Necessary Madness in Don DeLillo’s White Noise: Becker’s Twin Ontological Motives and the Quest for Symbolic Immortality in the Postmodern Age
by Jonathan F. Bassett
August 11, 2009
The present paper examines Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise based on the psychological theories of Ernest Becker and Robert Jay Lifton. Becker argued that people flee existential anxiety through the twin ontological motives of blending in and standing out. The novel’s protagonist, Jack Gladney, is plagued by thanatophobia because of his failed attempt to simultaneously pursue both motives in Hitler studies. In addition to death anxiety, another major theme of White Noise is the fragmentation of modern life due to media saturation. Lifton’s work connects these themes by showing how the rapidity of changing knowledge in the postmodern age threatens to undermine the sense of symbolic immortality connecting the self to past and future. Lifton is more optimistic than Becker about the human capacity for abating existential anxiety. DeLillo hints at a similar optimism by illustrating the creative and malleable ways in which the Gladney children symbolically confront their mortality.
The present paper offers a psychological analysis of Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise through the lens of the writings of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker and psychohistorian Robert Jay Lifton. Becker (1973, 1975) argued that the inherent dualism of the human condition, in which a seemingly transcendent symbolic identity is constrained by the physical world through confinement to a corporeal shell, gives rise to a necessary madness in which each individual must find consensual validation of delusions that mask the reality of his/her predicament. People attempt to avert death anxiety through the pursuit of the equally important but incompatible twin ontological motives of blending in and standing out. Lifton (1976, 1993) posited that the rapidity with which knowledge changes in the postmodern age, coupled with the diminishing confidence in the authority of traditional social institutions, makes it more difficult to symbolically construct and maintain a durable, transcendent, and anxiety assuaging identity.
White Noise illustrates the assertion made by both Becker and Lifton that symbolically constructed identity serves the primary psychological motive of abating death terror. Becker’s theorizing offers insight into why the novel’s protagonist, Jack Gladney, is plagued by debilitating death anxiety. Lifton offers a theoretical perspective for connecting the human struggle with death anxiety and the fragmentation of modern life due to media saturation, which are prominent themes in White Noise.
In an earlier analysis, LeClair (1987) asserted that White Noise is a dialogue with Becker and that DeLillo himself acknowledged the direct influence of Becker’s work. Jack Gladney, the central character in the novel, and his wife Babette are both plagued by chronic intrusions of death anxiety into their conscious awareness. Babette confesses to Jack that she is afraid to die, saying, “It haunts me Jack. I can’t get it off my mind. I know I’m not supposed to experience such a fear so consciously and so steadily” (p.196). Surprised by Babette’s confession, Jack admits his own death terror. Using words that seem directly inspired by Becker, Jack muses, “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?” (p. 198).
LeClair (1987) suggested that DeLillo seems to accept Becker’s position that avoiding fear of death is the paramount human motivation. He claims, however, that DeLillo disagrees with Becker about the necessity of denial and heroism as means to ameliorate death anxiety. As evidence for this claim, LeClair has pointed out that the Galdneys’ attempts at denial and mastery of death fail and paradoxically lead to life-threatening consequences. However, this evidence does not warrant the conclusion that DeLillo rejects Becker’s claim that some form of psychological defenses are a necessary part of the human condition. In fact, Jack’s description of his own existential struggles can be read as evidence that DeLillo does adhere to the so called morbidly-minded perspective on death anxiety championed by Becker. Jack claims, “The deepest regret is death. The only thing to face is death. This is all I think about. There’s only one issue here. I want to live.” (p. 283). In a later conversation with Babette, Jack argues, “Death is so strong that we have to repress.… It’s the only way to survive,” (p. 296).
