08 June 2012

Growing Up Absurd (Fischer vs. Spassky Edition)

Not that I necessarily recommend reading this recent piece over at HTML Giant. While it could use a lot of help (i.e., editing, rewriting & development, etc), its central thesis -- that of reading Don DeLillo's Underworld through the lens of the Walter Benjamin's oft-cited concept of the "Angel of History" -- makes perfect sense. For those that don't know it or can't recall it in full, Benjamin described the concept thusly:

"A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."

Benjamin was writing in 1940, and the storm he was referring to was the tide of fascism that had swept part of Europe. Yet Benjamin's notion of the Angel of History seems not only apt for analyzing Underworld, but could also apply to a fair amount of DeLillo's other works I've read over the years; particularly in relation to the meditative thematic undertow and tropes that often lay at the narrative heart of several of his other more ambitious novels. Which is unsurprising in a way, considering that DeLillo is an author of a specific generation. That generation being the post-"Greatest" one, the one that came of age in the decades immediately following the Second World War. The generation that grew up in during America's confident post-war peak as "Leader of the Free World," only to watch the country watch it all falter and begin to slide into decline a mere two decades later.1   Something happened along the way -- in the murky and turbulent transition between those two eras -- but what, exactly? Somewhere in the past, back in the years of the Cold War and the arms race with the Soviets, back when the country assumed its leadership role with an almost frenzied and bloody-minded sense of assurance (if not divine birthright), certain forces were set into motion -- forces which not only shaped history, but also birthed their share of secret histories, as well. And in so doing, produced a legion of demons and phantoms that would linger for decades thereafter, even into the present day.2

This has frequently been the stuff of subtext for a number of DeLillo's novels -- the cognitive dissonance of trying the square the American present with the past -- the inability to fully make sense of the of how things are in relation to how they were, or how they were supposed to be. The past as a foreign country, the present as the most mundanely maladjusted of futures.3   Therein lies a shared cultural neurosis, with DeLillo aiming to examine its various tics and symptoms in literary form.4

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1.  Although this socio-historic framing has been frequently invoked in his more recent titles, it isn't just the affluent years of 1950s America that DeLillo summons in certain novels. Earlier novels like Americana and Great Jones Street draw on elements of the 1950s and '60s countercultures. Yet inasmuch as Delillo engages these countercultural elements from the recent past (as an tangential "alternatives" to American mainstream society during those years), it's usually in a way that highlights their dwindling and marginalized and dissipated half-life in American culture during subsequent decades.

2.  A good bit of which very much continues to shape the ideological and political landscape in America to this very day. As manifest, one might argue, by the recent revived popularity of Atlas Shrugged and of various conspiracy theories that hail back to the most batshit of Bircherite literature from the 1950s.

3.  "The present" being a somewhat relative term in this context, because DeLillo's more ambitious novels are usually set or centered within a certain historical period -- ranging from the 1950s into the 1980s. There are exceptions, of course; such as The Falling Man, which was set in New York City in the weeks and years immediately following the 9-11 attacks. Yet inasmuch as the specter of the World Trade Center's twin towers serves as a recurring motif throughout the novel, in many ways it seems like an echo of the towers' appearance in Underworld -- referring back to the years of the Trade Center's construction in the early 1970s, playing out as an ambivalent and ironic symbol in each book.

4.  I wouldn't, however, make a case for there being a hauntological element in DeLillo's work. His tone is often more contemplative and circumspect (as opposed to melancholy or nostalgic) for that sort of thing.

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