DeLillo's Inclinations Toward the Sacred

By Cornel BoncaApril 24, 2012

DeLillo's Inclinations Toward the Sacred

The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo

SOMETIME IN THE LATE 1970s, Don DeLillo stopped being embarrassed by his own inclinations toward the sacred. Until then, in novels like Americana, Ratner's Star, and Running Dog, DeLillo had fooled around with religious ideas the way his sixties compatriots did — sporting with spiritual traditions East and West, toying with pagan ritual and Indian mythology — but for the most part he did so playfully, as a way of mocking the entrenched (and arid) atheism of his modernist forebears rather than seriously proposing a place for transcendence in his own work. But, starting with Players (1980) and then more daringly in The Names (1982), a shift occurs: the words "soul," "eternal," "spirit," "transcendence" no longer appear to glow with postmodern irony; they no longer bear invisible quotation marks. The fallen Catholic DeLillo began to find a way to write about certain inescapable promptings of "awe" and "wonder" that were so insistent that they qualified as spiritual intimations. I'd argue that it's no accident that his greatest stretch of creation followed this shift, a two-decade-long marvel that helped push the American postmodern movement beyond its previous reliance on linguistic gamesmanship, black humor, and recursive irony, as books like White Noise, Libra, Mao II, Underworld, and The Body Artist assured DeLillo a place in the American canon.

It might also not be an accident that the author's sole collection of short stories, The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, gathers only work published since 1979. Perhaps he considers the eight other stories he'd published dating back to 1960 apprentice work best left in the stacks. Still, what's most striking about the collection — which presents the stories chronologically, as if to suggest an inherent development — is that so many of them build toward the possible revelation of the sacred. I hedge with the word "possible" only because DeLillo does. Most of these stories ultimately find themselves in what I can only call DeLilloan Limbo: a moment of insight whose major feature is irresolvable spiritual ambivalence. These moments occur when his characters are overwhelmed with wonder but can't identify its source: they're suspended, between the feeling that they're genuinely experiencing some kind of Presence (God, or perhaps what Heidegger called Being) on the one hand and, on the other, that they're making it up out of emptiness, despair, or the terror of death. Such ambivalence, of course, is common enough in 20th century literature, but for DeLillo such fleeting moments are the closest we ever come to Knowledge, and so dramatizing and meditating on them practically become fiction's purpose, its philosophical telos. Consider the climax of Falling Man, for instance, when Lianne thinks, "God is the voice that says, 'I am not here.' " That's an American-minted Zen koan if I've ever heard one, and it's meant to put us in the place where the Presence and Absence of Spirit are simultaneous: the Cloud of Unknowing, where it is the fate of DeLillo's characters to remain, floating, forever.


The Angel Esmeralda opens with "Creation," a 1979 story that has all the hallmarks of DeLillo's late-seventies transition. It's flashily cerebral, laced with cool ironies, and portrays characters who are disdainful of convention, cliché, and boredom. It's about an American couple who, having vacationed in the Caribbean, are having trouble getting off the island: departing flights are always full, and ticket glitches and weather keep them where they are. While the wife is itching to leave, however, the husband finds that he likes the neither-here-nor-there-ness of their situation. When one character asks him, "Do you enjoy this so much?" he answers, "I like to float." And he means this literally as well as figuratively. Drifting in a hotel swimming pool,

I opened my eyes to the sight of wind-driven clouds — clouds scudding — and a single frigate bird hung on a current of air, long wings flat and still. The world and all things in it. I wasn't foolish enough to think that I was in the lap of some primal moment. This was a modern product, this hotel, designed to make people feel they'd left civilization behind. But if I wasn't naïve, I wasn't in the mood, either, to stir up doubts about the place ... the cooling touch of freshwater on my body, and the ocean-soaring bird, and the speed of those low-flying clouds, their massive tumbling summits, and my weightless drift, the slow turning in the pool, like some remote-controlled rapture, made me feel I knew what it was to be in the world. It was special, yes. The dream of Creation that glows at the edge of the serious traveler's search. Naked.

