It is a mixed blessing, how little I remember of novels; the fact I can return to Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which meant a lot to me ten years ago, and be surprised by things within it I had completely forgotten.
Published in 1985, it is proof that today’s anxious consumer world of surfaces, freeways, supermarkets, advertisements has been with us three decades. It feels like a novel of the internet age, even though computers are barely mentioned and there was no web. But this is why DeLillo is one of America’s greatest novelists.
Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler Studies, and his wife Babette are scared of death. The novel cuts between the domestic sphere and campus life, before a long middle chapter in which the whole town is evacuated due to a ‘toxic airborne event’. Without giving away the plot, in a climatic scene, Jack finds himself in hospital being tended by a nun-nurse. It is one of the few passages about religion in the novel; when he learns the nun is not a believer, he is curiously devastated, asking her if her dedication is a pretense. She responds:
“Our pretense is a dedication. Someone must appear to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we professed real faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, it is more necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eyed men in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak. We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life.” (319)
It is a deeply insightful speech. The New Atheists may wish religion away; yet for the uncommitted majority, ambivalent toward religion, holding a vague belief in God, perhaps the dedication of the ‘lunatics’ is a vicarious faith. For us who are the lunatics, perhaps in moments of doubt we feel the same exasperated anger of the nurse. As I read this scene, I felt the same terror Jack feels, imagining a world without believers. White Noise, as well as being a very funny book, is a bleak vision of the horror of a godless world.