As you know, this blog tracks the postmodern American way of death – described and discussed most vividly in DeLillo novels like White Noise – which takes place when something goes wrong while you’re having fun in a sought-after setting. Visual technology almost always plays a part.
Italian police had to rescue the tourist after he climbed up without a ticket and fell inside, but authorities are now charging him and his family for trespassing.
The man and three of his relatives had decided to bypass the visitor entrance, ignoring the turnstile and taking a forbidden route to the crater at the top of the volcano that looms over the Italian city of Naples.
He scrambled down inside the crater at the top of the volcano, which is active but has not seen an eruption for almost 80 years, seemingly to try and get better photographs.
UD likes the additional frisson, here, of cretinous American arrogance.
If you doubt the cultural centrality of golf balls in America, read this front-page article in the New York Times, which ominously reports that errant golf balls breaking windows in retirement communities is “an increasingly prominent problem.”
A Bronx-born son of Italian immigrants, DeLillo is an entirely urban animal, yet he knowledgeably sets his novel in a small midwestern “village” (I’ll explain the quotation marks in a moment); a writer who has never had children, he sensitively places at the heart of the book the character and fate of many children in a blended family (their parents are much-divorced). As with many of my posts on the postmodern way of death, the novel first establishes the enviably, pleasantly, eventlessly “immune” life of affluent Americans, and then throws a lethal environmental catastrophe (“the airborne toxic event”) right in their faces. And lungs.
So DeLillo locates the Gladney family (glad; bland) in the cute village of Blacksmith, with its preserved nineteenth century main street and vernacular library and town hall and churches…
From its sweet pre-industrial name to its charming brick storefronts, Blacksmith could convince you you really are living a pre-modern life, before advanced technology, massive shopping malls, and endless ubiquitous streaming media; but, as White Noise makes hilariously clear, it’s all a simulacrum, a Truman-show facade behind which lies, like it or not, the late twentieth century.
When the disaster hits, Gladney’s first response is total denial:
“These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters. People in low-lying areas get the floods, people in shanties get the hurricanes and tornadoes. I’m a college professor. Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in one of those TV floods? We live in a neat and pleasant town near a college with a quaint name. These things don’t happen in places like Blacksmith.”
The filmmakers chose Wellington, Ohio for their Blacksmith – a heartland town whose preserved main street has won national awards.
There’s also the universally expressed shock that lurking under your smooth luxe golfy world are – should you take one false step – multiple woman-eaters.
“I mean it’s pretty horrible and it’s shocking to think that that could actually happen,” John Whitworth, a resident told WBBH. “We see alligators from time to time but never thought that anything like that could happen.”
Which is odd because franchement down there you see alligators all the time; and you certainly know lots of them lurk just under the surface. But that’s the whole DeLillo thing – the fascinating coincidence of affluent highly secure absolute eventlessness AND total catastrophe very near to one another. It’s a very strange headspace to be in, strolling the sweet paths of your immunity even as a small part of your consciousness registers alligators, hurricanes, red tide, tsunami, sea level rise, heat wave…
‘Kings Pointer Robert Levine, 74, fired five shots at an unfamiliar fellow condo resident, Herbert Merritt, 64, while he was walking his dog near the 15th hole of the golf course at Kings Point early one evening last month, according to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
The verbal confrontation took a potentially life-and-death turn when Levine pointed a handgun at Merritt, who then ran, as Levine pursued him around a tree in the cart while shooting at the fleeing dog owner, the arrest report said.
One of the shots hit Merritt in the left ankle, wounding him and dropping him to the ground. Levine wasn’t done, according to the report. An eyewitness told deputies that the golfer kicked Merritt in the head, then went to golf cart, pulled out a club and began hitting the fallen dog owner with a club, while still holding the handgun in his other hand.’
As we wind down toward December, this year’s fraternity-death totals are coming in, and they’re – as usual – awesome. Nothing kills eighteen year old American men in search of friendship and a college education faster than a night with the Sweethearts of Sigma Chi, professional sadists who have, over the long storied years of their chapter, perfected the art of murder by forced alcohol intake. Nothing bonds brothers like working together over many hours to make sure someone who’d like to join their club chokes to death on his vomit – unless it’s the scary manslaughter case that follows, a shared experience of adversity that brings together the boys, their adoring parents, and their supportive community, in another one of life’s tests of blood loyalty and the Greek way.
After a century packed with dead pledges, everyone agrees there’s not really anything our country can do about the Geertzian “deep play” of massive insane drunken football staging area universities like Penn State as they stagger from serial child rapist coaches, to post-game riots, to jock-on-jock homicide in the frat houses. The whole wild synergy put Penn State’s last president in jail, but this seems to have been viewed as the ultimate test of the school’s commitment to destroying the life of everyone who studies or works there without regard to status.
There are scads of universities like Penn State. There are scads of universities that make Penn State their role model.
Because the blood and the violence in these football/frat cultures are beautiful. Remember what Professor Murray Siskind, a character in White Noise who teaches a seminar on car crashes in the movies, says about these ever more violent collisions. He is talking to one of his colleagues.