Becker (1973) distinguished between healthy-minded and morbidly-minded psychological theories of death anxiety. From the healthy minded perspective, death anxiety is abnormal and is the byproduct of psychological defenses, perhaps derived from frustrating and painful childhood interactions with parents, which prevent the person from embracing life fully and authentically. It is the regret over this self-limiting approach to life that gives rise to the pathological experience of death anxiety. In contrast, Becker advocated the morbidly-minded argument in which death anxiety is endemic to the human condition. Although rarely experienced fully, the fear of death is the driving force behind much of human social behavior. From this perspective, some level of death anxiety is unavoidable. Therefore, psychological defenses are necessary to prevent the debilitating conscious experience of chronic death terror. Without mincing words, Becker states his case as follows:
Everything man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny and overcome his grotesque fate. He literally drives himself into a blind obliviousness with social games, psychological tricks, personal preoccupations so far removed from the reality of his situation that they are forms of madness – agreed madness, shared madness, disguised and dignified madness, but madness all the same. (p. 27)
In Jack’s “looping Socratic walk” with Murray Jay Siskind, he seems to embrace Becker’s morbidly-minded view of death anxiety as an unavoidable aspect of the human condition and discounts the so called healthy-minded view that death anxiety is fear of living fully or regret over unfulfilled goals. When Murray asks if Jack thinks his death anxiety is regret over things he still hopes to accomplish, Jack replies, “That’s an elitist idea. Would you ask a man who bags groceries if he fears death not because it is death but because there are still some interesting groceries he would like to bag?” (pp.283-284). When Murray asks if Jack believes that the only people who fear death are those that are afraid of living, Jack replies that everybody fears death to some extent and that those who claim not to are lying and are shallow people with “their nicknames on their license plates” (p. 284).
A fuller understanding of Jack’s specific experience of death anxiety can be derived from Becker’s description of the origin of death anxiety in the human species generally. According to Becker (1973), the potential for death terror and the motive to deny it are rooted in the paradox of human ontology, in which people are simultaneously physical and symbolic. He refers to this existential paradox as the condition of individuality within finitude. On the one hand, personal identity is a symbolic construction that seems to offer more flexibility, permanence, and transcendence than the purely material identity of other animals. However, humans are still animals trapped in the visceral struggle for existence, and our symbolic minds are still confined by corporeal containers that are constrained by the physical laws of the natural world.
Becker’s distinction between the symbolic and corporeal aspects of human existence is illustrated in DeLillo’s juxtaposition of the characters Jack Gladney and his father-in-law Vernon Dickey. Vernon is clearly grounded in the corporeal both in his love of altering, fixing, and tinkering with things and in his delight in the carnal pleasures of unnatural acts, which he is amazed to learn housewives will now perform. Jack, on the other hand, is floating in the world of ideas and has only a tenuous relation to the physical world as evidenced by his incompetence with mechanical things. Jack is aware of this difference between Vernon and himself:
I noticed his hands. Scarred, busted, notched, permanently seamed with grease and mud. He glanced around the room, trying to spot something that needed replacing or repairing. Such flaws were mainly an occasion for discourse. It put Vernon at an advantage to talk about gaskets and washers, about grouting, caulking, spackling. There were times when he seemed to attack me with terms like ratchet drill and whipsaw. He saw my shakiness in such matters as a sign of some deeper incompleteness or stupidity. These were the things that built the world. Not to know or care about them was a betrayal of fundamental principles. (p. 245)
Jack goes on to muse, that from Vernon’s perspective, nothing could be more useless “than a man who couldn’t fix a dripping faucet,” and adds, “I wasn’t sure I disagreed” (p. 245). Whereas Jack seems uncertain as to the extent to which his preference for the symbolic over the corporeal is a limitation, his son Heinrich is certain that it is a flaw. Heinrich sees the ineffectual hyper absorption in the symbolic world as a flaw in himself and his father. While at a refugee camp for those fleeing the airborne toxic event, Heinrich is commenting on the primitive living conditions and how his intellectual knowledge is of no practical value in such an emergency. He gives his father the following challenge:
If you came awake tomorrow in the Middle Ages and there was an epidemic raging, what could you do to stop it, knowing what you know about the progress of medicines and diseases? Here it is practically the twenty-first century and you have read hundreds of books and magazines and seen hundreds of TV shows about science and medicine. Could you tell those people one little crucial thing that might save a million and a half lives? (p. 148)
Becker argued that the dualism of the human condition is so absurd and untenable that it makes people mad by necessity because it drives people to distort their position with such mental gymnastics that it amounts to delusion. The necessary madness of being a self-conscious animal is channeled into two seemingly incompatible but equally paramount motives that arise from the human condition of individuality within finitude. Becker refers to these as the twin ontological motives of blending in and standing out. On the one hand, people want to stand out as exceptional and unique, thereby feeling some sense of self-esteem that buffers mortality concerns through the perception that they are making a meaningful contribution to the world that gives their existence significance. On the other hand, people feel powerless to stand on their own against the forces of nature and the knowledge of their own demise, so they seek to merge with larger cultural structures, thereby affording themselves a more permanent and transcendent identity. According to Becker (1975), the pursuit of the twin ontological motives is so pressing because they allow humankind to develop “cultural symbols which do not age or decay to quiet his fear of his ultimate end” yielding “an alter-organism which is more powerful and durable than the one nature endowed” (p.3). The construction of such a symbolic identity is essential because a sense of identity based purely on the corporeal aspect of human nature unacceptably implies “extinction with insignificance” (p. 4).
