The romantic metaphysics of Don DeLillo.
First, in recognition of the special role literature itself has played in establishing the credibility of visionary moments, postmodern writers might draw on the resources of metafiction to parodically "lay bare" the essentially literary nature of such moments. Baldly stated, the visionary moment could be exposed as a literary convention, that is, a concept that owes more to the practice of organizing narratives around a sudden illumination (as in, say, the narratives of Wordsworth's Prelude or Joyce's Dubliners) than to real-life experience. Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 is premised on this assumption. Pynchon's sleuthlike protagonist, Oedipa Maas, finds herself in a situation in which clues--contrary to the resolution of the standard detective story--proliferate uncontrollably, thereby impeding the emergence of a final enlightenment or "stelliferous Meaning" (82). It is a situation that not only frustrates Oedipa, who is continually tantalized by the sense that "a revelation . . . trembled just past the threshold of her understanding"(24), but which also mocks the reader's expectation of a revelation that will close the narrative.
A second postmodern response might be to assess tire credibility of the visionary moment in the light of poststructuralist theory. Hence the representation of a visionary moment as if it embodied a final, fast-frozen truth, one forever beyond the perpetually unstable relationship of signifier to signified, would be open to the charge of "logocentrism" (where the transient "meaning effects" generated by the endless disseminations of language are mistaken for immutable meanings). Moreover, implied here is the subject's transcendent vantage point in relation to the visionary moment. For the knowledge that the "moment" conveys is always apprehended in its totality; there is no current of its meaning that escapes or exceeds this implicitly omnipotent consciousness. As if beyond the instabilities and surplus significations of language, the subject is assumed to be the sole legislator of (All of which is to say nothing of any unconscious investment in the meaning of the visionary moment).
A third postmodern response might deny the very conditions of possibility for a visionary moment in contemporary culture. The communication revolution, seen by sociologists like Baudrillard to be the key constitutive feature of our age, has aggrandized the media to the point where signs have displaced their referents, where images of the Real have usurped $he authority of the Real, whence the subject is engulfed by simulacra. In the space of simulation, the difference between "true" and "false," "actual" and "imaginary," has imploded. Hence Romantic and modernist conceptions of visionary moments--typically premised on metaphysical assumptions of supernal truth--are rendered obsolete in a culture suffused with simulacra; for under these "hyperreal" conditions, the visionary moment can only reproduce the packaged messages of the mass media.
What these three responses to the truth claims of the visionary moment share is a radically antimetaphysical stance. We see the visionary moment, with all its pretensions to truth and transcendence, exposed as (1) a literary convention, (2) a logocentric illusion, and (3) a hyperreal construct. In short, the metaphysical foundations of traditional conceptions of the visionary moment cannot survive the deconstructive thrust of postmodern thinking.
This essay will examine the status of the visionary moment in particular, and of visionary experience in general, in three of Don DeLillo's novels namely, White Noise (1985) The Names (1982), and Libra (1988). DeLillo has been widely hailed as an exemplar of postmodernist writing Typically, this assessment rests on readings that focus on his accounts of the postmodern experience of living in a hyperreality.(1) But to postmodernize DeLillo is to risk losing sight of the (conspicuously unpostmodern) metaphysical impulse that animates his work. Indeed, the terms in which he identifies visionary experience in his fiction will be seen to align him so closely with a Romantic sensibility that they must radically qualify any reading of him as a postmodern writer.
In part 2 of White Noise, the Gladney family shelters at a local barracks from the toxic cloud of a chemical spill. As Jack Gladney observes his children sleeping, he recounts a visionary moment. It begins as follows:
Steffie ... muttered something in her sleep. It seemed important that I know
what it was. In my current state, bearing the death impression of the Nyodene
cloud, I was ready to search anywhere for signs and hints, intimations of odd
comfort.... Moments later she spoke again.... but a language not quite of this
world. I struggled to understand. I was convinced she was saying something,
fitting together units of stable meaning. I watched her face, waited.... She
uttered two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time, words
that seemed to have a ritual meaning, part of a verbal spell or ecstatic chant.
