“They were all Hitler majors, members of the only class I still taught, Advanced Nazism.”
Don DeLillo, White Noise
Along with Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo is commonly regarded as one of the finest living writers in American fiction. As well as winning the National Book Award for White Noise in 1985, DeLillo has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1992 and 1998), and he was also awarded the Library of Congress Prize for Fiction in 2013. DeLillo’s work is, in the author’s own description, concerned with “power, corporations, the state, and the whole system of consumption and of debilitating entertainments.” As such, his work is relevant to most sections of the political spectrum, including our own, and no work is more bitterly appropriate, prophetic, and caustic than White Noise, his 1985 postmodernist satirical masterpiece. Pathological consumerism, insanity in academia, pandemic panics, social decay and fragmented families, the nihilism and anonymity of urban living, obesity, alienated youth, Western modernity’s terror of death, and the manifold abuses of Big Pharma are all foretold and satirized. Added ingredients include a sneaky and oversexed Jewish character, and a protagonist who is founder and director of the discipline of Hitler Studies. What results from this combination is a novel at once terrifying and hilarious, prescient and unforgettable.
The book begins with the start of a new semester at College-on-the-Hill, the work place of the novel’s protagonist, Jack Gladney. Gladney and his wife Babette both suffer from a pathological phobia of death, something that’s exacerbated when a chemical spill from a rail car releases a black toxic cloud over the town. Following a mass evacuation, Gladney discovers that Babette has been secretly taking a new experimental drug named Dylar, which is supposedly capable of treating intense fear of death. He also finds out that Babette has been obtaining her supply of Dylar from a man she’s been having an affair with. Consumed with his own fears, Gladney sets out to obtain his own illicit supply but the drug not only fails to achieve its stated purpose, at least in Babette’s case, but leads to addiction and a number of psychosis-like side-effects. Gladney spirals deeper into his fear of, and obsession with, death. He eventually decides to murder Willie Mink, the man with whom Babette has been having an affair. Gladney then shoots Mink, but the immediacy of another man’s death brings his own obsession with mortality into realignment. He decides to save Mink’s life, and takes him to a nearby hospital where Mink survives.
The baseline plot of White Noise is quite offbeat and simple, but the novel is intensively interwoven with a thorough social critique almost unheard of in contemporary fiction. I have to admit to some negative first reactions to the text, simply because I’m not particularly fond of novels that are “weird” or rely on certain cartoonish exaggerations to make their point. My first reaction to White Noise, based on the plot alone, was therefore much like my first reaction to Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), another work of postmodernist satire with which it has much in common in a stylistic and thematic sense. White Noise is, however, worth pursuing through its various literary devices, because at its heart is one of the most profound and cutting indictments of modern culture. It’s a text with much to say to the Dissident Right, despite the moderate leftism of its author, and the social critique within the book is best discussed thematically rather than from the perspective of the chronological plot.
In White Noise, DeLillo satirizes the decline of academic standards, and the degradation of universities into a plurality of microscopic pseudo-disciplines taught by hubristic charlatans. DeLillo’s literary device in this regard involves a protagonist, Jack Gladney, who acts as founder and director of “Hitler studies.” This is an interesting choice to say the least. Of all areas of ideology, only two are totally unable to be commodified, absorbed, and assimilated by the current system — National Socialism and radical Islam. As such, the idea of universities operating courses of study involving the objective analysis of the life and career of Adolf Hitler is obviously inconceivable. One gets the impression, however, that DeLillo knows this, and that he chose “Hitler studies” precisely because of its extreme nature, as well as its darkly comic potential. DeLillo is also concerned with the impact of “celebrity culture” on modern society and intellectual standards, and while Hitler is anathema in the contemporary West, he at least remains ever-present — a kind of notorious anti-celebrity. In DeLillo’s words, “Some people are larger than life. Hitler is larger than death.” As such, for DeLillo, Hitler is the perfect candidate for a micro-discipline within his satire of academia, and Hitler studies takes its place among such real-life disciplines as women’s studies, chicano studies, comic book studies, and celebrity studies.
