense of human connection later, in his chat with Sister Hermann Marie. What she tells Jack, in effect, is that priests and nuns of the Catholic church just speak another kind of white noise. They don’t “believe” their teachings; they help people evade death with a torrent of doctrine, litanies, catechism-language. The church’s job is to give comfort, and the white noise of religion provides that. At first, Jack rejects her argument, insisting that real belief is necessary, that it is the substance of the belief that counts, that the Church can’t just be pretending. But Sister Hermann Marie scoffs at his naivete. When Jack fails to understand her, she gives up any attempt to explain herself with denotative language. Instead she begins by “spraying [Jack] with German”-a language which Jack, despite his Sisyphean attempts to learn it, cannot understand. However, it is better that he can’t, for from the nun bursts
A storm of words. She grew more animated as the speech went on. A gleeful vehemence entered her voice. She spoke faster, more expressively. Blood vessels flared in her eyes and face. I began to detect a cadence, a measured beat. She was reciting something, I decided. Litanies, hymns, catechisms. The mysteries of the rosary perhaps. Taunting me with scornful prayer.
The odd thing is I found it beautiful. (320)
Again, the question here is why Jack reacts the way he does. But by now we know the answer. He’s heard the message immanent in the rhythms and patterns of this white noise, but he’s had to hear it in a pure, babbling, glossolalic form before it can have an effect on him. He finds it beautiful because, once again, he’s glimpsed the quick of the human death-fear, heard the naked cry for pity implicit in all human speech, heard “the offering” of “language” which is stripped of all meaning except the desire to “bridge the lonely distances.”
The strategy of death-evasion-“the natural language of the species”that characterizes white noise illuminates much of the novel. Jack’s immersion in Hitler studies is clearly his attempt to bury himself in a discourse so horrible that his own death-fear is made puny. (Says Murray, “Hitler is larger than death. You thought he could protect you. . . .You wanted to be helped and sheltered. The overwhelming horror would leave no room for your own death. `Submerge me,’ you said. `Absorb my fear”‘ ). Dylar is a kind of pharmaceutical reification of white noise: a pill to evade the deathfear. Heinrich’s techno-nerd behavior-his pen-pal relationship with convicted murderer Tommy Roy Foster; his friendship with Orest Mercator and his attempts to immortalize himself in the Guinness Book of Records; his confident recital of scientific facts at the Red Cross center during the Airborne Toxic Event-all of these rehearse his attempt to diminish his death-fear. Finally, DeLillo explicitly associates Jack’s attempt to kill Willie Mink (the ultimate strategy for evading death, as Murray makes clear, is to kill someone else) with white noise: after listening to one of Willie’s rambling speeches, Jack “heard a noise, faint, monotonous, white”; getting ready to fire, Jack notes “he precise nature of events. Things in their actual state . .White noise everywhere”; finally, when Jack actually fires the gun, DeLillo describes it this way: “the sound snowballed, in the white room.. .” (306, 310, 312).
Yet there remains a problem with this reading, and its name is Murray Jay Siskind. Murray is the one character in White Noise who isn’t afraid of dying. Practically everyone else in the book walks through the novel in a state of suppressed terror, and it comes out in all manner of strange and lovely behavior. (In fact, the principle behind Jack’s narrative voice-which in my view is the novel’s greatest aesthetic achievement, and deserves separate treatmentis Jack’s enormous awe at the most familiar events, an awe that comes from his knowledge that the backdrop for the familiar is the dark mystery of mortality.) Murray, however, manages to express only delight, or else mere semiotic interest, in the phenomena around him. When he takes Jack to The Most Photographed Barn in America, he tells Jack that in this prototypical simulacral scene, “We can’t get outside the aura. We’re part of the aura.” While Jack doesn’t need to fill us in on his own reaction to this-wondrous ambivalence, as always-he does add that Murray “seemed immensely pleased by this” (13). He, not Jack, is the true Baudrillardian man, the true ecstatic in the world of Communication. Immersed academically in “American magic and dread,” he feels no dread himself (19). At the Gladney home, while the family watches in confusion, awe, and fear as Babette appears on the TV set, Murray is as removed and unmoved as a video camera: “[Wilder] remained at the TV set, within inches of the dark screen, crying softly, uncertainly, in low heaves and swell, as Murray took notes” (105). During the Airborne Toxic Event, while everyone else is wandering around terrified, Murray is soliciting prostitutes to perform the Heimlich maneuver on him (!). Finally, in his most fateful action, Murray carefully guides Jack through a thicket of rationalization into a psychological clearing where it appears that the only thing Jack can do about his death fear is to kill Willie Mink.
