On the overwhelming noise of death.
“How strange it is. We have these deep terrible lingering fears about ourselves and the people we love. Yet we walk around, talk to people, eat and drink. We manage to function. The feelings are deep and real. Shouldn’t they paralyze us? How is it we can survive them, at least for a while? We drive a car, we teach a class. How is it no one sees how deeply afraid we were, last night, this morning? Is it something we all hide from each other, by mutual consent? Or do we share the same secret without knowing it? Wear the same disguise”
“What if death is nothing but sound?”
“You hear it forever. Sound all around. How awful.”
Don DeLillo, White Noise (1985)
I hope another post about death won’t mark me in your minds as too morbid for further reading. But what can I say? I just finished reading a novel entirely about responding to the fact of our deaths – White Noise by Don DeLillo – and I want to probe my meandering thoughts while they’re fresh. Besides, what topic could be more evocative, more fecund than the condition which hovers over us all and has the deepest implications for every life it touches? Anyway, onto further ramblings. Where last week I discussed death as silence in Sufjan Steven’s album Carrie & Lowell, this week I am thinking about how DeLillo characterizes death as noise – an element of an all-pervading, all-intrusive and overwhelming noise, the totality of the noise in life.
We cannot talk about death in an isolated fashion. We are simply unable, just as we are unable to talk meaningfully about the white space after the last lines of a novel (or the empty space between the back cover of a novel and the front cover of its sequel). If death is an ending, it is an ending to something, an ending to a life, and all of that death’s resonances emanate from the activity which has suddenly been marked as irrevocably terminal. When we talk about death, we talk about life.
DeLillo tosses around a load of notions regarding death. The main characters, Jack and Babette Gladney, spend much of their energy and time dwelling on their fear of death – which one will die first, how to conceive of such an ending, how to make themselves sane in the face of it. The conversations become at times loopy, drifting, and at other times intensely focused, oddly poignant because of their extemporaneous feeling, their drifting absurdity and humor. It is a postmodern novel, episodic, irresolute, headed toward who-knows-where, and yet at whichever point you stand in reading it, some epiphany – whether a hushed or a loud one – is liable to pop upon you. Charting the movements of the characters and their narratively-adjoined interactions is not as important as culling from their movements the sense of the precise moment in which they exist themselves. And for this novel, wherever they are located, they always stand existentially at some point on the threshold of the living and the dead.
Death is a part of life, we might say, but which part and how large? Here’s a question the novel asks, and at one point, as the epigraph above reveals, the novel conjectures that death is all of life, or active in all of life. Like a backdrop of white noise, it is constituted and morphed by whatever is going on around us, but it is so continual that we hardly notice the way it touches our thoughts, our movements, our belief. However, there are moments when this uniform presence coalesces into something far more apparent – the way clouds billow into dark masses during a storm.
The clearest instance of this critical accumulation happens during the second part of the novel, titled “The Airborne Toxic Event.” A manufactured toxin accidently gets released into the atmosphere of the Gladney’s town, suddenly sending everyone around into an organized and communal panic. They evacuate their homes, congregate in their escape from the noxious omnipresence of this omen of terminality. Jack himself gets exposed to the toxin which assures his mortal condition. He describes his condition to Babette, “I’m tentatively scheduled to die. It won’t happen tomorrow or the next day. But it is in the works.” We allow ourselves to maintain an unconscious idea that we are infinite, deathless, impervious to our ending, but certain moments call us back into awareness of our inescapable condition. The noise which had become muffled in its familiarity peaks until it is suddenly obvious, all too apparent.
Dynamic moments like this can be ones where our lives are threatened more imminently, as in the Airborne Toxic Event – say you have a cancer scare, or someone close to you passes away – but such moments may also arrive out of general living. Having recently finished my undergraduate years, I am incredibly familiar with the thought of ennui or meaninglessness which will sneak up on you and hit you at the strangest times. My friends confess the feeling in varying ways with me as well. Where is this all headed? What’s the point in reading all these books, writing these papers? Is it all just leading to some job, only a different way to pass the time? Obviously, these questions open up a world full of cans-of-worms, but for the purposes of this discussion, we can think about the ways these worries suggest an idea of some telos to life. An end, in a purposive sense, as when we talk about something as a means to an end. A telos the essential fulfillment of something, of a life for instance, but it is also the final end of that thing – the last stage in whatever process of evolution we’ve decided to map. When we begin to think about our purpose, our meaning, we are thinking about what all of this is leading to, a supposed destination at the end of our studies, our work, our activity here in the meanwhile. In those moments the thought of our death arises as a consequence of our thoughts of life. Can we think about anything without thinking of its end?
We can if we distract ourselves. We can drown out a loud sound by raising the volume of everything else. And “everything else” includes a lot of things: hobbies, school, work, dating, talking about the weather, partying, shopping, church. All of these are features of life which emit sounds of their own, with decibel levels that we have the power to manipulate for our comfort. Sometimes the degree of value we place in something has nothing to do with some inherent significance but is determined only by the extent to which it helps us cope. Different times of life will call for different sound-levels, and we must be nimble and alert. If we shift too late, the death of the thing rings out blaringly, or the thing is too quiet to drown out the alarm of our own dying. We hold many of our values because they console us or give us hope, and we try to convince ourselves that the values were necessary or rational.
But if death is buried in all the noise of our lives, life is also. How can we separate the two, since they are so necessarily conjoined? It is perhaps not for us to parse out the parts of our lives into that which is especially relevant to our ends. How can we know? Consider the poignant last lines of DeLillo’s novel, a meditation on what it is to be human in the aisles of a supermarket:
The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. This is the language of waves and radiations, or how the dead speak to the living. And this is where we wait together, regardless of age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods. A slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.
We know that, in some way, everything will be decoded in the actual event of our death. We will know how final it is, whether a last page or the covers between sequels, and the importance of whatever we did with our time will bear itself out in the continuance of the world we inhabited. But for us, we cannot grasp a meaning in our final unencryption. We live apart from it; none of its touch is relevant to what we give ourselves to do here, now. Any significance we can cull from our lives will be found only in the particularity of its encryption, the shape of the barcode we have applied to it, the uniqueness of our selected noise.