Malfunction at Dreamworld

As Don DeLillo pointed out in his most famous novel, White Noise, death while having fun is the quintessentially postmodern death.

‘She used to go through the house groping in dark closets for a lone Salem left faded in some coat pocket.’

Okay so Bob Dylan wins the literature Nobel and everyone – specially ol’ UD – is astonished. UD is thrilled. It’s good. It’s great. Instead of spending her pre-election-day hours in a snit, she gets to spend them in a ‘sixties trance.

But I want once again (check the DeLillo category on this blog for earlier posts) to try to get at why Don DeLillo is perennially close to his own Nobel Prize in Literature.

UD could choose glorious passages describing postmodern cities and the countrysides to which people in those cities escape; she could visit the streams of consciousness in the heads of characters like the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald and a conscience-stricken CIA agent. She could show you how DeLillo throughout his novels lyricizes political as well as metaphysical thought, and even infuses the commercial detritus of American culture with poetry.

But instead she’ll show you what he could do with just a sentence, a casual seemingly unimportant sentence of the sort you see in this post’s headline.

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The divorced narrator of The Names (1982) recalls his ex-wife, with whom he remains in love — a woman now fanatically engaged in archeology, wanting no human intimacy but only to be left alone to spend her days digging for fragments. (The novel’s narrator is at the opposite terrestrial extreme: a consultant in risk management, he’s almost always in the air, flying from one turbulent country to another.) He remembers her, even when they were married, engaged in a sort of domestic archeology:

She used to go through the house groping in dark closets for a lone Salem left faded in some coat pocket.

DeLillo’s prose somehow ennobles this mundane and even grubby act of tobacco scrounging; the poetic language conveys the pathos of her archeological disposition, ever-engaged in obscure searches for faded goods, for old and hidden (and therefore somehow more authentic) forms of sustenance.

Obviously the sentence gets its greatest weight from the larger context of The Names itself, as you read it. But let’s anyway go ahead and try to clarify how DeLillo lyricizes these words.

Go/groping/lone/coat – Assonance and near-rhyme pull the sentence into a coherent mood of melancholy, with the mournful murmur of all those O‘s. But there are many more O‘s in the sentence: to/through/house/closets/pocket. The sentence is a veritable exploration of the tonal range of O. In this second group of words, we find exact rhyme (to/through) as well as very close rhyme (closets/pocket).

All of this conveys not only the sadness and occasional panic of not being able to fix yourself meaningfully in the world (here, you’re after your tobacco fix, if you will), but also the sense of being – as Thomas Wolfe (another player of variations on O) put it in one of his titles – O Lost. You are in search of (Wolfe’s subtitle) the buried life. All three main characters in The Names are in various ways digging for clues, for a sense of balance, a sense of reality, a sense of situatedness in some deep and true cultural actuality, amid a simulacral, drifty, and menacing postmodern world. As the narrator puts it:

It seemed we’d lost our capacity to select, to ferret out particularity and trace it some center which our minds could relocate in knowable surroundings.

DeLillo’s prose, however, does relocate; he has what all great artists have — singular control over his medium. The world may be out of balance, but his sentence has balance – and not merely tonal balance. There’s a nice metrical regularity here too, as in the repetition of similarly stressed phrases:

dark closets
lone Salem
coat pocket

Even that “Salem” cigarette is carefully chosen, no? To be sure the gentle two-syllable word, a sibilant whisper, fits the soft sad insinuating feel of this sentence; more than that, though, the word derives from peace (Salaam, Shalom)… And though as our eyes run over these words we’re not going to stop and say Hey Salem peace, if we’re reading this as it wants to be read, as a species of prose-poetry, we may obliquely pick up on that connotation, especially if the rest of the novel’s text has been amplifying the idea of peace.

Within the aesthetically ordered and meaningful world of DeLillo’s novels we can encounter and explore our own driftiness, embodied in characters and places, and even gain a bit of insight into/leverage over it.

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Indeed a major theme of many DeLillo works involves the very serious trouble we get ourselves into when our desire for meaning and groundedness and belonging gets so desperate that we form or join cults.

My life is going by and I can’t get a grip on it. It eludes me. It defeats me. My family is on the other side of the world. Nothing adds up. The cult is the only thing I seem to connect with.

