Friday, October 15, 2004

White Noise


I just finished the book White Noise by Don DeLillo (1985). It had sat
on this shelf in my room, with mixed reviews, for ten years. I really
didn't like it at first. I haven't decided completely yet, but I think I
still don't like it much, but there was a thought provoking bit at the end.

The last paragraph reads:

---------

Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid
racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The
miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The
cults of the famous and the dead.

---------

Truth and death. Fine. People need to have something they can believe
in. Good. Even though what they believe in is surely a lie, and more
likely than not, a dirty lie. This one gives me pause. It reminds me of
a lot of conversations I've had, and it reminds me of my own spiritually
problematic growth. I remember having arguments with my confirmation
leaders at the church when i was thirteen, and my extreme atheism after
that confirmation didn't confirm anything for me.

I must have been really frustrating to talk to at that age. I was
definitely in a similar camp to the camp that produced this book. I
remember only accepting arguments about god that had some bit of
objectively definable "truth" to them, and then not accepting the
objectivity of any definable example. My teachers said it was simply a
matter of belief, and I didn't see the point in it. "I might as well
believe in pink elephants," I said.

I wanted some kind of objective truth to believe in, but at the same
time I knew that truth was always relative. Is the struggle here to come
to terms with the pathetic desperation of truth-seeking (nothing is
true, nothing is verifiable, etc.)? Is this a sad mix of reductionism
and relativism? i think so.

The main characters in the book well represent a social group that's
busy lamenting the lack of objective meaning in their lives. basically,
lamenting the death of the idea of objective truth and meaning, and
asking, what do we have left?

My thought: subjective meaning. I think my problem with this book (and
the culture represented in it) is the pejorative that seems to surround
the characterisation of subjective meaning. He has a lot of fun in the
book equating religious and spiritual faith with belief in pop-cultural
nonsense, and that's where I've got my beef. As much as an extreme
relativism would like to equate the two, tabloid racks are no substitute
for a spiritual relationship with life. This is my subjective judgment,
and I stand by it. Frankly, I can't imagine someone who has had a
genuine spiritual experience finding this breed of relativism convincing
at all. Saying "truth is bunk", doesn't subvert anything. Didn't I
already know that my spirituality was only my own? It's already entirely
subjectively experiential to begin with! That doesn't mean that I'm
incapable of making an internal value judgment about what's important in
my life. for me, the relative importance of a single transcendent
experience is on a totally different plane than the things that give
structure to my cotidian life. For my happiness, truth is still an
important concept for me to work with, even if only it's only dealing
with relative truth within my subjective experience.

If I had understood my confirmation instructor better at the time, what
he said to me might have sounded more like a suggestion from an older
friend than a defined world-view that I could either accept or reject.
Instead of, "God is a bearded man in a throne in the sky. Why? Just
because." I could have heard, "You know, for me, this kind of spiritual
seeking has provided a lot of great personal meaning that I wouldn't
want to live without. you might want to try it out for yourself."

I'm sure what he said was something along the lines of the latter. I
wonder how I was so prejudiced against christianity at such an early
age. But that's for another time.


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