Quantum Flux and Narrative Flow: Don DeLillo's Entanglements with Quantum Theory

By Coale, Samuel Chase | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Quantum Flux and Narrative Flow: Don DeLillo's Entanglements with Quantum Theory


Coale, Samuel Chase, Papers on Language & Literature


The quasi-stellar object, the quantum event, these were the sources of our speculation and wonder.--James Axton in The Names

[He] wondered what we'd learn by going deeper into structures beneath the standard model, down under the quantum, a million billion times smaller than the old Greek atom.--Albert Bronzini in Underworld

And what things are are not the things we see.--Don DeLillo, "Belief in Our Biographies"

Physics concerns only what we can say about nature--not what nature is. We're a step removed; we screen nature.--Niels Bohr

Much of the criticism about Don DeLillo's fiction has focused on how precariously he perches between alternatives, whether they be magic or dread, clarity or mystery, language as imprisonment or liberation, the various uncertain effects of technology, consumerism, global capitalism, sports, the postmodern condition of alienation and isolation, and the spawning of various conspiracy theories, paranoid plots, and terrorism. As Joseph Dewey has suggested, DeLillo seems to position his vision "in the between, or more appropriately in the among ... the text thus simultaneously denies and invites explication" (117).

This either/or, neither/nor approach to the polarities and thematic oppositions in DeLillo's fiction supports Mark Osteen's argument that DeLillo's art is both an accommodation with and resistance to postmodern culture, that it "both opposes and embodies" (253) our own postmodern experience, presenting "irresolvable contradictions" (245) in terms of provisional tropes and possible interrelationships. In Don DeLillo: The Physics of Language, David Cowart expresses the same outlook in terms of DeLillo's use of language as a closed system that imprisons and/or suggests a proto-religious vision that liberates, what DeLillo has described as "paranoia ... as religious awe" (qtd. in Begley 106). Is language mere performance, or does it embody a "quasi-mystical principle [in the] form of counter-history" (qtd. in Cowart 182) that opposes all institutional forms of power?

"Something deeply hidden had to be behind things" (Kumar 37), Albert Einstein discovered as a child, and DeLillo, I think, would agree, particularly when Nick Shay in Underworld uses the Italian word dietrologica that suggests ominous meanings and dark designs within the very nature of things. Part of that "something" lies in quantum theory, which DeLillo meticulously analyzed and explored in several of his personal notebooks during the time he was writing Underworld and The Body Artist. In these two novels, DeLillo consciously relied on those facets of quantum theory that fascinated him in regard to structure, time's moving backward, for instance, in Underworld, and style in the disconnected instances of perception and perspective in The Body Artist. These fictional texts clearly reveal the quantum-influenced strategy that lies behind them, not just thematically--that would be no real revelation--but in the very fabric of the narratives themselves.

Critics have flirted with quantum theory in brief asides. For instance Cowart suggests that DeLillo in his prose is very aware of the existence of "the linguistic analogue to particle theory: what remains invisible because unworded and unwordable" (184). Patrick O'Donnell, in his article on Underworld, refers to "a post modernism that, in Fredric Jameson's hands, is founded on a modernity where the entangled relationships among 'self,' 'object,' and 'world' have undergone a fundamental change" (109), the idea of entanglement being a very quantum quality. He continues, raising the issue of "the seemingly infinite interchangeability and diffuseness of identities in crowds and objects tracked across time and history that are only seen, momentarily, like a quantum particle at a precise instant of alteration to a new physical state" (113-14). Steven G. Kellman suggests that

the ritual of the montage [in Underworld] encourages us to connect everything in the same way that contemporary scientific paradigms of uncertainty and chaos encourage us to take account of the observer at the scene and sensitive dependence on initial conditions [a very specific quantum quality]. …

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