Most of the novel’s early laughs come from the jarring effect on the reader of the celebration of Hitler studies. Jack Gladney, for example, introduces himself with gusto:
I am chairman of the department of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill. I invented Hitler studies in North America in March of 1968. It was a cold bright day with intermittent winds out of the east. When I suggested to the chancellor that we might build a whole department around Hitler’s life and work, he was quick to see the possibilities. It was an immediate and electrifying success.
Gladney is never far from his dog-eared and heavily annotated copy of Mein Kampf, and he informs us that it’s his custom on Fridays, “after an evening in front of the TV set, to read deeply in Hitler well into the night.” Gladney is told by a colleague that he’s done “a wonderful thing here with Hitler,” and when asked later “How’s Hitler?,” he responds enthusiastically: “Fine, solid, dependable.” When Babette informs Jack that “[Hitler] was on [TV] again last night,” Jack replies, “He’s always on. We couldn’t have television without him.” DeLillo presents Gladney as an intellectual opportunist who merely capitalized on, and in a sense commodified, Hitler. This image is complicated only twice in the novel. In the first instance, we learn that Gladney named his son Heinrich, an act that he later explains is because “I thought it had an authority that might cling to him. I thought it was forceful and impressive and I still do.” The second point where Gladney’s ideological foundations might be regarded as deeper than surface level come when Babette asks him why Hitler is on TV so much. Gladney responds ambiguously that “It’s not a question of good and evil. I don’t know what it is.”
Overall, however, Gladney is depicted as a quintessential example of academic hubris and fraud. He is obsessed with the pretentious aspects of academic posturing, wearing black academic robes and rejoicing in “clearing my arm from the folds of the garment to look at my watch. The simple act of checking the time is transformed by this flourish.” He invents a middle initial so that he can style himself “J.A.K. Gladney.” Although secure in his position as the celebrated founder of Hitler studies, Gladney’s department is “composed almost solely of New York émigrés, smart, thuggish, movie-mad” and the overall academic atmosphere is “one of pervasive bitterness, suspicion and intrigue.” Ultimately, Gladney is self-conscious as an academic fraud, remarking that he had
long tried to conceal the fact that I did not know German. I could not speak or read it, could not understand the spoken word or begin to put the simplest sentence on paper. The least of my Hitler colleagues knew some German; others were either fluent in the language or reasonably conversant. No one could major in Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill without a minimum of one year of German. I was living, in short, on the edge of a landscape of vast shame.
DeLillo thus satirizes the creation of academic disciplines by figures who are themselves intellectually average or lacking in suitable insights or skills, something reinforced when Gladney admits early in the book that in regards to the illustrious posturing of J.A.K. Gladney, he is merely “the false character that follows the name around.” Gladney’s success with Hitler studies, despite the fact he’s something of an imposter, is obvious to other academics. One tells Gladney he wants “to do the same thing with Elvis,” and later explains he’s been asked to “teach a course in the cinema of car crashes.” DeLillo probably never appreciated just how much his speculative jesting would become reality.
Just Your Average Academics: Faculty from the Center for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies, University of Leeds
White Noise is an unusual example of modern fiction in that it presents, as one of its main characters, a rather negative portrayal of a Jew. One of Gladney’s colleagues at College-on-the-Hill is Murray Jay Siskind, an ex-sportswriter. Siskind, who is described as “a stoop-shouldered man with little round glasses and an Amish beard,” is a sex-obsessed urbanite who is totally out of place in small town America. He is also acutely aware of his Jewishness. Siskind informs Gladney that he’s staying in a rooming house, and proceeds to describe the other inhabitants in abstract ways like “A woman who harbors a terrible secret. A man with a haunted look. A man who never comes out of his room.” When Gladney asks him, “Which one are you?”, Siskind responds, “I’m the Jew. What else would I be?” Siskind obsesses with awe over the mundane behaviors of regular townspeople, taking notes about them almost as if he is observing a different species. He is also irrationally suspicious of rural people and manual laborers—reflecting the normative fear and loathing of Jewish intellectuals toward populism and the White working class. When discussing a dripping faucet in his bathroom, Siskind tells Gladney his landlord will fix it before adding “Too bad he’s such a bigot.” The exchange continues:
“How do you know he’s such a bigot?”
“People who can fix things are usually bigots.”
“What do you mean?”