Cults tend to degenerate into violence. At the moment, in America, we have a ringside seat.

The DeLillo/Dylan Nexus Made Explicit…

… in the New York Times.

The hero of Don DeLillo’s 1973 novel, “Great Jones Street,” Bucky Wunderlick, is a wildly famous musician so transparently inspired by Bob Dylan that it is a wonder the author was able to make the figure into his own character. Bucky — part prophet, part fraud — is hounded into seclusion by fans, hustlers, gangsters and the world at large. I had a hunch Mr. DeLillo would win the Nobel Prize for Literature this year; he can’t be surprised Bob Dylan did.

UD thanks dmf for the link.

WHEEEE!

If my man DeLillo makes it, me be very very happy.

Independence Day 2016

We like to think that America invented the future. We are comfortable with the future, intimate with it. But there are disturbances now, in large and small ways, a chain of reconsiderations. Where we live, how we travel, what we think about when we look at our children… Two forces in the world, past and future. With the end of communism, the ideas and principles of modern democracy were seen clearly to prevail, whatever the inequalities of the system itself. This is still the case. But now there is a global theocratic state, unboundaried and floating and so obsolete it must depend on suicidal fervour to gain its aims…

[Post-9/11, it is] clearer to me than ever, the daily sweeping taken-for-granted greatness of New York.

Don DeLillo, “In the Ruins of the Future.”

“It’s true that some of us become better writers by living long enough. But this is also how we become worse writers. The trick is to die in between.”

UD‘s beloved Don DeLillo makes a few remarks on his way to winning another prize. This particular remark reminded UD of something Saul Bellow said about Bernard Malamud:

Well, [Bernard Malamud] did make something of the crumbs and gritty bits of impoverished Jewish lives. Then he suffered from not being able to do more. Maybe he couldn’t have, but he looked forward to a fine old age in which the impossible became possible. Death took care of that wonderful aspiration. We can all count on it for that.

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The filmed murder of the two journalists in Virginia had me – and others – thinking about DeLillo, particularly his short story “Videotape,” later incorporated into his novel Underworld.

Over two decades ago, author and novelist Don Delillo published the short story “Videotape,” about a young girl who unwittingly films the murder of a man in a car behind her family’s van. Written in second person, the story manages to capture humankind’s rejection of, as well as fascination with, watching death play out on screen.

“The tape is superreal, or maybe underreal,” wrote Delillo. “It is what lies at the scraped bottom of all the layers you have added.”

I thought of “Videotape” after hearing about the Virginia shooting and taking in some of the images and facts, chief among them the chilling detail that the killer filmed the murder and made it available to the public on Facebook while fleeing police.

********************

Here’s some of his prose, from The Names, whose main character, an American living in Athens, is finally visiting and walking around the Parthenon. He has been avoiding it for months.

The marble seems to drip with honey, the pale autumnal hue produced by iron oxide in the stone. And there are stones lying about, stones everywhere as I cross around to the south colonnade – blocks, slabs, capitals, column drums. The temple is cordoned by ropes but this mingled debris is all over the ground, specked surfaces, rough to the touch, wasting in acid rain.

See here you have DeLillo trying to convey a postmodern disposition in the context of an ancient setting. So what he’s going to do is mix things stylistically, making plenty of room for both the enduring power of the classical temple and its values (a power the character has until this moment avoided because, in the context of a chaotic and ugly contemporary world, he finds this monumental realization of those values – “beauty, dignity, order, proportion” – “daunting”) and the much greater pull of a post-classical, post-romantic, hyper-technological world.

Here’s how he packs cultural history into his little paragraph: classicism, romanticism, modernism, postmodernism:

DeLillo’s first clause has a very simple stripped down classical balance and dignity – The marble seems to drip with honey. His second starts out pure romanticism – pale autumnal hue

Hey – in fact – lookee here: a sonnet by Romantic poet Felicia Dorothea Hemans, “To A Dying Exotic” —

AH ! lovely faded plant, the blight I mourn,
That withered all thy blossoms fair and gay;
I saw thee blushing to the genial May,
And now thy leaves are drooping and forlorn.
I mark’d thy early beauty with a smile,
And saw with pride the crimson buds expand;
They open’d to the sunbeam for a while,
By all the flattering gales of summer fann’d.
Ah ! faded plant, I raise thy languid head,
And moisten every leaf with balmy dew;
But now thy rich luxuriant bloom is fled,
Thy foliage wears a pale autumnal hue;
Too soon thy glowing colours have decay’d,
Like thee the flowers of pleasure smile and fade.

