Feb/Mar 2010

Last Exit

Is Don DeLillo's endgame of consciousness played out?

Aleksandar Hemon


Don DeLillo's Point Omega is a hard book to critique because it is chock-full of brilliance and ought to be supported simply because we need books that allow humanity to think about the condition of being human. But, in fact, Point Omega's excess of thought and brilliance is its biggest problem. Slight though it may be, the book totters under the burden of its complexity. At its arid heart is Richard Elster, "a defense intellectual" who, even before our government started its unconstitutional moral experiments, wrote a scholarly essay titled "Renditions." Its first sentence is "A government is a criminal enterprise," but the bulk of it is "a study of the word rendition, with references to Middle English, Old French, Vulgar Latin," in which "he asked the reader to consider a walled enclosure in an unnamed country and a method of questioning, using what he called enhanced interrogation techniques." The essay got him invited to "a table in a secure conference room with the strategic planners and military analysts." Working for the government "in the blat and stammer of Iraq," Elster "was there to conceptualize . . . to apply overarching ideas and principles to such matters as troop deployment and counterinsurgency."

We meet him in the California desert of Anza-Borrego, along with filmmaker Jim Finley, who has arrived on the scene hoping to make a movie in which Elster theorizes for the camera. Elster has retreated to his lair to recover from "the nausea of News and Traffic" and now passes his time contemplating it. In the heat and desolation, with a lot of "deep time, epochal time," at hand, Elster cerebrates aloud while Finley listens piously. Though Elster is a kind of a monastic imperialist ("War creates a closed world," he muses, "not only for those in combat but for the plotters, the strategists"), his philosophy seems to owe quite a bit to the propagandist banalities of Karl Rove:

Human perception is a saga of created reality. But we were devising entities beyond the agreed-upon limits of recognition or interpretation. Lying is necessary. The state has to lie. There is no lie in war or in preparation for war that can't be defended. We went beyond this. We tried to create new realities overnight.

And like many a Rovian, Elster is unrepentant, despite the abject and manifest failure (unmentioned as such in the book, presumably because it is self-evident) of the reality-creating project of American expansion: "I still want a war. A great power has to act. . . . We can't let others shape our world, our mind. All they have are old despotic traditions."

But Elster leaps to a level of abstraction far beyond that of the Rovian apparatchik brain. The novel's title alludes to the philosophy of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest (specifically invoked in the book) who posited that matter is compelled to strive toward complexity; the more advanced the matter, the more conscious it is. The universe is progressing toward higher consciousness, or as Elster puts it: "Brute matter becomes analytical human thought. Our beautiful complexity of mind." The culmination of that process is what Father Teilhard called omega point, which represents supreme consciousness and stands for God.

DeLillo and Elster turn the Jesuit's philosophy decidedly around, and omega point becomes point omega—Elster believes consciousness has become so advanced it is now willing to shut itself off. "We're all played out," he says. "Matter wants to lose its self-consciousness. We're the mind and heart that matter has become. Time to close it all down. This is what drives us now." The desert is an ideal surrounding the extinction of thought: "Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in the field."

To complicate the matter of matter and consciousness further, Elster's daughter, Jessie, arrives from New York to the extinction seminar in the desert. She was sent by her mother (who is Russian—Elster, obviously, speaks fluent Russian), troubled by the menacing presence of a mysterious man in her daughter's life. After a few days, attraction flickers between Jessie and Finley (predictably for the latter, who is separated from his un-understanding wife), but since DeLillo is not given to conveying the inescapable concreteness of sex—let alone love—nothing happens. Jessie, indeed, enters nothingness, vanishing suddenly. An extensive search for her, complete with dogs and helicopters, turns up only a knife without blood on it.

One sinister possibility is that the mysterious man, who might or might not be called Dennis, has done something to her. However, going over to the spot where the knife was found, Finley has an epiphany that suggests Jessie may have reached her own, personal omega point and turned to desert stone:

I closed my eyes and listened. The silence was complete. I'd never felt a stillness such as this, never such enveloping nothing. But such nothing that was, that spun around me, or she did, Jessie, warm to touch.

