Don DeLillo and the Phenomenon of Terror

This is the paper that I presented at the Terror(ism) and Aesthetics conference this September in Szeged.


Relevant issues, I believe, are properly understood by asking the right questions. This is especially the case with regards to the issue of terror and the phenomenon of terrorism. Needless to say, a theme of this proportion demands many important questions if one sets out on an inquiry. To my mind, one of the best of such questions that can be posed in relation to terrorism (and aesthetics) is the one that Don DeLillo, the contemporary North-American writer, poses in his latest novel Point Omega where he asks: Why is it so hard to be serious and so easy to be too serious?

In the following description this will be the echo or the covert sentiment that haunts my argumentation. And now that the frame is thus set let me start with a famous sentence from Fyodor Dostoevsky according to which: ’’While nothing is easier than to denounce the evil-doer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him.’’ I think a wisdom like this is especially useful in that it offers a kind of mental schema in which one can assign different “values” to the same “role”. In other words, one can replace the word “evil-doer” with any other negative character. It could be the arrogant person or the depressed and paranoid person as well the extreme case of the nazi or the terrorist. While nothing is easier than to denounce the terrorist nothing is more difficult than to understand him. DeLillo’s question and Dostoevsky’s statement might prove to be a good amalgam for inquiry for various reasons. Let’s see why.

Basically, what Dostoevsky reminds us of with this statement is the fact that every individual and every act of the individual is embedded within a context that, in a sense, ’’justifies’’ that act. Of course, the justification implied here does not entail the condonement or the endorsement of atrocities, but rather it entails tracing the underlying and enveloping dynamics that call forth those atrocities. Another important implication of his sentence is highlighting the covert (and thus reflexive) division and hierarchization between, on the one hand, individuals who evince normal and, on the other hand, individuals who evince abnormal, anti-social behavior. In denouncing the evil-doer: there is a tacit ’’us’’ versus ’’them’’ mentality, which always connotes a sense of separateness, a ’’here’’ against a ’’there’’, as if evil (like being a nazi) was something outside us (the normal people) and not something, in fact, potentially within us as human beings in general. Again, what Dostoevsky warns against is this externalizing gesture and the adoption of the moral high-ground, of dichotomizing in terms of inside and outside, high and low, central and marginal, etc…

Our intuition tells us that we relate to things from outside of them, yet, in a sense, everything that we come into contact with and judge negatively or positively or merely interact with we relate to from within the space that our interaction with that thing opens up. The sense of separateness is an illusion. In the present case, this amounts to the fact that the capacity to be terrorized is always coupled with the capacity to terrorize. And given the dynamics of the particular situation we could find ourselves in the role of each of these poles. Thus, the phenomenon of terror is a domain or context of being that hinges on the co-determining polarity of terrorizer and terrorized. If it involves humans primarily then it is an intersubjective dynamics. The engine of this intersubjective dynamics is violence (of feeling/being violated by others, and violating others) and the fuel for this dynamics is ’’meaning,’’ the sense that individuals derive or fail to derive from it.

In effect, as anthropologists argue violence is an integral part of human meaning and sense making practices, because it provides structure through which action and human thought might coherently play out. In the words of the recent call for papers of the scholarly journal Cognitive Semiotics: just consider the human sacrifices of earlier times, or the scape-goat rituals of the ancient world, or the various initiation rites, the circumcision rites of boys and girls, and the hazing rituals of college fraternities, initiations into paramilitary orders and secret bortherhoods. In all these practices we witness the power of violence to generate meaning for those participating in it.

So, violence is inherently related to the issue of meaning and significance and relevance. Furthermore, I would speculate, it is oriented in its extreme form in the following two ways:

a)      In case of excess of meaning (believeing in a dogma, central doctrine) and a felt threat to that meaning: violence is other-oriented, its target is alterity. Usually it takes the form of a collective action and manifests itself in atrocity against another group.

b)      In case of lack of meaning (something like those suffering from depression might feel) violence is self-oriented. It takes the form of an individual action and can manifest in suicide.

This is a painfully simplistic speculation but provides, perhaps, a useful handle on the issue in question. Intersubjective violence, then, is either outward or inward-oriented, and it is always tightly coupled to the issue of meaning and (personal) significance.


This is where Don DeLillo comes into the picture. DeLillo addresses both of these orientations within terror but always from within, always from the personal angle. In the spirit of Dostoevsky DeLillo does not assume the ’’over here-over there’’ schema, but rather he tackles the issue from within.

While the idea of terror and the terrorist is explicitly thematized in only some of his books it is implicitly present in all of them, especially in his later more sparse and poetic works, where the inner/personal angle is the most pronounced. In fact, throughout his career DeLillo descends deeper and deeper into the inner realm of terror.

