Don DeLillo, Ghassan Kanafani, and the coronavirus

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While people are isolated across the globe from a pandemic, in Palestine we are under lockdown from both COVID-19 and Israel. In Gaza, staying at home leads to some existential questions and deep soul searching. The last time we were trapped in our house was during war, where we experienced the trauma of three wars in six years. With time to reflect, I am tempted to cross that invisible thin line separating fiction from reality. The real world of occupation, blockade, apartheid, settler-colonialism, and coronavirus on the one hand, and on the other, the imaginary world of my favorite authors.

I am interested in the concept of the alienation of the modern subject/individual—in both postmodern and postcolonial worlds—and the question of death, as a persistent motif dominating literary works produced in them. That is to say, alienation and death, within this context are inseparable. Since alienation is the inevitable product of the logic of the capitalist market and colonialism, it becomes clear, then, why there is a connection between alienation and (post)modern consumerism and between death and the dynamic meaning of life in a post-colonial world.

One of my favorite postmodern—albeit realistic—novels is Don DeLillo’s White Noise where the meaning of life in a late-capitalist world is spelled out by one character: “Here we don’t die. We shop. But the difference is less marked than you think.”

The protagonist, an academic like me, gets exposed to the toxin of an “airborne toxic event,” which implants a time-released death in the form of a “nebulous mass” in his body. The “nebulous mass” to me, an academic living in besieged Gaza, is a metaphor for occupation and apartheid, but with the outbreak of the coronavirus, the thin line between the novel and our world has collapsed. There is, however, a conceptual difference between death in that fictional, postmodern world and my (post)colonial one. There, the grand narrative seems to have disappeared, whereas here we are fighting for a cause, namely freedom from occupation and settler-colonialism. “There,” there is a mechanical approach to life and death; one that ultimately leads to alienation.  One character’s theorization of death recognizes this existential fact:

In cities no one notices specific dying. Dying is a quality of the air. It’s everywhere and nowhere. Men shout as they die, to be noticed, remembered for a second or two . . . In a town … people notice dying better. The dead have faces, automobiles. If you don’t know a name, you know a street name, a dog’s name . . . You know a couple of useless things about a person that become major facts of identification and cosmic placement when he dies suddenly, after a short illness, in his own bed, with a comforter and matching pillows, on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, feverish, a little congested in the sinuses and chest, thinking about his dry cleaning.

The specificity of dying in towns as described by one character is still, ironically, related to what the dier thinks about while dying, e.g. dry cleaning. The loss of the meaning of death, as a signified, in big cities, is what is lamented; however, the meaning given to death in towns does not transcend a trivial activity, i.e. dry cleaning.

I am also a fan of the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani. And my favorite fiction is the highly acclaimed novella All That’s Left to You. Like us nowadays, the question of death with which all the characters in the novel are concerned leads to more detailed existential sub-questions: What is death? Why do (wo)men have a fear of death? How can one get rid of it? And–more importantly–is death the completion of life despite their apparent antithetical relationship? If ideology is considered to be our understanding of the life we live, it follows, then, that it includes our understanding of death. That is, with one’s ideological orientation, one can confront the fear of death. Within this relational context, death and ideology are interrelated in such a way that one cannot avoid asking the same questions about death as about life, questions that appear and disappear throughout the reading process. Since both fictions, DeLillo’s and Kanafani’s, are presented as their characters’ consciousness and since their consciousness is haunted with the awareness and fear of death, it follows, then, that both fictions are (about) death–or rather haunted with the fear and consciousness of death. By the same token, while “White Noise” is about the (post)modern American world, a world that is haunted with death, and “All That’s Left to You” is about the birth of the new Palestinian. It follows that the question posed for the characters of these two fictions and thus for us, readers, is, as Edward Said would put it, “not whether to be but how to be.”

Louis Althusser’s definition of ideology is a good starting point in formulating some of the answers to the questions of ideology and death: “it is not their real conditions of existence, their real world, that ‘men’ ‘represent to themselves’ in ideology, but above all it is their relation to those conditions of existence which is represented to them there.” What is, then, represented in ideology is the imaginary relations of ‘subjects’/individuals to the real relations in which they live. Hence their understanding of their existence and death relies heavily on their representations of the imaginary version of these relations.

