Tag Archives: White Noise

The Law of Ruins and DeLillo’s Twin Towers

Newsletter 7.1 (2013)

-Aaron DeRosa

“Very terrible thing but you have to look at it, I think.”

“Yes, you have to look.”

~ Don DeLillo, Underworld

Given his fascination with the twinned existence of the towers, it makes sense why Don DeLillo would be so drawn to the figure in Richard Drew’s September 11, 2001 photo, “Falling Man,” the titular image of DeLillo’s fifteenth novel. Tom Junod said of the unidentified man in the photo, “He splits them, bisects them: Everything to the left of him in the picture is the North Tower; everything to the right, the South. Though oblivious to the geometric balance he has achieved, he is the essential element in the creation of a new flag, a banner composed entirely of steel bars shining in the sun.” Junod’s elegy to the two towers resonates throughout DeLillo’s fiction, which has consistently come back to this detail. In Mao II, photographer Brita Nilsson comments on their twinned existence to the aging author, Bill Gray: “But having two of them is like a comment, it’s like a dialogue, only I don’t know what they’re saying” (40). For DeLillo, the towers speak of their own destruction, and continue to do so even after their collapse.

In White Noise, DeLillo references the “Law of Ruins,” the philosophy that underlay German architect Albert Speer’s desire to “build structures that would decay gloriously, impressively, like Roman ruins. No rusty hulks or gnarled steel slums” (246). First proposed by John Ruskin, the Law of Ruins holds that the final record of a civilization is its architecture, and thus the chief purpose behind a design was posterity. “The ruin is built into the creation . . . which shows a certain nostalgia behind the power principle, or a tendency to organize the longings of future generations.” For DeLillo, we build in the present with a mind toward the future’s vision of the past. And by controlling this future self-image, by allowing our ruins to speak of our glory, a civilization demonstrates its true power.

DeLillo expands on this sentiment in Underworld, a novel oft-discussed in the post-9/11 period for its ominous cover that features the WTC towers in a fog, a giant bird visible in the distance and a church cross bisecting the two towers. (The story goes that DeLillo selected the cover image but felt it too heavy-handed. When Scribner assigned the task to an independent researcher, they independently settled on the same image.) The novel is largely about building towers of waste, and DeLillo juxtaposes the Fresh Kills landfill with the Twin Towers (again, oddly forecasting the main site of the WTC detritus). Surveying the tower of refuse, waste manager Nick Shay finds “the sight inspiring. All this ingenuity and labor, this delicate effort to fit maximum waste into diminishing space. The towers of the World Trade Center were visible in the distance and he sensed a poetic balance between that idea and this one” (184). The nature of that balance seems to rest in the unseen relationship between what has been discarded, and what will be discarded, and how both speak to the nation’s glory.

The juxtaposition of the towers against the landfill speaks to the inevitability of their collapse. DeLillo says as much when he brings these disparate comments together in Falling Man where art critic Ernst Hechinger rhetorically asks,

But that’s why you built the towers, isn’t it? Weren’t the towers built as fantasies of wealth and power that would one day become fantasies of destruction? You build a thing like that so you can see it come down. The provocation is obvious. What other reason would there be to go so high and then to double it, do it twice? It’s a fantasy, so why not do it twice? You are saying, Here it is, bring it down. (116)

Again, the towers’ twinned existence resonates for DeLillo in terms of a conversation. The towers speak to one another, to New Yorkers, and to the world. What they speak of is their own inevitable destruction, and the glory attendant to that destruction. They flaunt their existence and invite disaster, welcome it, and even need it. They are built, Hechinger would probably say, according to the Law of Ruins, which stipulates glory takes shape not in their presence, but their absence. Hechinger’s later criticism of the United States’ post-9/11 diplomacy (or lack thereof) speaks to this brazen attitude born in what DeLillo elsewhere calls “the ruins of the future.”

Now that the towers are gone, DeLillo’s oracular powers once again ring true, as the ruins return to Ground Zero—the iconic pillared tridents now stand in the memorial’s on-site museum. The 9/11 memorial bespeaks a tragic loss, but in designing the memorial around the footprints of the towers, architect Michael Arad reifies a misplaced nostalgia for the ruins. That is, the loss of human life is clearly recognized, but the towers themselves are anthropomorphized, becoming victims themselves. However, long perceived as a blight on the New York skyline, the towers are commemorated not for what they were when they stood, but the glory their absence represents. As the first (and second) landmark(s) of the American empire to crumble under the Law of Ruins, the towers are certainly glorious in their destruction.

Brita was correct, the towers do speak to one another; now more than ever. The 110-story skyscrapers inverted to 30-foot waterfalls are specifically designed to generate white noise that drowns out the sounds of the city. And as much as the “Freedom Tower’s” 1,776 feet testifies to the United States’ continuing glory, Speer’s logic suggests it is the ruins on which our future will be shaped. Ruins. Laws of Ruins of the Future. This is not only how civilizations are remembered, DeLillo tells us, but how they are built.

