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  • Libra and the Historical Sublime
  • Stephen Bernstein

Aside from their humor, Don DeLillo’s novels are noted almost as frequently for their brilliant terror, manifested as a frisson at the core of contemporary existence. Frank Lentricchia comments on DeLillo’s “yoking together terror and wild humor as the essential tone of contemporary America” (“American” 2), while Arnold Weinstein observes that “one is tempted to posit terror itself as the ground for the psyche in DeLillo, an indwelling creatural horror that underlies all the codes and systems” (294). The terror is not simply the terrorism with which DeLillo is almost obsessively concerned, but also that of a sublime dimension of experience. Again and again DeLillo’s characters are faced with the inexplicability of events and the giddy suspicion, terrifying in its eventual impact, that a darker force determines reality.

The sublime appears in DeLillo’s fiction in several forms. As John Frow has shown, White Noise’s airborne toxic event and the sunsets it subsequently influences trigger a representational inadequacy on the part of their viewers. Jack Gladney wonders why he should try to describe what the sunsets have become. This is not the eighteenth-century sublime of Kant or Burke, however, but one more specifically postmodern: “the inadequacy of representation comes not because of the transcendental or uncanny nature of the object but because of the multiplicity of prior representations” (176). The sublime of belatedness Frow formulates does not exhaust DeLillo’s excursions into the category; Michael W. Messmer reveals an “activist (Kantian) sublime” (410) in White Noise which centers on the ability of the Gladneys to respond to the terrifying sublimity of the airborne toxic event, to question the gains of science if they produce such aberrations.

In Libra DeLillo returns to the more familiar Kantian sublimes of magnitude and ineffability. For Kant the sublime “is to be found in an object even devoid of form, so far as it immediately involves, or else by its presence provokes, a representation of limitlessness, yet with a super-added thought of its totality” (90). The result for the observer is an emotion “dead earnest in the affairs of the imagination . . .a negative pleasure” (91). Kant’s “mathematical” sublime is rooted in cognition, being that “in comparison with which all else is small”(97), while his “dynamically” sublime appeals more to imagination, raising it “to a presentation of those cases in which the mind can make itself sensible of the appropriate sublimity of the sphere of its own being, even above nature” (111–12). DeLillo’s sublime will not share the more transcendental aspects of this model, as his characters are predictably limited, from the postromantic vantage of the 1950s and 1960s, in their ability to appreciate the sublimity of the imagination’s sphere.

For Kant “One who is in a state of fear . . . flees from the sight of an object filling him with dread; and it is impossible to take delight in terror that is seriously entertained” (110). Containing as it does the account of terror which is largely absent from Kant’s, Burke’s model is similarly relevant to DeLillo. While DeLillo’s readers may have the appropriate distance from his novels’ terror to appreciate the sublimity of his depiction of a culture about to spin out of orbit, his characters do not. Thus they are more helpfully considered in the Burkean model, which holds that “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger . . .whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime” (39); the imaginative response to the sublime, then, “is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror” (57). What we will see in Libra is a hybrid combination of Kant and Burke, a sublime which is manifested through magnitude and ineffability, exhausting the powers of enumeration or speech to give any representational account of it. At the same time this sublime will arouse a powerful terror, the terror so frequently noted in DeLillo’s work which gestures frantically toward apocalypse...

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