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"More Advanced the Deeper We Dig": Ratner's Star

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 45, Number 3, Fall 1999
pp. 600-620 | 10.1353/mfs.1999.0048

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Modern Fiction Studies 45.3 (1999) 600-620

I. Postmodern Knowledge

Illusion, Don DeLillo suggests in Ratner's Star, dogs all scientific aspirations to objectivity. Attempting to decode a message ostensibly from the celestial body named in the title, the scientific community imagined by DeLillo eventually discovers that the cryptic transmission in fact emanates from the earth, from an ancient civilization wholly unknown to history and archaeology. This discovery of a message that encodes the transmitting self becomes emblematic of all systems of analysis and thought. DeLillo characterizes the vaunted detachment of science as, to borrow a phrase from Sir Thomas Browne, "a dream and folly of expectation" (282). He suggests, too, that no matter how frequently scientists remind themselves of Gödel's theorem (that all systems falter in the ultimate lability of their postulates), they merely struggle, Laocoöns of the Enlightenment, in the toils of subjectivity.

DeLillo's premise will be appreciated by anyone who may have experienced difficulty with the microscope in introductory biology. Squinting through the eyepiece, one is duly thrilled to observe the promised paramecium, with its effulgent nucleus and gently splayed cilia. But then recognition dawns: the image in the eye of the beholder is in fact the eye of the beholder, caught in the mirror designed to reflect light into the apparatus. Such an experience lodges in the mind as a parable of perception: perhaps human intelligence always finds what it wants to find, some image of itself. In Ratner's Star the parable grows to epic length, as DeLillo examines the claims of mathematics to be "what the world is when we subtract our own perceptions" (432). At the same time, the author refracts and scrutinizes almost the full spectrum of scientific knowledge, asking, in effect, whether the sciences that mathematics seems to sanction or enable -- physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology -- really manage any greater insight into the human condition than do such "soft" sciences as psychology, linguistics, and archaeology. Indeed, is there really a difference, asks DeLillo, between the rationalism of mathematics and hard science, on the one hand, and, on the other, the various forms of systematic irrationalism with which humanity has always sought to negotiate the unseen?

The author devotes the first half of Ratner's Star to an entertaining survey of the eccentric geniuses -- they include thirty-two Nobel laureates -- in residence at the vast think tank called Field Experiment Number One. Little in the way of plot development occurs, but this static quality signals the eventual revelation regarding the star message: it originates from earth -- not from "out there." DeLillo's protagonist and viewpoint character in this first part (and sporadically in the second, concluding part) is fourteen-year-old Billy Twillig, a recent recipient of the Nobel Prize in mathematics. Comically passive, Billy functions as the screen on which, one after another, the denizens of Field Experiment Number One shadowgraph obsessions that range from the plausible to the absurd. Billy encounters twelve or so staff members and some forty-five of his fellow researchers -- with such droll names as Viverrine Gentian, U. F. O. Schwarz, Rahda Hamadryad, Timur Nüt, Shirl Trumpy, Othmar Poebbels, Desilu Espy, Siba Isten-Esru, Orang Mohole, Cheops Feeley, and Schlomo Glottle.

The scientists air one extravagant but intellectually islanded premise after another. Mimsy Mope Grimmer, "an expert on infantile sexuality" (29), wants to discuss Billy's "genital organization" (35). A man named D'Arco investigates "stage-four-sleep," in which "you connect with your own racial history" (264). Father Verbene, an old Jesuit, studies the "semifluid secretions" of red ants. The "secretions teach us that pattern, pattern, pattern is the foundational element by which the creatures of the physical world reveal a perfect working model of the divine ideal" (157-58). Unfortunately, one descries no such pattern in the multifarious research going on at Field Experiment Number One. Although every character has a specialization, a theory, and a jargon, no overarching system integrates the various technologies of knowing. Indeed, part of the research here involves a committee's attempt "to define the word 'science,'" but the proposed definition, as committee member Cyril Kyriakos informs Billy, remains incomplete at "some five hundred...


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