Before I continue the quotation, consider the following issues. Up to this point, DeLillo has manipulated his readers' expectations; what we expect from Gladney's daughter, Steffie, is a profound, revelatory utterance. Instead, we are surprised by (what appears to be) a banality: "Toyota Celica." Here it looks as if DeLillo is mocking the traditional faith in visionary moments or, more precisely, ironically questioning the very possibility of such moments in a postmodern culture. After all, a prominent feature of that culture is the prodigious, media-powered expansion of marketing and public relations campaigns to the point where their catchwords and sound bites colonize not just the public sphere but also, it seems, the individual unconscious. Henceforth, even the most personal visionary experience appears to be constituted by the promotional discourses of a consumer society. However, the irony of this apparently post modern account of a visionary moment proves to be short-lived as Gladney immediately recounts his response to Steffie's words:
A long moment passed before I realized this was the name of an
automobile. The truth only amazed me more. The 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. It
made me feel that something hovered. But how could this be? A simple
brand name, an ordinary car. How could these near-nonsense words,
murmured in a child's restless sleep, make me sense a meaning, a
presence? She was only repeating some TV voice.... Whatever its
source, the utterance struck me with the impact of a moment of splendid
The tenor of this passage is not parodic; the reader is prompted by the analytical cast and searching tone of Gladney's narration to listen in earnest. Gladney's words are not to be dismissed as delusional, nor are they to be depreciated as those of "a modernist displaced in a postmodern world" (Wilcox 348). The passage is typical of DeLillo's tendency to seek out transcendent moments in our postmodern lives that hint at possibilities for cultural regeneration. Clearly, the principal point of the passage is not that "Toyota Celica" is the signifier of a commodity (and as such has only illusory significance as a visionary utterance), but that as a name it has a mystical resonance and potency: "It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky," a name that is felt to be "part of a verbal spell or ecstatic chant." For what is revealed to Gladney in this visionary moment is that names embody a formidable power. And this idea is itself the expansive theme, explored in its metaphysical implications, of The Names, the novel that immediately preceded White Noise. Indeed, when read in conjunction with The Names, the metaphysical issues of White Noise can be brought into sharper relief.
The Names addresses the question of the mystical power of names: secret names (210, 294), place names (102-3, 239-40), divine names (92, 272).(2) For DeLillo wants to remind us that names are often invested with a significance that exceeds their immediate, practical function. Names are enchanted; they enable insight and revelation. As one character explains: "We approach nameforms warily. Such secret power. When the name is itself secret, the power and influence are magnified. A secret name is a way of escaping the world. It is an opening into the self" (210).
Consider the remarkable ending of The Names--an extract from the manuscript of a novel by Tap, the narrator's (James Axton's) nine-year-old son, replete with misspellings. In Tap's novel, a boy, unable to participate in the speaking in tongues at a Pentecostal service, panics and flees the church: "Tongue tied! His fait was signed. He ran into the rainy distance, smaller and smaller. This was worse than a retched nightmare. It was the nightmare of real things, the fallen wonder of the world" (339). These lines conclude both Tap's novel and The Names itself. "The fallen wonder of the world" connotes the failure of language, in its (assumed) postlapsarian state, to invest the world with some order of deep and abiding meaning, to illuminate existence. More specifically, the language that has "fallen" is the language of name, the kind of pure nomenclature implied in Genesis where words stand in a necessary, rather than arbitrary, relationship to their referents.(3) The novel follows the lives of characters who seek to recover this utopian condition of language. For example, people calling themselves "abecedarians" (210) form a murder cult whose strategy is to match the initials of their victims' names to those of the place names where the murders occur--all in a (misguided) effort to restore a sense of the intrinsic or self-revealing significance of names. And note Axton's response to the misspellings in his son's manuscript:
I found these mangled words exhilarating He'd made them new again, made me see
how they worked, what they really were. They were ancient things, secret,
... The spoken poetry in those words.... His... misrenderings ... seemed to
contain curious perceptions about the words themselves, second and deeper
meanings, original meanings.
The novel suggests that the visionary power of language will only be restored when we "tap" into its primal or pristine forms, the forms that can regenerate perception, that can reveal human existence in significant ways. Hence the novel's inquiry into "original meanings," the concern with remembering "the prototype" (112-13), whence "[i]t was necessary to remember, to dream the pristine earth" (307). The "gift of tongues" is also understood as a primal, and hence visionary, language--"talk as from the womb, as from the sweet soul before birth" (306)--and, as such, it is revered as "the whole language of the spirit" (338), the language by which "[n]ormal understanding is surpassed" (307). (And far from DeLillo keeping an ironic distance from such mystical views of glossolalia, he has endorsed them in interviews.)(4) Moreover, one can hardly miss the novel's overall insistence on the spoken word--especially on talk at the familiar, everyday, pre-abstract level of communication--as the purest expression of primal, visionary language:
We talked awhile about her nephews and nieces, other family matters,
commonplaces, a cousin taking trumpet lessons, a death in
Winnipeg.... The subject of family makes conversation almost tactile. I think of
hands, food, hoisted children. There's a close-up contact warmth in the names
and images. Everydayness....
