Don DeLillo’s Finite Vision of Infinity
An investigation into Buddhism and race in White Noise
The Crusades, the Inquisition, jihad, “the events” of September 11, 2001: religious fundamentalism has had a notoriously long and vexed history of violence. Western literary and intellectual thought has thus remained perplexed by the question of the role that religion should play within contemporary progressive politics and culture. For some, like Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, such religiously sanctioned violence as we saw on September 11 testifies once again that “Revealed faith is…[d]angerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labeled only by a difference of inherited tradition.” As a response to this, a constellation of books, novels, and movies have tried to imagine how the world’s religions could thrive while not obstructing but rather contributing to a modern pluralism. One thinks of Cornel West’s advocacy, in Race Matters, of religion as a bulwark against nihilism and violence in the African American community, or of Gianni Vattimo’s defense, in his scholarly meditation Belief, of a Catholic tradition that promotes social justice, stripped of its potentially belligerent metaphysical underpinnings; one is here also reminded of Nancy Armstrong’s rejection, in A History of God, of a monotheistic god used “to give egotism a sacred seal of divine approval”—her call to a return to the “God of the mystics.” What unifies these projects is a common effort to amplify the dimensions of the religious that promote a progressive politics of care while deconstructing those that glower toward the world with a face of dogmatism, exclusivism, and violence.
Don DeLillo’s acclaimed novel White Noise serves as a fit example of this trend. It has appeared on countless American syllabi, and the New York Times hailed it in 2006 as one of "the single best work[s] of American fiction published in the last 25 years.” I’ll never forget walking into the Strand bookstore in New York City to find a copy of it elevated upon a stand at the entrance, a hand-written sign vaunting it as the truest reflection of “life in contemporary America.” As I continued to explore its pages, I saw contemporary America reflected indeed through its main character Jack Gladney, through whom the novel reveals its efforts to commend to its readership a particular type of religious feeling that fosters compassion and pluralism over exclusion and violence. Jack Gladney turns toward a religiously-inflected worldview precisely because a secularist one has offered him too poor resources for dealing with the fact of his pending death. He has been recently diagnosed with a mysterious terminal illness, and is now aware that “You will cease to be. To be.” “Nothingness is staring you in the face.” “Utter and permanent oblivion.” Thoroughly secular, Jack is left to experience his pending death as a meaningless horror: “Men shout as they die, to be noticed, remembered for a second or two [as they] die suddenly…on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, feverish, a little congested in the sinuses and chest, thinking about the dry cleaning.”
And this turns Jack violent. Whereas contemporary intellectual culture sees religion as seething with potential for violence, in White Noise we see secularism as in fact an equally problematic culprit of violence. DeLillo seems to reverse Richard Dawkins’ critique. Jack’s meaningless death generates in him unbearable existential and psychic pain, such that “The theme of this story is my pain and my attempts to end it.” Jack’s good friend, Murray Siskind, urges him to deal with his death by projecting it onto someone else. “The killer, in theory, attempts to defeat his own death by killing others.” Murray continues, “Be the killer for a change. Let someone else be the dier. Let him replace you, theoretically, in that role. You can’t die if he does. He dies, you live….Kill to live.” This logic leads Jack to project his own death onto the sole non-white character in the novel. Jack lives in a safe all-white suburb, but on the seedy fringes of it lurks a social misfit, the immigrant Willy Mink: “What kind of name is Willy Mink?” “Did he speak with an accent?” “His face was odd, concave, forehead and chin jutting.” “His nose was flat, his skin the color of a Planter’s peanut. What is the geography of a spoon-shaped face? Was he Melanesian, Polynesian, Indonesian, Nepalese, Surinamese, Dutch-Chinese?” In White Noise, modern secularism bereaves its characters of the resources they need to understand and make meaning of death: the most extreme consequence of this being violence toward those who look, speak, and act differently. Jack, I’d like to emphasize, turns murderous toward the sole non-white character in the novel.