“Think of all the people who’ve ever come to your house to fix things. They were all bigots weren’t they?
“I don’t know.”
“They drove panel trucks, didn’t they, with an extension ladder on the roof and some kind of plastic charm dangling from the rearview mirror?”
“I don’t know, Murray.”
“It’s obvious,” he said.
The humor of the exchange resides in the fact it isn’t at all obvious that manual workers are inevitably bigots. The link between the two exists only in Murray Siskind’s mind, which in fact evidences its own form of bigotry. Even aside from this incident, DeLillo leaves us in no doubt that his Jewish character is altogether unpleasant. Siskind is a lecherous pervert, described several times as having a “sneaky” smile, who reads a magazine called American Transvestite, solicits unusual acts from prostitutes, and leers constantly at Babette, his colleague’s wife, smelling her hair as well as things she’s touched. In fact, elsewhere in the novel he is described in quite animalistic terms, sniffing utensils in the canteen before eating with them. Most ominously, he is also the Mephistophelian influence who persuades Jack Gladney that committing a murder will relieve Gladney’s fear of death.
DeLillo grew up in the Bronx in the 1940s, a time when Jews were accelerating their move into the professions and other areas of economic, social, and political influence. It’s worth pondering whether Siskind was based on real characters encountered by the author, or whether Siskind emerges instead from the unstated, and in many cases unconscious, cultural knowledge that most White people still possess about Jews, despite all politically correct conditioning. Siskind, the quick-talking, psychologically-intense, leering, and predatory bigot, who in turn accuses others of bigotry, is all-too-reminiscent of so many Jewish cultural figures who go on to enter the popular consciousness. Harvey Weinstein, donor to the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the ADL’s campaigns against “bigotry,” is a prime example. And there is little the ADL can do to stop such figures causing speculation, to use their terminology, on “Jewish sexual degeneracy and perversion.” For this reason alone, I found DeLillo’s portrayal of Siskind, the urban Jew in small-town America, to be less grounded in satire than in a rather uncomfortable social reality.
Fear of Death
At time of this writing, much media attention remains focused on the outbreak of novel coronavirus in Wuhan, as well as new outbreaks in Iran and Italy. This panic follows on from previous feverish (pardon the pun) media coverage of Ebola, swine flu (H1N1), and SARS, as well as increasingly vocal and violent protests about putative ecological and environmental disasters such as climate change and the mass extinction of species. In short, we live in a civilization that is in terror of death, and pathologically so. I say pathologically, because our civilization is in fact dying, but not from the causes currently distracting and fixating the masses. Our civilization is not dying from a disease epidemic, global tsunamis, or an asteroid strike, but from its willful and ignorant abdication (via self-hate and industrialized abortion) of a future in favor of mass immigration, consumerism, and instant gratification. We panic about old people dying from flu, but barely blink when millions of Muslims migrate to our countries, utterly transforming the nation and its future. Indeed, we might say that just as one has to confront death in order to truly live (or to become “authentic” in Heidegger’s philosophy), our society is in constant flight from death and thus inevitably collapses into inauthentic decay.
This is the paradox of our age. Fear of death everywhere coexists with a cult of death. Social media and celebrity culture, especially among women, is fixated on fighting ageing and extending youth perpetually. Trying to look younger for longer has long been a human preoccupation in eras of decadence, but our current age would appear to have taken matters to new lows. We live in the period of FOMO, Fear of Missing Out, where individuals collapse into pathological social anxiety if they can’t keep up with events in other people’s lives. Death, once seen as an inevitable part of life itself, and perhaps, for the religious, even of something greater than life, is now reduced for many to a terrifying obstacle to what “might have been.” Death becomes an awful, and extremely personal thing. In their classic essay, “Modernity, Self-Identity, and the Sequestration of Death,” Philip Mellor and Chris Shilling contrast the role of death in modern and pre-modern societies:
[In the past] when death occurred, its significance denoted a disruption to the social body more than it did the passing of an individual body. When identity is rooted more in the group than it is in the individual, death does not threaten the individual as it does in the modern world. Death meant that society had lost part of itself, not that an individual had lost society.