This talk we were having about familiar things was itself ordinary and
familiar. It seemed to yield up the mystery that is part of such things, the
nameless way in which we sometimes feel our connections to the physical
world. Being here.... Our senses are collecting at the primal edge.... I felt
I was in an early stage of teenage drunkenness, lightheaded, brilliantly
happy and stupid, knowing the real meaning of every word.(5)
The affirmation of a primal, visionary level of language which, moreover, finds its purest expression in "talk" (glossolalia, conversation) is vulnerable to postmodern critique on the grounds that it is premised on a belief in original and pure meanings. Suffice it to say here, such meanings are assumed to exist (as in some transcendent realm) outside the space of intertextuality, or beyond the "logic of supplementarily" whereby, according to Derrida, "the origin ... was never constituted except reciprocally by a nonorigin" (Of Grammatology 61).
The idea that language has "fallen" or grown remote from some pure and semantically rich primal state is characteristically (though not exclusively) Romantic, and most reminiscent of views held by, among others, Rousseau and Wordsworth. In his "Essay on the Origins of Languages" and Confessions, Rousseau identified speech, as opposed to writing, as the natural condition of language because it "owes its form to natural causes alone" ("Essay" 5). In the face of a culture that conferred greater authority on writing than on speech, he affirmed the priority of the latter on the grounds that "Languages are made to be spoken, writing serves only as a supplement to speech" (qtd. in Derrida 144). While writing "substitut[es] exactitude for expressiveness" ("Essay" 21), the bias of speech is toward passionate and figurative expression which can "penetrate to the very depths of the heart" (9). Indeed, "As man's first motives for speaking were of the passions, his first expressions were tropes.... [Hence] [a]t first only poetry was spoken; there was no hint of reasoning until much later" (12). Moreover, it was "primitive," face-to-face speech--as opposed to the sophistications of writing, and especially the tyranny made possible by the codification of laws--that, according to Rousseau's anthropology, once bound humans together naturally in an organic, egalitarian community. And recall that in his "Preface" to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth deplored the "arbitrary and capricious habits of expression" of poets who, following urbane conventions of writing, had lost touch with the elemental language of rustics. The latter, by virtue of their "rural occupations" (that is, their regular intercourse with nature) are "such men [who] hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived" (emphasis added). Furthermore, this is "a far more philosophical language" than that used by poets (735). Of course, all this is not to suggest that DeLillo would necessarily endorse Rousseau's or Wordsworth's specific claims. But what all three share in is that familiar Romantic myth of some primal, pre-abstract level of language which is naturally endowed with greater insight, a pristine order of meaning that enables unmediated understanding, community, and spiritual communion with the world around.
If we return to Jack Gladney's visionary moment, we should note that while "Toyota Celica" may be a brand name, Gladney perceives it as having an elemental, incantatory power that conveys, at a deeper level, another order of meaning. He invokes a range of terms in an effort to communicate this alternative meaning: "ritual," "spell," "ecstatic," "mysterious," "wonder," "ancient" (155). Similarly, for Murray Siskind, Gladney's friend and media theorist, the recurring jingle "Coke is it, Coke is it" evokes comparisons with "mantes." Siskind elaborates: "The medium [that is, television] practically overflows with sacred formulas if we can remember how to respond innocently" (51). DeLillo highlights the paradox that while so much language, in the media society, has degenerated into mere prattle and cliches, brand names not only flourish but convey a magic and mystical significance. Hence they are often chanted like incantations: "Toyota Corolla, Toyota Celica, Toyota Cressida" (155); "Tegrin, Denorex, Selsun Blue" (289); "Dacron, Orlon, Lycra Spandex" (52).
Earlier passages in White Noise derive their meaning from the same Romantic metaphysics of language as Gladney's "moment of splendid transcendence." First, consider Gladney's response to the crying of his baby, Wilder (and note, by the way, the typically Romantic impression of the mystique of desolate spaces, and the appeal to "the mingled reverence and wonder" of the Romantic sublime):
He was crying out, saying nameless things in a way that touched me with its
depth and richness. This was an ancient dirge.... 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
... Nearly seven straight hours of serious crying. It was 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 can only regard with the
mingled reverence and wonder we hold in reserve for feats of the most sublime
and difficult dimensions.
