Assignment 2: Reflections on feedback

 

 

I must say that my tutor’s feedback on Assignment 2 has been a real eye-opener as to the need to follow and track down alternative or new directions and developments when tackling an analysis, and in Dr. Belshaw’s words ‘to look for interesting problems or contradictions and push them as far as they will go.’ Not easy to do but a pointer to a method of working.

As a telling example of how this could be done, or at least this is my interpretation, the feedback offers me a rich chain of ideas that could be developed, sort of offsprings born from my analysis in a kind of ping-pong game that could continue in several ways and modes.

These are ideas that are perhaps implicit in my analysis but not fully explored. I shall try to bring them into my text of my revised version by mentioning them as directions that might be further explored. Here is the chain:

white noise as masking ambient sounds in the same way that possessions mask mortality, leading to:

if possessions mask mortality the story itself can be viewed as a memento mori or vanitas, leading to:

the story as memento mori makes us think of the Dutch still life which analogously ‘represents possessions as a kind of inventory on display’, leading to:

an analogy between the ‘meticulous attention to detail’ of the Dutch and DeLillo’s precisely descriptive and visual writing, leading to:

DeLillo’s precious language can be considered as a ‘white noise’ that can mask the fear of death.

To improve the analysis, my tutor also invites me to consider how the sounds of words could be dealt with ‘along with the discussion of subject matter’ to bring them in closer connection with content. A very good suggestion that I am certainly going to implement during the final review of my text.

To further extend the research, Dr. Belshaw has suggested me to read Thomas Hardy’s poem In Wind and Rain as a poetic equivalent of White Noise. I have read the poem which I did not know – I studied in Italy, and I see a lot of connections with later parts of DeLillo’s book and his beautiful family dialogues. Another track to follow.

In his feedback on my reflective commentary Dr. Belshaw cites an essay by Wolfgang Kemp as a useful read to extend my grasp of the role of the reader (or the viewer) and draw parallels between the verbal and the visual. It is a dense essay on reception aesthetics – pivoting around the concept of the implicit beholder and how the work structures itself in order to be approached and there are several points that deserve close attention. For the time being I focused on the chapter of the ‘Forms of Address’ which helped me during my semiotic analysis of Las Meninas (Assignment 3).

 
Bibliography

Kemp, Wolfang (1998) ‘The Work of Art and Its Beholder The Methodology of the Aesthetic of Reception’ in Cheetham, Mark A. (ed.): The subjects of art history : historical objects in contemporary perspectives, Cambridge 1998, pages 180-196 [online] At: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/artdok/1916/1/Kemp_The_work_of_art_and_its_beholder_1998.pdf (Accessed 27/03/2017)

Hardy, Thomas ‘During Wind and Rain’ in The Longman Anthology of Poetry. (Pearson, 2006)  At: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/52314 (Accessed 27/03/2017)

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Assignment 2: Reflective Commentary

I have always loved reading and was already familiar to some extent with the notion of creative writing but the concept of reading creatively is fundamentally new to me and this part of the course has been important to put it in focus. After being introduced to the reader-response theory I now see the word ‘creative’, so far a rather general term with a vague meaning, under a different and more precise light. I find particularly stimulating the idea of a living and evolving relationship among authors, texts and readers and of a real exchange and influence in all directions.

Initially, when I started concentrating on this part, I was considering that of the reader a basically passive role and the reader as someone standing on the recipient side, as I said in my beginning post Reasons to read, reasons to write. My perspective has certainly changed. In this respect also the experience of close reading has been very interesting and has activated in me a different kind of response as against what I used to have back in high school when confronted with construing texts in more traditional ways, based on studying authors and context first and only afterwards interpreting their texts as if from a distance. It was study first and analysing later, here the process has been reversed, from what I understand of it.

All this made me also consider how connected all creative activities fundamentally are and how similar the role of the reader of a text is to that of the visitor of an art exhibition or of a member of the public of a film or theatrical performance, and conversely how much writers, visual artists, performers have in common and share.

When I knew lately that the literature Nobel prize had been assigned to Bob Dylan my first thought was: notwithstanding all the debates if this was a right or a wrong choice the fact is that probably fifty years ago nobody would have thought to give this award to a songwriter, and to draw a parallel between Dylan and ancient poets and performers like Homer and Sappho. As such I believe it was a very destabilising, postmodern decision. Speaking in ‘performative’ terms, Dylan’s art songs have been considered ‘speech acts’ that have a real influence on the world.

I had all these thoughts at the back of my mind as I was doing my close reading of Don DeLillo’s extract from White Noise. What I tried to do was to stay as close to the text as I was able as a reader, to ‘crawl’ on it to use one word from the extract, do my utmost to not be intimidated by a celebrated novel by a very influential author, and to look at its words only, forgetting the rest. I also made an effort to remain aware of myself and my circumstances, feelings, environment as a reader and of how these were being mirrored back into my close reading. I start to see that I could reread it perhaps in one year time and possibly write very different things. All in all I could say that if I started this course as a modernist I’m getting postmodernist along the way!

