Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Limitlessness (Books - White Noise by Don DeLillo)

"I don't know what your personal involvement is with this substance," she said, "but I think it's a mistake to lose one's sense of death, even one's fear of death. Isn't death the boundary we need? You have to ask yourself whether anything you do in this life would have beauty and meaning without the knowledge you carry of a final line, a border or limit."
Two of the characters in White Noise, which I finished last night, have a desperate fear of death, so one participates in a study for a new psychotropic medication that inhibits that fear. It made me think about raising kids and how one of the chief roles of the parent is not merely to fill kids up with information about the world - the kids do that naturally provided the right environment - but to create limits so that the child knows where it ends and the world begins, so that the child learns it is not an indomitable force, so that it learns not all things are good, so that it can make choices. I sometimes hear parents talk about their fears of stressing their child out by setting limits - I think the stress is largely their own - those limits are necessary for the child to develop a real sense of the world and to become secure adults. In White Noise it seems like we have become greedy for information, like all babies we're wired that way, but society has provided no limits and that has led to rampant unease.

One of the symptoms of limitlessness and the primacy of information in the world of White Noise is the course that Jack Gladney's colleagues teaches on car crashes in films, as is Jack's own program in "Hitler Studies." In the 1980s holocaust studies programs were rather novel. For some people who lived through the Nazis or lost family to them the notion of studying the holocaust seemed just and necessary to promote better understanding, to not forget, but for others it created outrage - as if one could ever understand such a thing. 'Everything is just a phenomenon,' this idea seems to say, 'it can be learned and then understood fully, and then the fear will go away.' DeLillo takes the notion to its furthest reach with the car crash seminar:

"These are mainly B-movies, TV movies, rural drive-in movies. I tell my students not to look for apocalypse in such places. I see these car crashes as part of a long tradition of American optimism. They are positive events, full of the old 'can-do' spirit. Each car crash is meant to be better than the last. There is a constant upgrading of tools and skills, a meeting of challenges. A director says, 'I need this flatbed truck to do a midair double somersault that produces an orange ball of fire with a thirty-six-foot diameter, which the cinematographer will use to light the scene.' I tell my students if they want to bring technology into it, they have to take this into account, this tendency toward grandiose deeds, toward pursuing a dream."

"A dream? How do you students reply?"

"Just the way you did. 'A dream?' All that blood and glass, that screeching rubber. What about the sheer waste, the sense of a civilization in a state of decay?"

"What about it?" I said.

"I tell them it's not decay they are seeing but innocence. The movie breaks away from complicated human passions to show us something elemental, something fiery and loud and head-on. It's a conservative wish-fulfillment, a yearning for naivete. We want to be artless again. We want to reverse the flow of experience, of worldliness and its responsibilities. My students say, 'Look at the crushed bodies, the severed limbs. What kind of innocence is this?'"

"What do you say to that?"

"I tell them they can't think of a car crash in a movie as a violent act. It's a celebration. A reaffirmation of traditional values and beliefs. I connect car crashes to holidays like Thanksgiving and the Fourth. We don't mourn the dead or rejoice in miracles. These are days of secular optimism, of self-celebration. We will improve, prosper, perfect ourselves. Watch any car crash in any American movie. It is a high-spirited moment like old-fashioned stunt flying, walking on wings. The people who stage these crashes are able to capture a lightheartedness, a carefree enjoyment that car crashes in foreign movies can never approach."

"Look past the violence."

"Exactly. Look past the violence, Jack. There is a wonderful brimming spirit of innocence and fun."

I have gone on and on about how this book prefigures our time in so many ways - here is another. We live in an age now in which Hitler has become a colloquial metaphor. Just the other day I had a conversation with someone who described a person as 'a Hitler.' Well, I know what they mean, but the term still makes me wince. Is there really another one? I guess the distance is natural, perhaps even desirable, we don't want to deify the events of a genocide if we are to understand them, but sometimes the way in which they have become ordinary surprises me. It's a moment I can really see time pass right before my eyes. Is that the destiny of Mugabe, Milosevic, Mao, and Stalin - will they all just become metaphors? And I suppose the answer is yes, that is what we write plays and novels about - real pain - whether that of an individual with a broken heart or a nation with millions of war victims. And that writing and rehearsing allows us to analyze, to feel and to remember - not just to file away and forget. The flip side is to endlessly finger our wounds. To be helpless victims who never recover and that is not a desirable alternative, although there are ways in which our culture plays out this game too, and White Noise is right there with its own example. During the toxic cloud event in the novel there is a hilarious sequence in which a simulation is conducted during the crisis, because they have been waiting for an opportunity to have victims upon whom to practice. The fact that they are real victims doesn't seem to disturb them too much as it is their role to simulate. Following that crisis, more simulations are carried out as now the populace are engaged by their fear or their fervor.

"Move it out, get it out. You're in the exposure swath."

"What's that mean?"

"It means you're dead," he told me.

I backed out of the street and parked the car. Then I walked slowly back down Elm, trying to look as though I belonged. I kept close to storefronts, mingled with technicians and marshals, with uniformed personnel. There were buses, cars, ambulettes. People with electronic equipment appeared to be trying to detect radiation or toxic fallout. In time I approached the volunteer victims. There were twenty or so, prone, supine, draped over curbstones, sitting in the street with woozy looks.

I was startled to see my daughter among them. She lay in the middle of the street, on her back, one arm flung out, her head tilted the other way. I could hardly bear to look. Is this how she thinks of herself at the age of nine - already a victim, trying to polish her skills? How natural she looked, how deeply imbued with the idea of a sweeping disaster. Is this the future she envisions?

Yes. It's one of the roles people love to play in our culture -victim. We prolong the pain and sense of entitlement as long as we can, professionals look grave and sympathetic, and spokespeople are chosen to advocate for rights we supposedly earn as byproducts of our status. - what a concept! Yet another way this brilliant book anticipated our own age. Except DeLillo is able both to find humor in the situation and to create passages of snowballing beauty. So much of his writing in this book is characterized by cascades of language:

storefronts, mingled with technicians and marshals, with uniformed personnel. There were buses, cars, ambulettes. People with electronic equipment appeared to be trying to detect radiation or toxic fallout...


"I don't think I like your potassium very much at all," he went on. "Look here. A bracketed number with computerized stars."

"What does that mean?"

"There's no point your knowing at this stage."

"How was my potassium last time?"

"Quite average in fact. But perhaps this is a false elevation. We are dealing with whole blood. there is the question of a gel barrier. Do you know what this means?"


"There isn't time to explain. We have true elevation and false elevations. This is all you have to know."

"Exactly how elevated is my potassium?"

"It has gone through the roof, evidently."

"What might this be a sign of?"

"It could mean nothing, it could mean a very great deal indeed."

"How great?"

"Now we are getting into semantics," he said.

"What I'm trying to get at is could this potassium be an indication of some condition just beginning to manifest itself, some condition cause perhaps by an ingestion, an exposure, an involuntary spillage-intake, some substance in the air or the rain?"

These little waterfalls of words not only create the beautiful music of this book's language, they embody the fact that questions are answered in this book with myriad possibilities, not with answers - 'it could be this, this, or this,' creating this overflow of information - technology gone mad, one instance in which knowledge isn't power. Look, now I'm doing it!

My other thoughts about White Noise are here and here.


Anne Camille said...

This is one of the best written reviews I've read in a long time. I have a copy of White Noise on a bookshelf somewhere. Now I think I need to unearth it, moving it to the top of the stack!

Ted said...

Cam - Thank you so much. I hope you get as much from this book as I did!