Works Cited

DeLillo, Don. Falling Man. New York: Scribner, 2007.
—. Mao II. New York: Viking, 1991.
—. Underworld. New York: Scribner, 1997.
—. White Noise. 1985. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Junod, Tom. “The Falling Man.” Esquire (1 Sept. 2003): 176+.

DeLillo in the Classroom: Teaching White Noise in Freshman Composition

Newsletter 4.1

— Ryan Sandowicz

As I reflect on teaching White Noise in my freshman composition class, I mostly think of the analysis the novel receives by my students on the final exam.  One student’s thesis reads, “The media subconsciously regulates what they [The Gladney’s] define as real.”  Another reads, “The last chapter… speaks of youthful hope and optimism in regaining order and life under a toxic inspired sunset.” Though there are those thesis statements that drive less thoughtful essays, most students pick up on the themes in some capacity and tend to really understand how this book relates to their own lives.  It doesn’t start this way.  Invariably, since 2005, students initially and hopefully believe they are reading a book that was made into the 2005 movie White Noise. To help move my freshman English students from some typical groans about reading an unfamiliar work of literature not based on a movie to analyzing how a variety of the novel’s themes interact with each other and reflect meaningful contemporary issues, I use a teaching approach that inspires curiosity and challenges how and what they think about the way in which we live our own daily lives.

Originally, I was concerned that an author like Don DeLillo might not translate very well to students at Golden West College, a mid-sized community college in Huntington Beach, CA. with a diverse student population (15% Hispanic, 33% Asian, 2% African American and 45% White).      Though easily DeLillo’s most accessible novel I wondered whether White Noise might still prove too daunting and thus off-putting for typical 100-level students who, very much unlike College-on-the-Hill’s seasoned students, are often first generation college students who sometimes reveal to me that they’ve never even read an entire book!  These thoughts in mind,  I set out to use White Noise not only as an introduction to complex literature, but also as a simple book that speaks to our own too often unexamined individual and collective experiences in a consumer-based, technology-driven, media-saturated culture.

Before I make any introductory comments to my students about White Noise I have them read the first seven chapters.  The next class students work on mostly subjective discussion questions asking them what they think of the novel and individual characters thus far.  At this point students tend to remark that the narrative seems to randomly jump around, that Jack seems like a good guy who has a strong relationship with his wife and children, and that Murray is kind of weird and maybe a pervert.  Couched within these general observations are more specific insights about Jack’s position as chairman of the Hitler studies department and how his specialty perhaps relates to a few other areas of the novel: the opening scene, Jack’s J.A.K. costume, Murray’s comments about the barn, and the novel’s most pressing question:  “Who will die first?”

Because the novel’s first seven chapters are sans conflict/s, my students are naturally stumped when, to close our discussion, I ask them, “What are the problems in the book so far?”  Typically, students humorously conjecture that Murray is trying to “make a move” on Babette and/or Heinrich might be dangerous as a kind of teenage social outcast.  Without any real answers to this simple question, students are now challenged to identify anything that might seem problematic within the characters’ lives for the next class reading, Chapters 8-13, where the novel begins surfacing the Gladney’s troubles, from Jack’s revelation to the reader to open Chapter 8 that he cannot speak German to his growing death fears to the possibility that Babette may be taking an unknown drug for unknown reasons.

After my students read Chapters 8-13, I use a PowerPoint presentation to introduce the major themes (death, fear, media, consumerism, technology, and systems) of White Noise and how they reveal aspects of our own culture.  Using PowerPoint is especially effective in this regard as its obvious form of technology not only reflects themes within the novel, but also allows for a visual and auditory experience.  (I use various sound files to introduce each theme.)  As an extension activity students begin to build upon personal connections to the novel as we discuss why we do certain things (shop, watch TV, increasingly rely on technology, etc.) to wrestle with questions about the significance of the characters’ actions.

 By Chapter 34, after Vernon has given Jack the gun, student curiosity and opinion peak with thoughtful questions and comments about the Gladney family and their future:  Will Jack find and begin taking Dylar? Will Jack try to find Mr. Gray on his own?  Will Babette reveal Mr. Gray’s real name and/or his whereabouts?  Grappling with these types of questions my students also often respond to the questionable actions of the characters.  Some of these opinions do vary according to student gender.  Mostly, my male students are harsher on Babette than my female students as they tend to sympathize less with her reasons behind her affair with Willie Mink.  Jack comes off as a very sympathetic character to both my male and female students as they find him intelligent, amusing, caring, and deserving of full disclosure from Babette regarding Mr. Gray’s real name.  Pondering plot questions, as well as their own opinions about the actions of the characters and how they relate to the major themes, students diligently work their way to the end of the novel via class discussion and small group work.

As much as there is some initial student disappointment about reading White Noise, the-novel-that’s-not-the-movie, I am always happily surprised by the amount of pre-class chat it generates.  Interspersed within the usual discussion of what assignments they did/did not finish, tests they aced or failed students engage in real dialogue about what they read recounting scenes (Jack and Heinrich’s rain discussion is a pre-class chat favorite) in vivid detail, almost as if they had watched it at the movies the night before.