Academic journal article The Hudson Review

When We Talk about Death

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

When We Talk about Death

Article excerpt

When We Talk About Death

In brief, much that we take as observations about "reality" may be but the spinning out of possibilities implicit in our choice of terms.

-Kenneth Burke, "Terministic Screens"

Most of the books chronicled here have something to do with death. But, "terministic" or "terminal," they are finally the expressions of their expressions, are they not? Death may be, as Stephen Jay Gould once said, one of the unfortunate biological realities we live with, but there have been no credible witnesses who have returned from that remote precinct to tell us about it, so while it may sometimes be "the mother of beauty" or, perhaps more often, the father of dread, its depiction is almost inevitably an exercise in imagination, rhetorical, as Burke says, "spinning out . . . the possibilities implicit in our choice of terms."

In Zero i0 for example, Don DeLillo not only continues his high postmodern and apocalyptic observations about the current state of life-and death-but also stresses how an awareness of such things is driven by words. So, a dying woman (or is she already dead?) in a cryogenic state is imagined to imagine: "Am I someone or is it just the words themselves that make me think I'm someone. . . . Are the words themselves all there is. Am I just the words." And the principal narrator, Jeffrey Lockhart, a complicated and troubled young man who grew up obsessed with words and definitions, finds himself trapped in a haze of uncertainty as a "Systems manager at a networking site. Human resource planner-global mobility" or "Solutions research manager-simulations models" or a "Compliance and Ethics Officer" at a community college engaged in performing "the requisite duties and conform [ing] to the indigenous language."

Lockhart's uncertainty about self and self-definition, language and its construction of reality, is consistent with the larger mechanisms of the plot, in which his billionaire father, a private wealth management expert in dynasty trusts and emerging markets, has helped to underwrite the Convergence, a cryogenic facility buried deep in the Kazakh desert where he and others like him may indulge their fantasies of immortality which they hope to achieve by being frozen for an indefinite time. What's critical is that the Convergence is an argument, a sales pitch based on future rewards-as uncertain as they are familiar to the overcapitalized rich-a transhuman fantasy and ultimate gated community where, pampered and protected, they will be shielded from outside riots, wars, starvation, and natural disasters (real or staged?) which they watch on conveniently-located flat-screen TVs. The Convergence's quiet, lengthy gray halls, arrayed with technical devices, and haunted by robed figures (scientists or philosophers?) would remind you of nothing so much as a set from Star Trek or the desert control center from Spectre, but their point is to get you to buy in.

DeLillo's style seems intentionally flat, abstract, and parabolic, where Zero K (which stands for zero degrees Kelvin, the temperature at which all motion ceases) becomes a metaphor for the state of our current cultural and political evolution. His obsession with language and constructed meaning comes closest to the message in his earlier novel, The Names (1982), which was set in deserted landscapes of the Middle East and depicted a series of cult murders based on the random coincidence of victims' initials and coordinates on maps. Its protagonist fames Axton (is he a risk management consultant or an agent for the CIA?) shares Jeffrey Lockhart's uncertainty about the dying culture we apparently live in. Each has a similar distrust of all univocal and messianic types, visionary salesmen who want to deprive us of the rich complexity of the world as it exists, its constant babble of words colliding, enlivening, and enriching themselves, "sheer sound, part of the noise" of human activity, apart from the drift toward fixity and death. …

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