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Evolution of Spirit in DeLillo’s White Noise

Updated on August 2, 2010


In a 1990 interview with Anthony DeCurtis, DeLillo states “The novelist can try to leap across the barrier of fact, and the reader is willing to take that leap with him as long as there’s a kind of redemptive truth waiting on the other side” (Lentricchia 294). According to Paul Maltby that “’redemptive truth’ is chiefly a spiritual, visionary matter” (Maltby 19). While considered a postmodern writer, DeLillo also explores through White Noise “his Romantic metaphysical sense” (Maltby 1), where the sublime often takes centre stage, and death is reviewed as a matter of life. Despite the harsh realities of materialism and the confusion of humanity in our technological society, spirit still lives and influences mankind. Spirit in this context is not definable within any religious structure, but within that which makes us unique, and propels us inward and outward to seek and understand universal truths. Spirit makes us part of a larger order where individual perception adds another piece to the puzzle. Yet it is not ‘reason’ in the logical sense because it includes those things deemed ‘unreasonable’ which include intuition, the unexplained, and inspiration seemingly originating from nowhere. It is neither cyclical nor linear, but a tight spiral.

Through DeLillo’s characters Wilder, Jack, and Murray, and his close observations of the everyday found in a supermarket or in the regular activities and concerns of the average individual we are enveloped in the continuing spiritual evolution of the human race. This evolution is present within globalization and in a postmodern revisiting of the Romantic period which also questioned the norm.

Image Credit:
Image Credit:

Globalization and Death

Globalization is an integral part of this evolution because it forces us out of narrow ethnocentric preconceptions and enlarges our thinking. The main character, Jack, is faced with all aspects of this evolution. He lives in a town which is representative of globalization and “calls into question our elaborate fictions of nationality” (Peyser 3). Even the name of the town has been changed from ‘Tubb’ to ‘Dharamsalapur’. Jack’s doctor is East Indian, and all Jack’s ex-wives have something to do with the intelligence community which “structure[s] awareness of global relations” (Peyser 4). While Peyser sees White Noise as “present[ing] a disturbing vision of a thoroughly globalized America” (Peyser 1), one can also see this as a breaking down of barriers which tend to hold humanity in a grip of egocentrism. Evolution can occur when the ‘genetics’, whether of ideology or biology, are allowed to mix, and challenge the master narrative.

The preoccupation with death in the text is yet another method which evolution uses to further spirit’s progression. Through Jack’s obsession with overcoming his fear of death he follows a path which ultimately changes his perception. In order for Jack to experience an epiphany “he must be reunited with the immediacy of his own mortality” (Barrett 9). Unlike his encounter with the toxic cloud, only “a palpable and bloody death … [when] pain upon being shot releases him from … self-absorption” will affect change (Barrett 9). Prior to his final epiphany Jack experiences “visionary moments” in a “Romantic metaphysical sense” (Maltby 1), which again advances DeLillo’s sense of spirit.

Toyota Celica old school emblem. Image Credit:
Toyota Celica old school emblem. Image Credit:

Visionary Moments

While sheltered in the barracks Jack overhears Stephie chanting “Toyota Celica” and he is “struck … with the impact of a moment of splendid transcendence” (DeLillo 155). Maltby believes this is DeLillo’s “tendency to seek out transcendental moments in our postmodern lives that hint at possibilities for cultural regeneration” (Maltby 5) Yet another “visionary moment” for Jack occurs after his exposure to the toxic event when he sees the cloud. He describes the experience in terms which apply to Romanticism’s concept of the sublime (Maltby 13) including such words as “awed by the thing that threatens life, .a cosmic force …, [and] larger than yourself …” (DeLillo 127). Maltby adds that “such immense power defies representation or rational comprehension” (Maltby 14). Thus, through Jack we see advancement of the spirit where visionary experiences eventually lead to an epiphany through fears which prompt a path of questioning and questing. Murray on the other hand seems to embody philosophy’s voice as he prompts questioning through his theorizing.

Grocery Store. Image Credit: flickrfanstan.files
Grocery Store. Image Credit: flickrfanstan.files


In the context of spirit’s evolution through globalization, Murray, because his culture and its history, emblemizes a “cosmopolitan perspective … in a world where cosmopolitanism is becoming the norm” (Peyser 5). Murray also has the unique view of ‘being in the world but not of it’ by “submerging himself in Americana, while reserving the right to raise himself above it” (Peyser 5). He embodies the stranger or the ‘other’ who dissolves or weakens traditional boundaries by his very presence and “is … a pioneer in a culturally unbounded space that sooner or later everyone will occupy” (Peyser 6).