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(UD has helpfully bolded the pertinent phrase.)

And then, number three, DeLillo moves right into modernity – science, technology, ye olde disenchanted world, here represented by iron oxide. In the hands of a mediocre writer, this shift from classicism to lyricism to iron oxide would be jarring, but DeLillo’s light and lilting prose maintains its music throughout the disenchantment, which makes everything flow … like honey. He’s not like Henry Miller, who wants to shock you, jolt you, who has Henry walking the streets of Paris in Tropic of Cancer and writing

[Some of] the women … look so attractive from behind, and when they turn round – wow, syphilis!

This isn’t about the character’s consciousness being shocked by acid rain. He knows how the world has degraded. It is about the mild cumulative realization in this particular setting of (in the novel’s final lines)

… the nightmare of real things, the fallen wonder of the world.

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Here’s UD‘s take on another DeLillo short story.

Cool.

UD‘s favorite Don DeLillo novel, The Names, is being made into a film.

It took UD many readings to warm up to – to begin to understand – this moody broody beautifully written book. Indeed its hyper-seriousness means I think that the main problem the director will encounter is avoiding pretentiousness.

Then again, film isn’t such a great medium for big ideas (see for instance Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being), so maybe the writer and director will opt to avoid the various philosophies of language in the book… a book which, now that I think of it, could have been titled The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Both Kundera and DeLillo are interested in how people ground their lives and stop drifting about in the pleasant or unpleasant white noise of postmodernity. The Names is full of archeologists desperately digging under the earth for meaning, presence, authenticity, a sense of grounded existence; it is also full of international security consultants constantly up over the earth, flying from world capital to world capital as they write their reports for corporations wanting to know if it’s safe to do business in Karachi…

There’s a third existential location in the novel: Greece. That’s where the American narrator, James Axton, lives and works; and as a typically white noisy American, he gazes throughout the narrative at the achieved, grounded lives of the Greeks – neither low nor high, but simply here, on the earth.

Laundry hung in the walled gardens, always this sense of realized space, common objects, domestic life going on in that sculpted hush. Stairways bent around houses, disappearing. It was a sea chamber raised to the day, to the detailing light, a textured pigment on the hills. There was something artless and trusting in the place despite the street meanders, the narrow turns and ravels. Striped flagpoles and aired-out rugs, houses joined by closed wooden balconies, plants in battered cans, a willingness to share the oddments of some gathering-up. Passageways captured the eye with one touch, a sea green door, a handrail varnished to a nautical gloss. A heart barely beating in the summer heat, and always the climb, the small birds in cages, the framed approaches to nowhere. Doorways were paved with pebble mosaics, the terrace stones were outlined in white.

A good film could do a lot, visually, with the contrast between that sort of scene and this one:

At the boarding gate, the last of the static chambers, the stillness is more compact, the waiting narrowed. He will notice hands and eyes, the covers of books, a man with a turban and netted beard. The crew is Japanese, the security Japanese… He hears Tamil, Hindi, and begins curiously to feel a sense of apartness, something in the smell of the place, the amplified voice in the distance. It doesn’t feel like earth. And then aboard, even softer seats. He will feel the systems running power through the aircraft, running light, running air. To the edge of the stratosphere, world hum, the sudden night. Even the night seems engineered, Japanese, his brief sleep calmed by the plane’s massive heartbeat.

“Other popular items included [the author’s] annotated [edition] of Don DeLillo’s post-World War II epic ‘Underworld’…

… which had a winning bid of $57,000.”

In his fine early novel, Great Jones Street, Don DeLillo gives a vicious little domestic terror group the name Happy Valley Farm Commune….

… one of a number such acid jokes in his chronicle of a rock star’s withdrawal from the madness of postmodern culture.

