Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

DeLillo's Ignatian Moment: Religious Longing and Theological Encounter in Falling Man

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

DeLillo's Ignatian Moment: Religious Longing and Theological Encounter in Falling Man

Article excerpt

Abstract: In his 2007 novel Falling Man, Don DeLillo depicts New York City, in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center, as a place in which nearly everyone seems to be experiencing some form of religious longing. Still, for almost all of DeLillo's characters, religious longing remains disconnected from any formal religious practice or any community of faith. The most significant exception is the book's main character, Lianne Glenn, who struggles to return to Catholicism, partly through her memory of an encounter in college with the theology of Soren Kierkegaard, partly through her work with a writing group of Alzheimer's patients, and partly through her memories of her father's rigidly traditional Catholicism. Lianne's discovery of a more questioning Catholicism continues the preoccupation in DeLillo's fiction with the struggle for spirituality and morality in a contemporary America. More specifically, it also clarifies the growing significance in his recent work of the spirituality of Ignatius Loyola.


In societies reduced to blur and glut, terror is the only meaningful act. There's too much everything, more things and messages and meanings than we can use in ten thousand lifetimes. Inertia-hysteria. Is history possible? Is anyone serious? Who do we take seriously? Only the lethal believer, the person who kills and dies for faith. Everything else is absorbed. ... Only the terrorist stands outside.

DeLillo, Mao II

[F]ar easier to be like the others, to become an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd.

Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

Throughout the first half of Don DeLillo's Falling Man, the retired art historian, Nina Bartos, conducts an academic and sometimes angry argument with her lover, Martin Ridnour, a shady art dealer and former political radical (we later learn that "Martin Ridnour" is not his real name). Like just about everyone else in New York City in the days immediately following September 11,2001, they are preoccupied with terrorism. Mostly, they argue about the role that religion might or might not have played in the attack on the World Trade Center. Nina blames the attack largely on the terrorists' religious beliefs, which she considers superstitious and atavistic: "Dead wars, holy wars. God could appear in the sky tomorrow" (46). Martin replies that religion per se really has nothing to do with it: "Forget God. These are matters of history. This is politics and economics.... They use the language of religion, okay, but this is not what drives them" (47). At one especially telling moment, Nina describes terrorism as "a viral infection" (113). Her intention is to refute Martin's claim of ideological determinism--that this outbreak of violence can be explained only in terms of human grievances inexorably shaped by history, politics, and economics. Nina argues that, like a virus--and presumably like religion--terrorism "reproduces itself outside of history" (113). This debate recurs throughout the book, largely through DeLillo's depiction of the Al Qaida operative Muhammad Atta, but it is never resolved. Ironically, though, just as Nina's argument stalls, her metaphor prevails: in Falling Man, something in New York City seems to have "gone viral" reproducing itself instantaneously, impervious to politics, apparently ineradicable, beyond our usual understanding of history.

In this subterranean way--and also more explicitly than any of DeLillo's previous books--Falling Man becomes a religious novel. More specifically, it becomes an extended meditation on the possibilities or impossibilities of religious belief and practice at this particular moment in "history" What has "gone viral" after the attack on the World Trade Center is not religion, exactly, but religious longing. DeLillo depicts a contemporary New York City--literally and figuratively a "post-9/11" New York City--in which nearly everyone is arguing about God, or thinking about God, or experimenting with some kind of surrogate for religion. …

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