And, for Siskind, "Supermarkets this large and clean and modern are a revelation to me"; after all, "Everything is concealed in symbolism, hidden by veils of mystery and layers of cultural material. But it is psychic data, absolutely.... All the letters and numbers are here, ... all the code words and ceremonial phrases" (38, 37-38). Evidently, for DeLillo, language operates on two levels: a practical, denotative level, that is, a mode of language oriented toward business, information, and technology, and a "deeper," primal level which is the ground of visionary experience--the "second, deeper meanings, original meanings" that Axton finds in Tap's childishly misspelled words; the "ancient dirge" that Gladney hears in Wilder's wailing; the "language not quite of this world" that he hears in Steffie's sleep-talk; the "psychic data" that Siskind finds beneath white noise.
In communications theory, "white noise" describes a random mix of frequencies over a wide spectrum that renders signals unintelligible. DeLillo applies the metaphor of a circumambient white noise to suggest, on the one hand, the entropic state of postmodern culture where in general communications are degraded by triviality and irrelevance--the culture of "infotainment," factoids, and junk mail, where the commodity logic of late capitalism has extended to the point that cognition is mediated by its profane and quotidian forms. Yet, on the other hand, DeLillo suggests that within that incoherent mix of frequencies there is, as it were, a low wavelength that carries a flow of spiritually charged meaning. This flow of meaning is barely discernible, but, in the novel, it is figured in the recurring phrase "waves and radiation" (1, 38, 51, 104, 326)--an undercurrent of invisible forces or "nameless energies" (12) that have regenerative powers. And how do we "tune in" to this wavelength? Siskind says of his students, who feel alienated from the dreck of popular television, "they have to learn to look as children again" (50), that is to say, to perceive like Gladney's daughter, Steffie, or Axton's son, Tap, are said to perceive. In an interview, DeLillo has observed, "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" ("Outsider" 302). The boy protagonist of Ratner's Star (1976) is considered, by virtue of his minority, more likely than adults to access the "primal dream" experience of "racial history," of "pure fable, myth, archetype"; as one character tells him, "you haven't had time to drift away from your psychic origins" (264-65). And here it must be remarked that this faith in the insightfulness of childhood perception is a defining feature of (but, of course, not exclusive to) that current of Romantic writing which runs from Rousseau's Emile (1762), through the writings of Blake and Wordsworth, to De Quincey's Suspiria de Profundis (1845). For Coleridge, "To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child's sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar . . . this is the character and privilege of genius"(49). And recall, especially, the familiar lines from Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality" which lament the (adult's) loss of the child's "visionary gleam," that "master-light of all our seeing"; which celebrate the child as a "Seer blest! / On whom those truths do rest, / Which we [adults] are toiling all our lives to find, / In darkness lost" (460-61). In The Prelude, Wordsworth also argued that adult visionary experience is derived from childhood consciousness, the "seed-time [of] my soul," a consciousness that persists into adulthood as a source of "creative sensibility," illuminating the world with its "auxiliar light" (498, 507).
The Romantic notion of infant insight, of the child as gifted with an intuitive perception of truth, sets DeLillo's writing apart from postmodern trends. For, of all modes of fiction, it is postmodernism that is least hospitable to concepts like insight and intuition. Its metafictional and antimetaphysical polemic has collapsed the "depth model" of the subject (implied by the concept of inner seeing) and, audaciously, substituted a model of subjectivity as the construct of chains of signifiers. In such fiction as Robert Coover's Pricksongs and Descants, Walter Abish's In the Future Perfect, and Donald Barthelme's Snow White, for example, we find subjectivity reconceived as the conflux of fragments of texts--mythical narratives, dictionaries and catalogues, media cliches and stereotypes.
In an interview, DeLillo has said of White Noise that "Perhaps the supermarket tabloids are ... closest to the spirit of the book" ("I Never Set Out" 31). What one might expect from any critique of postmodern culture is a satirical assault on the tabloids as a debased and commodified form of communication. Yet the frequency with which DeLillo cites tabloid news stories--their accounts of UFOs, reincarnation, and supernatural occurrences (see, for example, White Noise 142-46)--suggests that there is more at issue than simply mocking their absurd, fabricated claims. For he recognizes our need for a "weekly dose of cult mysteries" (5), and that, by means of tabloid discourse, "Out of some persistent sense of large-scale ruin, we kept inventing hope" (146-47). In White Noise, the tabloids are seen to function as a concealed form of religious expression, where extraterrestrials are substituted for messiahs and freakish happenings for miracles. In short, on a wavelength of which we are virtually unconscious, the tabloids gratify our impulses toward the transcendental; "They ask profoundly important questions about death, the afterlife, God, worlds and space, yet they exist in an almost Pop Art atmosphere" ("I Never Set Out" 31).
