Title: "A Conversation with Don DeLillo: Has Terrorism Become the World's Main Plot?"
Panic #1, Nov. 2005, pp. 90-95.
Interview of Don DeLillo (DD) by Stéphane Bou and Jean-Baptiste Thoret (Q), published in French.
Translated back to English by Noel King, with assistance from John Frow and David Saunders. Thanks to Adrian Martin for locating and sending the French version of this interview.
Q: You wrote that JFK's assassination was the event that created you ....
DD: November 22nd 1963 marked the real beginning of the 1960s. It was the beginning of a series of catastrophes: political assassinations, the war in Vietnam, the denial of Civil Rights and the revolts that occasioned, youth revolt in American cities, right up to Watergate. When I was starting out as a writer it seemed to me that a large part of the material you could find in my novels – this sense of fatality, of widespread suspicion, of mistrust – came from the assassination of JFK.
Q: In your account of the assassination, what things continue to preoccupy you? It's striking to see that the relationship you describe between Oswald and Kennedy in Libra returns in Cosmopolis in the relationship that exists between Benno Levin and his future victim, Eric Packer.
DD: It's true, there's something of Oswald's personality in Benno Levin, the killer in Cosmopolis. All of that comes from a motif which had always struck me: a man, in a small room, fomenting something. That motif is already there in my early books but I couldn't find a good way of formulating it until I was working on Libra, and constructing the Oswald character. I think Oswald spent his life trying to become someone, trying to give himself a place within the larger History. But he ended up tipping out of History into fantasy. I don't think he hated Kennedy. All the documents I was able to read and all the material I studied on the topic show that, on the contrary, he admired Kennedy. Of course we can't know what was going on in his head but when he tried to assassinate General Walker, a major figure in extreme right-wing groups in Dallas, he was acting on the impulse of History. He was just back from the Soviet Union. He had maintained contacts with Russian exiles. Things degenerated after the failed assassination attempt on Walker. He was separated from his wife. He lived alone in a small room. One morning the local newspaper alerted him to the fact that President Kennedy would be coming to Dallas in two days' time. The presidential motorcade would pass just below the window where Oswald worked, the Texas Book Depository, at the precise time when he would probably be alone. For him, all this seemed to constitute an extraordinary revelation. Something was telling him this. Although he had no particular plan, he decided to act, whatever the cost. That's what tipped him over from History into the dream world, like all those young white men who would follow: the man who killed John Lennon, the young man who tried to assassinate Governor George Wallace of Alabama, the man who tried to kill President Reagan. What influenced them? Films, maybe. According to Oswald's wife, Marina, shortly before his actions, he had seen Suddenly (Lewis Allen: 1954) with Frank Sinatra playing the part of a man who wants to assassinate the President. Oswald would already have seen John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962) which had come out a few months earlier. Whatever the case, Oswald was no longer a man who belonged to History.
Q: Has America ended up by installing imitation presidents? You speak of the attempted assassination of Reagan as a televisual improvisation. How would you explain this move from a corporeal president to phantom presidents, pure images?
DD: I found that there was something cinematic in the reaction of the secret servicemen at the moment of the attempted assassination of Reagan, as if they were conscious of their actions. For me this impression of being conscious of oneself and of one's act at the very moment of its performance seems to me very revealing. I think Johnson was still a flesh and blood president. Nixon too, in his own way, even though he was psychotic: he was real and was a fascinating figure, especially for writers. But I think things began to change with the actor Reagan. Under Clinton, it seems to me the presidency became a kind of celebration of celebrity. Clinton was not only a celebrity himself, he loved hanging out with other celebrities. That makes me think of the Silkscreens of Andy Warhol, whose genius consisted in making the portraits of Mao Zedong, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Elvis Presley all in the same format as if these different personalities ultimately had the same impact on the world. From Reagan to Clinton there is a lineage. It's the age of images. When you look at George W. Bush, wearing jeans, with a Texan shirt and Texan boots, that's what is reactivated and so important, even if only unconsciously, in voters' eyes.
Q: Underworld was a great critical success whereas Cosmopolis, the novel which followed, met with a degree of critical reserve. How would you explain this shift?
DD: I don't know. I try to stay detached from that aspect of my work as a writer. I didn't read any reviews or articles. Maybe it was connected to September 11. I'd almost finished writing the book when the attacks took place, and so they couldn't have had any influence on the book's conception, nor on its writing. Perhaps for certain readers this upset their expectations ...
Q: You mention September 11 ... How do you see the expectation you've aroused in some of your readers on this very subject, the more so since you are often seen as a novelist who describes the present moment but at the point of a future warning.
