In chapter 14, Gladney describes his family’s response to watching disaster documentaries on television: “Heinrich was not sullen, I was not bored. Steffie, brought close to tears by a sitcom husband arguing with his wife, appeared totally absorbed in these documentary clips of calamity and death…Every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping” (p. 64).
When I first read this section, I immediately thought of my own experiences with televised real-life horrors. 9/11 came to mind, when I sat frozen in front of the TV set in shock, watching the flames billow from the Twin Towers as they tottered and collapsed. I distinctly remember two dichotomous and silmutaneous thought processes as I watched the footage being replayed countless times. Part of me, the logically oriented part, registered fear, horror, and shock at the unbelievable event. The thing was, underneath that, coursed a whole other sensation that, though I attempted to suppress it, nonetheless, held fast. It was hard for me to truly grasp the reality of the disaster. It just all seemed so detached from me, from my reality and existence. Even the Pentagon situation felt far removed, almost fictional, almost like something we were all going to talk about in hushed tones with grave looks, while we all really just felt like it was something to talk about. As DeLillo writes, “It is when death is rendered graphically, is televised so to speak, that you sense an eerie separation between your condition and yourself” (p. 142).
The experience of those people who actually witnessed the disasters with their naked eye, who deeply felt the impact of the devastation in the loss of loved ones, were undoubtedly keenly aware of the tangible reality that sprawled before their eyes and left aftershocks of pain and grief echoing through their lives for years to come. I think for most people that would be the case. Indeed, we see this in the second part of White Noise, when Gladney and his family experience the airborne toxic event, in all the family members–except Heinrich. Rather than respond to this disaster in a way that would indicate he is aware that he is in the midst of the mayhem, Heinrich exhibits a disturbing “enthusiasm for runaway calamity,” discussion the technical details of the toxic chemicals and their effects on the community without any apparent realization that the community includes him.
In class this week, Professor Sample suggested that Heinrich is a representation of postmodern ideology, a sort of postmodern poster child. Heinrich’s detached attitude towards death and disaster, even in his own life, appears to confirm this interpretation. But if this is the case, I couldn’t help wondering what that says about me. Granted, I would sincerely hope my response in the midst of such an experience wouldn’t mirror Heinrich’s, but it got me wondering how much we really do operate and respond this way to catastrophic events. And it got me wondering how much of it has to do with this idea of a disconnect between death and self through graphic rendering.