WHITE NOISE, BHOPAL, AND THE HYPERREAL FEAR OF DEATH

It is better to go to a funeral than a feast.

For death is the destiny of every person,

and the living should take this to heart.[1]

Don DeLillo’s White Noise, “a paradigm of postmodern literature,”[2] yields the kind of cognitive dissonance that makes you wonder whether the author simply missed the mark, or if you are only confused because you suffer from the postmodern condition which DeLillo adroitly analyzes. I agree with Pico Iyer when he evaluates DeLillo as “that rarest of birds, a novelist on fire with ideas – and an outlaw epistemologist to boot – he uses his fictional excursions as occasions to think aloud in shadowed sentences, speak in modern tongues, plumb mysteries, fathom depths.”[3]

One such depth is the fear of death, echoing throughout the pages of White Noise in the perennial question: who will die first?

In this essay, I endeavor to analyze the Baudrillardian concept of hyperreality as it pertains to the human fear of death, using DeLillo’s White Noise and the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India as literary and factual signposts.

White Noise

White Noise by Don DeLillo.Jack Gladney, the novel’s protagonist, is the chairman of the department of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill in a nondescript anytown called Blacksmith. He and his wife, Babette, are the heads of a hodgepodge family filled with an assortment of children from various marriages. After these core details, however, it gets difficult to summarize the novel’s plot. According to Sol Yurick, this is because, “in a sense, White Noise doesn’t really have a plot: It is about the intrusion of a plot into life, a stringing-together of random events into some kind of meaningful schema.”[4] The first twenty chapters, taking up just over one hundred pages of text, bombard the reader with an assortment of episodes. From the home, to the car, to the supermarket, to the College-on-the-Hill, an assault of misinformation and profundity fades all signals to flat – from the ever-present voice of the television to random interpolations of intense emotion. We are left with white noise.

And yet, plot slowly invades. In Gladney’s own words: “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children’s games. We edge nearer death every time we plot. It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot.”[5] Out of the static emerges one of the novel’s central themes: the fear of death.

According to Albert Mobilio, White Noise explores “the narcissist’s inevitable trap: a preoccupation with dying.”[6] And DeLillo explores this theme masterfully. “Writing of death,” Iyer notes, “Don DeLillo takes one’s breath away.”[7]The question “who will die first?” first appears in chapter four, as Jack wonders to himself whether this “thought itself is part of the nature of physical love, a reverse Darwinism that awards sadness and fear to the survivor.”[8] As the novel progresses, Gladney emerges as a narcissist on a quest for meaning in order to escape death, or rather his fear of it.[9] According to DeLillo, “[Gladney] feels that Hitler is not only bigger than life, as we say of many famous figures, but bigger than death. Our sense of fear – we avoid it because we feel it so deeply, so there is an intense conflict at work. I brought this conflict to the surface in the shape of Jack Gladney.”[10]In Derridean terms, Gladney’s search for center, whether in Babette’s stability, Wilder’s silence, or Hitler studies, is driven by his fear of death.

The same chapter closes with Jack’s admission that he is crafting an identity for himself in his Hitler studies endeavors. He wears dark lens glasses and renders his academic self J. A. K. Gladney, via the fabrication of an extra initial. By his own admission, Jack Gladney is “the false character that follows the name around.”[11]In the final chapter of the book’s first section, another confession emerges:

The truth is I don’t want to die first. Given a choice between loneliness and death, it would take me a fraction of a second to decide. But I don’t want to be alone either. Everything I say to Babette about holes and gaps is true. Her death would leave me scattered, talking to chairs and pillows. Don’t let us die, I want to cry out to that fifth century sky ablaze with mystery and spiral light. Let us both live forever, in sickness and in health, feebleminded, doddering, toothless, liver-spotted, dim-sighted, hallucinating. Who decides these things? What is out there? Who are you?[12]

Jack Gladney wants to be somebody, and he desperately does not want to die.

The second of three sections in White Noise is solely comprised of the twenty-first chapter. At fifty-four pages long, it is roughly the length of the first twelve chapters combined. This is because it is devoted to the “Airborne Toxic Event” (ATE), the novel’s main incident. In brief, a noxious cloud of a chemical known as Nyodene D gets released into the atmosphere, prompting an evacuation of Blacksmith. During the evacuation process, Jack is briefly exposed to the elements (and, presumably, to the Nyodene D) while refueling the family station wagon.

When Jack tries to ascertain if his exposure will cause any health risks, he has a poignant conversation with one of the evacuation officials:

“That’s quite an important armband you’ve got there. What does SIMUVAC mean? Sounds important.”

“Short for simulated evacuation. A new state program they’re still battling over funds for.”

