A Different Kind of Delirium

Don DeLillo
Don DeLillo; drawing by John Springs

Having diagnosed a feeling or a situation or a place, an artist may be forever associated with it. We understand bureaucratic obfuscation that borders on terror, for example, in large part thanks to Kafka. A child’s face may have an uncanny resemblance to one in a Mary Cassatt painting, as if the artist had seen that particular face before you did. Many varieties of bourgeois ennui sometimes seem to have been invented (and not just depicted) by Chekhov. Graham Greene placed his own distinctive copyright on shabby little equatorial police states infused with self-pitying melancholy—Greeneland. When Wilde wrote in “The Decay of Lying” that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life,” he implied that many experiences, thanks to art, have already established themselves as clichés when a person arrives at them for the first time. By now, for an educated person, a fresh experience of the Kafkaesque may be rare. To cite another instance of belatedness: in middle age I drove across Utah, thinking that Monument Valley looked like a background for a John Ford movie, which indeed it had been, many times. The entire landscape was boring and exasperatingly familiar to me even though I had never actually been there before.

If you have read several books by Don DeLillo, sooner or later you will have a Don DeLillo moment. Mine occurred in May 2010, in the Museum of Modern Art, at the Marina Abramović exhibition “The Artist Is Present.” I was fascinated, but not by the particulars of her performance art, although they were interesting enough. Her manner of sitting utterly still for hours and staring at one volunteer after another positioned a few feet across from her compelled the attention of the crowd, as did the naked (and often jarringly beautiful), immobilized, blank-faced models and dancers who were also part of the exhibition.

What made me think of DeLillo at MoMA was not the art, however, but the spectators. They were all transfixed. They stared at Abramović and her collaborators as if the performers’ trance states were contagious. A kind of communal hypnosis seemed to be at work. I had never seen anything like it. On the day I was there, the usually noisy galleries had settled down into a low murmur, though I did hear nervous laughter coming from unhip oldsters. An intriguing collective project was going on, but no one seemed to know exactly what it was. I half-expected to spot DeLillo somewhere in the crowd, patiently watching the spectators who were watching the immobilized performers who, like pretty narcissists, were staring off into space at nothing. You could glance at anything, but your glance would never be acknowledged by anybody. Something importantly autistic was in the air.

Increasingly, DeLillo has turned his attention in his recent books to trance states that have little or no actual content but for that very reason have become…

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