UD was reminded of the Happy Valley Farm Commune when she saw the name of the University of Nebraska fraternity whose members gifted a freshman with the alcohol that killed him (blood alcohol content .365).

The name of the place? FarmHouse Fraternity. Sweet.

********************

Interesting to see UNL keeping up the traditions of their big hero, Richie Incognito.

“The Names is a prophetic, pre-9/11 masterpiece: a 21st-century novel published in 1982.”

Wonderful brief appreciation of UD‘s beloved Don DeLillo in the Guardian, where Geoff Dyer reckons that if the Booker Prize had been open in the past to Americans, three of DeLillo’s novels would have won.

Yet Dyer doesn’t really get at why The Names is such a great novel. For that he’d need more space, because there are lots of reasons.

Above all, The Names is extremely beautifully written.

One recurrent tension in the book is between the white noisy, airy, superficial, radically present, restless life of postmodern Americans, and the deeper, grounded, realer life of pretty much everyone else. The Americans literally spend much of their time up in the air – they are multinational businesspeople, constantly flying from place to place. Here DeLillo evokes the feel of air travel:

At the boarding gate, the last of the static chambers, the stillness is more compact, the waiting narrowed. He will notice hands and eyes, the covers of books, a man with a turban and netted beard. The crew is Japanese, the security Japanese… He hears Tamil, Hindi, and begins curiously to feel a sense of apartness, something in the smell of the place, the amplified voice in the distance. It doesn’t feel like earth. And then aboard, even softer seats. He will feel the systems running power through the aircraft, running light, running air. To the edge of the stratosphere, world hum, the sudden night. Even the night seems engineered, Japanese, his brief sleep calmed by the plane’s massive heartbeat.

Where to start? With even the night seems engineered, no? Not only for its strange but true content, the way so many hugely powerful and transformative techno-moments are managed for us, their massive underlying powerful systems quieted and calmed for us (WhisperJet), their deformations of nature so radical that from their theater of simulacra they can seem to pull open the curtains of our very morning noon and night … But also for its poetry, the long ee sound eerily recurrent not only in this phrase but throughout the passage (the repetition of Japanese, of feel, and then, after seems engineered, brief sleep…). And note along with this incantatory word music the language of the spirit, prayer, loftiness (chambers, stillness, stratosphere) — “it doesn’t feel like earth.”

The character senses, is alive to, a certain affiliation between traditional spiritual experience and what he is being lifted into here; but the language of radical artifice, and of a kind of drugged drowsiness, makes clear that this experience is far from truly spiritual. It is empty, engineered.

The other side of the tension is DeLillo’s evocation throughout the book (most of which is set in Greece) of grounded existence, or, more precisely, the postmodern American’s yearning toward it. The main character feels it, sort of, when talking one beautiful quiet evening with his wife:

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. Everything is where it should be. Our senses are collecting at the primal edge. The woman’s arm trailing down a shroud, my wife, whatever her name. I felt I was in an early stage of teenage drunkenness, lightheaded, brilliantly happy and stupid, knowing the real meaning of every word.

We sometimes feel our connections to the physical world. And again in a passage about Greece:

The sun, the colors, the sea light, the great black bees, what physical delight, what fertile slow-working delight. Then the goatherd on the barren hill, the terrible wind…. Look to the small things for your truth, your joy. This is the Greek specific.

“The shticky suffusions of show-biz tradition were replaced by a rigidly plasticized shell of industrial defensiveness that wore its bank-vault-like mentality up front.”

UD‘s finished reading about Oscar night. It’s too complex (Lyle and Pammy, the couple at the center of Don DeLillo’s novel Players, constantly worry that they’re “becoming too complex”).

UD has moved on to the other Oscar – Pistorius – and she’s not reading. She’s watching. The conventions of South African courtrooms are intriguing. The accents, the costumes, and the way everyone addresses the judge as “my lady” put things strangely in the way of a Gilbert and Sullivan performance. And there’s no question that plot-wise the story is a page-turner.

UD will be shocked if he’s found not guilty, so this isn’t really about who done it and why and how. It’s actually (I blush to admit) about watching to see if Pistorius’s lawyers are agile enough to maneuver around vast shuddering peaks of damning evidence.