White Noise abounds with extensive discussions about death and the afterlife (38, 99, 196-200, 282-92, and elsewhere), a concern of the book that is surely symptomatic of a nostalgia for a mode of experience that lies beyond the stereotyping and banalizing powers of the media, a mode of experience not subject to simulation. In a culture marked by an implosive de-differentiation of the image and its referent, where "Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn" (12), the nonfigurability of death seems like a guarantee of a domain of human experience that can transcend hyperreality.
In another visionary experience, Gladney has mystical insight into the force--a huge, floating cloud of toxic chemicals--that threatens his life:
It was a terrible thing to see, so close, so low.... But it was also
spectacular, part of the grandness of a sweeping event.... Our fear was
accompanied by a sense of awe that bordered on the religious. It is surely
possible to be awed by the thing that threatens your life, to see it as a
cosmic force, so much larger than yourself, more powerful, created by
elemental and willful rhythms.
This "awed," "religious" perception of a powerful force, which seems in its immensity capable of overwhelming the onlooker, is characteristic of that order of experience explored by the Romantics under the name of "the Sublime." The concept of the sublime has had a long and complex evolution since Longinus's famous treatise on the subject, and here it must suffice to note just one key statement that has served as a foundation for the notion of the Romantic sublime. In his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), Edmund Burke advanced the following definition: "Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling" (39). Burke identified the sources of "terrifying" sublimity in such attributes as "power," "vastness," "infinity," and "magnificence," and among the effects of the experience of the sublime, he identified "terror," "awe," "reverence," and "admiration." It is remarkable that Gladney's experience of the sublime yields almost identical terms: "terrible," "grandness," "awed," "religious," "cosmic," "powerful." Moreover, such terms are familiar to us from descriptions of sublime experience in Romantic literature. For example, in The Prelude, in such accounts as his epiphany at the Simplon Pass and the ascent of Mount Snowdon (535-36, 583-85), Wordsworth frequently invokes impressions of the "awful," the "majestic," "infinity," and "transcendent power" to convey his sense of the terrifying grandeur of nature. In the violent, turbulent landscape of the Alps, he perceived "Characters of the great Apocalypse, / The types and symbols of Eternity, / Of first, and last, and midst, and without end" (536). Wordsworth's invocation of "Apocalypse," like the sense, in White Noise, of a life-threatening "cosmic force," reveals a defining property of the experience of the sublime: the subject's anxious intimation of a dissolution of the self, of extinction, in the face of such overwhelming power. "[T]he emotion you feel," says Burke of such "prodigious" power, is that it might "be employed to the purposes of . . . destruction. That power derives all its sublimity from the terror with which it is generally accompanied" (65). And here it should be added that the experience is all the more disturbing because such immense power defies representation or rational comprehension (hence the recourse of Wordsworth, DeLillo, and others to hyperbole-"cosmic," "infinite," "eternal," and so on).(6)
The Romantic-metaphysical character of DeLillo's rendering of sublime experience is evident in the pivotal place he gives to the feeling of "awe." Not only is the term repeated in Gladney's description of his feelings toward the toxic cloud, but it is used three times, along with the kindred terms "dread" and "wonder," in a later account of that characteristically Romantic experience of the sublime, namely, gazing at a sunset:(7)
The sky takes on content, feeling, an exalted narrative life.... There are
turreted skies, light storms.... Certainly there is awe, it is all awe, it
transcends previous categories of awe, but we don't know whether we
are watching in wonder or dread. . .
Given the Romantics' valorization of "I-centered" experience (in respect of which, The Prelude stands as a preeminent example), the feeling of awe has received special attention in their literature. After all, that overwhelming feeling of spellbound reverence would seem like cogent testimony to the innermost life of the psyche, an expression of what Wordsworth, in "Tintern Abbey" and The Prelude, called the "purer mind" (164, 506). However, that deep-rooted, plenitudinous I-centered subject of awe is a far cry from postmodern conceptions of the self as, typically, the tenuous construct of intersecting cultural codes. As noted earlier, this is the model of the self we find in the quintessentially postmodern fiction of Abish, Barthelme, and Coover, among others. It is a model which accords with Roland Barthes's view of the "I" that "is already itself a plurality of other texts, of codes which are infinite.... [Whence] subjectivity has ultimately the generality of stereotypes" (10). Evidently, DeLillo's awestruck subjects contradict the postmodern norm.(8) Finally, why create such subjects at all? Perhaps they may be regarded as an instance of DeLillo's endeavor to affirm the integrity and spiritual energy of the psyche in the face of (what the novel suggests is) late capitalism's disposition to disperse or thin out the self into so many consumer subject positions (48, 50, 83-84). In short, we might say that sublimity is invoked to recuperate psychic wholeness.
