Parody, Heteroglossia, and Chronotope in Don DeLillo's Great Jones Street

By Kohn, Robert E. | Style, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Parody, Heteroglossia, and Chronotope in Don DeLillo's Great Jones Street


Kohn, Robert E., Style


The "presence of parody," Mikhail Bakhtin wrote, "is in general very difficult to identify ... in literary prose ... without knowing the background of alien discourse against which it is projected, that is, without knowing its context. In world literature there are probably many works whose parodic nature has not even been suspected" (374). I suggest in the present essay that the protagonist of Don DeLillo's third novel, Great Jones Street, is a parody of the subject of W. Y. Evans-Wentz's Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa. Recently Mark Osteen connected DeLillo' s novels to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the only English translation of which, until 1975, was that of Evans-Wentz (Osteen 165). It is now apparent that DeLillo closely paraphrased excerpts from Evans-Wentz's Book of the Dead in his Americana and Running Dog. (1) With respect to this being "alien discourse" that is being parodied, few philosophies are more distant from mainstream American ideology than Buddhism, which eschews fame, celebrity, worldly achievement, competitiveness, aggression, materialism, and militarism. Accordingly, the parody is respectful rather than comic. After the original hardback publication of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927 and Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa in 1928, Evans-Wentz published Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines in 1935 (new ed., 1958) and The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation in 1954. All four books were reprinted in paperback in the 1960s, when interest in Tibetan Buddhism was burgeoning in the United States, and are cited in this essay.

Just as Jack Kerouac's On the Road may allude to "the Noble Eightfold Path, the Via Sacra of the Buddhas," so may DeLillo have meant for Great Jones Street, the name of an actual street in New York City's Bowery, to signify the approach to Buddhism called Mahayana, which is Sanskrit for "Greater Path" or simply "Great Path" (Evans-Wentz, Milarepa 32n; Secret Doctrines iii, ln). Predominant in Tibet, China, and Japan, Mahayana Buddhism is dedicated to the attainment of Enlightenment by all human beings, to which end, many Buddhist saints, though they have won Enlightenment, have selflessly deferred Nirvana and chosen to be reborn again and again to help others find "the Path." One of the most revered exemplars of Mahayana Buddhism, who lived more than eight hundred years ago, was Milarepa, famous for having attained Enlightenment in a single lifetime. The "Great" in the title of Evans-Wentz's biography of Milarepa reinforces the connection to the title of DeLillo's novel. The first part of the present essay examines the parodization of Milarepa in Great Jones Street.

Bakhtin informs the reader's understanding of DeLillo's work when he defines the novel as a "diversity of social speech types (sometimes even diversity of languages) and a diversity of individual voices, artistically organized." "Authorial speech, the speech of narrators, inserted genres, the speech of characters," Bakhtin adds, "are merely those fundamental compositional unities with whose help heteroglossia ... can enter the novel" (262-63). The heteroglossia in Great Jones Street is unremitting. In every chapter, the reclusive narrator engages in intense dialogue, often with a different character and sometimes with a number of different characters. The heteroglossia becomes symbolic in the final chapter in a way that connects epistemologically to Buddhism as well as to Bakhtin. The final section of my essay is motivated by Bakhtin' s discussion of "literary artistic chronotope," in which "spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole," time "thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible," and "space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history" (84). The focus of my essay is a particular example of chronotope that Bakhtin calls "the chronotope of threshold" (248). There is a temporal vagueness and a narrowing of space in Great Jones Street that ontologically connects to Bakhtin as well as to Buddhism. …

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