The collapse of group identity in the West has led to a radical change in approaches to death. Death in modernity is lonely, is utterly individualized and lacks deep meaning beyond personal loss. As such, many lives lack meaning also. The elusive search for meaning has translated into an $800 million dollar industry in “self-help” literature, and a series of diet and fitness crazes apparently designed in desperation to ensure one’s body conforms to youthful and sexual standards. The elderly, uncomfortable reminders of an unavoidable future fate, are increasingly segregated from the young. The result is a society, to use the words of Mellor and Shilling, consumed by “intense confusion, anxiety, and even terror,” in the face of mortality. Paradoxically, it does this while condoning abortion on an industrial scale, and the celebration of non-reproductive sexual behaviors that are known to produce their own forms of contagious and fatal illness. In short, the West’s fear of death is as selfish as it is pathological.
To my mind, there are no rivals to DeLillo’s White Noise in terms of the way it tackles fear of death in modernity. Death is a constant topic of discussion for Jack and Babette Gladney. They obsess over who will die first. Jack wakes “in the grip of a death sweat,” while Babette “thinks nothing can happen to us while there are dependent children in the house. The kids are a guarantee of our relative longevity. We’re safe as long as they’re around.” As well as fixations on personal mortality, and much like the postmodern West as a whole, the Gladneys and their children have a nihilistic fascination with natural catastrophes, which provide a kind of entertainment—a mediated version of death too large-scale and “cinematic” to be a genuine disturbance to the real death phobia. Jack describes a night with his family:
That night, a Friday, we gathered in front of the set, as was the custom and the rule, with take-out Chinese. There were floods, earthquakes, mud slides, erupting volcanoes. We’d never before been more attentive to our duty, our Friday assembly. Heinrich was not sullen, I was not bored. Steffie … appeared totally absorbed in these documentary clips of calamity and death. Babette tried to switch to a comedy series about a group of racially mixed kids who build their own communications satellite. She was startled by the force of our objection. We were otherwise silent, watching houses slide into the ocean, whole villages crackle and ignite in the mass of advancing lava. Every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping.
In White Noise, death and consumerism are intimately bound up together. Faced with death and disaster, everyone in the book responds by shopping. In fact, every negative feeling is assuaged by consumption. In Gladney’s narration, this is reinforced by periodic unexplained insertions into the text (and therefore of Gladney’s consciousness) of marketing data, or phrases from TV ads. While discussing his fear of death, for example, Gladney suddenly spouts “Visa, Mastercard, American Express,” before returning to the topic at hand. His wife mutters the various models of Toyota cars in her sleep. After an altercation with a colleague, Jack Gladney explains that it “put me in the mood to shop.” Ventriloquizing via Gladney, DeLillo’s meandering reflection on irrational postmodern therapeutic consumption is masterful:
I shopped with reckless abandon. I shopped for immediate needs and distant contingencies. I shopped for its own sake, looking and touching, inspecting merchandise I had no intention of buying, then buying it. I sent clerks into their fabric books and pattern books to search for elusive designs. I began to grow in value and self-regard. I filled myself out, found new aspects of myself, located a person I’d forgotten existed. Brightness settled around me. We crossed from furniture to men’s wear, walking through cosmetics. Our images appeared on mirrored columns, in glassware and chrome, on TV monitors in security rooms. I traded money for goods. The more I spent, the less important it seemed. I was bigger than these sums. These sums poured off my skin like so much rain. These sums in fact came back to me in the form of existential credit.
A similar process is enacted in Gladney’s experience of withdrawing cash from an ATM:
I inserted my card, entered my secret code, tapped out my request. The figure on the screen roughly corresponded to my independent estimate, feebly arrived at after long searches through documents, tormented arithmetic. Waves of relief and gratitude flowed over me. The system had blessed my life. I felt its support and approval … What a pleasing interaction. I sense that something of deep personal value, but not money, not that at all, had been authenticated and confirmed.
When news reports suggest a coming snowstorm, Gladney observes swarms of old people engaged in media induced panic-buying:
The old people shopped in a panic. When TV didn’t fill them with rage, it scared them half to death. They whispered to each other in the checkout lines. Traveler’s advisory, zero visibility. When does it hit? How many inches? How many days? They became secretive, appeared to withhold the latest and worst news from others, appeared to blend a cunning with their haste, tried to hurry out before someone questioned the extent of their purchases. Hoarders in a war. Greedy, guilty.