Don DeLillo – a writer UD has been praising and teaching and getting excited about for years –

has been named the first recipient of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. The new lifetime achievement award, announced Thursday by Librarian of Congress James Billington, will be presented at the 13th annual National Book Festival in September.

Essays about DeLillo by UD can be found here and here.

And here’s a short essay of hers about a story of his – “Midnight in Dostoevsky.”

“An irreplaceable repository of Greece’s literary history and heritage”…

… has gone under.

Hestia Publishers and Booksellers,

known as the Gallimard of Greece,
published the Greek translation
of Don DeLillo’s White Noise

greekwhitenoise

along with many other
great modern novels in
translation. It has
not been able to survive
the Greek economic fiasco.

A New Yorker Appreciation of Jack Gilbert…

… who died last week, includes this poem.

Transgressions

He thinks about how important the sinning was,
how much his equity was in simply being alive.
Like the sloth. The days and nights wasted,
doing nothing important adding up to
the favorite years. Long hot afternoons
watching ants while the cicadas railed
in the Chinese elm about the brevity of life.
Indolence so often when no one was watching.
Wasting June mornings with the earth singing
all around. Autumn afternoons doing nothing
but listening to the siren voices of streams
and clouds coaxing him into the sweet happiness
of leaving all of it alone. Using up what
little time we have, relishing our mortality,
waltzing slowly without purpose. Neglecting
the future. Content to let the garden fail
and the house continue on in its usual disorder.
Yes, and coveting his neighbors’ wives.
Their clean hair and soft voices. The seraphim
he was sure were in one of the upstairs rooms.
Hesitant occasions of pride, feeling himself feeling.
Waking in the night and lying there. Discovering
the past in wonderful stillness. The other,
older pride. Watching the ambulance take away
the man whose throat he had crushed. Above all,
his greed. Greed of time, of being. This world,
the pine woods stretching all brown or bare
on either side of the railroad tracks in the winter
twilight. Him feeling the cold, sinfully unshriven.

Well, I wrote about a cicada poem here, and the cicadas do the same thing in John Blair’s poem that they do here in Gilbert’s. They give out, says Blair, with a “warning wail” about, Gilbert says, “the brevity of life.”

Jack Gilbert is famous (among poetry types) for having had so much “greed of time, of being” that early in his career he turned his back on America, and the poetry world (in which he had already had high-profile successes), and lived pretty much alone on Greek islands. As “Trangressions” makes clear, Gilbert’s recognition of life’s brevity catalyzed a determination to be, not so much to do. He wrote some – not many – books of poems, but mainly he placed himself, open and ecstatic, in life. He lived, as it were, a microscopically intense existential ongoingness in one of the earth’s most intense settings.

Many of his poems arise from this peculiar ontological arrangement, this hyper-focused sensitivity to passing objects, moods, weather patterns. Undistracted by work, family, and social life, untethered by ideology or faith, Gilbert produced strange poems that starkly combine the two essentials of each human being’s being in the world: the physical universe, and the mind. His poems are both sharply clarified evocations of people and things in his sun-blasted environment, and insistent conversations with himself about his own motives in moving himself away from ordinary life, and the price he’s paid for that move.

Of course Gilbert would choose Greece for his slow sweet clear declension through time. Don DeLillo chose it too, for a few years, and saw the same things Gilbert did. In his novel, The Names, DeLillo described a Greek village in language that, put into short lines rather than paragraphs, could be Gilbert’s:

Laundry hung in the walled gardens, always this sense of realized space, common objects, domestic life going on in that sculpted hush. Stairways bent around houses, disappearing. It was a sea chamber raised to the day, to the detailing light, a textured pigment on the hills. There was something artless and trusting in the place despite the street meanders, the narrow turns and ravels. Striped flagpoles and aired-out rugs, houses joined by closed wooden balconies, plants in battered cans, a willingness to share the oddments of some gathering-up. Passageways captured the eye with one touch, a sea green door, a handrail varnished to a nautical gloss. A heart barely beating in the summer heat, and always the climb, the small birds in cages, the framed approaches to nowhere. Doorways were paved with pebble mosaics, the terrace stones were outlined in white.