Through Murray, DeLillo advances some interesting theories on death and the supermarket through an intertextual look within the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Murray sees the supermarket as a waiting place after death prior to new birth. To Murray the supermarket “recharges us spiritually … [and is] full of psychic data” (DeLillo 37). Murray also sees this psychic data in television “which overflows with sacred formulas if we can remember how to respond innocently…” (DeLillo 51). He tells his students “they have to learn to look as children again” (DeLillo 50). This urging to view life and its perceived difficulties as through the eyes of a child plays directly to the Romantic poets such as Coleridge and Wordsworth. DeLillo takes this one step further by attempting to show us spirit through the eyes of a child by way of Wilder.

Tricycle Image
Tricycle Image

Wilder and the Sublime

Wilder may represent the most spiritual of all the characters because of what he represents to the characters especially Jack. Jack attributes Wilder’s seven hours of crying to “wandering in some remote and holy place” (DeLillo 79). The other members of the family watched him with something like awe (DeLillo 79). Wilder’s extraordinary feat of non-stop crying was regarded with mingled reverence and wonder … held in reserve for feats of the most sublime… (DeLillo 79). Why Wilder cries for such an extended period is never explained, and perhaps shouldn’t be as it serves the unexplained and provides a furthering of Jack’s “visionary experiences”. Again it speaks of Maltby’s Romantic metaphysical through key words such as “awe” and “sublime”. In addition to Wilder’s crying is his “mystically charged” tricycle episode.

Barrett calls the tricycle ride “the only truly miraculous event in White Noise” and where “his innocence allows him to survive the journey” (Barrett 8). Wilder or “the little rotary blur” (DeLillo 323) does not fit in with “the hurtling consciousness of the highway, the broad-ribboned modernist stream” (DeLillo 322-23). Like Spirit’s battle to fit the perception of postmodern, Wilder represents a “force in the world gone awry” (DeLillo 323) – a glitch in technology. Yet, like Wilder whose fall into the water “is baptism into a new realm” (Barrett 8), spirit can survive the technologic highway, by adapting to, or as Hutcheon states,”work[ing] within conventions [or in this case technology] in order to subvert them” (Hutcheon 246). Whether subverting or evolving, both contain the element of change and both are interdependent. This can also be seen in the trash compactor.

Image Credit:
Image Credit:

Organic and Inorganic

Jack finds a “modern sculpture” (DeLillo 259) within the block of garbage which contains bits and pieces of organic and inorganic materials. The organic includes roaches and a banana peel. The inorganic includes flip-top rings, sterile pads and a tampon. Interestingly the tampon is inside the banana peel which Muirhead calls a “breakdown in the expected order” (Muirhead 2), yet perhaps it can also be considered a reordering where the organic (or natural, or spirit) merges with technology in a strange subversion or evolution. Jack questions whether this symbolizes “the dark underside of consumer consciousness” (DeLillo 259). His very questioning without coming to any resolution suggests there are various interpretations. The entire “sculpture” symbolizes a combining of two realms not traditionally thought compatible, and initially forced into a strained cooperation. While the contents of the compactor represent the merging of two worlds, the compactor lends itself to yet another prevalent theme – white noise.

Image Credit:
Image Credit:

White Noise

Maltby describes the definition of ‘white noise’ as “a random mix of frequencies over a wide spectrum that renders signals unintelligible” in the theory of communications (Maltby 10). He sees DeLillo using this in two different ways. One is as a metaphor where ‘white noise’ represents “the entropic states of post modern culture where in general communications are degraded by triviality and irrelevance” (Maltby 11), where he cites as evidence our culture of “infotainment”. In the second instance he points to DeLillo’s use of the often used phrase “waves and radiation” wherein within the “mix of frequencies there is … a low wavelength that carries a flow of spiritually charged meaning” (Maltby 11). Murray uses this phrase in his description of the supermarket as another plane of existence because the market is “sealed off and self contained … timeless” (DeLillo 38). He uses this again to refer to TV which he says is “something we know in a dreamlike and preconscious way” (DeLillo 51). In the final scene which takes place in the supermarket the binary codes are described as a “language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living” (DeLillo 326). Maltby once again employs Romanticist terms when he says the only way to access the “undercurrent of invisible forces” of the ‘waves and radiation’ is to be as a child.

