White Noise by Don DeLillo. Can we claim the powers of our age?

White noiseI read Don DeLillo’s White Noise in 2005. The thing I remember most from the book is a key plot event (spoiler). A main character becomes addicted to a pill that removes her fear of death, the side effect being a loss of ability to distinguish fact from fantasy. Imagine that. I wonder at the moment if a potent enough fantasy could remove one’s fear of death? In 2005 I was in the height of my back-to-the-land phase, thinking about family, tools and nostalgia. I suppose I was trying to sort fact from fantasy. I wrote down quotations from the book on those subjects and others.

The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation. There must be something in family life that generates factual error. Over-closeness, the noise and heat of being. Perhaps something even deeper, like the need to survive. Murray says we are fragile creatures surrounded by a world of hostile facts. Facts threaten our happiness and security. The deeper we delve into the nature of things, the looser our structure may seem to become. The family process works towards sealing off the world. Small errors grow heads. Fictions proliferate. (81-82)

There are no amateurs in the world of children. (103)

On tools, can we claim the powers of our particular age or are we freeloaders on our culture? Have we taken the time to learn how things work, as shown by our ability to independently recreate its tools and inventions, and articulate its insights?

“It’s like we’ve been flung back in time,” he said. “Here we are in the Stone Age, knowing all these great things after centuries of progress, but what can we do to make life easier for the Stone Agers? Can we make a refrigerator? Can we even explain how it works? What is electricity? What is light? We experience these things every day of our lives but what good does it do if we find ourselves hurled back in time and we can’t even tell people the basic principles much less actually make something that would improve conditions. Name one thing you could make. Could make a simple wooden match that you could strike on a rock to make a flame? We think we’re so great and modern. Moon landings, artificial hearts. But what if you were hurled into a time warp and came face to face with the ancient Greeks. The Greeks invented trigonometry. They did autopsies and dissections. What could you tell an ancient Greek that he couldn’t say, ‘Big deal.’ Could you tell him about the atom? Atom is a Greek word. The Greeks knew that the major events in the universe can’t be seen by the eye of man. It’s waves, it’s rays, it’s particles.” (147-148)

Wilder sat on a tall stool in front of the stove, watching water boil in a small enamel pot. He seemed fascinated by the process. I wondered if he’d uncovered some splendid connection between things he’d always thought of as separate. The kitchen is routinely rich is such moments, perhaps for me as much as for him. (212)

There were times when he seemed to attack me with terms like ratchet drill and whipsaw. He saw my shakiness in such matters as a sign of some deeper incompetence or stupidity. These were the things that built the world. Not to know or care about them was a betrayal of fundamental principles, a betrayal of gender, of species. What could be more useless than a man who couldn’t fix a dripping faucet – fundamentally useless, dead to history, to the messages in his genes? I wasn’t sure I disagreed. (245)

It is easy to mistake back-to-the-land thinking as just nostalgia. The modifier ‘just’ is the mistake. Nostalgia may speak to a misstep, a feeling that something good was lost by accident but the memory is fading. Many good solutions for the present can be found in the past, but they are ignored because they are not new. Those who sense it struggle to revive consciousness.

Murray says it is possible to be homesick for a place even when you are there. (257)

I don’t trust anybody’s nostalgia but my own. Nostalgia is a product of dissatisfaction and rage. It’s a settling of grievances between the present and the past. The more powerful the nostalgia, the closer you come to violence. War is the form nostalgia takes when men are hard-pressed to say something good about their country. (258)

Was I immersing myself, little by little, in a secret life? Did I think it was my last defense against the ruin worked out for me so casually by the force or nonforce, the principle or power or chaos that determines such things? … I sat at my desk thinking of secrets. Are secrets a tunnel to a dreamworld where you control events?

The north wind blew right through my old farm house. There came a time to leave. Still sometimes I think about these things.

2 Replies to “White Noise by Don DeLillo. Can we claim the powers of our age?”

  1. Nice comments, John, and use of quotes. Wasn’t Murray wonderful?

    I love this book! So much amazing commentary slipped in as fictive humor.

    I first read this in a grad-level sociology seminar on “lived morality.” I used it as one of my two “book reviews” for the course, the other being The Unbearable Lightness of Being.


    The prof was Richard Stivers who is probably my favorite prof and one of my favorite human beings. He is the guy I did almost all of my work on phi/soc/history/morality of technology with, amongst other things.

    It looks like I never posted the paper on White Noise. Thankfully I was able to reread the book a year or two back and to simply enjoy it as a work of fiction (noting the inimitable social commentary, of course). Nonetheless, I am glad my first exposure to it was an act of analysis. I may not have enjoyed the style at all the first time if I had approached it as a piece of fiction.

  2. Thanks for your post on the Unbearable Lightness of Being. I recall seeing the movie years ago and being confused. Lately I have been thinking a lot about the lightness of being.

    I have a mini version of the Eternal return. I don’t believe in an after-life or reincarnation of a soul, but the re-birth of subjective me-ness makes perfect sense. There was a time when “me” did not exist, there will come another time when “me” will not exist, and there will come again a time when “me” is felt. I do not claim a soul or any connection between the “mes”, just that the feeling of identity will come again. This may make more sense after considering my definition of “me-ness” which is locality, particularity, my life. It is personal. It is also co-occurring for every living being right now. It must occur for me again at some point. Again, no soul, no connection between lives. Not even a hard “I”. A very _light_ concept.

    Definitely going on my literature to-read list.

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