“But this evacuation isn’t simulated. It’s real.”

“We know that. But we thought we could use it as a model.”

“A form of practice? Are you saying you saw a chance to use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?”[13]

The answer is yes. Unfortunately for Gladney, though, his exposure to the Nyodene D was (presumably) real enough. As his fear of death increases as a result of this news, even a specific death sentence eludes him. Just as science is quickly outpacing humanity’s control (as shown by the ATE and the toxin-eating bacteria used to eat the cloud), Jack’s fear of death outpaces death itself.

The final section of the book is devoted to the experimental drug Dylar, which was designed to treat the fear of death. Babette eventually comes clean to Jack and admits that her intense fear of death drove her to have sex with a compromised pharmaceutical agent in order to be admitted to an unofficial Dylar study. Jack is forced to come to terms with the real Babette, who is considerably less stable than he had previously believed. At first, this seems to bother him even more than the adultery. His center destabilized, his thoughts turn to Dylar, despite Babette’s insistence that the drug does not work
. The fear of death has morphed into an intense thanatophobia,[14] even more ubiquitous and intense than first thought.

As his efforts to obtain Dylar fail, however, Gladney’s anger at Babette’s adultery slowly grows. He cannot stop thinking about her and the unknown “Mr. Gray” getting intimate in a motel room. A watershed moment for Jack comes in his lengthy conversation with Murray in chapter thirty-seven. After discussing the fear of death, hypothetical ways to transcend it (putting faith in technology, studying the afterlife, surviving a horrific accident), and Jack’s actual attempts at finding center in Hitler and even Wilder (the “noble savage” who does not know he’s going to die), the myth of redemptive violence emerges – a dangerous catalyst for Jack’s festering anger and thanatophobia. Consider Murray’s words:

I believe, Jack, there are two kinds of people in the world. Killers and diers. Most of us are diers. We don’t have the disposition, the rage or whatever it takes to be a killer. We let death happen. We lie down and die. But think what it’s like to be a killer. Think how exciting it is, in theory, to kill a person in direct confrontation. If he dies, you cannot. To kill him is to gain life-credit. The more people you kill, the more credit you store up. It explains any number of massacres, wars, executions.[15]

Although Murray claims this is a purely theoretical conversation and Jack feigns incredulity, the idea is too tempting for Gladney to resist.

The second-to-last chapter of White Noise recounts Jack’s failed attempt to murder “Mr. Gray,” who turns out to be Willie Mink, a disgraced pharmaceutical agent whose addiction to Dylar has rendered him more or less insane – exposed to the white noise. Gladney tracks Mink down and shoots him twice in the gut before placing the gun in Mink’s hands in a laughable attempt to make it look like a suicide. However, the dying Mink shoots Jack in the wrist.  The myth of redemptive violence instantly fades into a parody of redemptive virtue: Gladney decides to try and save Mink’s life. He takes him to a hospital run by German nuns.

At the hospital, Jack’s conversation with one of the nuns brings the chapter to a poignant, jarring close. She explains:

Our pretense is a dedication. Someone must appear to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we professed real faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eyed men in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak. We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life.[16]

In the world of White Noise, even belief is simulated. Gladney returns home, his mind racing, to watch his children sleep. Similarly, the reader (whose mind is presumably racing as well), is left to watch the novel end.

The fortieth and final chapter of White Noise is dominated by a strange event in which Wilder – the “noble savage,” not yet aware of his own death – rides his tricycle across the expressway and miraculously survives. The novel then closes in characteristic rapid fire. The Gladneys watch the stunning sunsets over Blacksmith, whose beauty just might be the result of toxins in the atmosphere. Scientists still comb the area, “gathering their terrible data.”[17] Jack is taking no calls. He fears his doctor and the medical technology which are “eager to see how [his] death is progressing.”[18] The final scene is devoted to the supermarket, the transcendental temple of the postmodern age, “where we wait together, regardless of age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods.”[19] Appropriately, the signals fade to flat as the reader is left with the image of the supermarket tabloid racks – containing “the cults of the famous and the dead.”

Fame and death. Searching for center, gripped by thanatophobia. White noise.

The Bhopal Disaster[20]

White Noise was first published in January 1985, not long after a disastrous chemical leak in Bhopal, central India. On the evening of December 3, 1984, a storage tank of methyl isocyanate (MIC, used to produce pesticide) ruptured at the Union Carbide plant, releasing toxic fumes which northwestern winds blew into the shantytowns of Bhopal. The white fumes wreaked havoc on the populace, littering the streets with corpses or vomiting, defecating individuals about to die. “As many as 200,000 people ran through the city streets, coughing, screaming and calling out to each other.”[21] Adding insult to injury, the factory siren went off at around 2:00am, causing many to think that a fire had started. Hundreds rushed toward the plant in order to help – unknowingly entering the path of the lethal gas. Unlike White Noise, there was no SIMUVAC.

