Necessary Madness in Don DeLillo's White Noise: Becker's Twin Ontological Motives and the Quest for Symbolic Immortality in the Postmodern Age

Bassett, Jonathan F.
January 2009
PsyArt;2009, p1
Academic Journal
Literary Criticism
The present paper examines Don DeLillo's novel White Noise based on the psychological theories of Ernest Becker and Robert Jay Lifton. Becker argued that people flee existential anxiety through the twin ontological motives of blending in and standing out. The novel's protagonist, Jack Gladney, is plagued by thanatophobia because of his failed attempt to simultaneously pursue both motives in Hitler studies. In addition to death anxiety, another major theme of White Noise is the fragmentation of modern life due to media saturation. Lifton's work connects these themes by showing how the rapidity of changing knowledge in the postmodern age threatens to undermine the sense of symbolic immortality connecting the self to past and future. Lifton is more optimistic than Becker about the human capacity for abating existential anxiety. DeLillo hints at a similar optimism by illustrating the creative and malleable ways in which the Gladney children symbolically confront their mortality.


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