DeLillo also links the broader social malaise to that other form of postmodern mass consumption — eating:
When times are bad, people feel compelled to overeat. Blacksmith is full of obese adults and children, baggy-pantsed, short-legged, waddling. They struggle to emerge from compact cars; they don sweatsuits and run in families across the landscape; they walk down the street with food in their faces; they eat in stores, cars, parkinglots, on bus lines and movie lines, under the stately trees.
For DeLillo, postmodernity is typified by an economy built on induced, quasi-therapeutic panic-buying and eating where the majority consumers are reduced to the status of greedy and guilty hoarders. Fear is thus a commodity of sorts, since it is a stimulant to sales, and, to use DeLillo’s words, “Terrifying data is now an industry in itself. Different firms compete to see how badly they can scare us.” This reality can be observed not only in the media, which exaggerates and commodifies bad news in order to sell otherwise superfluous products to concerned buyers, but also in all aspects of marketing. Here a guiding principle is that people should be convinced of an ever-increasing number of artificial “needs” so they can be sold a proffered, and profit-making, “solution.”
DeLillo’s scathing treatment of consumerism is part of a broader critique of society. Most obviously, DeLillo satirizes the decline of stable, married families. While our contemporary education and cultural systems increasingly laud the various types of “new families” (single-parent, homosexual, etc.), DeLillo bases his novel around the fact the Gladneys are a “blended family” that results from two divorces, two sets of children from prior marriages, and all of the emotional baggage and childhood dysfunction resulting from that. Heinrich, in particular, is a 14-year-old metaphor for the confused, alienated, and emotionally-abandoned children that result from such environments, and it really is remarkable that DeLillo appeared to predict both the pattern and notoriety of mass school shooters like those involved in the Columbine massacre. The boy has morbid obsessions, plays chess via mail with an incarcerated mass killer, often wears camouflage, and Babette worries “he will end up in a barricaded room, spraying hundreds of rounds of automatic fire across an empty mall before the SWAT teams come for him with their heavy-barreled weapons, their bull-horns, and body armor.”
Another of DeLillo’s substantial social predictions is his anticipation of vacuous Instagram culture. In the novel, this takes the form of heavy satire on things that are “famous for being famous” and focuses on a trip undertaken by Siskind and Gladney to “the most photographed barn in America.” The barn is entirely nondescript, and its fame is artificial—the result of signs that merely proclaim it to be famous. Siskind and Gladney arrive to find more than forty cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot beside the barn, and become aware that people are more interested in taking photos of the accumulation of people, cameras, and tripods than they are in the barn itself. They come to the realization that, in postmodernity, fame itself has become famous; that celebrity itself has become the focus of celebrity. Or, in DeLillo’s words:
“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.
He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.
“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said.
“What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We’re part of the
aura. We’re here. We’re now.”
Like the throngs taking photographs of DeLillo’s barn, the cultural life of the West has descended into a celebrity cult where the objects of adoration are largely non-entities whose individual qualities are of lesser importance to the simple fact that they are famous. In this sense, the Kardashians and other focuses of mass media attention are little more than our “barns,” inanimate and unimportant objects that attract attention because we’ve been convinced that they attract attention. We photograph them being photographed, and in doing so “become part of the aura.”
Don DeLillo’s White Noise is one of the best and most intelligent socio-political satires of the last 50 years, and deserves a careful “reading from the Right.” There are certainly themes in the book that will resonate with dissidents, and this review is intended only to cover some of them within a thematic structure. The plot and style of the novel won’t be to everyone’s taste. White Noise is itself, after all, an example of postmodernist literature. It is quirky, sometimes unbearably so, and is occasionally needlessly abstruse. DeLillo is also much better at descriptive writing than he is at writing dialogue. However, I believe the novel is worth the effort of a slow reading and re-reading, and White Noise is perhaps both the kind of art that the present age needs and deserves. It’s an awful mirror in which our contemporary society is morbidly, strangely, and yet accurately reflected. If you’ve felt like we’ve been living out some kind of dystopian novel, maybe it’s because we have.