DeLillo illustrates Becker’s proposition that physical identity is inadequate and that symbolic identity must be constructed to ameliorate death anxiety by describing how Jack shifts from initially seeking comfort in the physical aspects of identity to later seeking comfort in the symbolic through the twin ontological motives of blending in and standing out. Initially Jack seems to view corporeality as comforting. For example, he finds the girth of his wife Babette reassuring:
I defended Babette, I told her I was the one who needed to show discipline in matters of diet. I reminded her how much I liked the way she looked. I suggested there was an honesty inherent in bulkiness if it was just the right amount. People can trust a certain amount of bulk in others. (p. 7)
LeClair (1987) asserted that Jack also takes comfort in his own physical stature and enjoys his imposing presence. He noted that it is a colleague’s comment on Jack’s lack of imposing physical presence that spurs the shopping spree as a means of symbolic rather than physical self-expansion. While out and about sans his usual academic regalia of black robe and dark glasses, Jack encounters a colleague from the college who remarks on his “harmless” and “indistinct” appearance (p.83). This comment suggests to Jack the inability of his physical identity to offer death transcendence and leads him to augment his symbolic self through consumerism and the acquisition of material goods:
I shopped with reckless abandon. I shopped for immediate needs and distant contingencies. I shopped for its own sake, looking and touching, inspecting merchandise I had no intention of buying, then buying it. I sent clerks into their fabric books and pattern books to search for elusive designs. I began to grow in value and self-regard. I filled myself out, found new aspects of myself, located a person I’d forgotten existed. Brightness settled around me. (p.83)
However, even Jack’s attempts at symbolic transcendence fail to abate his death anxiety. He describes one predawn bout of death terror as “the old defenseless feeling. Small, weak, deathbound, alone. Panic,” (p. 224). Longing for relief from this terror, Jack awakens Babette and begs her to reveal the identity of the mysterious Dr. Gray who might offer psychopharmacological comfort through the death anxiety blocking drug Dylar. Jack pleads, “Let me try, let me see. I’ve been lying here for hours practically paralyzed. I’m drenched in sweat.” (p. 224).
Jack’s longing to try Dylar is the result of his failure to ameliorate death anxiety through symbolic psychological defenses. This failure seems to stem from what Becker viewed as the incompatibility of the twin ontological motives. Again the character of Murray serves as a vehicle for expressing Becker’s ideas. In describing Jack’s failed attempt to use Hitler as a shield against death, Murray states, “On one level you wanted to conceal yourself in Hitler and his works. On another level you wanted to use him to grow in significance and strength. I sense a confusion of means” (pp. 287-288). He further informs Jack that “there are numerous ways to get around death. You tried to employ two of them at once. You stood out on the one hand and tried to hide on the other” (p. 288).
Jack and Babette are almost debilitated by their fear of death as evidenced in the following conversation:
‘I wake up sweating. I break out in killer sweats.’
‘I chew gum because my throat constricts’
‘I’m too weak to move. I lack all sense of resolve, determination’
…. ‘Sometimes it hits me like a blow,’ she said. ‘I almost physically want to reel.’
Although the Gladney’s death anxiety is the product of inadequate symbolization, this inadequacy is not merely some constitutional failure to employ the right kinds of psychological defenses but is also created by their diminished certainty in the meaning of the symbols with which they are trying to connect to the world. Babette recognizes the modern difficulty in maintaining certainty. In response to Jack’s incredulousness at the idea of her teaching a new class on eating and drinking, Babette says, “Knowledge changes every day. People like to have their beliefs reinforced” (p. 171). In fact, a major theme of White Noise seems to be the disorientation caused by the vast amounts of ever-changing and fragmented information we are exposed to through media. The importance of this theme and its connection to death anxiety can be understood more fully through an exploration of the writings of psychohistorian Robert Jay Lifton.
