White Noise

What if there were a pill that cured the fear of death?

white noise

@Don DeLillo: My apologies for chopping your novel up, but I’ll try to get the point across in the sections I use. Great novel by the way.

@Everybody: Buy “White Noise” by Don DeLillo.

“Why can’t we be intelligent about death?” I said.

“It’s obvious.”

“It is?”

“Ivan Ilyich screamed for three days. That’s about as intelligent as we get. Tolstoy himself struggled to understand. He feared it terribly.”

“It’s almost as though our fear is what brings it on. If we could learn not to be afraid, we could live forever.”

“We talk ourselves into it. Is that what you mean?”

“Every death is premature…”

“Do you think it’s a sense of incompleteness that causes you the deepest regret? There are things you still hope to accomplish. Work to be done, intellectual challenges to be faced.”

“The deepest regret is death. The only thing to face is death. This is all I think about. There’s only one issue here. I want to live.”

“This is death. I don’t want it to tarry awhile so I can write a monograph. I want it to go away for seventy or eighty years.”

“Your status as a doomed man lends your words a certain prestige and authority. I like that. As the time nears, I think you’ll find that people will be eager to hear what you have to say. They will seek you out.”

“Are you saying this is a wonderful opportunity for me to win friends?”

“I’m saying you can’t let down the living by slipping into self-pity and despair. People will depend on you to be brave.”

“Do you believe love is stronger than death?”

“Not in a million years.”

“Good,” he said. “Nothing is stronger than death. Do you believe the only people who fear death are those who are afraid of life?”

“That’s crazy. Completely stupid.”

“Right. We all fear death to some extent.”

“Doesn’t our knowledge of death make life more precious?”

“What good is a preciousness based on fear and anxiety? It’s an anxious quivering thing.”

“There is no reason to believe life is more precious because it is fleeting. Here is a statement. A person has to be told he is going to die before he can begin to live life to the fullest. True or false?”

“False. Once your death is established, it becomes impossible to live a satisfying life.”

“Would you prefer to know the exact date and time of your death?”

“Absolutely not. It’s bad enough to fear the unknown. Faced with the unknown, we can pretend it isn’t there. Exact dates would drive many to suicide, if only to beat the system.”

“This is the whole point of technology. It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature.”

“It is?”

“It’s what we invented to conceal the terrible secret of our decaying bodies. But it’s also life, isn’t it? … Give yourself up to it, Jack. Believe in it… God’s own goodness.”

“I don’t think I want to see any doctors for a while, Murray, thanks.”

“In that case you can always get around death by concentrating on the life beyond.”

“Pick one you like.”

“But you make it sound like a convenient fantasy, the worst kind of self-delusion.”

“But I don’t have to believe? Don’t I have to feel in my heart that there is something, genuinely, beyond this life, out there, looming, in the dark?”

“What do you think the afterlife is, a body of facts just waiting to be uncovered?”

“I’ll tell you what the afterlife is. It’s a sweet and terribly touching idea. You can take it or leave it. In the meantime what you have to do is survive an assassination attempt. That would be an instant tonic. You would feel specially favored, you would grow in charisma.”

“Why  have you failed, Jack?”

“A confusion of means.”

“Correct. There are numerous ways to get around death. You tried to employ two of them at once. You stood out on the one hand and tried to hide on the other. What is the name we give to this attempt?”


“Why have I had this fear so long, so consistently?”

“It’s obvious. You don’t know how to repress. We’re all aware there’s no escape from death. How do we deal with this crushing knowledge? We repress, we disguise, we bury, we exclude. Some people do it better than others, that’s all.”

“How can I improve?”

“You can’t.”

“Do you think I’m somehow healthier because I don’t know how to repress? Is it possible that constant fear is the natural state of man…”

“But isn’t repression unnatural?”

“Fear is unnatural. Lightning and thunder are unnatural. Pain, death, reality, these are all unnatural. We can’t bear these things as they are. We know too much. So we resort to repression, compromise and disguise. This is how we survive the universe. This is the natural language of the species.”

“Why do I feel so good when I’m with Wilder? It’s not like being with the other kids,” I said.

“You sense his total ego, his freedom from limits.”

“In what way is he free from limits?”

“He doesn’t know he’s going to die. He doesn’t know death at all… How lucky he is. A cloud of unknowing, an omnipotent little person. The child is everything, the adult nothing. Think about it. A person’s entire life is the unraveling of this conflict. No wonder we’re bewildered, staggered, shattered.”

“We create beautiful and lasting things, build vast civilizations.”

“Gorgeous evasions,” he said. “Great escapes.”

“We have talked about ways to get around death,” he said… “There are other methods as well and I would like to talk about one such approach.”

We crossed the street.

“I believe, Jack, there are two kinds of people in the world. Killers and diers. Most of us are diers. We don’t have the disposition, the rage or whatever it takes to be a killer. We let death happen. We lie down and die. But think what it’s like to be a killer. Think how exciting it is, in theory, to kill a person in direct confrontation. If he dies, you cannot. To kill him is to gain life-credit. The more people you kill, the more credit you store up. It explains any number of massacres, wars, executions.”