(538 words)

 

 

Assignment 2: Close reading of an extract from White Noise (1985) by Don DeLillo

The roofs of the station wagons were loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, stationery and books, sheets, pillows, quilts; with rolled-up rugs and sleeping bags; with bicycles, skis, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts. As cars slowed to a crawl and stopped, students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the objects inside; the stereo sets, radios, personal computers; small refrigerators and table ranges; the cartons of phonograph records and cassettes; the hairdryers and styling irons; the tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows; the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags—onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum Dum Pops, the Mystic Mints.

I’ve witnessed this spectacle every September for twenty-one years. It is a brilliant event, invariably. The students greet each other with comic cries and gestures of sodden collapse. Their summer has been bloated with criminal pleasures, as always. The parents stand sun-dazed near their automobiles, seeing images of themselves in every direction. The conscientious suntans. The well-made faces and wry looks. They feel a sense of renewal, of communal recognition. The women crisp and alert, in diet trim, knowing people’s names. Their husbands content to measure out the time, distant but ungrudging, accomplished in parenthood, something about them suggesting massive insurance coverage.

(DeLillo, 1985)

 

I chose to study an extract from the first Chapter of White Noise, an important novel published by Don DeLillo in 1985, because I think that this work tackles the major course themes of time and place in ways that are connected with contemporary concerns about the future of humanity and with our anxieties about the state of the environment and the Earth. In this regard I also see a relationship between this text and The Road extract that I have just examined.

I shall try to show how all these themes are expressed in the text through the narrator voice, the choice of language and tone, the setting and its details, and how the initial paragraphs introduce the reader to them.

The beginning two paragraphs are like the opening of a stage or the first panoramic view of a film. Somebody, we still do not know who, is talking and depicting the scene he or she has in front and we are dragged into it through these eyes. The general tone is detached, as if removed, somewhat ironic. This somebody is a witness who does not seem involved in what is happening, is an observer who does not belong to the group on which he casts a sort of entomological look. He has the same distant look on things in the first paragraph as he has on people in the second paragraph, as if they too were objects to be examined, dissected and judged, not as individuals but as an anthropological phenomenon. The voice is dry, evaluating, even sarcastic.

The effect on the reader of these cadenced, fragmented sentences, short and long, made up of rhythmic lists of objects – stuff, a lot of stuff – and of precise and razor-cut collective descriptions, is wonderfully visual, like well applied strokes of a paintbrush. As we read, our eyes see all these things individually come to life, one after the other, we see these students, their mothers and their fathers, their attitudes, their faces, their movements. These are sentences that are true speech acts, constructed by carefully chosen words that make a world in a performative sense (Loxley, 2006) and generate powerful and very physical images.

Don DeLillo makes a masterful and even voluptuous but always controlled use of language – in perfect correspondence to content. The list of things in the first paragraph is a delicious succession of well studied rhythmic and balanced groups of words, couplets and triplets of objects: ‘stationary and books’, ‘rugs and sleeping bags’, and ‘sheets, pillows, quilts’, ‘the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices’. Sound repetitions reiterate and reinforce the almost oppressive quality of this pile of material goods: alliteration like in ‘boxes of blankets’, ‘Mystic mints’, assonance as in ‘boots and shoes’, ‘fruit chews’, and consonance as in ‘hockey and lacrosse sticks’, ‘bows and arrows’ are just some examples. Sometimes words seem to be used to satisfy rhythmic reasons as in ‘inflated rafts’, where the word ‘inflated’ was possibly added to create a balanced sentence: ‘with bicycles, skis, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts’.

In some cases images are reinforced by the use of onomatopoeian words: ‘cars slowed to a crawl’, women are ‘crisp and alert’. The ready and swift movements of the women stand in stark contrast to the inertia of the men, suggested by the lengthy, prolonged cadence and by the repeated dull ‘d’ and ‘t’ sounds: ‘Their husbands content to measure out the time, distant but ungrudging, accomplished in parenthood’. On the contrary, the choice of the sound ‘r’ referred to the students creates a feeling of mechanical and perhaps overdone agility and youthfulness – ‘students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the objects inside’.

But who is speaking? Who is creating this world together with the reader? Why this detachment, this disenchantment with things and people? The narrator speaks in the first person point of view and seems to have strong opinions, to be biased, I would say it is an unreliable narrator who wants to influence the reader, offer a vision. But so far this voice is not saying much personal, we are just pulled into the scene as witnesses and made curious about what is happening next.