Lifton (1976) argued that the search for an identity that transcends death is not driven purely by denial of one's mortality, but represents a basic human attempt to establish continuity of existence; to form a bridge between the past, present, and future; and to symbolically describe the relation of one's life to those who came before and those who will come after the self. This symbolic immortality can be expressed in five different modes: the biosocial (genetic progeny and lingering influence on lives of others), creative (lasting legacy of works and accomplishments), natural (participation in the life cycle), spiritual (harmony with the divine), or transcendent (losing the sense of self and time in a phenomenological intra-psychic state). Walsh (1996) described the essential role of imagery and symbolization in Lifton’s work. The infant’s initial imagery is both life-directed (focusing on connections with others) and death directed, as imagery of dissociation, distinctiveness, and separation give rise to the precursors of death anxiety. This imagery of the annihilation of the self shatters the previous images of self and leads to psychic numbing. The individual must now seek out some symbolic connection of self with the larger world both past and future.
Commenting on Lifton’s work, Wachtel (1996) noted that while the importance of constructing an individualized notion of self was rapidly expanded by capitalism and industrialism, the ability to symbolically connect with the past and future was diminished by the dissolution of traditional cultural institution and the rapidity of social change. Consequently, the modern experience of the self is groundless and fragmented. Lifton (1976) gave clear expression to these sentiments:
Awareness of our historical predicament – of threats posed by nuclear weapons, environmental destruction, and the press of rising population against limited resources – has created extensive imagery of extinction. These threats occur at a time when the rate of historical velocity with its resulting psycho-historical dislocation has already undermined established symbols around the institutions of family, church, government, and education. (p. 35)
Lifton’s work offers a theoretical connection between the themes of death anxiety and the “White Noise” of our fragmented experience with media saturation that are so prevalent in DeLillo’s novel. The anxiety experienced by Jack and Babette is indicative of the modern human predicament described by Lifton, in which the rapidity of technological advances threaten the survival of the human species and even the viability of the planet while simultaneously undermining the ability to symbolically connect the self to the past and future. In essence, humans now face a psychological double whammy by being forced to deal simultaneously with ever increasing death awareness and diminished confidence in the symbolic defenses that historically afforded psychological equanimity in the face of that awareness.
Bonca (1996) suggested that the two main themes of fear of death and media saturation are explicitly linked in the novel during the following conversation between Jack and Babette:
‘What if death is nothing but sound?’
‘You hear it forever. Sound all around. How awful.’
‘Uniform and white.’ (p.198)
Bonca argued that this passage reveals DeLillo’s desire to present White Noise as the human attempt to convey our fear of death in the only ways possible in postmodern consumerist culture. Bonca offered three examples in support of this claim. The first occurs when Jack takes the youngest child, Wilder, to the doctor because of his prolonged inconsolable crying (which can be interpreted as his preverbal expression of burgeoning death awareness). Jack has the awe-filled sense that Wilder is conveying something important and primal about the human condition. The second occurs at the camp where the family has fled the airborne toxic event when Jack is similarly struck by the somehow profound phrase “Toyota Celica,” uttered by his sleeping daughter Stephanie. The third occurs when Jack is wounded in his botched assassination attempt on Willie Mink. While being treated by a nun at the Catholic hospital, he is incredulous to learn from her that the priests and nuns do not really believe in a literal immortality. She states that they are just dutifully performing their roles to offer comfort to others, not so much in the meaning of what they say but in the act of communicating. This point is illustrated when the nun scorns Jack’s insistence that she must believe by instigating a recurrent prayer in German. He is struck by the odd fact that he finds it beautiful even though he knows she doesn’t believe and is mocking him.
According to Bonca, in all these cases the important thing is not the content of the language but the act of communicating the basic dread of the human condition. Language is beautiful and awe inspiring because it carries the possibility of sharing with others in the poignancy of the painful awareness of mortality that we all share. Bonca argued that there are two kinds of White Noise in the novel. Typical postmodern readings of the novel focus on White Noise as the way in which symbols in mass media are used to impose consumerist agendas but neglect the possibility that White Noise emerges out of a long standing and universal human need to communicate fear of death.
Lifton (1993) recognized congruence between his ideas and postmodernism in that they both recognize a shift from the enlightenment project of generalizable truths to a recognition of the multiple perspectives and fluidity of truth. However, he differs from those postmodernist theorists that would deny the validity of a notion of a coherent underlying sense of self. His concept of the protean self (named after the mythological shape shifter) presents a tension between the desire to be flexible in the face of ambiguity and change and the desire to maintain a sense of self grounded in a framework of cultural meaning. Lifton described a cultural tension between interpreting images in relation to their historical meaning and the ever-present demand for novel images. He also specifically mentions the writings of DeLillo as exemplifying the modern ability of culture to transform symbols into new meanings. Lifton seems to offer a more optimistic view than Becker regarding the possibility of a meaningful self in the modern age. His notion of the flexible and adaptable protean self offers the potential of a meaningful experience of self in the modern age of technological change and shifting information.