“In theory, violence is a form of rebirth. The dier passively succumbs. The killer lives on.”

“Nothingness is staring you in the face. Utter and permanent oblivion. You will cease to be. To be, Jack. The dier accepts this and dies. The killer, in theory, attempts to defeat his own death by killing others. He buys time, he buys life…”

“To plot is to live,” he said… “We start our lives in chaos, in babble. As we surge up into the world, we try to devise a shape, a plan. There is dignity in this. Your whole life is a plot, a scheme, a diagram. It is a failed scheme but that’s not the point. To plot is to affirm life, to seek shape and control. Even after death, most particularly after death, the search continues. Burial rites are an attempt to complete the scheme, in ritual…”

“I only want to elicit truths you already possess, truths you’ve always known at some basic level.”

“How does a person say good-bye to himself? It’s a juicy existential dilemma.”

“Better you than me.”

REMEMBER. You cannot access your account unless your code is entered properly. Know your code. Reveal your code to no one. Only your code allows you to enter the system.

“How stupid these people were, coming into my office unarmed.”

“What is dark? It’s just another name for light.”

This must be how people escape the pull of the earth, the gravitational leaf-flutter that brings us hourly closer to dying. Simply stop obeying. Steal instead of buy, shoot intead of talk.

“You’re saying there is no death as we know it without the element of fear. People would adjust to it, accept its inevitability.”

“There will eventually be an effective medication, you’re saying. A remedy for fear.”

“Followed by a greater death. More effective, productwise. This is what the scientists don’t understand, scrubbing their smocks with Woolite…”

“Are you saying death adapts? It eludes our attempts to reason with it?”

[After some events that I would consider spoilers to the story…]

White noise everywhere… I continued to advance in consciousness… I knew for the first time what rain really was. I knew what wet was. I understood the neurochemistry of my brain, the meaning of my dreams (the waste material of premonitions [with deja vu being a physiological side effect of premonition in still-primitive man.]) Great stuff everywhere, racing through the room, racing slowly. A richness, a density. I believed everything. I was a Buddhist, a Jain, a Duck River Baptist… I saw things new… I saw beyond words… Is it better to commit evil and attempt to balance it with an exalted act than to live a resolutely neutral life?… This was the key to selflessness… Get past disgust. Forgive the foul body. Embrace it whole… My humanity soared…

It hadn’t occurred to me that a man’s attempts to redeem himself might prolong the elation he felt when he committed the crime he now sought to make up for.

Heaven was a partly cloudy place…

I said to my nun, “What does the Church say about heaven today? Is it still the old heaven, like that, in the sky?”

She turned to glance at the picture.

“Do you think we are stupid?” she asked.

“You would come in bleeding from the street and tell me six days it took to make a universe?”

“On the seventh He rested.”

“You would talk of angels? Here?”

“Of course here. Where else?”

I was frustrated and puzzled, close to shouting.

“Why not armies that would fight in the sky at the end of the world?”

“Why not? Why are you a nun anyway? Why do you have that picture on the wall?”

She drew back, her eyes filled with contemptuous pleasure.

“It is for others. Not for us.”

“But that’s ridiculous. What others?”

“All the others. The others who spend their lives believing that we still believe. It is our task in the world to believe things no one else takes seriously. To abandon such beliefs completely, the human race would die. This is why we are here. A tiny minority. To embody old things, old beliefs. The devil, the angels, heaven, hell. If we did not pretend to believe these things, the world would collapse.”

“You don’t believe in heaven? A nun?””If you don’t, why should I?”

“If you did, maybe I would.”

“If I did, you would not have to.”

“Your dedication is a pretense?”

“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, people find it 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 that 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.”

“Soon no more. You will lose your believers.”

“And nothing survives? Death is the end?”

“Do you want to know what I believe or what I pretend to believe?”

“I don’t want to hear this. This is terrible.”

“But true.”

The supermarket shelves have been rearranged… There is a sense of wandering now, an aimless and haunted mood, sweet-tempered people taken to the edge… But in the end it doesn’t matter what they see or think they see. The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living. And this is where we wait together, regardless of age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods…

~ Excerpts from White Noise, a novel by Don DeLillo


“If God did not exist, then it would be necessary to invent him.”

– Voltaire

“May not religious optimism be too idyllic? Must all be saved? Is no price to be paid in the work for salvation? …

As a matter of fact countless human imaginations live in this moralistic and epic kind of a universe, and find its disseminated and strung-along successes sufficient for their rational needs…

The way of escape from evil on this system is not by preserving it in the whole as an element essential but ‘overcome.’

It is by dropping it out altogether, throwing it overboard and getting beyond it, helping to make a universe that shall forget its very place and name.”

– William James (GO USA! Destroy and create anew! Fnord.)

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