DD: I'm aware that readers will see things that way but I have absolutely no desire to be seen as a prophet. September 11 aroused all sorts of anxieties (‘hantises') present in my books, where you find various elements that set in motion aircraft hijackings, buildings being blown up, terrorists. But that has nothing to do with prophecy. Underworld's cover which depicted the twin towers of the World Trade Center became a subject of commentary and debate. It's always nice for a writer to hear it said that he predicted the direction a culture or society was taking but it's not something I feel. It's already hard enough to understand what's actually happening, let alone what will happen ... Perhaps the novelist is able to see in a clearer, sharper manner what's already there. But that doesn't make the writer a prophet. I lived in Greece for three years and when I came back to the US I saw it in a way that was slightly new. I remember going into a supermarket and seeing it as if for the first time. In this sense perhaps I was seeing a reality that the average American couldn't make out. In particular the amazing number of products supposed to protect us from toxic danger. The (anti) toxic pills became the central element of White Noise. People also said, at that time, that I was a prophet!
Q: Cosmopolis paints a portrait of a young financier in crisis, who is asking himself about the nature of modern capitalism. To what extent are the questions asked by this character also yours?
DD: I rarely identify myself with one of my characters. Cosmopolis is an unusual book which, first of all, is talking about the relation that exists between Time and Money. This character, Eric Packer, lives in a state of accelerated time. Essentially he's a man who lives in the future. But he also travels back to his past when he goes up 47th Street to the barbershop where his father used to take him. And his acute sense of mortality is intimately bound up with his memories of his father, in a way that the reader can't know about until finishing the book. I tried to create a character living in a spasmodic state, moving from sensation to sensation. It seems to me that what happens to him, and the people he gets in touch with in the course of his day, is more significant than his state of mind, which he himself doesn't know anything about! He's a man with no awareness of his own psychology, no sense of his intellectual limits. He's extremely intelligent but in a very strange way ...
Q: In Cosmopolis one of the characters says, "there is an order' etc, to which his interlocutor replies, ‘Look at it'. In Libra, Dave Ferrie says, "there's a motif in things.' Interpretation is one of the central themes of your novels, with Ratner's Star providing a hyperbolic version. Together with questions of interpretation there are plots, conspiracies, and characters' obsessions with being able to break through to the secret order of things. What is it about this connection between the secret, interpretation and conspiracy that obsesses you?
DD: I think these days I'm less obsessed by these themes than I used to be. In fact Ratner's Star, a book read by only eleven people (and I can understand why) is itself filled with secrets and hidden motifs. My books have a singular structure, a singular architecture. Ratner's Star structure is based on the writings of Lewis Carroll, in particular Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking-Glass. I don't remember the book very well but I remember having worked like a maniac on it, in a way that was a bit crazy. And the book's form reflects its theme: mathematical theories and the density of the schemas that mathematicians find in numbers. So it came as a surprise to me to find myself returning to this trope in Cosmopolis. Eric Packer finds the hidden structures of financial markets in nature. This is not something I invented. There are men and women who do that. They take it very seriously and occasionally write books about it. For example they study the life cycles of butterflies and find universal themes that they connect with the way the planets rotate around the sun. Eric Packer thinks that there's an order beneath the surface of things, and for Kinski, the Master Theorist (‘chef des théories') (today, every company has, somewhere in its structure, its own Master Theorist) the secret of the schema is chemical in nature. There's also a comical aspect to this. Do I agree with what Kinski says? Do I agree with Eric's viewpoint on financial markets? I don't know. They're just characters who have their own independence.
Q: In your work there is a constant tension between the question of truth and the claims of theory. Your characters search less for truth than for a new theory which will replace earlier theories.
DD: Absolutely. For me, the idea of truth is something very abstract, something I don't really understand. I prefer people like Kinski who put theories, hypotheses out there, even if they're false. In a way there's an inflation of theorising in my work, particularly in my early books. In The Body Artist there aren't any theories but it remains an abstract book ...
Q: The word ‘system' recurs incessantly in Cosmopolis. "I'm helpless in their system, I don't understand it' says a character in the novel. Confronted with the system, you always describe people who fight against it. What are your thoughts now about this idea of ‘the system' and its forms of contestation?
DD: Writers must oppose systems. It's important to write against power, corporations, the state, and the whole system of consumption and of debilitating entertainments. And I suppose that in Underworld the idea of ‘loss' became absolutely central, more pronounced than it was in my earlier work. It's not something I anticipated but all sorts of destruction peculiar to American culture found their way into this book, from the baseball game that opens the book, with spectators throwing newspapers, to the end of the book, which concludes with nuclear destruction. For a long time, almost ten years, I collected things, objects in dustbins. It was in the 1970s and I didn't know why I did it. As soon as I saw something abandoned, thrown away, I kept it. And one day I looked at everything I'd accumulated and threw it all out. Two years later I realised how stupid that act had been and I started work on Underworld. Be that as it may, I think writers, by nature, must oppose things, oppose whatever power tries to impose on us. You know, in America and in western Europe we live in very wealthy democracies, we can do virtually anything we want, I'm able to write whatever I want to write. But I can't be part of this culture of simulation, in the sense of the culture's absorbing of everything. In doing that it neutralises anything dangerous, anything that might threaten the consumer society. In Cosmopolis Kinski says, "What a culture does is absorb and neutralise its adversaries". If you're a writer who, one way or another, comes to be seen as dangerous, you'll wake up one morning and discover your face on a coffee mug or a t-shirt and you'll have been neutralised.