Throughout their “serious looping Socratic walk,” Murray insists that “I’m only a visiting lecturer. I theorize” and that “We’re a couple of academics taking a walk,” which suggests he’s oblivious to the “practical consequences” such a walk will have on a man whose death-fear is so powerful he’s willing to try anything to overcome it (282, 293, 291, 282). Murray’s logic has a brilliant inevitability to it: the death-fear seems unassailable. A “meaningful,” “interesting” life won’t help us deal with it, nor will love overcome it. Either one can place one’s trust in technology (“Give yourself up to it, Jack. Believe in it. They’ll insert you in a gleaming tube, irradiate your body with the basic stuff of the universe”), or “you can always get around death by concentrating on the life beyond,” or one can put oneself under one “spell” or another to help one forget death (285, 287). When it becomes clear that none of these options will work for Jack, Murray goes on a tear of death-naming:
“The vast and terrible depth.”
“Of course,” [Jack] said.
“The whole huge nameless thing.”
“The massive darkness.”
“The whole terrible endless hugeness.”
“I know exactly what you mean.” (288)
What has he communicated? Nothing, really. This kind of head-on denotation is impotent before the death terror. In The Names, this attempt to “bridge the lonely distances” might have been enough to temporarily ward off the death fear, but not here, not just because Jack’s death fear is so much balder than James Axton’s, but more importantly because Murray’s own language is disembodied: it doesn’t acknowledge a death-fear of its own, and thus Jack has nothing to “bridge” his own fear to. In Jack’s mind, his only remaining option is to kill Willie Mink.
Murray, then, is both the novel’s ecstatic seer and its evil presence. He mouths the most brilliant lines in the book, and clearly speaks many of DeLillo’s observations about postmodern society. At the same time, he is the most compelling element in the plot’s movement “deathward,” and his clinical objectivity is unearthly. He may as well be from another planet. If every other character is actuated by his or her death fear, Murray’s character is precisely defined by his lack of one. He is a man without a self, for in this novel to have no death fear is to have no self.l4 It is not Murray, but Jack, speaking with that disarmingly baffled voice, whose unintended humor gives off the novel’s brilliant sheen of tender irony, who is capable of uttering the mysteries of white noise.
I have tried throughout this essay to suggest that DeLillo’s attitude toward the world of his novel is generous-spirited; it is not so much that he is uncritical toward a mass consumer society as that he has attempted to complicate the stiff categories of ideological or cultural critique. The novel does not “celebrate” the white noise of advertising and mass media-of course not. But it realizes that it is in that noise that our terrors and longings can be read. The effect of the narrative as a whole is similar to that achieved by Laurie Anderson in her performance piece, “Oh Superman.” The entire song-a daring and very moving meditation on the need for us to let authorities (government, ideologies, “Mom and Dad”) assume the responsibilities of our freedom in the postmodern world-has for its backing “rhythm track” a tape loop of Anderson imitating a vulnerable child’s voice, chanting “Ah ah ah ah ah ah….” Perhaps because the voice seems trapped in that tape loop, and because it serves as a backdrop for the adult terror enacted in the song, the effect is startling: a listener feels a terrible pathetic identification with the child, though the song itself is laced with cool synthesizers and a distancing irony. In White Noise, everyone is that tape-looped child, cooing its need and fear through a forest of technologized culture.
The novel also puts one in mind of Wim Wenders’s extraordinary Wings of Desire. In that 1987 film, Bruno Ganz plays the angel Damiel, who listens with great tenderness to the internal and external conversations of human beings. Despite the enormous variety of the human utterances, it is impossible for a viewer to hear these utterances without attending to a gradual realization: all these people are going to die. Hearing human utterance from a caring angel’s point of view, we hear human language under the sign of eternity. Under that sign, language cannot help but emanate its own mortal gleanings. Damiel decides in the end to give up his celestial status because he has fallen in love with a mortal, and he knows that without knowing what mortality is like, his love will mean nothing. For to know what it is to be human is to know what it is to die. Perhaps only an angel can truly understand such a thing-it is what makes an angel an angel. But for us humans, these are probably unbearable words: they are what make murder, suicide and all manner of violence conceivable. Yet they also send up gorgeous desperate flurries of white language, and make such amazing novels as DeLillo’s possible.
