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Pandemic as Pretext: The Implications of Global Cataclysms in Don DeLillo’s The Silence and Slavoj Žižek’s Writings on Covid-19

Alicja Piechucka

Abstract

The article focuses on Don DeLillo’s latest novel, The Silence, which is analyzed and interpreted in light of Slavoj Žižek’s writings collected in Pandemic!: COVID-19 Shakes the World and Pandemic!2: Chronicles of a Time Lost. While all three works were published in 2020, only the last two deal explicitly with the coronavirus pandemic. In The Silence, DeLillo does not mention the pandemic at all; he does, however, refer to it directly in a short essay which was added to the novel’s later editions. This does not change the fact that the atypical situation in which DeLillo’s characters find themselves, though caused by factors of a technical rather than sanitary nature, bears numerous resemblances to what people all over the globe experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic. The aim of the study is to read The Silence through the lens of Žižek’s reflections and thereby to examine the political, sociocultural, technological and human implications of global cataclysms. My argument is that for both the American novelist and the Slovenian philosopher, worldwide disasters such as the blackout depicted in The Silence or the 2020 pandemic are merely a pretext for delving into the condition of the modern world, with particular emphasis on how twenty-first-century reality is affected by globalization, science, technology, war and environmental degradation. DeLillo’s novel is more of a meditation while Žižek’s collection of essays may be seen as a call to action. Nevertheless, both are statements on a humanity in crisis, disoriented, fragile and helpless, living in times which are, paradoxically, uncertain and even paranoia-inducing despite the unprecedented scale of scientific and technological progress.

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1. Introduction: Cataclysms, Crises, Pandemics

1Global cataclysms, be it wars or other turbulent political, social and military upheavals, natural and environmental disasters or pandemics, ineluctably engender and thus connote extreme danger and destruction, suddenness and shock, fear and insecurity, unimaginable hardship and suffering, change and confusion, multilevel violence as well as, obviously, manifold other long-term repercussions for individuals, communities, societies and nations. They are, in other words, crises. Importantly for the topic of this article, the etymology of the word is medical: “Originally, crisis denoted ‘the turning point for better or worse in an acute disease or fever.’ Now it most commonly means ‘a difficult or dangerous situation that needs serious attention’” (“crisis.” Merriam-Webster. com). The Greek and Latin roots of crisis therefore imply death and devastation but also recovery and improvement. Since the modern denotation additionally entails scrutiny, decision-making and action, the general conclusion is that a crisis such as a global cataclysm may also be seen as an opportunity for reflection, constructive action and creativity. In the present article, whose focus is the Covid-19 pandemic, I intend to examine three examples of such constructive and creative responses to critical and cataclysmic situations, two of which deal with the actual coronavirus pandemic while the third one imagines a state of affairs so closely resembling it that it is frequently interpreted as a visionary work anticipating the real-life events which originated in Wuhan in late 2019. The last-named is Don DeLillo’s latest novel, The Silence, which I analyze and interpret in light of Slavoj Žižek’s writings collected in Pandemic!: COVID-19 Shakes the World and its sequel, Pandemic!2: Chronicles of a Time Lost.

2Epidemics as well as their national and global incarnations, that is pandemics, are, of course, much more than public health events. As Brian Michael Jenkins, author of Plagues and Their Aftermath: How Societies Recover from Pandemics, aptly suggests, the medical term long COVID has farther-reaching and more figurative implications because “[p]andemics have always frayed the social fabric, disrupted economies, deepened social divides, and intensified prejudices, leaving behind psychological scars—all of which have lasting political repercussions” (“Pandemics Don’t Really End”). In this respect, our age does not differ from the early twentieth century or even the Middle Ages: the long list of consequences includes the likelihood of social tensions and riots, an increase in aggression, violence and crime, changes in the job market and cityscapes, controversy, prejudice and conspiracy theories and, inevitably, psychological ramifications, “the post-pandemic moodscape” being morose and, in the long run, likely to be marked by “distrust in institutions and each other,” “[a] Biblical host of natural and man-made disasters – pestilence, war, famine, floods, drought, fire, contribut[ing] to a sense of foreboding” (“Pandemics Don’t Really End”). In essence, the immediate effects of epidemics and pandemics are multiple, diverse and grave.