Q: This notion of absorption is one of the topics of your book. And your main character defends the idea of it when he cycnically says, "there's nowhere to go, there's no outside", the people who oppose ‘exist to give life to and perpetuate the system'. How can one recover today an effective mode of contestation?
DD: I was in San Francisco just before the invasion of Iraq. And there was an anti-war demonstration in the streets. It wasn't a very big crowd but it chanted ‘We want peace and we want it now.' These are the same words one heard during the 1970s used against the war in Vietnam. On the one hand it was very encouraging to see the people in the street protesting against the war but on the other hand you couldn't see how this opposition would be effective. It was a curious feeling, as if the form itself were empty. In the US there were lots of demonstrations against the war in Iraq but there was something disengaged about it, not very sincere. Certainly Vietnam was a horror which lasted a long time whereas Iraq had hardly begun so it's not fair to compare the two situations. That said, I can't help thinking that the process of absorbing opposition has become so powerful that contestation is compromised. There's a kind of politeness in the protest. It's in strong contrast to the Vietnam era. So we're in a strange situation. Most people oppose George Bush - and I think that here in Europe/France you don't fully appreciate that – but that doesn't seem to show in the culture in the way it would have in the past.
Q: In Cosmopolis the lone terrorist, who believes he will give his life meaning by assassinating Packer, wants to write a novel: "10,000 pages which could stop the world." Would such a book be the ultimate act of protest?
DD: I think every writer has a dream like that. But it's a ridiculous dream. What Benno wants to do is talk about his life, his days, what he gets up to, what he thinks about. Benno wants to write 10,000 pages but he ends up writing only eleven pages. He has said what he wanted to say. Vanity discovers its appropriate limit.
Q: How would you assess the power literature has today? You're on record as saying, "Years ago I thought that it was possible for the novelist to change the inner life of a culture. Today, human bombers and killers have captured this terrain."
DD: Literature has lost much of its influence on culture and society but I also think that novels continue to connect with serious readers. Still, it's hard to imagine a writer these days whose world could take the place of or be interchangeable with reality, as was the case with Kafka for example. In Mao II the comparison I make between the writer and the terrorist isn't necessarily mine but I find it interesting, even if I'm not sure I believe it. "The terrorist wins, the novelist loses." Is it true? The novelist probably loses anyway but in the 1980s I sensed the enormous impact of terrorism in the Middle East, as if, strangely, terrorism had become the world's main plot. Narratives, stories, now were created by these people, no longer by writers.
Q: In relation to your own thoughts about the novel, the writer Bill Gray, a character in Mao II says, "Do you know why I believe in the novel? It's a democratic cry." Could you comment on that?
DD: I think the novel differs from other forms of writing that in the sense that just about anyone is capable of writing a novel. There is something profoundly welcoming about the novel form that renders it accessible to almost everybody, at least to those who have a basic education. And that novel can be very powerful. But I don't believe that the same person could also write a poem or a story that you would want to read... It's what Bill Gray is talking about when he refers to a ‘democratic cry.' And it's one of the rare times where I agree with him.
Q: You wanted to be a filmmaker before becoming a writer and you have said that European and Asian cinemas of the 1960s have influenced you ...
DD: Let's say that European and Asian cinemas of the 1960s shaped the way I think and feel about things. At that time I was living in New York, I didn't have much money, didn't have much work, I was living in one room ... I was a man in a small room. And I went to the movies a lot, watching Bergman, Antonioni, Godard. When I was little, in the Bronx, I didn't go to the cinema and I didn't think of the American films I saw as works of art. Perhaps, in an indirect way, cinema allowed me to become a writer. In Americana, my first novel, the main character ends his journey with a camera on his shoulder, making home movies. There's a phrase in a Godard movie that refers to the young people of 1968, "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola." In Americana a character refers to the "children of Godard and Coca-Cola."
Q: In Cosmopolis the big traffic jam recalls Godard's Week-End.
DD: That's a great film sequence, about which Norman Mailer has written a wonderful piece. But Week-End didn't influence me. What did influence me was sitting in a taxi in New York! That said, a long time ago I wrote a short story influenced by Godard's Week-End, called "The Uniforms".
Q: Do you think there was a moment at which American cinema became an art?
DD: Yes, that happened in the 1970s. It has to be said that that was the era when American cinema was most influenced by European cinema. But few of those filmmakers have survived. Nowadays it seems that filmmakers appear, make a film, and disappear. Or else a filmmaker makes a first film that is passionate and independent and finds him or herself absorbed by Hollywood and obliged to make shit.
Q: Are you aware that Coppola is planning a film called 'Megalopolis'?
DD: Yes, and I also know that when he discovered I was writing a book called Cosmopolis he was furious. It's true: it was talked about in the newspapers ...