The signifiers of Romantic thought are explicit in DeLillo’s novel. Through his use of “primal language of vision,… the child’s psyche as medium of precious insight … [and] the sublime” (Maltby 19) we are exposed to signs of spirit as defined initially. By combining the essentials of Romanticism with today’s “near-global culture of late capitalism” (Maltby 19) DeLillo demonstrates yet one of the many simulacra in his novel – that of spirit. And by merging these two realms DeLillo seems to see humankind in the throes of growth where globalization is playing a major role.

William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth

Evolution of Spirit

While globalization may be seen as detracting from identity, whether of self or culture, because its beginnings are founded in colonialism, it can also be considered as the initiator of a cohesive future. DeLillo uses globalization to point to the confusion that exists in our inability as yet to come to terms with it. In this Peyser believes “DeLillo’s insistence of our ignorance may be the supremely moral act” (Peyser 10). Yet through DeLillo’s use of the Romantic’s vision perhaps he hints at spirit’s eventual interference as one way to overcome our dogmatic views of identity. Our evolution is clearly bound with globalization. Try as we might it cannot be ignored or changed at this stage. Our commonality as a species is that unknown and mysterious spirit which could take us to another level of evolution. The postmodern movement through its challenging of the norm, and invitation to all, has set the stage for spirit’s recognition and use in a more all encompassing method.

Works Cited

1) Barrett, Laura. “How the Dead speak to the Living: Intertextuality and the

Postmodern Sublime in White Noise”. Journal of Modern Literature, Winter

2001 v25 i2 p97.

2) DeLillo. Don. White Noise. New York New York: Penguin Books, 1998.Hutcheon, Linda.

“Beginning to Theorize Postmodernism.” A Postmodern Reader. Ed. Joseph Natoli and Linda

Hutcheon, New York: State University New York Press, 1993.

3) LeClair, Tom. “Closing the Loop: White Noise.” Ed. Mark Osteen. New York

New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

4) Lentricchia, Frank,Ed. “An Outsider in This Society: An Interview with Don

DeLillo.” With Anthony DeCurtis. The Fiction of Don DeLillo. South Atlantic

Quarterly 89 (1990): 281-3G4

5) Maltby, Paul. “The Romantic Metaphysics of Don DeLillo.” Contemporary

Literature Summer 1996 v37 n2

6) Muirhead, Marion.“Deft Acceleration: The Occult Geometry of Time in White

Noise.” Studies in Contemporary Fiction.Summer 2001 v42 i4 p402.

7) Peyser, Thomas.“Globalization in America:the Case of Don DeLillo’s White

Noise.” CLIO, Spring 1996 v25 n3 p255.


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    • lmmartin profile image


      8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Ah -- that explains it then. I was beginning to picture you as one of those eggheads, nose stuck in the midst of some heavy-worded tome and oblivious to the rest of the world. Relieved to find you drive a Honda Civic and worked as a cashier, and reading this because you must. Whew!

    • E. Nicolson profile imageAUTHOR

      E. Nicolson 

      8 years ago

      Thanks, Lynda. If the truth be known this was originally written for a Postmodern course to finish up a degree. I probably wouldn't have considered it as 'normal' reading material, but as I immersed myself in the material I became quite fascinated and found myself off on a tangent. Thankfully the Prof liked my tangent and gave it a good mark :) In a strange twist most of the paper was written in my Honda Civic (I know -- doesn't have the same magical ring as 'Toyota Celica') in the University parking lot in between the International Student Union building and the hockey rink. At the time one of my jobs was as a cashier in a grocery store in the very international community of Halifax NS.

    • lmmartin profile image


      8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Wow -- did you find all this in the book? You put me to shame. I didn't even finish it -- threw it aside with a rolling of the eyes and sigh of relief. If you have something to tell me, come out and say it, is my motto. I couldn't be bothered sifting through layers of ultra-intellectual ponderings to get to the point. Glad for you you like it enough to find all this therein.

      And thanks to you, if the subject comes up I can speak on it with intelligence and not reveal myself for the shallow-intellected, "I read for fun" person I am. Lynda


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