White Noise is awash in uncertainty. Even the name evokes a nonspecific quality, white noise being an indistinct, indescribable stream of sound. Jack’s deepest fear is of his own death, and this fear is shown to center on the uncertainty of death—not knowing what death will be like and when it will come. In fact, Jack is so uncomfortable with uncertainty that, when his son Heinrich wants to get a rise out of him, all he needs to do is draw his father into a conversation that shows him how little he knows about everyday objects, processes, and technologies. Throughout White Noise, Jack and others grasp at certitude in many different ways, trying to attain it however they can, whether through alternative theories, authority, or willful ignorance.
In White Noise, uncertainty often invites long, freewheeling academic ruminations, which lead to absurd theories. The intellectual babble streaming back and forth between Murray and his colleagues strives to answer various questions, but their extensive theorizing rarely gets to the heart of the matter, instead spinning into outlandish conclusions. The uncertainty of death, for example, eventually drives Murray to suggest—“in theory”—that Jack should kill somebody. DeLillo seems to enjoy poking affectionate fun at the ways in which academic philosophizing can work itself into strange circuitous places, often resulting in abstract ideas that are held together only very loosely, since they’re based on highly speculative postulations. Desperate to minimize life’s uncertainty, Jack and Murray only obfuscate the very ideas they aim to clarify. The more they talk, the further away they get from decisive answers. Uncertainty, then, engenders more uncertainty, and Jack is caught in this loop.
Ironically enough, Murray seems somewhat cognizant of the fact that Jack is caught in a loop of uncertainty. Seeming to recognize that all their theoretical musings have done nothing to help him, he suggests that Jack take practical action. By killing somebody, Jack would at least break out of this useless cycle of intellectual conjecturing, which only leads to further uncertainty. The problem with this suggestion, though, is that it is the very result of that useless cycle, meaning that it is just another far-fetched idea the two men have hatched in order to create the illusion that they have any control at all over death. Killing somebody else could only solve a philosophical problem of their own making, doing nothing to answer Jack’s questions about when, how, or where he will die.
Beyond the question of death and its influence, DeLillo is interested in exploring the nature of uncertainty in times of crisis, particularly when there is a vacuum of authority. The story Jack hears about a plane almost crashing illustrates the relationship between authority and uncertainty. After the pilot incites panic in the cabin by admitting over the loudspeaker that the plane is “falling out of the sky,” a shrewd flight attendant wrests control by suggesting that they would actually be “crash landing.” The difference between a “crash” and a “crash landing” is semantic, but Jack notes the psychological effect of the flight attendant’s reframing: the added word enabled the passengers to “maintain a grip on the future,” since giving them an event for which they could prepare gave them a sense of control and eliminated a margin of uncertainty.
Notably, the flight attendant wasn’t exactly telling the truth—his or her power came from providing a narrative of certainty at an uncertain time. “In a crisis,” Jack thinks, “the true facts are whatever other people say they are. No one’s knowledge is less secure than your own.” There is a comfort, then, in receiving information—true or untrue—from somebody else, especially if that person is in a position of relative power, since “what people in an exodus fear most immediately is that those in positions of authority will long since have fled, leaving [them] in charge of [their] own chaos.”
Health (and the desire to control it) surfaces as another locus of uncertainty in White Noise. The results of Jack’s exposure to Nyodene D., for example, are vague; when Jack tries to obtain information about how the chemical will affect his life, the SIMUVAC technician says, “We’ll know more in fifteen years,” and when Jack asks if he’s going to die, the man responds, “Not as such.” Thus, concrete answers prove hard to come by. However, Even though Jack appears to go in search of answers regarding his health and death, he also tends to shy away from such information when on the verge of receiving it. For instance, when he goes to a new doctor for a battery of tests, he asks when the results will be ready, giving the impression that he is eager to receive them. But when the doctor tells him the results are available immediately, Jack backs off, saying, “I’m not sure I’m ready.” By seeking out information about his health, he indulges an illusion of control, but when he must face the hard facts, he is forced to realize that such data will only render him even more helpless. Therefore, he opts to remain in a nervous state of uncertainty. In other words, Jack’s fear of uncertainty is so strong and illogical that it leads him into yet another loop, choosing one kind of uncertainty over another, a paradox that reveals the futility and emptiness of his quest for certainty in the first place.
Uncertainty and Authority ThemeTracker
Uncertainty and Authority Quotes in White Noise
Babette and I do our talking in the kitchen. The kitchen and the bedroom are the major chambers around here, the power haunts, the sources. She and I are alike in this, that we regard the rest of the house as storage space for furniture, toys, all the unused objects of earlier marriages and different sets of children, the gifts of lost in-laws, the hand-me-downs and rummages. Things, boxes. Why do these possessions carry such sorrowful weight? There is a darkness attached to them, a foreboding. They make me wary not of personal failure and defeat but of something more general, something large in scope and content.
Who will die first?
This question comes up from time to time, like where are the car keys. It ends a sentence, prolongs a glance between us. I wonder if the thought itself is part of the nature of physical love, a reverse Darwinism that awards sadness and fear to the survivor. Or is it some inert element in the air we breathe, a rare thing like neon, with a melting point, an atomic weight?
Our senses? Our senses are wrong a lot more often than they’re right. This has been proved in the laboratory. Don’t you know about all those theorems that say nothing is what it seems?