An enormous mass of things are removed by the students returning to college from the fully loaded station wagons, and the narrator seems to delight in enumerating them to the fullest, to not forget anything. These objects are there to cover every possible circumstance or need of life, as if to take everything into account, to have all under control. This necessity to control, to prevent every possible occurrence is expressed in many ways, insisted upon, reiterated: the suitcases are ‘carefully secured’, the students bring along both ‘light and heavy clothing, ‘the controlled substances, the birth control pills’. The mothers have ‘conscientious suntans’, ‘well-made faces’, the men have a ‘massive insurance coverage’. In the compulsive need of control, of tidiness, of coverage there is I think a first hint of what shall be the fundamental theme of the novel: the fear of death.

The great absent is nature: all this colossal amount of stuff is man-made, manufactured, and speaks of a materially advanced society. Even foods are synthetic, identified only by their brand names, not really nutritious. People too have artificial and constructed looks, attitudes and movements: The students ‘greet each other with comic cries and gestures of sodden collapse’, the women are ‘in diet trim’. The only natural presence is the sun which, however, is only implicitly mentioned as having on people a numbing effect, not a nurturing invigorating one: ‘The parents stand sun-dazed near their automobiles’.

I think that the absence of nature is another great theme that emerges from the beginning of the novel. What the reader sees is a useless, void activity, as if these people, notwithstanding all their efforts and abundance of material goods, are animated only by an exhausted, wasted energy. The student summer has not been restful and refreshing, but ‘has been bloated with criminal pleasures’ and in this word, ‘bloated’, and in their ‘sodden collapse’ there is a taste of stupor and apathy echoed by the numbed unawareness of their ‘sun-dazed’ parents. Personal identities are fragmented and lost, in what appears to be a quintessentially postmodern way, and when they look around they only see ‘images of themselves in every direction’: not individuals, but reflections.

What they still do possess, though, is a sense of belonging, ‘They feel a sense of renewal, of communal recognition’. It is as if they had given up their individuality in exchange for reassurance and inclusion in a clan that shelters them from uncertainty, natural dangers and the unpredictability of life, surrounded as they are by all their possessions. And the need to belong to a group of like-minded people, to have a bulwark of objects protecting them as shields, speaks again of their fear of death. So perhaps the immoderate orgy of goods in which people indulge is not so much or not only an expression of their craving for material things but rather a protective girdle against the anguish of mortality, and similarly to the ‘white noise’ which soothes their (and our) ears those possessions appease their (and our) sense of fragility. At the same time though, tragically, those possessions act as a ‘memento mori’ in the same way as the exquisitely painted objects of a vanitas painting. And as a primitive tribe these affluent anguished people find some comfort in the annual September rite of return to college which acts as a substitute for the ancient rites of rebirth.

Like in The Road, the place and time are not specified, but inferred. The college is nameless and it could stand for any average modern American college, it is a sort of mythic college on a hill exactly as ‘the Road’ was an archetypical straight road crossing the emptiness of the central United States. The time is modern, not contemporary, as the reader can guess from the presence of ‘personal computers’, which remind of the Eighties, and the absence of mobile phones, otherwise the fathers, instead of being ‘content to measure out the time, distant but ungrudging’, would be obviously playing with them.

The grandiose, imposing futility of the event sets a scene for a looming tragedy: nature is unrecognized, it has been denied and submerged by man-made objects, crowds are obscurely frightened and at the same time obtusely unaware and keep together like primitive humans did confronted with unforeseeable dangers. Perhaps this is our world before The Road, before the end of civilization.

In an interview, DeLillo once soberly said: ‘I’m someone who writes sentences and paragraphs. I think of the sentence — not only what it shares but, in a sense, what it looks like’ (Nance, 2012) and in another: ‘I’m just translating the world around me in what seems to be straightforward terms … I’m not trying to manipulate reality. This is just what I see and hear’ (McCrum, 2010). And I think that in this initial extract from White Noise DeLillo has meticulously and masterfully done exactly that: like an consummate painter of still-lifes he has introduced his vision about our times and fears using his carefully crafted language as a high precision tool.

(1541 words)

 

Bibliography

DeLillo, D. (1985) White Noise [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.it (Accessed 18.12.2016)

Loxley, J. (2007) Performativity [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.it (Accessed 18.12.2016)

McCrum, R. (2010) ‘Don DeLillo: ‘I’m not trying to manipulate reality – this is what I see and hear” In: Theguardian:com 8.08.10 [online] At:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/aug/08/don-delillo-mccrum-interview (Accessed 2.01.17)

Nance, K. (2012) ‘Living in dangerous times’ In: articles.chicagotribune.com 12.10.12 [online] At: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-10-12/features/ct-prj-1014-don-delillo-20121012_1_mao-ii-angel-esmeralda-printers-row