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WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!

July 17, 2010

Yesterday I went to the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, which had an exhibition on memento mori art. Though the pieces on display were beautiful and captivating, representing how different world cultures react to the eventuality of death, one of my favorite parts of the exhibit was its title, a floor-to-ceiling sign with white block lettering on a black background that simply read “REMEMBER THAT YOU WILL DIE.” The sign beautifully pulled together the idea (and literal meaning) of memento mori in a visually arresting way, and immediately reminded me of one of my favorite passages of Don DeLillo’s Underworld:

We’re all gonna die!”

This cracked him up. He bent from the waist laughing and seemed to be using the mike as a geiger counter, waving it over the floorboards.

[…]

And the audience sat there thinking, How real can the crisis be if we’re sitting in a club on Santa Monic Boulevard going ha ha ha.

“We’re all gonna die!”

Lenny loves the postexistential bent of this line. In his giddy shriek the audience can hear the obliteration of the idea of uniqueness and free choice. They can hear the replacement of human isolation by massive and unvaried ruin…

[…]

Lenny bent his knees and spread both arms wide, his mouth stretched in a rictus of gaped and grinning terror.

“We’re all gonna die!”

He loved this line so much that it was a little unnerving, especially in DeeAnn’s voice, which could shatter a urinal at fifty feet. An hour later, after all the bits, the scatological asides, the improvised voices, it was this isolated line that stayed in people’s minds when they went to their cars and drove home to Westwood or Brentwood or wherever, or roamed the freeways for half the night because they knew they wouldn’t be able to sleep and what better place to imagine the flash and burst, where else would they go to rehearse the end of history, or actually see it–this was the meaning of the freeways and always had been and they’d always known it at some unsounded level. And so they drove half the night, at first morose and then angry and then fatalistic and then plain shaking scared, chests tight with the knowledge of how little it would take to make the thing happen–the first night on earth when the Unthinkable crept up over the horizon line and waited in an animal squat, and all the time they drove they heard the keening of that undisguisable Jewish voice repeating the line that had made them bust their guts laughing, astonishingly, only a few hours earlier. (506-8)

The line “We’re all gonna die!” is repeatedly screamed by the “infamous sick comic, Lenny Bruce” (504) in this episodic fragment in Part 5 of DeLillo’s novel. Part 5 is called “Better Things for Better Living through Chemistry” (Selected Fragments Public and Private in the 1950s and 1960s), and consists of many narrative fragments that collectively evoke Cold War culture and thought; the fragment at hand, for example, is dated October 22, 1962, the first day of the Cuban Missile Crisis. This episode, and several others that follow, track the fictionalized Lenny Bruce’s experimentation with morbid humor in the face of JFK’s pronouncement that Cuba is had essentially become a missile base for the Soviet Union, and that the potential of an all-out nuclear war had been brought to America’s doorstep.

These fears, of course, are not made explicit in the chapter; DeLillo relies on his audiences’ understanding of the various historical clues he plants. What he does do, however, is offer an incredibly well-developed and subtle look at how humans react in the face of catastrophe. He develops a paradox with the insistent repetition of Lenny’s prophecy of death: the audience is reminded of their fears, yet assuaged of them; they are powerless to do anything, yet powerful in their ability to laugh; and that disaster feels terrifyingly imminent, yet strangely distant. Each time Lenny repeats the line, his audience is reminded of the crisis and the historical moment they are in, yet with each repetition comes the reassurance that it has been said before (functioning very much like a mushroom cloud, I suspect). DeLillo frequently experiments with repetition in Underworld, but here it surpasses narratological experimentation to become a critical aspect of the phenomenon he describes. Each time Lenny says “We’re all gonna die!” (or rather, screams it in a falsetto) he makes different realizations: why it is such an appropriate part of his standup routine, how he feels screaming it, and why he has come to love it. In a later fragment that features another one of his comedy performances, he has perhaps his most comprehensive epiphany about the line:

“We’re all gonna die!”

Yes, he loved saying this, crying it out, it was wonderfully refreshing, it purified his fear and made it public at the same time–it was weak and sick and cowardly and powerless and pathetic and also noble somehow, a long, loud and feelingly high-pitched cry of grief and pain that had an element of sweet defiance. (547)

Lenny’s elegant summary closely mirrors my findings in my Spring JP about the idea of the “proleptic ruin” in Gravity’s Rainbow. The idea that the act of crying out in the face of probable death can be simultaneously weak and noble, powerless and empowering, confirming and dismissive, is exactly what I found in Pynchon’s writing, albeit in a different form. Almost eerily, in the first passage above, DeLillo writes that the audience “can hear the replacement of human isolation by massive and unvaried ruin.” I can’t help but have a gut feeling that the “ruin” described here has something to do with my idea, about how eschatology assumes a special form in the face of the nuke. I’m interested to see how and whether the idea of the “proleptic ruin” I developed to describe Pynchon’s novel can be mapped onto DeLillo’s text here. As dangerous as it might be to extrapolate an argument that was formed about one particular writer and novel, I think that the paradoxes I’ve located in both are unmistakably similar.

These paradoxes, moreover, may be why I found the display at the Rubin Museum of Art so fascinating and magnetic. Much like the audiences in DeLillo’s novel, who can’t seem to forget the “line that had made them bust their guts laughing, astonishingly, only a few hours earlier” (508), I was thinking about the sign that silently screamed “REMEMBER THAT YOU WILL DIE” long after I had left the exhibit.

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