Studies of Libra, which identify it as a postmodernist text, typically stress its rendering of Lee Harvey Oswald as the construct of media discourses and its focus on the loss of the (historical) referent and the constraints of textuality.(9) And yet for all its evident postmodern concerns, there is a current of thinking in the novel that is highly resistant to any postmodernizing account of it. Consider, for example, this observation by David Ferrie, one of the book's anti-Castro militants:
Think of two parallel lines.... One is the life of Lee H. Oswald. One is the
conspiracy to kill the President. What bridges the space between them? What
visions, intuitions, prayers, out of the deepest levels of the self. It's not
generated by cause and effect like the other two lines. It's a line-that cuts
across causality, cuts across time. It has no history that we can recognize or
understand. But it forces a connection. It puts a man on the path of his
Observations of this type abound in Libra: elsewhere we read of "patterns [that] emerge outside the bounds of cause and effect" (44); "secret symmetries" (78); "a world inside the world" (13, 47, 277); "A pattern outside experience Something that jerks you out of the spin of history" (384) Clearly, repeated invocations of invisible, transhistorical forces which shape human affairs do not amount to a postmodern rejection of empiricist historiography Rather, this is the stuff of metaphysics, not to say the occult Indeed, in a discussion of Libra, published in South Atlantic Quarterly, DeLillo seriously speculates on supernatural interventions in human history
But Oswald's attempt on Kennedy was more complicated. I think it was based
on elements outside politics and, as someone in the novel says, outside
history--things like dreams and coincidences and even the movement or the
configuration of the stars, which is one reason the book is called Libra....
... When I hit upon this notion of coincidence and dream and intuition and
the possible impact of astrology on the way men act, I thought that Libra,
being Oswald's sign, would be the one title that summarized what's inside the
("Outsider" 289, 293-94; emphasis added)
I also cite this interview as evidence that DeLillo is more likely to endorse his characters' beliefs in transcendent realities than to dismiss them as, in the words of one commentator, a "fantasy of secret knowledge, of a world beyond marginalization that would provide a center that would be immune to the play of signification" (Carmichael 209).
Libra appeals to the truth and sovereignty of "the deepest levels of the self," that is, the levels of "dreams, visions, intuitions" (339). Indeed, alongside those readings of the novel that point to its postmodern rendering of the subject without psychic density--"an effect of the codes out of which he is articulated" (Carmichael 206); "a contemporary production" (Lentricchia, "Libra" 441)--we must reckon with the book's insistent focus on "another level, . . . a deeper kind of truth" (260), on that which "[w]e know ... on some deeper plane" (330), on that which "speaks to something dep inside [one].... the life-insight" (28). Such appeals to insight or intuition are common in Romantic literature and conform with Romanticism's depth model of subjectivity. That model is premised on the belief that truth lies "furthest in," that is, in the domain of the "heart" or "purer mind"; the belief that truth can only be accessed by the "inner faculties" (Wordsworth), by "inward sight" (Shelley), or, recalling the American Romantics, by "intuition." "[W]here," Emerson rhetorically inquired, "but in the intuitions which are vouchsafed us from within, shall we learn the Truth?" (182).(10) The comparisons may be schematic but, still, are close enough to indicate that the mindset of Libra is neither consistently nor unequivocally postmodern. No less emphatic than the book's evidence for a model of mind as an unstable "effect" of media codes is the evidence for a model of it as self-sufficient and self-authenticating, as an interior source of insight or vision.
What are the ideological implications of DeLillo's Romantic metaphysics? A common reading of Romanticism understands its introspective orientation in terms of a "politics of vision."(11) This is to say that, first, Romantic introspection may be seen as an attempt to claim the "inner faculties" as an inviolable, sacrosanct space beyond the domain of industrialization and the expanding marketplace. Second, the persistent appeal to the visionary "faculty" of "insight" or "intuition" or "Imagination" supplied Wordsworth, Blake, and others with a vantage point from which to critique the utilitarian and positivist ethos of capitalist development. But the crucial component of the "politics of vision" is the concept of what M. U. Abrams has called "the redemptive imagination" (117-22). Abrams notes how Blake repeatedly asserts that the "Imagination ... is the Divine Body of the Lord Jesus" (qtd. in Abrams 121) and quotes from The Prelude to emphasize that Wordsworth also substituted Imagination for the Redeemer:
Here must thou be, O Man!