Bhopal-Union Carbide 1 crop memorial.jpgBhopal was rendered a city of corpses. The unimaginable chaos left rescue workers searching for the dead three days after the incident. Orphans wandered the streets. The death toll rose to over 2,500, with as many as 100,000 permanently-disabled survivors – suffering from “blindness, sterility, kidney and liver infections, tuberculosis and brain damage.”[22] Muslims were placed into hurriedly-dug graves. As many as seventy Hindu funeral pyres lit the night. The district had to ship in more wood just to feed the crematory fires.

Much like White Noise, rumors and fear spread quickly in the aftermath of the tragedy. Authorities had to reassure the people that an early-morning fog was not a new leak, that their milk and vegetables had not been contaminated. Furthermore, the real-life Nyodene D, MIC, was every bit as unstable and unknown – no antidote, no treatment. The physical effects of low-level exposure were predicted to fade with time. However, the same could not be said for those who survived heavier exposure. Their suffering would be indefinite.

Bhopal briefly shocked the American public (some of them, anyway) into an uncomfortable awareness of the danger of the ubiquitous chemicals that surrounded them – in factories, on wheels, and in products. Some demanded to know just how dangerous these chemicals were, in the interests of public safety. Others, like the Reagan administration, defended companies’ rights to trade secrets, in the interests of the free market.

Who will die first? Average Americans, or the denizens of the developing world? Savage nobles, or noble savages? Incidents like the fictional Airborne Toxic Event and the actual Bhopal disaster, along with our reactions to such tragedies, are telling. The former beg us to come to grips with our mortality, with the rate at which technology outpaces our efforts to control it. As Murray put it: “[technology] creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature.”[23] As Newsweek put it: “Experts elsewhere said that many of the victims in India would not
have been alive at all if not for chemicals that increased food supplies, reduced the incidence of malaria and improved sanitation. Judged against such benefits, the risks of chemical accidents seem more acceptable.”[24]

BLACKSMITH. BHOPAL. BENGAY. BRILLO.

Which death should we fear?

The Hyperreal Fear of Death

WikipediaBaudrillard20040612-cropped.pngAccording to Jean Baudrillard, hyperreality is “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality.”[25] When our simulations of reality become indistinguishable from the reality itself, we have entered into the realm of the hyperreal. Not only is it difficult (some would say impossible) to reach beyond the simulations, but we often prefer the simulations to reality itself. Examples of this abound throughout White Noise. Consider “the most photographed barn in America,” which has been so thoroughly eclipsed by its own simulacra that it remains impossible to be seen. In Murray’s words: “they are taking pictures of taking pictures.”[26] Mentioned above, Jack’s search for center in Hitler studies and the SIMUVAC procedure are further significant examples of the hyperreal in White Noise.

Not even (the fear of) death escapes the influences of hyperreality. Although at first glance death seems a weighty enough subject to break through the simulacra and connect humanity with reality, under closer examination, death evades our grasp. Central to the complex dynamics of the hyperreal fear of death are the simulacra of death, often weightier than the thing itself. Consider how Gladney’s fear of death is more intense than death itself. It is the nebulous ambiguity of his Nyodene D death sentence which threatens to undo him, much more than the chemical itself. In a vicious cycle, the various fear-driven ways in which we react to death make our fear of death that much more complicated. That is, it can get quite confusing to discern whether or not we are afraid of actual death, or merely our various representations of it.

After all, death itself can only be experienced once.[27] Until the end, we spend a lifetime fearing that which we have not experienced. The first strategy is avoidance, distancing ourselves from the terrifying and uncomfortable. Consider the euphemism. People do not just “die,” they “pass away,” “move on,” “kick the bucket,” “hang up their tennis shoes” (Spanish), and “fall asleep” (Koine Greek). 