Note the clash of signals here. While DeLillo, through a crescendo of natural detail, builds the passage to a modernist epiphany, he's just as busy undercutting it: "I wasn't foolish enough to believe ... this was some modern product ... like some remote-controlled rapture ..." This simultaneous inflation-deflation works to intellectualize the moment, casts it as "paradox," thereby suspending the power of the epiphany. Still, the moment in the pool has its consequences. When the wife manages to secure passage off the island, the husband stays on, begins an affair with another woman, and tries to keep her there with him in a continuing suspension of their normal lives. At the very end, he's still lobbying to convince her to stay, hoping for a return of that "floating" feeling: the only thing that makes him feel naked and alive.

The collection's second story, "Human Moments in World War III," gives us another moment in Limbo but has the added virtue of presenting the theme to us in more or less ideal form. Here we have two men literally floating in space, circling the Earth in a military spacecraft, collecting data, and preparing for battle during a World War III whose "banning of nuclear weapons has made the world safe for war." From the vantage of the two men, the Earth outside the window of their craft is a "cosmic eye staring into deep space," and they spend a good deal of time being awed by their planet, especially as their fellow humans are busy destroying it. But the image of a "cosmic eye staring into deep space" seems just as applicable to DeLillo's position as writer. He often gives the impression of observing his characters from great distances, from the wrong end of a (very high-tech) telescope. His characters, even when floating in a Caribbean pool or walking down a Manhattan street, seem like the ones in this story: suspended in vast dimensions of time and space, odd little specimens who've evolved through 10 billion years of the universe's tumult at the edge of one of literally countless galaxies. It's that observational distance, in fact, that gives his characters both their absurdity and their pathos, and when they themselves glimpse their position in that universe, it gives them their moments of uncertain sublimity. Certainly, it happens at the end of this story, when the two characters realize that war is destroying the world. Silenced by awe, they stare out the window at the magnificent image of a blue planet, the very symbol of "the idea that the universe ...swarms with life," just as mankind is destroying itself. And what do they have to say? Words fail: "It is just so interesting," is all they come up with, "the colors and all." The paucity of their response becomes the measure of "a human moment" during World War III: astonishment, simple, direct, echoing into an empty universe.

The Angel Esmeralda is separated into three sections, and the first section ends here. The second section contains three stories from the late eighties and early nineties, after DeLillo's big aesthetic and commercial breakthrough, White Noise, and we can see why DeLillo set these three off: they're warmer, less wedded to postmodern skepticisms, and inclined to air fully their intimations of transcendence. "The Runner" concerns a Central Park jogger who witnesses a little boy being kidnapped in broad daylight. Another female witness, panicked by the sight of "someone lurching out of nowhere, out of dreaming space" to snatch a child from his mother's arms, invents an elaborate scenario for the jogger that makes it easier for her to bear the horror of it: the kidnapper must have been the boy's father who was denied custody. When the jogger learns from a police officer that the kidnapper was indeed a stranger — that the event was truly senseless — he doesn't have the heart to tell the woman the truth; instead he lies and says her scenario was correct. The jogger's decision, reminiscent of the way Marlow lies to Kurtz's fiancée at the end of Heart of Darkness in order to keep her from knowing the harsh truth, marks a new sympathy in DeLillo for the emotional vulnerability of his characters, one that will influence the way he portrays the limbos in which those characters live.

In "The Ivory Acrobat," a young American woman living in Athens experiences a series of major earthquakes that strip her of any sense of normality. "Deprived of sentiments, pretensions, expectations, textures ... presumptions, persuasions, complications, lies, every braided arrangement that make it possible to live," she's left to confront her fear of death without the usual distractions and evasions. Then a friend gives her a small figurine that reminds him of her: the ivory acrobat of the title. The figurine depicts "a body ... alone in space, with no supports, no fixed position." But this figurine is also specific: it shows a woman leaping over a bull that is rushing toward her. Transfixed, the young woman concludes that "the act" (of leaping in order to avoid death) "might be vaudeville or sacred terror," and suddenly we're in DeLilloan Limbo again, with a character who experiences wonder without knowing whether it's absurd ("vaudeville") or of the deepest significance ("sacred terror"). What distinguishes this story from those in the first section is that the young woman decides to take the figurine everywhere she goes; it becomes a talisman for an antinomic condition she embraces.

