Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Things That Happen and What We Say about Them": Speaking the Ordinary in DeLillo's the Names

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Things That Happen and What We Say about Them": Speaking the Ordinary in DeLillo's the Names

Article excerpt

Near the end of Don DeLillo's The Names, Owen Brademas is recounting his childhood experience with glossolalia. The scene is a charismatic church in the Midwest; his parents are full of the Spirit, but he himself cannot summon a spiritual tongue, and indeed is paralyzed by the preacher's unrelenting rhetoric. The reader receives the language of this preacher indirectly, mediated by the narrator:

    There is a Spirit lurking here. Show me the scripture that says we
    have to speak English to know the joy of talking freely to God.
    Ridiculous, we say. There's no such document. Paul to the
    Corinthians said men can speak with the tongues of angels. In our
    time we can do the same. (306)

One does not think to question the preacher's scholarship, but he has made a mistake, and the mistake is emblematic of the specious ambitions of language in the novel as a whole. The mistake involves the subtle falsification of Saint Paul's words. What his first letter to the Corinthians actually says is this: "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal" (13:1). Speaking with the tongues of angels is spoken of only as a possibility, and the possibility itself operates only as a provocation to foreground its superior: love. In this scene, however, Owen is cut off from such intersubjective possibilities. Unable to speak and tempted to begin striking himself, he flees the church into the rain outside. That the preacher's aspiration for language to achieve total metaphysical transparency--a condition of expression proper to the angels--is a source of social alienation for a young boy implies a critique of such aspiration. Its trajectory overshoots what the novel sees as the proper habitation of language: the ordinary world of human relations. James Axton, the narrator and main protagonist, knows this by the end of the book, when he says, "This is what love comes down to, things that happen and what we say about them" (312). The breadth of this definition marks the growing identity of language itself with love, and the coincidence of both with attention to ordinary experience.

Much of the early criticism of The Names understood the novel as a postmodern exploration of language's possibilities and deficiencies, its fecundity and indeterminacy. For Paula Bryant, at stake in the novel was "a language system which refuses to fulfill its implied promise to define reality, let alone allow [one] to communicate with others to [one's] satisfaction" (18). This paradigm is still current; its most compelling recent spokesman is David Cowart, who reads The Names along the lines of his general account, in which DeLillo's aesthetic

    suggests a recognition that language will always resist and betray
    attempts by the unsubtle to make it a transparent medium, a window
    on the world of things. Immured in language, one has ... only words
    to play with--words that refer to other words and such reality as
    words may construct, but never to the world in its extralinguistic
    integrity. (2)

This model of criticism tends to focus on what language cannot do in DeLillo's novels, on its persistent thwarting of our expressive and hermeneutic aspirations. I want to make the case that while The Names cannot be understood without these insights, it moves beyond them as it strives to narrow the gap between our hopes for language and what it accomplishes. In doing this it explores not only language's slippery "refusals" but also the psychological and moral conditions that animate the very expectations we place on it. The novel moves, in other words, from a delineation of our frustration to an inquiry into whether we should be frustrated at all.

I want to suggest that after staging an implicit struggle between competing conceptions of language, The Names affirms a vision in which language is, before all else, the fertile domain of our response to the ordinary world. …

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