Realized space – that’s what the artist is after. The world’s objects and people distributed deeply and fully and feelingly so that when you look at them you see reality, you see the actual world.
In particular, you see the earth’s empty spaces inhabited, elaborated, brought to life, realized by people through use. In Greece, even nowhere is framed.

This needs to be a domestic lived reality, not the techno-phantasmagoria of the great skyscraper city. You seek elemental truths, basic daily gatherings-up, using DeLillo’s word. You want to observe this. So you could live, for instance, on the edge of a Balinese rice paddy just as easily as in a Greek village, for both give you daily and nightly visual access to the interaction of small human communities and natural beauty and bounty. Actually, Greece is better because it’s dry, without natural bounty in the way of watery Bali — you want visual access to small human communities enacting the existential drama of drawing from the earth beauty, sustenance, and meaning.

So, you’re ecstatically, aesthetically, engaged in all of this, but your consciousness – your being a person with a past, with regrets and confusions and worldly avidities – is going to bedevil you, and from the conflict between your settled engagement in a settled world and your neurotic, restless, maybe guilty self (you’re an American behaving like this, for goodness sake) will arise a poem like “Transgressions,” in which the poet talks to himself about his passion for pure being and his sense of the sinfulness of this passion.

The sin of “sloth,” “waste” — yet those were his favorite years, when he was doing “nothing important.”

Using up what
little time we have, relishing our mortality,
waltzing slowly without purpose.

Whitman loafs and invites his own and the universal soul; but Gilbert isn’t inviting. His “transgression” resides in his greedy taking of life for himself. Lust, pride, violence, the narcissism of “feeling himself feeling.” He concludes:

This world,
the pine woods stretching all brown or bare
on either side of the railroad tracks in the winter
twilight. Him feeling the cold, sinfully unshriven.

Nice the way the word shiver shivers through unshriven in that unredeemed cold… But he’s feeling it… Feeling himself feeling the cold, and that’s much more important to him than any reckoning in conventional terms of his transgressions. He wants the true world, all of it, including the true world of his mind and his body and his own ways of being. These may be ugly or beautiful but it is their being existent that elates him, lends him the only redemption he really cares about. Leave all of it alone, he writes – let the world be and let myself be. Let me watch as I become part of the realized space of the globe, and let me transgress and transgress against the higher waste of a labored existence until I come to an end.

UD’s happy to see that…

… “Afghan human rights activist, ex-minister and burka opponent Sima Samar is …seen as a possible winner” of this year’s Nobel Peace prize. This would be spectacular publicity for the effort to get women and children out from under this grotesque garment.

Plus of course UD‘s beloved Don DeLillo is again being shortlisted for the literature prize. He and Philip Roth always show up together on this list.

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I thought of DeLillo’s novel Mao II tonight while reading again – for the first time in forty or so years – Catcher in the Rye. Almost at the end of that novel, Holden Caulfield has a heart-to-heart with one of his teachers, the very smart, alcoholic, Mr Antolini. Antolini recognizes Caulfield’s intelligence, sensitivity, moral rigidity, and self-destructiveness. He understands how the trauma of Holden’s beloved brother’s death has set on him on a nihilistic, existence-loathing path. He also sees how this rage, combined with Caulfield’s restless intellect, could make him some sort of dangerous fanatic. Here’s one of the things he says to Holden:

“Something else an academic education will do for you. If you go along with it any considerable distance, it’ll begin to give you an idea what size mind you have. What it’ll fit and, maybe, what it won’t. After a while, you’ll have an idea what kind of thoughts your particular size mind should be wearing. For one thing, it may save you an extraordinary amount of time trying on ideas that don’t suit you, aren’t becoming to you. You’ll begin to know your true measurements and dress your mind accordingly.”

This know-yourself haberdashery put me in mind of a very similar piece of advice DeLillo’s hero, the totally Salingeresque writer Bill Gray, recalls having read and heard growing up:

He remembered the important things, how his father wore a hat called the Ritz, gray with a black band, a raw edge and a snap brim, and someone was always saying “Measure your head before ordering” which was a line in the Sears Roebuck catalogue…”

As he’s dying, Bill repeats this phrase to himself.

Know your true measurements and dress your mind accordingly. Measure your head before ordering.

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