Strength to thyself; no Helper hast thou here;
The prime and vital principle is shine In the
recesses of thy nature, far From any reach
of outward fellowship[.]
(qtd. in Abrams 120)
What needs to be added here is that this faith in the "redemptive imagination" is premised on an idealist assumption that personal salvation can be achieved primarily, if not exclusively, at the level of the individual psyche. Indeed, this focus on salvation as chiefly a private, spiritual affair tends to obscure or diminish the role of change at the institutional level of economic and political practice as a precondition for the regeneration of the subject. (12) And it is a similar "politics of vision" that informs DeLillo's writing and that invites the same conclusion. DeLillo's appeals to the visionary serve to affirm an autonomous realm of experience and to provide a standard by which to judge the spiritually atrophied culture of late capitalism. Thus against the impoverishments and distortions of communication in a culture colonized by factoids, sound bites, PR hype, and propaganda, DeLillo endeavors to preserve the credibility of visionary experience and, in particular, to validate the visionary moment as the sign of a redemptive order of meaning. He has remarked, "The novelist can try to leap across the barrier of fact, and the reader is willing to take that leap with him as long as there's a kind of redemptive truth waiting on the other side" ("Outsider" 294). Yet, as we have already seen, that "leap" is into the realm of the transhistorical, where "redemptive truth" is chiefly a spiritual, visionary matter. And it is in this respect that his fiction betrays a conservative tendency; his response to the adverse cultural effects of late capitalism reproduces a Romantic politics of vision, that is, it is a response that obscures, if not undervalues, the need for radical change at the level of the material infrastructure.
The fact that DeLillo writes so incisively of the textures of postmodern experience, of daily life in the midst of images, commodities, and conspiracies, does not make him a postmodern writer. His Romantic appeals to a primal language of vision, to the child's psyche as a medium of precious insight, to the sublime contravene the antimetaphysical norms of postmodern theory. Moreover, while there is, to be sure, a significant strain of irony that runs through his fiction, it does not finally undercut his metaphysics. As Tom LeClair has noted in a discussion of White Noise, "DeLillo presses beyond the ironic, extracting from his initially satiric materials a sense of wonderment or mystery" (214). "Wonder" and "mystery," to say nothing of "extrasensory flashes" (White Noise 34), are frequently invoked in DeLillo's writing as signifiers of a mystical order of cognition, an affirmation that the near-global culture of late capitalism cannot exhaust the possibilities of human experience. But it is precisely this metaphysical cast of thinking that separates DeLillo's fiction from the thoroughgoing postmodernism of, say, Walter Abish or Robert Coover, and that should prompt us to qualify radically our tendency to read him as an exemplary postmodern writer.
West Chester University
(1.) See, for example, Lentricchia, "Tales" and "Libra"; Frow; Messmer; and Wilcox. (2.) Perhaps the choice of title for the novel is, among other things, calculated to evoke that long tradition of Neo-Platonist and medieval mysticism which meditated on divine names. One might ate the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, author of The Divine Names, or the Merkabah mystics, early Kabbalists who speculated on the secret names of God and the angels For such mystics, the way to revelation is through the knowledge of secret names. (3.) This is precisely the theme of an early essay by Walter Benjamin, who, reflecting on the degeneration of language into "mere signs," observed: "In the Fall, since the eternal purity of names was violated, ... man abandoned immediacy in the communication of the concrete, name, and fell into the abyss of the mediateness of all communication, of the word as means, of the empty word, into the abyss of prattle" (120). (4.) "I do wonder if there is something we haven't come across. Is there another, clearer language? Will we speak it and hear it when we die? Did we know it before we were born? ... Maybe this is why there's so much babbling in my books. Babbling can be . . . a purer form, an alternate speech. I wrote a short story that ends with two babies babbling at each other in a car. This was something I'd seen and heard, and it was a dazzling and unforgettable scene. I felt these babies knew something. They were talking, they were listening, they were commenting.... Glossolalia is interesting because it suggests there's another way to speak, there's a very different language lurking somewhere in the brain" ("Interview" 83-84). And "Glossolalia or speaking in tongues ... could be viewed as a higher form of infantile babbling. It's babbling which seems to mean something" ("Outsider" 302). (Such comments help explain the significance of the crying of Baby Wilder in White Noise [78-79], an episode I shall discuss later.) (5.) A little later we read: "People everywhere are absorbed in conversation.... Conversation is life, language is the deepest being"(52). (6.) Kant formulated the following succinct definition: "We can describe the sublime in this way: