Ironic Mysticism in Don DeLillo's Ratner's Star

By Little, Jonathan | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Ironic Mysticism in Don DeLillo's Ratner's Star

Little, Jonathan, Papers on Language & Literature

It must always remain an open question whether mystical states may not possibly be superior points of view, windows through which the mind looks out upon a more extensive and inclusive world.

-William James, Varieties of Religious Experience

In recent articles on DeLillo's work, John A. McClure and Paul Maltby rightly emphasize the spiritual and sublime quality of his fiction. McClure is intrigued by DeLillo's "resacralization" or reenchantment of the contemporary world (144) and Maltby connects DeLillo to the Romantic "visionary moment" (258). These critical revisions are helpful in countering estimations of DeLillo as only a deconstructive postmodernist, dedicated only to asserting self-reflexive skeptical relativism and nihilistic despair.1 These interpretations, however, do not go far enough in investigating the specific spiritual influences in DeLillo's work. In order to find out exactly how DeLillo is reenchanting our world we need to follow DeLillo back in time to investigate the ancient traditions of spiritual mysticism from which he eclectically draws.


Before delving into Ratner's Star, we need to define mysticism. Jess Byron Hollenback's recent book on comparative mysticism offers an exciting paradigm for examining this novel (and contemporary fiction in general). Hollenback argues that whatever form it takes, the mystical experience is grounded in concentrated recollection or contemplation:

The inner silence that mystics cultivate cannot develop unless the individual first learns how to tightly focus his or her attention so that the mind and imagination no longer wander aimlessly from one object, thought, or feeling state to another. When this mental background noise ceases as a consequence of the mystic's successful endeavors to focus his or her attention, a dramatic change in the mystic's mode of consciousness takes place, a metamorphosis that is just as radical (sometimes even more so) as that transformation that occurs during the shift from the waking state of awareness to the dream state. This dramatic metamorphosis of the waking consciousness caused by simultaneously focusing the attention and quieting the mind, together with the responses in both deed and thought that it generates, is what I call 'mysticism.' (xi)

Despite profound differences in mystical experiences based on religio-historical context, all mystical experiences, including spiritual transcendence and paranormal experiences, have the recollective act in common; such an act helps to empower the mind to become "an organ of veridical perception and means of supernormal locomotion" (Hollenback 21). In other words, in this heightened trance state the imagination can function as an expanded organ of perception and knowledge across normal limits of time and space in ways radically different than mere rational thought or mere dreaming. This state includes, "many forms of supernormal perception such as telepathic sensitivity, clairvoyance, and the ability to see auras, and certain supernormal powers of action such as out-of-body travels and psychokinesis . . ." (Hollenback 21). When empowered, the human faculties can "exceed their usual limitations, function, and capacities in dramatic fashion" (Hollenback x).

By tracing all these experiences back to the same moment of recollection and trance, Hollenback's study improves on earlier studies of mysticism which have separated "highly abstracted states of divine union or yogic absorption where all images, forms, and earthly passions fall away" (Hollenback x) from visionary forms of mysticism which include apparitions, supernormal enhancement of the senses, and vivid sensory images (Hollenback ix). In preliterate tribal religious traditions, for example, such visionary experiences are highly valued. Hollenback provocatively counters ethnocentric bias in his comparative study by discussing Australian aborigine spirit-flights, shamanism, Eskimo vision-quests, mediumship, and astral projection alongside Catholic, Buddhist, and Hindu accounts of world-negating transcendence and divine union. …

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