“All that blood and glass, that screeching rubber. What about the sheer waste, the sense of a civilization in a state of decay?”
… “I tell [my students] 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.”
Look past the teenager on life-support to the high-spirited innocent fun of the postmodern American campus, where advances in recording technology and a booming liquor industry promise Americans years of morbid viewing pleasure.
For those who consider this a “problem,” which must be “solved,” UD says: Wisconsin. Concentrate the behavior in one state. Designate one American state whose universities may, with impunity, pick off their freshman males.
Why Wisconsin? It is well-located, right in the middle of the country, for ease of access. The state has a long glorious tradition of drunkenness, and is full of jock-centric state university campuses. All universities outside of Wisconsin would shutter their Greek houses, and they would make life so difficult for the remaining illegal off-campus fraternities that the lure of Wisconsin would become irresistible.
The image of an important American politician crawling in agony across a baseball field, trying to limit himself to just one semiautomatic bullet, comes right out of the novels of this nation’s most celebrated contemporary writer, Don DeLillo.
Anyone who has read White Noise or Players knows that postmodern death and near-death à la DeLillo typically involve some combination of playtime activities, guns, and videotape. In DeLillo, death has lost the majesty, the redemptive possibilities, it had as late as, say Tolstoy’s famous story, “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” Now it’s a sudden violent event that happens while adults are playing miniature golf; and someone’s usually around to film them expiring on the little fake putting green.
In Players, affluent American death occurs on a grownup golf course on a bright shiny day, with middle-class men, dressed in crayola colors, engaged in “that anal round of scrupulous caution and petty griefs.”
The golfers on this sweet green morning attend to their game. Together again momentarily on a particular fairway they appear almost to be posing in massed corporate glory before a distant flag. It is now that the vigilant hidden thing, the special consciousness implicit in a long lens, is made to show itself.
A man, his back to the camera, rises from the underbrush in the immediate foreground, about two hundred yards from the golfers. When he turns to signal someone, it’s evident he has a weapon in his right hand, a semiautomatic rifle. After signaling he doesn’t reassume his crouch. One of the golfers selects an iron.
This leisure-time massacre is actually part of a film being shown first-class passengers on a WhisperJet. None of them watches with much attention; they’re in an alcoholic/anxious haze.
The audience’s emotional distance from the bloody mess on the screen is deepened by the fact that they’re in an in-flight piano bar, with a performer who uses his instrument to comment in a campy way on what he’s seeing — on the irony of simultaneous golf and terrorism.
Watching golfers being massacred, to trills and other ornaments, seems to strike those in the piano bar … as an occasion for sardonic delight.
Not all postmodern deaths involve bullets, but virtually all, as presented in the work of DeLillo, involve playtime. In White Noise, set in a university, Professor Dimitri Costakis is “lost in the surf off Malibu. During the term break.” The school’s dean, who once “serve[d] as adviser to Nixon, Ford and Carter,” has recently met “his death on a ski lift in Austria.” Death in America is something that happens when you’re having fun. The ski lift dumps you out; the surf engulfs you; men with guns interrupt your game.
A blimp flying over the U.S. Open went down Thursday just beyond a rim of trees surrounding Erin Hills. The pilot, the blimp’s only occupant, was airlifted from the scene of the crash but was reported as alert and conscious, according to police.
Fan video caught the deflated blimp as it floated to the ground.
That one happened on the same day as the baseball game. It’s hard not to laugh at some of these misadventures, hard not to greet them sardonically. The disparity between the triviality (“petty griefs”) of blimpish voyeuristic activity, and the deflation and airlifting is just funny. It’s just so graphic an illustration of our superficiality, our childish spectatorial lives, so utterly unprepared for seriousness, reality, the crash, the spray of bullets.
I still have my old paperback copy of Herzog (Fawcett Crest, $0.95), a novel I recall reading with great pleasure. It wasn’t the first Bellow novel I encountered—that was The Victim, whose opening sentence (“On some nights New York is as hot as Bangkok.”) seemed a novel in itself…
The theme that seems to have evolved in my work during the past decade concerns time—time and loss. This was not a plan; the novels have simply tended to edge in that direction. Some years ago I had the briefest of exchanges with a professor of philosophy. I raised the subject of time. He said simply, “Time is too difficult.” Yes, time is a mystery and perhaps best examined (or experienced by my characters) in a concise and somewhat enigmatic manner…
So…. maybe we make a little mixed cocktail? A little Bellow, a little Mitchell Heisman, author of Suicide Note [details here].
In Herzog (UD‘s got the same old Fawcett Crest edition DeLillo’s got, and she’s been pawing through it), our seriously fucked up hero, Moses Herzog (his name taken, as you may already know, from a very minor character in James Joyce’s Ulysses) is visiting his seriously fucked up friend Luke, a University of Chicago scientist who can’t deal with people at all, but who so loved his recently deceased monkey that as the monkey was dying he gave it mouth to mouth resuscitation.