it is an object (of nature) the representation of which determines the mind to think the unattainability of nature as a presentation of [reason's] ideas" (qtd. in Weiskel 22). (7.) Recall these lines from Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey": "a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused, / Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns" (164). I am indebted to Lou Caton, of the University of Oregon, for drawing my attention to a possible Romantic context for the sunsets in White Noise. (8.) Here, I anticipate two likely objections. First, the "airborne toxic event" may seem like an ironic postmodern version of the sublime object insofar as DeLillo substitutes a man-made source of power for a natural one. Yet Gladney's words emphasize that that power is experienced as a natural phenomenon: "This was a death made in the laboratory, defined and measurable, but we thought of it at the time in a simple and primitive way, as some seasonal perversity of the earth like a food or tornado" (127). Second, I disagree with Arthur Saltzman (118-19) and others who see postmodern irony in the account of the sunset insofar as (to be sure) (1) the sunset has been artificially enhanced by pollution and (2) most observers of the spectacle "don't know . . . what it means." After all, the passage in question clearly insists on the sense of awe irrespective of these factors. (9.) See, for example, Lentricchia, "Libra"; Carmichael; and Cain. (10.) In his lecture "The Transcendentalist," Emerson asserted, "Although ... there is no pure transcendentalist, yet the tendency to respect the intuitions, and to give them, at least in our creed, all authority over our experience, has deeply colored the conversation and poetry of the present day" (207). (11.) Jon Klancher notes that it was M. H. Abrams who tagged Romanticism as a "politics of vision." However, he argues that insofar as Romanticism is an uncircumscribable, historically variable category, one whose construction alters in response to "institutional crises and consolidations," its "politics of vision" can be, and has been, read as not only radical but also conservative (77-88). (12.) It is often argued that social history gets repressed in Wordsworth's "extravagant lyricizing of the recovered self" and in his "`sense sublime'" (Klancher 80).
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Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. 1757. Ed. J. T. Boulton. U of Notre Dame P, 1958.
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Caton, Lou. "Setting Suns and Imaginative Failure in Don DeLillo's White Noise." Twentieth-Century Literature Conference. University of Louisville, Louisville, KY. 1995.
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DeLillo, Don. "I Never Set Out to Write an Apocalyptic Novel." Interview with Caryn James. New York Times Book Review 13 Jan. 1985:31.
--. "An Interview with Don DeLillo." With Tom LeClair. Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists. Ed. Tom LeClair and Larry McCaffery. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1983. 79-90.
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--. The Names. 1982. New York: Vintage, 1989.
--. "An Outsider in This Society: An Interview with Don DeLillo." With Anthony DeCurtis. The Fiction of Don DeLillo. Ed. Frank Lentricchia. Spec. issue of South Atlantic Quarterly 89 (1990): 281-3G4.
--. Ratner's Star. 1976. New York: Vintage, 1989.
--. White Noise. 1985. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1986.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature, Addresses, and Lectures. Cambridge, MA: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1971. Vol. 1 of The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 4 vols. 1971-1987.
Frow, John. "The Last Things Before the Last: Notes on White Noise." The Fiction of Don DeLillo. Ed. Frank Lentricchia. Spec. issue of South Atlantic Quarterly 89 (1990): 413-29.
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Lentricchia, Frank. "Libra as Postmodern Critique." The Fiction of Don DeLillo. Ed. Frank Lentricchia. Spec. issue of South Atlantic Quarterly 89 (1990): 431-53.
--. "Tales of the Electronic Tribe." New Essays on "White Noise." Ed. Frank Lentricchia. The American Novel. New York: Cambridge UP, 1991. 87-113.
Messmer, Michael W. "`Thinking It Through Completely': The Interpretation of Nuclear Culture." Centennial Review 32 (1988): 397-413.
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. 1966. New York: Perennial-Harper, 1990.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. "Essay on the Origin of Languages." Trans. John H. Moran. On the Origin of Language. Ed. John H. Moran and Alexander Gode. Milestones of Thought. New York: Ungar, 1966. 5-74.
Saltzman, Arthur M. Designs of Darkness in Contemporary American Fiction. Penn Studies in Contemporary American Fiction. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1990.
Weiskel, Thomas. The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transendence. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.
Wilcox, Leonard. "Baudrillard, DeLillo's White Noise, and the End of Heroic Narrative." Contemporary Literature 32 (1991): 346-65.
Wordsworth, William. Poetical Works. Ed. Thomas Hutchinson. Rev. Ernest de Selincourt. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1978.
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