DeLillo the Prophet

Interesting to see that as we approach the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, Don DeLillo is getting name-checked frequently in the commemorative articles. For instance, the New Statesman:

In Mao II, published in 1991, the American novelist Don DeLillo wrote, eccentrically as it was then thought, of how terrorists and bomb-makers had replaced writers and artists as the myth-makers of our age. Their work “involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative,” DeLillo wrote. “Terror makes the new future possible.”

Certainly when Osama Bin Laden authorised the attacks of 11 September 2001, which were so patiently and meticulously planned, he knew that he and his suicidal operatives had the means to make the new future possible. What would that future hold for us all?

And here’s Michiko Kakutani, notably quoting DeLillo only to to refute him:

Ten years ago Don DeLillo wrote that the attacks of Sept. 11 would change “the way we think and act, moment to moment, week to week, for unknown weeks and months to come, and steely years.” The historian Taylor Branch spoke of a possible “turning point against a generation of cynicism for all of us,” and Roger Rosenblatt argued in Time magazine that “one good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of the age of irony.”

They were wrong, of course. We know now that the New Normal was very much like the Old Normal, at least in terms of the country’s arts and entertainment. Blockbuster video stores (yes, that’s how many of us watched movies back then) placed warnings on some films — “in light of the events of Sept. 11, please note that this product contains scenes that may be disturbing to some viewers” — but violent pictures continued to top most-rented lists. Despite rumors of their demise, black humor and satire, too, remained alive and well on “Saturday Night Live” and The Onion, which ran headlines like “Rest of Country Temporarily Feels Deep Affection for New York.”

Ten years later, it is even clearer that 9/11 has not provoked a seismic change in the arts. While there were shifts in the broader culture — like an increasingly toxic polarization in our politics, and an alarming impulse to privilege belief over facts — such developments have had less to do with 9/11 than with the ballooning of partisanship during the Bush and Obama administrations, and with unrelated forces like technology, which gave us the social media revolution of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and which magnified the forces of democratization, relativism and subjectivity.

A couple of observations here: insofar as DeLillo is quoted above, he’s absolutely right, and I don’t know why Kakutani thinks she can read it as a commentary on the arts.

The other two quotes work better as such, although I don’t see why everybody hates irony so much. What exactly would you replace it with? (One of the greatest minds of our time tried to answer that question and failed utterly.) And why is irony so bad? If you’ll recall, Wallace in his famous essay on irony, “E Unibus Pluram,” bemoaned it for being co-opted by corporate culture, not as a bad thing in and of itself (in fact, he praised it for being te best tool of rebellion in the 1960s).

And while I think that Kakutani is right that no single great work of art came out of 9/11 (the day itself) in the way that monumental books and movies were set during the Vietnam War, I think she’s absolutely wrong that literature of the era has not been written in the 10 years since. I also don’t know where in the world she gets the misguided notion that “9/11 did not really change daily life for much of the country,” seeing as it has been used to justify everything from war to torture to tax cuts to surveillance. Likewise, her notion of 9/11’s inability to shock is misguided–I still recall the sensation on that day that this was the one moment that we, as a nation, truly felt was an atrocity (and of course a million people quoted Baudrillard to that effect in the wake of the day):

Compelling as such works are, however, none were really game-changing. None possess the vaulting ambition of, say, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic “Apocalypse Now,” or the sweep of Mr. DeLillo’s “Underworld,” which captured the entire cold war era. Instead, these 9/11 works feel like blips on the cultural landscape — they neither represent a new paradigm nor suggest that the attacks were a cultural watershed. Perhaps this is because 9/11 did not really change daily life for much of the country. Perhaps it’s because our A.D.D. nation — after the assassinations of J.F.K., R.F.K. and M.L.K. in the ’60s, and decades of violence on 24-hour news — has become increasingly inured to shock.

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. DeLillo Anyone? It’s no secret that Don DeLillo’s novels have continually been ahead of the curve. With the age of terrorism reaching some level of establishedness, Mao...
  2. Win a Bunch of DeLillo Back in November I mentioned Picador's super-awesome new covers for DeLillo's classics. The books are publishing now, and to celebrate Picador is offering a chance...
  3. DeLillo Talk There’s a nice DeLillo thread on "I Love Books." They’re talking about Underworld in relation to DeLillo’s latest two books (which I’ve heard are not...
  4. The Worst DeLillo? I’ve been going back through DeLillo’s books for an assignment, and the thing that strikes me is that the more and more I look at...
  5. Prophet of Anxiety–Stephan Zweig The Guardian has a nice profile of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. The people of this era were naively settled in their optimism and "touching...

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