1. Baudrillard’s essay was first published in Hal Foster’s The Anti-Aesthetic and later expanded into a monograph with the same name; Jameson’s essay appeared first
in The New Left Review and was later made the introductory chapter to his massive Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism; Lyotard’s essay was appended to his highly influential book, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge . It was these texts, rather than the brilliant and innovative work of Ihab Hassan during the seventies and early eighties, that really broke down academic resistance to postmodernism.
2Cf. Fredric Jameson’s essay, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” 63, 58, and 85. In the book of the same name, the page references are 14, 6, and 46, respectively, though Jameson alters the language slightly in the first case.
3Surely the most persuasive and helpful chapter in LeClair’s In The Loop-a book which runs DeLillo’s novels through a host of theoretical paradigms which often wrench the life right out of them-is the one in which he looks at End Zone in terms of Derrida’s critique of logocentrism. In that chapter, the fit between novel and paradigm is true.
4Cf. Dennis A. Foster’s “Alphabetic Pleasures: The Names” in Lentricchia’s Introducing Don DeLillo 157-173, particularly 159-160, for an evocative though all too brief exploration of DeLillo’s interest in prelinguistic utterance, using Julia Kristeva’s ideas of the semiotic, the symbolic, and the chora as markers in his theoretical grid.
5 Any explication of what DeLillo means by “mystery” and the “swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension” threatens to become portentous, swollen by metaphysical-and yes, German-rhetoric. I’m afraid this is unavoidable. DeLillo’s tightest philosophical connections are not with Baudrillard or Lyotard, but with Heidegger. Consider the similarities in their outlooks: their shared conviction that it is the “familiar” or the “at-hand” that yields the deepest meaning; their shared fascination with etymology; Heidegger’s explicit belief, and DeLillo’s performative one, that the world must be viewed from a stance of “radical astonishment”; the closeness of the statements “language is the deepest being” (DeLillo) and “Language is the House of Being” (Heidegger); their concepts of immanance-Being for Heidegger, intimations of “presence” or “something hover[ing]” in DeLillo; their metaphors of “illumination” or “unconcealment” in epiphany; and finally, their preoccupation with death. This essay will not offer a Heideggerian reading; however, while Heidegger begins his philosophical system with a conviction about Being’s presence, DeLillo is never less than racked with ontological doubt. The “presences” that hover occasionally in DeLillo’s fiction appear as fleeting visitations which leave nothing behind but an awed sense of wonder in those who witness them. Still, Heidegger’s ghost exerts a powerful presence in DeLillo’s work; he hovers over it all, or under it all-a fitfully locatable roar.
6In the Paris Review interview, DeLillo says “with this book I tried to find a deeper level of seriousness as well. The Names is the book that marks the beginning of a new dedication” (284).
7We must tread carefully here. The Names is a dense and complicated book that is almost entirely about language, and I will delineate in this essay mainly what I consider DeLillo’s breakthrough affirmation of human utterance. Yet, as Michael J. Morris has pointed out, the novel also engages the idea that language is profoundly dangerous, that in its zeal to name and denote, it “subdues and codifies” all that it touches (Names 80). Morris argues that in The Names, language, like international corporatism or the names cult itself, is repressive and murderous. Morris makes a fine case for this reading, but in the end he cannot explain the patently affirmative tone of the book’s ending. As I’ll try to show here, when DeLillo and his characters finally stop
listening to language as denotation and listen to it as utterance instead-when at last language “evades the responsibilities of content”-what is immanent in language emerges, and the novel’s powerful affirmation of language becomes possible.
