Stephen Conway

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Stephen Conway


Death and Dying in DeLillo’s White Noise

Among other things, Don DeLillo seems completely preoccupied with death and the arduous task of living with the knowledge of death in his novel White Noise. Acceptance of our finite, fragile existence over time is certainly not a phenomenon unique to a single civilization or historical era. Rather than discuss the inescapable mortality that connects all humankind with broad, generalized strokes, DeLillo is concerned with the particular (peculiar?) late Twentieth Century cultural and psychological mechanisms that attempt to define, recast, or obscure the relationship between the self and death. Technology, he asserts, has fostered a material culture of consummation, of insatiable appetites which simultaneously confirms and allows us to temporarily escape knowledge of our mortality. "We've agreed to be part of a collective perception...To become a crowd is to keep out death. To break of from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, to face dying alone" (12,73). Whether the dominant system is desirable or reprehensible, there seems to be an almost primal need for a structure of some sort. The very human impulse to order, "to break things down, separate and classify" as Babette puts it, is an integral part of establishing an identity (192). Jack Gladney is, thus, ironically a critic and a victim of this very dilemma.

Technology distances Jack from death as well as life. The scientific method upon which technology is based begin with a fundamental assumption of objectivity. Observation at a distance is necessary to form legitimate conclusions, to construct knowledge of an "invisible... impressive... disquieting" truth (46). Jack's mind is attuned, sensitized, to detect "codes, countercodes, social histories...hidden by veils of mystery and layers of cultural material" on an academic, theoretical, level. But as Jack states, "When your death is rendered graphically, is televised so to speak, sense an eerie separation between your condition and yourself" (37,61,142). Death, when it becomes an impending part of Jack's consciousness, ceases to be a "professional matter" (74). Doctors become modern high priests, the only member of society capable of deciphering the "network of symbols, an entire awesome technology wrested from the gods" (142). Death, in many respects, takes on a life of its own, distinct from any particular individual; it becomes an observable, quantifiable phenomenon. This might account for the almost perverse fascination with television disasters, death existing at a safe distance. "Every disaster made us wish for more..." (64).

Unlike human beings, however, death is never the sum total of its data. Dylar fails to fulfill it promise because death is larger, more accommodating, than any technology we can create. If we defeat death on one front, it simply expands and fundamentally redefines itself. It is akin to the "nebulous mass" growing inside Jack; "it has no definite shape or form", but death has a presence in the novel as a sound, white noise. It fills the motel room where Jack goes to kill Mink. "The intensity of the noise was the same at all frequencies. Sound all around" (312). The normal activities of everyday life mask this noise, but it is there nonetheless. Only at certain moments of crisis or conflict do we become attuned to it specifically. Is it as Winnie Richards suggests, that rediscovery of self is only possible in a moment of possible extermination?

Just like the airborne toxic event, we can create internal, equally debilitating disasters for ourselves. Are we more like the SIMUVAC crew who practises responding to simulated disasters thinking that this will prevent actual disasters from occurring? Do we live our lives, dying simulated deaths each day, hoping that we can forestall or even prevent actual death? Jack rejects technology, rejects the idea of an afterlife. Tries to become a killer instead of a dier, using Murray's critical categories, but ultimately this fails as well. He even attempts to rid himself of products and past possessions which are reminders of his previous or alternate identities. This residue of past lives drags him down and makes "escape impossible" (294). Jack does seem either incapable or unwilling to stand apart from the consumer culture, presenting the reader with the supermarket checkout line as a compelling metaphor for life and hope. "Here we don't die, we shop...This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living. And this is where we wait together, regardless of age, our carts stacked brightly with goods" (38,326). It seems he has found his demographic niche in the cosmic marketing scheme (50). Jack is thus capable of critique, but is no less susceptible to the convenient fantasies and self delusions which surround us as well.

Works Cited

DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

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