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Shadowboxing: The Falling Trees, The Burning Forest

by Askold Melnyczuk


The central presence in Don DeLillo’s new novel, Point Omega, a former defense strategist for the U.S. government during the current Iraq War, describes his mission: “War creates a closed world and not only for those in combat but for the plotters, the strategists. Except their war is acronyms, projections. . . . I wanted a haiku war. . . . I wanted a war in three lines.” Here DeLillo delivers the essence of a uniquely contemporary American fantasy: a hermetically sealed Disneyland, the Vegas of consensual omerta, shut against the prying eyes and inquiring looks of strangers and friends, a place where we do what we will because we can and want to, because what we do has no more consequences or repercussions beyond the field of engagement than does a rollicking game of checkers.

On one level, it appears to be working: who, having lived through the last decade with some awareness of our foreign policy, and of the practices of our largest corporations, can honestly say that he believes in the likelihood of justice any more? In mid-life Tolstoy wrote a story called God Sees the Truth But Waits about a man sent to Siberia for a crime he did not commit. Many years later, still in Siberia, the innocent man meets the real criminal, who in a moment of remorse finally confesses. In short, it was a fairy tale.

Even a nation which, until the economy collapsed, aspired to see itself as a place where entertainment had ceased to be a pastime and become a purpose, along the way transforming conventional notions of meaning until life itself began to seem like a distraction, needs source material, some place where the designers of our games of slaughter can go for real-life models, conveniently unpaid, where victims (including children) remain uncounted, as though none had a past, friends, a family, or a future: a sphere in which a shot destroys not a human being—a son, father, brother, cousin, employee—but an avatar who dissolves in a flurry of pixels. A closed, cold, ruthless fantasy world. The expanding universe, perhaps, of Dick Cheney’s dreams.

His subject brings DeLillo up against one of the great moral puzzles of our mediated time: is it evil to ask one group of human beings to murder another in a war entered into on false premises? All theories of “just war” attempt to rationalize away this fundamental question—though there is universal consensus that the Iraq War failed to satisfy conventional criteria for a “just war” on at least four counts (just cause, right intention, last resort, and proportionality— and Afghanistan fails on precisely the same grounds). Put it this way: when you shake hands with someone who has abetted such an “adventure,” are you shaking hands with Goebbels’s disciples?

If we agree that sending eighteen-year-olds to fight in a war entered into on false premises, all the while knowing not only the hazard to them but also the danger they will pose to others (and therefore, on another plane, to themselves), is wrong, how do we calculate the levels of evil unleashed?

At stake is nothing less than our understanding of the word moral. In keeping with his aesthetic, DeLillo does not approach the question directly. Yet approach it he does.

~

While our elites appear cushioned from the consequences of their decisions by money, power, and the armies of propagandists these buy, for most people the world is not closed, and life does not feel like a game. For most of us, our actions echo. While the CEO of an imploding business gets a bonus even if he was the one whose decisions pummeled shareholder value, a man who performs poorly on the factory floor gets fired and a simple scream reverberates in the air long after the sound has died away. Or does it? Does it depend on who hears it? And what if you have the money and the means to muffle that sound so that those who hear it are themselves not heard by others?

Israel’s pogrom on Gaza led to the deaths of some 1,380 people, 320 of them children. It is impossible not to wonder how our government might have responded if Israel had endured similar casualties (Israel in fact lost thirteen citizens, four of them soldiers killed by friendly fire). There don’t appear to be any consequences for the designers of these crimes, any more than there have been for the architects of the Iraq War, which has led directly to the deaths of hundreds of thousands (some have the figure as high as 1.3 million) and the displacement of millions.

We know this, the reader sighs. Why harp on the obvious?

The harpers harp—I harp—because we don’t know it. We neither know the numbers of the dead (because as one American general said, we don’t do body counts) nor acknowledge our culpability. Because our power of denial grows in proportion with our nation’s crimes. Because we know that we don’t know.

Yet, at another level, something in us rebels at these miscarriages of justice. Because, despite everything, we long to participate in a national project we can believe in. We long to be part of a creative force that leaves behind a world in slightly better shape than it was in before our arrival. The life force within us wages its own psychic struggle with thanatos.

~

DeLillo’s self-contained, mutedly ironic military strategist collapses when his daughter disappears while visiting him at his desert retreat. There is the distinct possibility she has been murdered. A man capable of colluding in the destruction of nations, offering his expertise to the shaping of what leads to an untold number of deaths, faces a loss in his own life and dissolves.