Since the monkey’s death Luke has been deeply, dangerously depressed.
“It really threw me into a spin. I thought that palling around with Rocco was a gag. I didn’t realize how much he meant to me. But the truth is, I realized that no other death in the world could have affected me so much. I had to ask myself whether the death of my brother would have shook me up half as much. I think not. We’re all some kind of nut or other, I realize. But…”
He finds a psychotherapist who tells him to imagine himself dead, in a coffin, with all the people who meant something to him in his life passing by his body. He’s supposed to think of what he wanted to tell them in life, what the real truth was between them, within him, etc.
But it doesn’t work. All he can think about are memories of farcical events involving fat aunts and cornfed showgirls from his urban youth…
Herzog says to him:
A man may say, ‘From now on I’m going to speak the truth.’ But the truth hears him and runs away and hides before he’s even speaking. There is something funny about the human condition, and civilized intelligence makes fun of its own ideas…
Human life is far subtler than any of its models. …
Do you have to think yourself into a coffin and perform these exercises with death? As soon as thought begins to deepen it reaches death, first thing. … I really believe that brotherhood is what makes a man human…. When the preachers of dread tell you that others only distract you from metaphysical freedom then you must turn away from them. The real and essential question is one of our employment by other human beings and their employment by us. Without this true employment, you never dread death, you cultivate it. And consciousness when it doesn’t truly understand what to live for, what to die for, can only abuse and ridicule itself.
… something stirred in UD’s headlet, and she searched the name Junod on University Diaries.
Sure enough, back in 2010, she cited Junod’s smart remarks about her beloved Don DeLillo; and one of those remarks has now helped her think about the Black Rifle Coffee/Dallas Cowboys controversy – a controversy that doesn’t seem to be dying down.
No, [DeLillo] has never written about Top Kills and Junk Shots and the odd flutter of hope elicited by the words “Containment Dome.” But in their suggestion of corporatized violence and above all in the violence they do to the language, they are DeLilloesque…
What DeLillo understood, long ago, is the end of the world would be experienced not as the end of the world but rather as a way of thinking and talking about the end of the world. What he understood is that the toxic cloud that has our name on it would be defined by its lack of definition; that we would never have as much information about it as we need to have or that someone else has; that it would turn into a free-floating void, exactly as withholding as it is encompassing; that it would become part of the landscape and that the landscape would become part of it; and that, of course, there would be footage, endlessly recycled but ultimately inconclusive.
Black Rifle, with its bloody brews (Murdered Out; AK-47), is corporatized violence becoming – via the Dallas Cowboys – a way of thinking and talking; a part of the landscape. What Brooks misses in his analysis of the origins and motivations of our teen massacrists is this normalization, this banality if you will, of apocalyptic weaponry and what it is doing to us. Coffee – that most banal of drinks – is now visually (via advertising footage, endlessly recycled) wedded to mass slaughter, to weapons that can literally murder us out.
An AK-47, first encountered by kids on a Jumbotron at a cool, fun, wholesome Dallas Cowboys game, is something that gives you the same vague chemical kick as a cup of Joe or a sports event. Everybody’s doin’ it.
Our violent psychotics do not necessarily, as Brooks argues, regard their AK-47s (often bought for them by daddy — Brooks has far too little to say about the depraved parents/suppliers of our killers) as charismatic icons of power and vengeance. They more probably seem to them utililtarian, normalized (how outlaw can AK-47s be when you get them from daddy, and when everyone’s drinking AK-47 coffee?), parts of the landscape.
Thus when Brooks gets melodramatically Biblical about guns (“The guns are like serpents in the trees, whispering to them.”), I wonder if he’s headed in the wrong direction. How can guns have this effect when dad’s chipped coffee cup has images of AK-47s all over it? When American parents routinely receive marketing pressing them to buy baby versions of AK-47s for their eight year old? When the raffle prize at the county fair is an AK-47?
Our country’s most outspoken, violent teenager, after all, is famous for having boasted that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody” and it would only intensify his supporters’ enthusiasm for him. He didn’t know how right he was. Even his reported excitement about the impending death of his vice-president did nothing to dislodge him from his position of undisputed king of the nation’s Republican Party. His sons are even more violent – in word and deed – than he; and his congressional spawn … How surprised are you going to be when Jim Jordan can’t take it anymore and blasts into the January 6 committee room with a – you know – in his grip?
Go ahead. Laugh at this scenario. Go ahead.
Just as the handgun has become the home appliance of choice when you want to grab something to kill yourself with in this, our massively suicide-ridden land, so the AK-47 is simply there, part of the landscape, the thing you grab (dad’s far too ruggedly independent to lock it up) when your loathing of humanity reaches – let’s go with coffee – the boiling point. “Every country contains mentally ill and potentially violent people. Only America arms them,” and only America goes a step further than flooding the country with guns for absolutely everyone and electing a pathologically violent president: America makes guns cute and sassy and savory, an unremarkable part of our shared corporate advertising world.