The title story, "The Angel Esmeralda," is the most emotionally powerful story in the book, replete with a sympathy for grief that, while never sentimental (for DeLillo, sentimentality is simply unconscionable) is surprisingly openhearted. In it, two nuns scour a South Bronx ghetto burned out by poverty, drugs, and degradation, searching for a 12-year-old girl named Esmeralda who's been raped and thrown off a roof.  Though her body is never found, a seeming miracle occurs that brings hundreds of local residents out every night to stare at an advertising billboard. Whenever a train's headlights shine on the ad (it's for Minute Maid orange juice), people seem to glimpse Esmeralda's image in it. One of the nuns, a modernist skeptic, is embarrassed by what she considers the residents' superstitious belief, but the other is carried away by the beauty of it, and by its possible portents. "She saw Esmeralda's face take shape ... it had being and disposition, there was someone living in the image, a distinguishing spirit and character, the beauty of a reasoning creature — less than a second of life, less than half a second and the spot was dark again." The story, of course, doesn't declare the event a miracle, but it sides with the nun's desire for one, if only because it helps reaffirm her faith. It beautifully articulates DeLillo's special sense of Limbo — am I experiencing sacred revelation, or is it only my wish for such? — but the emotional weight of the story sympathizes with "belief," with an abandonment of skepticism as a legitimate way to deal with the fundamental mysteries, in a way earlier DeLillo fictions could never have done.

For all that these stories display a development (if not an advance) in DeLillo's disposition toward the sacred, they also reveal a new and not-so-welcome tendency. The post-White Noise stories are a tad dull.  They kind of plod: the sentences, stolid and sure, are set like bricks by the carefullest mason, an artisan who has every interest in perfect form but no interest in delight. It's odd that DeLillo largely abandoned his comic impulse in the late eighties, especially since White Noise is one of the funniest novels of the last half century. That shift away from "hysterical realism," as James Wood disdainfully dubbed White Noise, may have cheered Wood (who loved Falling Man, for instance) but for many of us, DeLillo's shift toward a somber, almost monotonic style is lamentable.

Reading the last section of this book, composed of four stories written in the new century, is a little like living on a musical diet of nothing but Barber's Adagio for Strings or Gorecki's 3rd Symphony: it's relentlessly serious stuff. Two of the stories, "Baader-Meinhof" and "The Starveling," are surprisingly similar: each is about people who are desperately alone, who make pathetic attempts to connect to other lonely people, and fail. Only "Hammer and Sickle," a story that returns us to the world of Cosmopolis — "the interaction between technology and capital" is the theme — stirs with strangeness and vitality. Set in a minimum-security prison where white-collar criminals have been jailed for their fraudulent activity during the 2007-2008 meltdown, some of the old humor and talent for prophecy emerges: the story suggests that the recent failures of capitalism are so systemically intractable that the masses might re-embrace a return to communism. But it, like the other stories in The Angel Esmeralda, extends the decline most readers have sensed in works like Point Omega or the play Love-Lies-Bleeding. The story does manage one final plunge into Limbo, however, with the main character standing on a highway overpass and having "a burst of enlightenment" as he stares at the rush of passing cars.

"Look at them, whoever they are, acting in implicit accord, checking dials and numbers, showing judgment and skill, taking curves, braking gently, watchful in three or four directions ...

Why don't they crash all the time? ...

Who are they? Where are they going?"

Before his meditation's done, he's wondering what the drivers staring at him might be thinking: "Who is he? What is he doing there?" But the questions are left to dangle, the "awed" moment feels somewhat rote, and the sympathy for the questioners remains curiously flat, as if DeLillo doesn't have the heart for the fellow-feeling he once extended in "The Angel Esmeralda." The confrontation between Belief and the Void is still central to DeLillo's fiction, but it almost feels as if it's exhausted him. It's as though he were standing on a cliff with Kierkegaard, who makes the leap and calls after him to follow, but all DeLillo can do is stare, appreciatively to be sure, but hanging back, trembling on the cliff's edge.

LARB Contributor

Cornel Bonca is a professor of English at California State University, Fullerton. He is the author of Paul Simon: An American Tune, and a longtime contributor to LARB.


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