Before that happens the strategist reveals to his would-be biographer—a young filmmaker who wants to interview him, and is the novel’s narrator—that he has no intention of breaking down à la Robert McNamara, rehearsing his sins in a stab at absolution from the public at large. He simply refuses to go there. He is incapable of imagining the suffering of others, unwilling to recognize that he might have been complicit in causing a lifetime of pain for hundreds of thousands. Our naïve narrator admires the strategist for his interesting mind. But it isn’t interesting. The strategist is simply another self-absorbed, cold and frightened citizen of the republic. His cosmic thinking consists of clichés clipped from potted science. He is in fact a type. He is none other than the man in the crowd, the dude in the gray flannel suit, the ugly and quiet American, whose singular portrait has been painted so often it’s all the more astonishing that no one knows his name.

“Scary bland” is how DeLillo describes Psycho’s Norman Bates.

~

DeLillo appears to leave the matter there. And some readers, trained in new critical methods, might be inclined to do likewise, to examine the text as though it were itself hermetically sealed as a jar upon a hill, like nothing else in Tennessee. Of course it’s possible to argue that the novel should be read the same way we approach a poem by Wallace Stevens. But I’m not resigned to such a diminished response—as, surely, the novel does not aspire to the self-containment of Disneyland, even in an age that relies on “entertainment” and investment value as arbiters of art’s worth.

DeLillo presents us with provocative images drawn from our present political reality. If his appropriation had no more meaning than the painting of a soup can by Warhol, then I’d agree with Flannery O’Connor, who remarked that if communion bread and wine were no more than symbols of the body and blood of Christ, then to hell with them. But, despite the austerity of his prose—the sentences are as chilly as chicken-wire, and just as barbed—DeLillo has raised the subject of war, raised the issue of our complicity, and the book implicitly asks a question about consequences. It’s impossible to read the novel without thinking of any number of notorious men who stomp through our culture, from the dodgers like Cheney to “entertainers” like Mel Gibson.

Moreover, the book hints at how our capacity for ignoring the consequences of our actions is nurtured and worked by multiple cultural forces. Not the least of these is our elaborate and highly developed entertainment machine, which is in fact essential for numbing us to brutalities committed abroad in our name. The central narrative of Point Omega is bookended by a scene in which an unidentified observer watches an installation at the Museum of Modern Art. The installation consists of a videotape of Hitchcock’s Psycho slowed to play frame by frame over twenty-four hours. The unidentified observer—the viewer of the entertainment—confronting a film which inaugurated the slasher genre into the mainstream, stares fixedly at the screen, noticing details he’d never have been able to catch were it playing at full speed. While Janet Leigh is being stabbed by Anthony Perkins in the shower, the viewer counts the curtain rings. He remarks on the incongruities in a character’s makeup. He is in short desensitized to the dramatic import of the action and loses himself in the infinite complexity of a moment. The installation’s slow time invites the viewer to notice the details of a scene at a level normally accessible only to its creators. Gradually the menacing forest becomes no more than branches and leaves, each leaf a factory for turning carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and glucose, and so on. A collective noun like “forest” suddenly feels broad and vague, disguising myriad precise, exacting processes. If God is in the details, and only the details, then there is no larger narrative to follow. Everything is leveled; every perception, and every object of perception, is equal. No tree falls in the forest and no forest burns, because, in the closest analysis, they are nothing but whirling atoms. It is only our intellectual sloppiness and the limits of our instruments, beginning with our senses, that collapse an infinite number of singularities into an aggregate. In reality, no one stabs, no one is stabbed—not because we’re watching a movie but because reality is ultimately unknowable, and will always recede from the deceived and grasping observer.

This may well be true on a phenomenological level. But, as Duns Scotus, the medieval philosopher and theologian, once observed, those who believe that being beaten and not being beaten are identical should be beaten or exposed to fire until they learn that to burn and not to burn are very different indeed.

This is the issue we must confront if we hope to understand ourselves—as a nation, and as citizens inside that nation at a given moment in history. Are we willing to acknowledge the suffering we have inflicted and continue to cause, or do we believe it doesn’t matter? What we call a failure of imagination, a deficit of compassion, was once more directly labeled “evil.” And any age that wishes to understand itself must come to terms with what it regards as evil, and what it deems good.

Does DeLillo intend any of this? Very possibly not. But he has given us this book—and if John Gardner is right (and I think he is) when he describes fiction as, essentially, an ancient mode of thought, then it’s fair to wonder just what this strange and profound (and funny) book is thinking about.  

 

Askold Melnyczuk is founding editor of AGNI and contributes a series of essays called “Shadowboxing.” He is professor of creative writing at The University of Massachusetts-Boston and a member of the core fiction faculty of the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars. (4/2010)


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