Most of her students are old. It isn’t clear to me why they want to improve their posture. We seem to believe it is possible to ward off death by following rules of good grooming. Sometimes I go with my wife to the church basement and watch her stand, turn, assume various heroic poses, gesture gracefully. She makes references to yoga, kendo, trance-walking. She talks of Sufi dervishes, Sherpa mountaineers. The old folks nod and listen. Nothing is foreign, nothing too remote to apply. I am always surprised at their acceptance and trust, the sweetness of their belief. Nothing is too doubtful to be of use to them as they seek to redeem their bodies from a lifetime of bad posture. It is the end of skepticism.
Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? […] It’s all this activity in the brain and you don’t know what’s you as a person and what’s some neuron that just happens to fire or just happens to misfire. Isn’t that why Tommy Roy killed those people?
In the morning I walked to the bank. I went to the automated teller machine to check my balance. I inserted my card, entered my secret code, tapped out my request. The figure on the screen roughly corresponded to my independent estimate, feebly arrived at after long searches through documents, tormented arithmetic. Waves of relief and gratitude flowed over me. The system had blessed my life. I felt its support and approval. The system hardware, the mainframe sitting in a locked room in some distant city. What a pleasing interaction. I sensed that something of deep personal value, but not money, not that at all, had been authenticated and confirmed. […] The system was invisible, all the more disquieting to deal with. But we were in accord, at least for now. The networks, the circuits, the streams, the harmonies.
We looked at each other. Behind that dopey countenance, a complex intelligence operated. […] The inconsolable crying went on. I let it wash over me, like rain in sheets. I entered it, in a sense. I let it fall and tumble across my face and chest. I began to think he had disappeared inside this wailing noise and if I could join him in his lost and suspended place we might together perform some reckless wonder of intelligibility. I let it break across my body. It might not be so terrible, I thought, to have to sit here for four more hours, with the motor running and the heater on, listening to this uniform lament.
We were halfway home when the crying stopped. It stopped suddenly, without a change in tone and intensity. Babette said nothing, I kept my eyes on the road. He sat between us, looking into the radio. I waited for Babette to glance at me behind his back, over his head, to show relief, happiness, hopeful suspense. I didn’t know how I felt and wanted a clue. But she looked straight ahead as if fearful that any change in the sensitive texture of sound, movement, expression would cause the crying to break out again.
Certain elements in the crew had decided to pretend that it was not a crash but a crash landing that was seconds away. After all, the difference between the two is only one word. Didn’t this suggest that the two forms of flight termination were more or less interchangeable? How much could one word matter? An encouraging question under the circumstances, if you didn’t think about it too long, and there was no time to think right now. The basic difference between a crash and a crash landing seemed to be that you could sensibly prepare for a crash landing, which is exactly what they were trying to do.
It seems that danger assigns to public voices the responsibility of a rhythm, as if in metrical units there is a coherence we can use to balance whatever senseless and furious event is about to come rushing around our heads. […] What people in an exodus fear most immediately is that those in positions of authority will long since have fled, leaving us in charge of our own chaos.
Could a nine-year-old girl suffer a miscarriage due to the power of suggestion? Would she have to be pregnant first? Could the power of suggestion be strong enough to work backward in this manner, from miscarriage to pregnancy to menstruation to ovulation? Which comes first, menstruation or ovulation? Are we talking about mere symptoms or deeply entrenched conditions? Is a symptom a sign or a thing? What is a thing and how do we know it’s not another thing?
I turned off the radio, not to help me think but to keep me from thinking.
Our fear was accompanied by a sense of awe that bordered on the religious. It is surely possible to be awed by the thing that threatens your life, to see it as a cosmic force, so much larger than yourself, more powerful, created by elemental and willful rhythms. This was a death made in the laboratory, defined and measurable, but we thought of it at the time in a simple and primitive way, as some seasonal perversity of the earth like a flood or tornado, something not subject to control. Our helplessness did not seem compatible with the idea of a man-made event.
The more we rehearse disaster, the safer we’ll be from the real thing. Life seems to work that way, doesn’t it? […] If reality intrudes in the form of a car crash or a victim falling off a stretcher, it is important to remember that we are not here to mend broken bones or put out real fires. We are here to simulate.
[…] I think it’s a mistake to lose one’s sense of death, even one’s fear of death. Isn’t death the boundary we need? Doesn’t it give a precious texture to life, a sense of definition? You have to ask yourself whether anything you do in this life would have beauty and meaning without the knowledge you carry of a final line, a border or limit.
He would be Death, or death’s errand-runner, a hollow-eyed technician from the plague era, from the era of inquisitions, endless wars, of bedlams and leporsariums. He would be an aphorist of last thing, giving me the barest glance—civilized, ironic—as he spoke his deft and stylish line about my journey out. I watched for a long time, waiting for him to move a hand. His stillness was commanding. I felt myself getting whiter by the second. What does it mean to become white? How does it feel to see Death in the flesh, come to gather you in? I was scared to the marrow. […] So much remained. Every word and thing a beadwork of bright creation. My own plain hand, crosshatched and whorled in a mesh of expressive lines, a life terrain, might itself be the object of a person’s study and wonder for years. A cosmology against the void.
Our pretense is dedication. Someone must appear to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we professed real faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eyed men in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak. We are left to believe. […] Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers.