On DeLillo

(Inspired by a viewing of Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis.)

The thing about Don DeLillo is this: you either get it or you don’t.  I don’t usually take this position with writers–I teach literature, so it would be odd if I did.  But with DeLillo.  You either think his ultra-stylized non-dialogic dialogue is hilarious or you don’t.  You either feel that modernity generates a near-constant sense of apocalypse or you don’t.  You either feel that the numinous, either grace or devilry, is hidden in consumer items and vernacular speech or you don’t.  And I do, I do, I do.

What B. R. Myers, James Wood, Bruce Bawer, Amy Hungerford, Sean McCann and Michael Szalay say about DeLillo–and, from ideological stances however distinct, they say the same thing–is correct as far is it goes.  DeLillo is not interested in stable characters or deliberative politics.  He doesn’t use language as a medium of reasoned, logical communication.  He is mystical, not religious.  He has what responsible parties everywhere must call a proto-fascist concern that rationalized, specialized consumer society has enervated the individual, drained intensity and eros and spirituality from experience, even as our culture’s complex fragility portends catastrophe and revelation just over the horizon.

Cronenberg catches the tone well, and he grasps the implications.  In one of Cosmopolis‘s most famous passages, its chief of theory explains that finance capital has become self-referring and non-narrative, just like twentieth-century painting–and, as she does not say, the twentieth-century novel.  DeLillo is the heir of the modernist aesthetes, those crypto-mystics, such as Pater and Wilde and Joyce and Woolf and Faulkner and Nabokov and Beckett and O’Connor and Morrison, who made virtue of necessity by converting modern art’s isolation from the world into an otherworldliness of the aesthetic object, a weird shimmer, both a window onto strangeness and a strange thing, a theophany.

There are other ways, even now, to make art, and they should not be dismissed.  But neither should DeLillo’s tradition.  “He doesn’t declare a stance,” the critics complain, and “He won’t engage in public reason,” and “He won’t say what he’s for or against.”  To be for or against the phenomena DeLillo describes is like being for or against the weather.  The individual doesn’t get to decide.  “History is what we make”–such was the dream and dogma of the Enlightenment.  On even-numbered days, I believe it myself.  But is that what it feels like to you, here in the Cosmopolis?