The mystery of Jessie's disappearance is never to be fully resolved, for it is, naturally, the mystery of postmodern existence. Finley receives an anonymous, silent phone call, just as Jessie's mother did before she sent the young woman away—the silence is now everywhere, while Elster's convoluted abstractions have become painfully concrete: "All the man's grand themes funneled down," Finley says, "to local grief, one body, out there somewhere, or not."

This or not is the whip with which DeLillo urges his hobbyhorse of postmodern angst toward the ever-receding horizon of deferred meaning. The book is full of such or nots: sentences like "Meaningless, he thought, but maybe not"; characters with iffy existences (Jessie was "imaginary to herself," as well as to "her father's dream thing"); ideas such as "Every lost moment is the life" pressing in clenched-jaw sentences toward the kind of highfalutin prattle practiced by stoned graduate students: "A moment, a thought, here and gone, each of us, on a street somewhere, and this is everything"; and, most of all, the parenthetical device of putting the Elster-Finley story between the opening and closing chapters, which take place in a museum where Douglas Gordon's 1993 video installation 24 Hour Psycho is being shown. Both chapters are titled "Anonymity" and are centered on an enigmatic figure who spends hours on end parsing Hitchcock's Psycho, as slowed down to a time-numbing speed and stretched over twenty-four hours. Elster and Finley appear, unnamed, in the first chapter, though we come to realize that only later. In the final chapter, a woman who might or might not be Jessie talks to the mysterious man who might or might not be Dennis, and any kind of interpretative closure is blocked.

Whenever the reader reaches some level of understanding, and meaning appears to be within grasp, the narrative slips away to a new level of intricacy, which is entirely consistent with the Elsterian—and fundamentally postmodern—idea that "the true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever." But the consequence of that ceaseless deferral and of the related impossibility of engaging with the simplicities of "the true life" is that language always refers to itself. Which is to say that art can only be about other art—about its inability, that is, to be about anything else.

The problem of Point Omega is not in its execution but in its conception, in the implicit belief that evolving consciousness inescapably becomes unmoored from material reality and language and is therefore truly present only in complex models that refer to other complex models: 24 Hour Psycho is described by the obsessive mysterious man as "the departure from the departure." High art, particularly film, is thus the main playing field of elevated thought. Indeed, DeLillo references Sokurov, Dreyer, and Bergman, while Jessie's inexplicable disappearance harks back to Antonioni's L'avventura. Finley's previous project featured Jerry Lewis of telethon fame, edited, sans other human beings, into a fifty-seven-minute film with a droning sound track. And before Finley goes to the desert to wallow in the dust of transcendence, he encounters Elster at a New School lecture and then at MOMA—if the real life is the life of thought, you can bear witness to it only where thought clusters. Hence the world outside New York galleries, European cinema, secure conference rooms, and the desert is rendered only vaguely. The people who live in it remain unknowable. Finley has a neighbor in New York, an old Latvian woman who for some reason descends the stairs backward, but he never asks about her odd habit and barely talks to her at all, for in NYC "people do not ask."

Perhaps the novel contains the critique of its own high concepts; perhaps it does question the progress of thought that turns war into abstraction. But it is hard to detect the positions within the book that can sustain such a critique—they are lost in the fog of perpetual deferral. Point Omega revels in its rarified concepts, as DeLillo loves watching thought evolve and meaning dissolve in the pressure chamber of abstraction. It is a fascinating spectacle indeed, if for no other reason than its rarity. But in the end, I'd rather eat a strawberry, smell my daughter's hair, or read a book that, against all postmodern odds, conjures up the intense experience of human life.

Aleksandar Hemon is the author of The Lazarus Project (Riverhead, 2008).

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March 25, 2013
5:40 am

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