An Analysis of MAO II (Don DeLillo) by Joseph Suglia
Exactly ten years before the terrorist assaults on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Don DeLillo’s Mao II (1991) compared the act of writing with the act of terrorism. As terrorists, writers once had the power to destabilize perceptions of the world. They unsettled one’s customary responses to things and opened up the possibility of new thoughts and impressions. By giving ordinary things extraordinary names, literary language had the power to radically transform one’s relationship to the world. Today, however, what could be more harmless than a novel? A novel is insignificant in comparison with the explosive force of terrorist initiatives. Literature is dead, and the news is the new means of perceptual disorganization.
The only way that literature can be effective in a culture of terror is by absorbing the gestures of terror. In DeLillo’s novel, literature, quite literally, terrorizes. Legendary novelist Bill Gray is blackmailed by a Maoist Lebanese political organization to act as its spokesperson. Although literature has lost its power to alter human perception, the image of the author exerts a certain authority. For this reason, Gray’s simulacrum will be used to promote the causes of Lebanese nationalism. The writer becomes a reporter, a mediator of images that stimulate fear.
As if to acknowledge that literature is absorbed by the culture of the image, Mao II takes the form of a “picture-book.” On the one hand, its various scenes have the “feel” of a documentary and resemble the news in printed form; there is, for example, an extraordinary “documentary”-like moment in which Brita and Karen watch Khomeini’s funeral on television and witness endless crowds simulating paroxysms of grief. On the other hand, each section of the book is segmented by actual photographs: masses of Chinese citizens gathered before Mao Zedong; a preordained marriage ceremony at Yankee stadium; a crowd of people crushed against a steel fence by the rampaging stampede at the 15 April 1989 soccer game in Sheffield, England; Khomeini’s portrait; children in the trenches of war-torn Beirut. All of this serves to reinforce the book’s thesis that the book is dead. Dead or swallowed by an infinite swarm of technically reproducible images.
The author of a novel about terrorism, Martin Amis incorrectly categorized Mao II as a “postmodernist” work. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the book traces the limits of postmodernism by opposing the transformation of words into images. The novel links the tyranny of images with the tyranny of terror–hence the title, which is taken from one of Andy Warhol’s mass-reproductions of Mao Zedong’s portrait. By aligning the order of images with the order of terror, the book condemns both. Of course, one of the characters, George Haddad, representative of the Lebanese terrorist group and Gray’s interlocutor, claims that terrorism has not been incorporated and subsumed by the culture of the image: “Only the terrorist stands outside” . By saying this, Hadded attempts to identify the terrorist with those who are outside of mainstream culture. But the exact opposite is the case–just because Haddad makes this claim does not mean that “DeLillo” agrees with him. Terrorists need technically reproducible images in order to terrorize. Without television and the massive circulation of sound-bytes and images that it empowers, the efforts of terrorism would be ineffective. By contrast, literature is, strictly speaking, invisible: it is constituted by hints, clues, gestures, and ambiguities. In a culture in which terror is spread through images, literature is doomed to failure: “What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous” . American culture is a culture that valorizes the obvious–and for this reason, terrorism, which exploits the obvious, has a firm hold on the American sensibility. Everything must be visualized, everything must be known, everything must be self-evident, everything must be confessed. There is no place for literary opacity in a culture that values transparency above all else: “Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated” .
And yet terrorists are also incorporated. One must no longer imagine that terrorists are “Others” who infiltrate a domestic territory. Terrorists do not attack “us” by way of an intervention or an incursion from the outside. Terrorism, according to the logic of Mao II, inhabits the very culture that it pretends to assail. All writers are terrorists and “half murderers” –and Gray is no exception. As the other “dictators” mentioned in the novel–Khomeini, Mao, and Moon–Bill recedes into an exile that would precede his accession to power and intensify his influence. He disguises his past and changes his name (from “Willard Skansey, Jr.”) in order to de-expose himself. His openness–the media exposure to which he “submits”–is the most devious form of concealment.
How else can an author survive in a culture of terror except by immersing him-/herself in an ever-proliferating sea of images? Even before his “proselytization,” Gray allows himself to be photographed by the enigmatic Brita. As the subject of a photograph, he yearns to obtain power through inaccessibility: “The deeper I pass into death, the more powerful my picture becomes” . By retreating into the illuminated darkness of the image (like Pynchon, like Blanchot, like Salinger), the writer occupies a sacred space once reserved solely for godhood. Only when the subject is dead can his or her image have any meaning. Authors kill themselves by permitting themselves to be visualized. The photograph is the death mask of the author.
Dr. Joseph Suglia