8James is really a changed man upon his return. He is able to quit his job immediately upon realizing he’s been a CIA dupe, and he realizes that his own “blind involvement” in the CIA constitutes a “failure to concentrate, to occupy a serious center-it had the effect of justifying everything Kathryn had ever said about me. Every dissatisfaction, mild complaint, bitter grievance. They were all retroactively correct. It was that kind of error, unlimited in connection and extent, shining a second light on anything and everything. In the way I sometimes had of looking at things as she might look at them, I saw myself as the object of her compassion and remnant love” (317). Finally, in quitting his risk analyst position, he’s able to sit down and write the book we’re reading: “These are among the people I’ve tried to show twice, the second time in memory and language. Through them, myself. They are what I’ve become, in ways I don’t understand but which I believe will accrue to a rounded truth, a second life for me as well as them” (329). James’s reflections here are all lifeand language-affirming, a far cry from his earlier cynicism and desperation. Owen is the immediate cause.
9Le Clair, In The Loop 213. DeLillo made this confirmation in personal correspondence to Le Clair.
10 Becker 15. Becker makes the primary argument about children and the fear of death on pages 13-23, but I can summarize by saying that for Becker “the child…lives with an inner sense of chaos” whose root is the organismic “fear of annihilation.” This fear, Becker goes on, quoting Gregory Zilboorg, “undergoes most complex elaborations and manifests itself in many indirect ways.” The death fear becomes in fact “a complex symbol and not any particular, sharply defined thing to the child.” Thus, children’s “recurrent nightmares, their universal fear of insects and dogs”-these and other fears have at their base the terror of death. Becker takes pains not “to make the child’s world seem more lurid than it is most of the time”-Becker is an enviably quiet and balanced thinker-but he does insist that phenomenologically, having an infant’s consciousness “is too much for any animal to take, but the child has to take it, and so he wakes up screaming with almost punctual regularity during the period when his weak ego is in the process of consolidating things” (19-20).
11 Le Clair calls Steffie’s words simply “a product of consumer conditioning,” but since that is all he makes of them, he cannot explain why Jack would sense something transcendent in them. He dismisses Jack’s response by calling it “a delusion” and an attempt to escape consciousness (Le Clair 219). Frow suggests that Steffies’s words come from the “unconscious of her culture,” but realizes that this recognition alone is insufficient to bring on Jack’s “moment of splendid transcendence.” Frow concludes his discussion of the issue with this: “The question of the source of enunciation of [Toyota Celica] remains an interesting one” (Frow 426). Arnold Weinstein quotes the episode only to say “One hardly knows what to make of such renderings, these epiphanic moments,” except that they demonstrate the Frankfurt School chestnut that the “inner life” has been colonized by the “outer” life (Weinstein 306). Finally, Wilcox, in passing, explains Jack’s epiphany as an attempt to “glean meanings from the surrounding noise of culture. Jack is drawn toward occasions of existential selffashioning, heroic moments of vision in a commodified world.” However, Wilcox’s entire article is about the end of the heroic narrative, and so his use of the adjective “heroic” to describe Jack is meant ironically (Wilcox 349).
12 In his interview with Anthony DeCurtis, DeLillo says that “I think we feel, perhaps superstitiously, that children have a direct route to, have direct contact to the kind of natural truth that eludes us as adults.There is something they know but cannot tell us. Or there is something they remember which we’ve forgotten (DeCurtis 302).
13 In the 1993 Paris Review interview, when asked to comment on the Toyota Celica incident, DeLillo replied: “When you detach one of these words from the product it was designed to serve, the word acquires a chantlike quality. . ..If you concentrate on the sound, if you disassociate the words from the object they denote, and if you say the words over and over, they become a sort of higher Esperanto. This is how Toyota Celica came to life. It was pure chant at the beginning. Then they had to find an object to accommodate the words” (291). The interviewer doesn’t ask what that “object” is, but that doesn’t take much effort. Given the scene’s context, it can only be Steffie`s fear of death.
I4The novel identifies selfhood explicitly in terms of the fear of death. Winnie Richards tells Jack that the sight of a grizzly bear is “so electrifyingly strange that it gives you a renewed sense of yourself-a fresh awareness of the self-the self in terms of a unique and horrific situation.” Jack responds, “Fear is self-awareness raised to a higher level.” “That’s right,” Winnie answers. “And death?” Jack asks. “Self, self, self,” she says. “If death can be seen as less strange and unreferenced, your sense of self in relation to death will diminish, and so will your fear.” “What do I do to make death less strange?” Jack implores. “How do I go about it.” Winnie’s frustrating answer: “I don’t know.” (229).
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Copyright West Chester University Jun 1996
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