Romanticism and the Postmodern Novel: Three Scenes from Don DeLillo's White Noise

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Author: Lou F. Caton
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Date: 2001
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,902 words

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[(essay date September 1997) In the following essay, Caton posits that DeLillo's characterization of Jack Gladney in White Noise epitomizes Romantic sensibilities despite the postmodern tenor of the novel's themes.]

A critical exploration of romanticism in Don DeLillo's eighth novel White Noise may initially seem misguided or odd.1 And yet, some of the values and topics commonly associated with popular notions of romanticism, like sympathy, unity, authenticity, and an interest in the "unknown," do emerge in this supposedly postmodern novel. They emerge not from overarching themes but rather from the common thoughts and desires associated with the novel's viewpoint character, Jack Gladney. By judging such characterization as romantic, that is, supportive of these broad transhistorical values, I find a deeply qualified postmodernism within White Noise.

Granted, in spite of these observations, a first response to DeLillo's fiction is probably not romantic; after all, his novels frequently show contemporary society struggling with a nostalgic palimpsest of old-fashion values that have been layered over by the textual, semiotic materialism of marketing, commodification, and computer codes. Cited as quintessentially postmodern, DeLillo reportedly writes a novel of simulacra with an endless regress of mediation. John Frow portrays DeLillo's curiosity here about simulation and iteration as "a world of primary representations which neither precede nor follow the real but are themselves real. ..."2 Bruce Bawer has gone so far as to claim that DeLillo merely presents "one discouraging battery after another of pointless, pretentious rhetoric. [DeLillo] does not develop ideas so much as juggle jargon."3 Paul Cantor directly calls sections of White Noise "self-reflexive" and "mediated;" a bit later, he claims White Noise transforms the "autonomous self" into the "inauthentic self."4

Clearly such declarations portray DeLillo as uninterested in old-fashion romantic notions like a mysterious unknown or authenticity and sympathy.5 However, this sentiment centers itself on DeLillo's cultural critiques, his novel's "messages," while disregarding the possibility of any romantic human nature in his characters. For instance, John Kucich quickly looks past the psychology of DeLillo's male characters by stating only that they "persist" in the outdated belief that "oppositional stances can be differentiated and justified."6 Kucich, in other words, sees DeLillo's characters naively embracing the tired belief that cultural difference can be adjudicated, that a truth-system of correspondences can still order the arbitrary nature of reality. Such views by these characters must be devalued, according to Kucich, because DeLillo's larger postmodern message denies the possibility of truth statements; the supposed central idea of White Noise is that a romantic, nostalgic character like Jack Gladney is only deceiving himself. The novel forecloses on a character's romantic desires as it erects a technological society where metaphysical truth is replaced by the materialistic codes of media and capitalism. The hard truth for DeLillo, Kucich and others seem to say, is that Gladney's romantic belief in a unified, shared definition of cultural truth no longer exists.7

What such an argument misses, though, is that DeLillo's romantic characterizations turn what might...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100038919