Libra

As a side note to this morning’s piece about Travis Bickle, I want to present another voice of alienation, this one also “partly fact, partly fiction.” I’ll begin with the factual:

Happiness is not based on oneself, it does not consist of a small home, of taking and getting. Happiness is taking part in the struggle, where there is no borderline between one’s own personal world, and the world in general.

That sounds a bit like Bickle (but is also in contrast to his “person like other people” monologue.) In fact it’s a real life quote from Lee Harvey Oswald, in a letter to his brother. It is also the epigram of Don DeLillo’s novel about Oswald entitled “Libra.”

The impact that lone men of violence have on the world has been an obsession of DeLillo throughout his career. The lament behind it is this — why try, as an artist or thinker, to influence the world when people who harness and use destructive power end up making a much bigger impact? He shares this thought directly in his novel “Mao II:”

‘Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture,” says (DeLillo writer alter ego Bill) Gray. ”Now bomb makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness.”

What makes DeLillo a great writer is that he’s not content with an aphoristic conclusion like this, he wants to keep examining it. So he imagines how Oswald may not have been such a singular disruption of the world, but rather an extension of the books that influenced him:

He kept the Marxist books in his room, took them to the library for renewal, carried them back home. He let classmates read the titles if they were curious, just to see their silly faces crinkle up, but he didn’t show the books to his mother. The books were private, like something you find and hide, some lucky piece that contains the secret of who you are. The books themselves were secret. Forbidden and hard to read. They altered the room, charged it with meaning.

This excerpt has a slightly different feel 30 years later because so much of what we read comes to us not in books that alter a room, but inside technology that has overwhelmed our consciousness. This is a thought more akin to Thomas Pynchon than DeLillo, but perhaps the writer/artist is equally threatened today by the device makers who compete not only for consumer dollars, but the gateways to social acceptance and status.

This doesn’t detract from DeLillo’s message, it raises the stakes. The writer in our age has been rebranded, as blandly as possible, as a communicator, whose skills are now prized above any thinking that might be brought to light because of them. That is the great dichotomy of technology — how to balance the hedonistic rewards of the new, which have assumed an oddly ethereal quality, with the forever earth bound demands of the soul.

But returning to that quote, if not in the books that sit on our shelves, what now “contains the secret of who you are”? Is it even acceptable anymore to harbor such secrets or are we expected to be fully disclosing of our desires, alliances and dream self images?

Those secrets inevitably manifest in all people regardless of the pervasiveness of masks meant to hide them from us. Social media may appear to reveal all about all, but the reality is that everyone now recognizes that these personae are just driving the secrets deeper, perhaps to a place where individuals no longer recognize them.

I believe the pandemic is summoning these dark impulses in a way that we have not fully experienced yet. Right now we are in an inward turn where people are shortening their circles of trust and raising new mental suspicions about everyone else. The fear of catching COVID-19 from those others could either recede or morph into new fears.

If we are very lucky, artist and thinkers will notice this and put it before our eyes so we can remember what we’ve lost and try to adapt. But it’s more likely that the dark forces, the fears, paranoia and dark impulses, will find form in the alienated individuals DeLillo writes about and the horror unleashed by them will drive us even further into our holes.

I hope I’m wrong about this.

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