Both fictions are haunted by the question of how to avoid meaningless death. Or rather how to fill this “emptiness” (DeLillo) and lighten this “darkness” (Kanafani)? To reject them is to reject what follows them, i.e. MasterCard, and American Express in the case of White Noise, and settler-colonialism and ethnic cleansing in the case of All That’s Left to You. Put differently, it is to reject the conditions which have shaped them, and to defy the circumstances in which individuals are denied agency. Consciousness of death requires a confrontation with death through a transformation from an obedient subject (White Noise) to an agent of liberation (All That is Left to You.) That is to say, a consciousness of death is a consciousness of life, albeit with alternative values.

Loneliness/alienation and fear of death become equivalent in a highly advanced capitalist society. This internal monologue in White Noise is enlightening:

The truth is I don’t want to die first. Given a choice between loneliness and death it would take me a fraction of a second to decide. But I don’t want to be alone either …Who decides these things? What is out there? Who are you?

This is, undoubtedly, a cry going beyond passive responses, a cry for content and meaning in a meaningless formalistic life, an ideological cry for what exists beyond appearance, and a cry for the revelation of the real rather than the imaginary relations of individuals to the objective world. Since death is alienation, it follows that these questions are about those who create alienation rather than about a metaphysical power that is beyond human understanding, though the questions asked have a metaphysical form. The same applies to the questions raised by the main character in Kanafani’s novella: “They [Israeli soldiers] wouldn’t want to kill you because you are nothing!”

And herein lies the difference between the way we fear the coronavirus, and how other parts of the world deal with it. In our case, we have been dealing with a much more dangerous virus since 1948; namely settler-colonialism. Whereas, death, for someone living in a late-capitalist world, is never a personal possibility that s/he can freely resolve to assume; nor is it a possibility that will give an ultimate meaning to the series of acts which constitute his/her life.

We must admit that our attitude toward death is not as profound as it is after the coronavirus outbreak. Previously, our fear of death was grounded in a sense of alienation and the end of our social and biological functions. The significance of COVID-19 is that it deepens both our existential fear of death and alienation and thus the meaning of all the roles we have been playing. Death has a unique meaning now; it is a concrete experience of a different order from that of the simulacrum death we keep watching on TV and in Hollywood movies. We are forced to face it, here and now. It is for this concrete reason that fear of the coronavirus is heightening and intensifying our self-awareness.

Whereas fear in White Noise is a fear of ‘tragic death’ that does not give a precise meaning to life, a death that does not complete it, in Kanafani’s fiction it introduces a sense of individuality and self-awareness. As Jean-Paul Sartre would have put it, the element of futurity that exists in the Palestinian character’s life is removed from that of the American protagonist and with it all possibility for the projection of “possibles” Sartre argues convincingly that

[death], in so far as it can be revealed to me, is not only the always possible nihilation of my possibles … It is also the triumph of the point of view of the Other … The unique characteristic of a dead life is that it is a life of which the Other makes himself the guardian … To be dead is to be a prey for the living. This means therefore that the one who tries to grasp the meaning of his future death must discover himself as the future prey of others. We have here therefore a case of alienation.

And that is precisely the case nowadays–a case of alienation represented in the complex antithetical conflict between our attempt to grasp the meaning of our possible death caused by the Coronavirus and the triumph of those White gods controlling our destiny. However, taken from a different perspective, our knowledge of our possible death does not necessarily mean the end to our power of decision itself. Since fear of death leads us to self-awareness and to a deeper level of consciousness, we are then expected to promote that faculty which we have been robbed of, namely the power of decision. We are still free to make a decision that involves a project beyond death, a project projecting toward the future where there is freedom and justice.

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I don’t know if Mr. Eid will see my comment, and I don’t know how easily this book could be obtained in Gaza, but I highly, highly recommend the novel “The Paper Man” by Gallagher Lawson!

Go to Twitter and type in: #TheGazaYouDontSee