The benefits of a protean self can be seen in the fact that the Gladney children are better able to cope with death anxiety than are their parents. Babette asserts that it is easier for children to deal with fragmentation and flux because they have always lived in a mass media culture. She claims, “The world is more complicated for adults than for children. We didn’t grow up with all these shifting facts and attitudes. One day they just started appearing” (p. 171). In addition, adults may have a harder time maintaining a sense of continuity in their symbolization of self because of the difficulty involved in integrating diverse experiences. This difficulty is exacerbated when consumerism is used as the means for symbolization because the accumulation of material goods leaves tangible evidence of the self’s inconsistency.
Such an interpretation offers insight into a previously little-explored aspect of Jack’s reaction to his death anxiety, in which he feels compelled to throw things away. LeClair (1987) interpreted Jack’s throwing away episodes as indicating the inadequacy of seeking transcendence through consumerism. However, these episodes can also be used to illustrate the need for a more protean sense of self. After Dr. Chakravarty suggests extensive testing in the state of the art facility at Autumn Harvest Farms, Jack’s mortality is again made salient but this time rather than seeking to expand his self through consumerism, he has the opposite reaction of trying to get rid of the physical material that ties him to the world: “I went home and started throwing things away. I threw away fishing lures, dead tennis balls, torn luggage” (p.262). His possessions seem to contribute to his awareness of mortality: “The more I threw away the more I found. The house was a sepia maze of old and tired things. There was an immensity of things, an overburdening weight, a connection, a mortality” (p. 262). Later Jack says, “I bore a personal grudge against these things. Somehow they’d put me in this fix. They’d dragged me down, made escape impossible” (p. 294).
From Lifton’s perspective, the more accumulation of baggage both physical, in the form of stuff, and psychological, in the form of previous relationships, ex-wives, and children, one has, the more difficult the task of forming an integrated identity becomes and the less resilient and pliable the self is to adapt and shift and change. Perhaps Jack feels the burdensome weight of his possessions as connecting him to mortality because he is longing for a more resilient or protean form of symbolic connection.
In conclusion, the human struggle with the awareness of mortality as described by both Becker and Lifton is nicely illustrated in White Noise. Jack’s failed attempts to abate his fear of death through a confusion of means in Hitler studies reveals Becker’s rather bleak commentary on the inevitability of some level of death anxiety. The potentially tragic consequences of Jack’s desperately employed psychological defenses highlight Becker’s contention that flight from the reality of death can be its own form of madness. Lifton seems to offer a more optimistic view of the human plight than Becker, and this view is also illustrated in White Noise. Jack’s throwing away compulsion shows his desire to avoid being trapped by static conceptualizations of self in favor of more dynamic forms of symbolization. This is the desire for what Lifton would call the protean self. Jack’s vague awareness of something transcendent at work in German prayers, foreign car names, and even primal cries reveals Lifton’s optimism about the resiliency of human creativity and his hope that symbols can be used in new and malleable ways to connect some core aspect of the self to past and future worlds.
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Becker, E. (1975). Escape from evil. New York: Free Press.
Bonca, C. (1996). Don DeLillo’s White Noise: The natural language of the species. College Literature, 23, 25-45.
DeLillo, D. (1985). White Noise. New York: Viking Penguin.
LeClair, T. (1987). In the loop: Don DeLillo and the systems novel. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Lifton, R.J. (1976). The life of the self: Toward a new psychology. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Lifton, R.J. (1993). The protean self: Human resilience in an age of fragmentation. New York: Basic Books.
Wachtel, P.L. (1996). The contextual self. In Charles B. Strozier and Michael Flynn (Eds.), Trauma and Self (pp. 45-58). Lanham. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
Walsh. N. (1996). Life in death. In Charles B. Strozier and Michael Flynn (Eds.), Trauma and Self (pp. 245-254). Lanham. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
The author would like to thank Bill Poston, Fred Bassett, and Michael Bassett for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.
Received: January 1, 2009, Published: August 11, 2009. Copyright © 2009 Jonathan F. Bassett