DeLillo deals with this problem through what John McClure would call a “partial” turn toward the religious. It is when Jack is in the act of shooting Mink, repeating his murder plot as a sort of mantra that alters his state of mind, that he enters into an out-of-body vision. In an odd and ultimately cryptic unfolding of events, Jack’s perception catapults, through the act of violence, beyond the material surface of things, into a vision their deeper ontological core. Jack is shooting at Willy Mink, but then undergoes a profound shift in perception that allows him now to
look at him. Alive. His lap a puddle of blood. With the restoration of the normal order of matter and sensation, I felt I was seeing him for the first time as a person…. Compassion, remorse, mercy….This was the key to selflessness, or so it seemed to me as I knelt over the wounded man [administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation], exhaling rhythmically in the littered street….Get past disgust. Forgive the foul body. Embrace the whole.
Jack has an experience here that empowers him to see himself as spiritually interconnected with Willy Mink. This vision of “the whole,” various critics have noticed, is of particular Buddhist inflection. All throughout the novel, his friend Murray has been commending to Jack a way of thinking about life and death exemplified by Tibetan Buddhists, who “see death for what it is” and so “can proceed calmly to die,” “without awe or terror.” “We don’t have to cling to life artificially, or to death for that matter,” he advises. “We simply walk toward the sliding doors.” “Dying is an art in Tibet.” Here at the end of the novel, in its climactic scene, Jack finally gets it. He he embraces his mortality—“the whole” of life, in which life and death are of a piece—and he can now embrace Willy Mink. He does this through a turn toward a mystical Buddhist worldview. In this sense, we could imagine White Noise as a rejoinder to Richard Dawkins’ claim that religion leads inevitably to the psychologies and practices of violence. In fact, we see quite the opposite play out in DeLillo’s novel; Jack is violent when he’s secular—he’s violent because of the ways in which secularism denies him crucial resources for survival and fulfillment—and his remedy for this is religious. Buddhism, with its mystical emphasis and its non-dogmatic structure, fits the bill for this type of religious experimentation.
What might we say, finally, about DeLillo’s turn to the religious in this novel? My thoughts in particular remain ambivalent. While in theory such a spiritually rich universe heals the violence bred by Jack’s secular worldview, we could probe a little more into precisely how the novel achieves this turn. I mentioned above the unexplained nature of what tips Jack into this Buddhist-inflected enlightenment during the murder scene. One moment Jack is shooting, the next moment he is embracing the whole. It’s the precise cause of this shift—from secular violence to religious compassion—that critics have been hard pressed to explain, glossing over it as simply not very convincing. I would argue, however, that what explains Jack’s shift in consciousness is lying right in front of him: in the victimized body of Willy Mink. Standing apart from the racially homogenous world of White Noise is this immigrant with a flat nose, funny accent, and “scooped-out face” who, perhaps for these reasons, serves as fit sacrificial lamb for Jack’s enlightenment. DeLillo uses this Buddhist enlightenment experience to promote the potential of Eastern thought to expand human consciousness and compassion in contemporary America. However, far from the Buddhism of Tibetans’ themselves, Jack’s arises as a perk of privilege. It’s not just Buddhism; it’s a white middle-class American Buddhism. That’s why it’s perfectly fine, within the logic of the novel, that Jack can learn compassion through the process of shooting an immigrant. Like the sweaters we Americans wear, made in offshored sweatshops, rendered to us at the cost of human life, Jack “sees the light” at the cost of the sole non-white character in the novel. And DeLillo doesn’t bat an eye at this. He simply has Jack dump Mink’s dying body in front of the hospital and then move on with his life.
Herein lies the problem, for me, with this particular novel’s turn to the religious. In doing so, it aims to dignify the role of the religious in contemporary American life and society, and for this I’d commend it; but in doing so it also gets nettled in patterns of thought that are ethnically constrictive and ultimately dangerous, and for this I’d warn against it. It repeats the American habit of “importing” coveted elements of other cultures—like esoteric forms of Tibetan Buddhist practice and thought—at the expense of those very outside cultures. For as beautiful a resource as religious thinking can be to problems such as racial violence in America, Don DeLillo’s instance of it in White Noise stands to me as ultimately unreflective. As too fully Americanized. This is a smug suburban Buddhism with sunglasses, inching through a drive-through in an SUV, unaware of the foreigner in the window.
Erick Sierra is a professor of English at Trinity Christian College in Illinois. He divides his time between Chicago and New York City.