In his earlier book the Players, for instance, we encounter Lyle, the protagonist, who joins a group of terrorists in an attempt to redeem his empty consumerist lifestyle that is drained of all excitement; of meaning in general. Later, in The Names the protagonist James Axton is similarly fascinated by a mysterious cult which ritually murders harmless people with initials that correspond to the initials of the locations where they happen to pass through. In Mao II DeLillo links terrorism to the idea of the overwhelming force of crowds, portraying the media as more and more facilitating this connection, a theme that is brought up in Falling Man as well, the novel that revolves around the tragedy of 9/11.

The regenerative potential of violence, becoming part of a collective or meaningful constellation that sanctions violence and gives its members a sense of purpose, a sense of significance, a sense of identity – these issues, in one way or another, underlie all of DeLillo’s works. (In Mark Osteen’s words ’’recognizing that consumerism offers communion without real community, DeLillo’s characters seek solace in purgative rituals’’.) In his most recent books, though, this sentiment, the felt sense of impending terror, of violated order, intensifies even more. Terror becomes more intense in these texts because it shifts from an explicit to an implicit level. There are no terrorists, no attacks, no mindless violence portayed. What appears is the internal dimension of terror. Grieving, mourning, suffering the loss of a loved one, losing a significant ’’other’’, the fragmentation of self-identity, (losing the ’’plot’’) – this is the main thread that runs through these later works.

Love-lies-bleeding is a drama about a landscape artist Alex who after a couple of strokes ends up in a  vegetative, perhaps totally mindless state and, basically, his family members try to decide what to do (and, in the end, how to do it). This is what his young wife says at the funeral: ’’In the end it’s not what kind of man he was but simply that he’s gone. The stark fact. The thing that turns us into children, alone under the sky. When it stops being unbearable, it becomes something worse. It becomes the air we breathe’’.

In effect, this sentiment, even these very same words echo in The Body Artist as well Point Omega. Briefly, The Body Artist recounts the story of Lauren Hartke, a performance artist who, after her husband’s suicide, remains alone in a rented house on a lonely coast, where she encounters a strange, ageless creature whom she names Mr Tuttle. (Incidentally, I think that this otherworldy creature (Tuttle) can be seen as the projected image of Lauren’s struggle of processing trauma). Now, compare the following passage to the previous one:

Her eyes had to adjust to the night sky. She walked away from the house, out of the spill of electric light, and the sky grew deeper. She watched for a long time and it began to spread and melt and go deeper still, developing strata and magnitudes and light-years in numbers so unapproachable that someone had to invent idiot names to represent the arrays of ones and zeros and powers and dominations because only the bedtime language of childhood can save us from awe and shame.

((Also, this is a side-track in this presentation but Lauren’s struggle is, basically, a struggle for meaning, for identity which is, as phenomenologists would argue, a temporal, narrative phenomenon. Accordingly, DeLillo in the novella writes: ’’When time stops so do we. We don’t stop, we become stripped down, less self-assured’’. Or: ’’You are made out of time. This is the force that tells you who you are’’. And, at the end, commenting on Lauren’s struggle the narrator says: ’’She wanted to feel the sea tang on her face & the flow of time in her body to tell her who she was’’.))

In Point Omega the same issue is thematized, namely, the fragility of the self, of the shattering of the meaningful constellation of identity that embeds the self in a world of significance. In short, Point Omega is a novel about a scholar fleeing from urban life to the desert where he is visited by a filmmaker who would like to do a film about him. One day the scholar’s daughter visits and then, after a couple of days disappears in the desert. Not knowing whether she is alive or not, her father is crushed by this incident. Here are some emblematic passages from the book, (the narrator is the filmmaker): ’’When you strip away all the surfaces, when you see into it, what’s left is terror. This is the thing that literature was meant to cure. The epic poem, the  bedtime story’’ (again, echoing the phrases from Love-lies-Bleeding and The Body Artist). And one of the most poignant descriptions:

We drove in silence behind a motorboat being towed by a black pickup. I thought about his remarks about matter and being, those long nights on the deck, half smashed, he and I, transcendence, paroxysm, the end of human consciousness. It seemed so much dead echo now. Point omega. A million years away. The omega point has narrowed, here and now, to the point of a knife as it enters a body. All the man’s grand themes funneled down to local grief, one body, out there somewhere, or not.

In closing, I would propose that DeLillo’s remedial gesture towards the theme of (internal) terror he depicts can be found in the stylistic choices he makes. These texts emanate a sense of stifledness, a sense of suspendedness, a kind of resistance to closure, commitment and momentum. Nouns instead of verbs, and thus a sense of hovering, a sense of stasis dominates. This is the aesthetic stance, perhaps, a kind of Keatsian negative capability that is best spelled out in the question that DeLillo poses in Point Omega: ’’why is it so hard to be serious, so easy to be too serious?’’


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One Response to Don DeLillo and the Phenomenon of Terror

  1. Pingback: Bill Gass, the aesthetic is no mere stucco « minimaligned

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