The second strategy is embrace, subversively trying to strip death of its fear by exploring the macabre. Consider horror movies. Sure, they rely on the fear of death, but they also attempt to treat it – giving the audience the strength to say “I’ve seen worse” when it comes to their own (probably) mediocre deaths.  These first two approaches are often combined. The hero attempts to transcend death through valor, to embrace death through battle-hardened courage. Jack Gladney attempts to avoid and embrace death through Hitler, who was “larger than death.”[28]

A third strategy is examination. This is best illustrated within White Noise by Murray, whose quote to Jack during the ATE merits quotation at length:

“This is the nature of modern death,” Murray said. “It has a life independent of us. It is growing in prestige and dimension. It has a sweep it never had before. We study it objectively. We can predict its appearance, trace its path in the body. We can take cross-section pictures of it, tape its tremors and waves. We’ve never been so close to it, so familiar with its habits and attitudes. We know it intimately. But it continues to grow, to acquire breadth and scope, new outlets, new passages and means. The more we learn, the more it grows. Is this some law of physics? Every advance in knowledge and technique is matched by a new kind of death, a new strain. Death adapts, like a viral agent.”[29]

If we embrace death to strip it of fear, we examine death and attempt to fight it in order to strip it of mystery. However, this is an unsuccessful endeavor. Death eludes our grasp and overpowers our assaults.

On a personal note, this was poignantly illustrated by my wife – a nursing student. A baby boy was transferred into the hospital, severely wounded by what appeared to be abuse –broken bones, cigarette burns and bruises, ostentatiously and haphazardly concealed with makeup. Although the doctors had managed to restart his heart and place him on life support, the first brain scan revealed no activity. During the mandatory twelve-hour wait until the second test, my wife took care of the boy. After the second scan revealed no activity, he was taken off life support and allowed to die. However, as my wife tearfully recounted the story to me that night, she wondered when the boy had actually died. Had she, in any meaningful sense, been taking care of a living patient simply because his heart was beating? Or was he dead the entire time?

When do we die? When our heart stops beating? Our lungs stop breathing? Or when our brains stop making waves? More importantly, whose death do we fear?

It is my contention that we cannot really fear our own deaths. Like Jack Gladney, we are limited to fearing and interacting with death’s simulacra. We might long to die like Leonidas in The 300, but not like a contestant in the “games” of SAW. If we have not yet experienced the death of a close family member, we might imagine the event through the lens of Marshall’s father dying in How I Met Your Mother. Even when we have had a family member, or even a patient die, we never fully experience death without dying ourselves.

We are surrounded by death, in Dylar ingredient lists and Union Carbide storage tanks, in the skies above Blacksmith and the alleys of Bhopal.

And yet we are insulated from it by euphemism and fiction, by news anchor and liquid-crystal display

– by the idiosyncrasies of our continuously temporal existence.

We are familiar with death, but we know it not.

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WORKS CONSULTED

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” In A Postmodern Reader, edited by Joseph Natoli and Linda Hutcheon, 342-353. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993.

DeLillo, Don. White Noise: Text and Criticism. Viking Critical Library. Edited by Mark Osteen. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Iyer, Pico. “A Connoisseur of Fear.” In White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, edited by Mark Osteen, 379-384. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Johnson, Diane. “Conspirators.” In White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, edited by Mark Osteen, 374-8. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Mobilio, Albert. “Death by Inches.” In White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, edited by Mark Osteen, 370-3. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Newsweek, Inc. “Stories on the toxic leak at the Union Ca
rbide plant in Bhopal, India.” In White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, 353-362. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Yurick, Sol. “Fleeing Death in a World of Hyper-Babble.” In White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, edited by Mark Osteen, 365-9. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

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[1] Ecclesiastes 7:2, New English Translation (NET).

[2] Unless, of course, Dr. David Mills lied to us in the instructions for this essay.

[3] Iyer, 379.                                 

[4] Yurick, 368.

[5] DeLillo, 26.

[6] Mobilio, 371.

[7] Iyer, 379.

[8] DeLillo, 15.

[9] This condition is also known as humanity.

[10] DeLillo, 330. From an interview with Anthony DeCurtis which appeared in Rolling Stone’s November 17, 1988 issue.

[11] DeLillo, 17. See the discussion on hyperreality below.

[12] DeLillo, 103.

[13] DeLillo, 139.

[14] I make a quantitative distinction between the fear of death, experienced by all, and thanatophobia, experienced by people like Jack Gladney and Babette. That is, thanatophobia is the acute, pervasive fear of death…more like a disease than a general condition.

[15] DeLillo, 290.

[16] DeLillo, 319.

[17] DeLillo, 325.

[18] DeLillo, 325.

[19] DeLillo, 325.

[20] Unless otherwise noted, the information in this section comes from Newsweek, Inc., “Stories on the toxic leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India,” in White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, 353-362. (New York: Penguin Books, 1998).

[21] Newsweek, Inc., 354.

[22] Newsweek, Inc., 354.

[23] DeLillo, 285.

[24]Newsweek, Inc., 362.

[25] Baudrillard, 343.

[26] DeLillo, 13.

[27] If a White Paper on the doctrine of Hell comes out, please insert fundagellically orthodox views on Hell here.

[28]DeLillo, 287.

[29]Emphasis added. DeLillo, 150. 

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