3The aim of the present study is to read The Silence through a Žižekian lens and thereby to examine the implications of global cataclysms: human, sociocultural, political and technological, to name but a few. In this instance, what is meant by implications are not just—and not even mainly—the direct consequences of the 2020 pandemic or various pandemic-like situations, but, more importantly perhaps, the innumerable issues which come to light or become more conspicuous against the backdrop of such predicaments. My argument is that for both the American novelist and the Slovenian philosopher, complex and devastating though they are, worldwide disasters such as the blackout depicted in The Silence or the 2020 pandemic are merely a gateway to delving into the condition of the modern world, with particular emphasis on how twenty-first-century reality is affected by, among others, globalization, science, technology, war and environmental degradation. To put it simply, a comparative reading of the latest DeLillo novel and Žižek’s essay collections leads to the conclusion that a global cataclysm such as the Covid-19 pandemic is not an apocalyptic apogee, unexpected and undeserved, but merely the tip of the iceberg. Predictably, DeLillo’s novel is more of a literary meditation while Žižek’s books may be seen as a call to action and for radical change, ultimately targeted at global capitalism, as the following passage testifies:

If we don’t invent a new mode of social life, our situation will not be just a little bit worse, but much worse. Again, my hypothesis is that the Covid-19 pandemic announces a new epoch in which we will have to rethink everything, inclusive of the basic meaning of being human—and our actions should follow our thinking. Perhaps today we should invert Marx’s Thesis XI on Feuerbach: in the twentieth century, we tried to change the world too rapidly, and the time has come to interpret it in a new way. (Pandemic! 2 116-17)

4Despite their different character, both DeLillo’s novel and the Žižek essays discussed here are statements on a humanity in crisis, disoriented, fragile and helpless, living in times which are, paradoxically, uncertain and even paranoia-inducing despite the unprecedented scale of scientific and technological progress.

5As early as 1947, Albert Camus wrote in The Plague, arguably modernity’s most famous literary depiction of an epidemic:

He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and again and send them forth to die in a happy city. (278)

6As experts on epidemics confirm nearly eighty years later, what readers of Camus have come to see as the metaphorical and philosophical dimension of the above-quoted locus classicus is actually true in the literal sense as well. Having officially started in March 2020 and ended in May 2023, the Covid-19 pandemic still comes under the heading of recent or perhaps even current events, with new cases—and new deaths—being reported in the latter half of 2023 and well into 2024. In fact, such temporal caesurae are in themselves putative and, to a large extent, illusory. Jenkins reminds us that the above-mentioned official ending “was a purely administrative step. Viruses do not answer to government decrees. Reported numbers were declining, but then started coming up again [in the United States] during the summer. By August, hospital admissions climbed to more than 10,000 a week. This was nowhere near the 150,000 weekly admissions recorded at the peak of the pandemic in January 2022” (Jenkins, “Pandemics Don’t Really End” ). “History shows that pandemics have ragged endings. Some return again and again,” he adds, prior to concluding on a more decisive note: “As we have seen time and time again throughout human history, pandemics do not end—they echo.” In the second of his books of essays, Žižek makes a similar point while reflecting on what has already been signaled earlier in the present article, namely the pandemic’s surprisingly “non-apocalyptic character”:

It is neither an apocalypse in the usual sense of the utter destruction of our world, and even less an apocalypse in the original sense of the revelation of some hitherto concealed truth. Yes, our world is falling apart, but this process of disintegration just drags on with no end in sight. When the numbers of infected and dead rise, our media speculate about how far we are from the ‘peak’—are we already there? will [sic] it be one or two weeks? We all eagerly track and await the peak of the pandemic, as if this moment will be followed by a gradual return to normality—but the crisis just drags on. Maybe we should gather the courage to accept that even if the vaccine against Covid-19 is discovered, we will remain in a viral world continually threatened by epidemics and environmental disturbances. (Pandemic! 2 79)

7The fact that pandemics, including the 2020 one, are fluid situations par excellence and are never really over, that, in the words of Žižek, “They don’t explode and then pass away, they persist, bringing permanent fear and fragility to our lives” (Pandemic! 52) and that their periodization is fuzzy or at best arbitrary seems to dovetail with the three works the present study is concerned with, or, to be precise, with the peculiarity of their chronology. In short, none of them was published or even written after the Covid-19 pandemic had officially ended. DeLillo’s novel appeared in October 2020; Žižek’s first collection of essays in March of the same year, the second one following in late 2020. It could therefore be argued that in his writings, the Slovenian philosopher attempts to square the circle by commenting on an event before it fully begins or at least gains momentum and long before its official ending is announced. With DeLillo, the situation is even more complicated and puzzling because he completed The Silence before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, as shall be demonstrated, these temporal discrepancies fit into the larger, nuanced meanings of both the novel and the Žižek essays I draw on in my exegesis of The Silence.

2. DeLillo, Žižek and the Absurdity of Crisis

8While Žižek’s two books may seem hasty and hence ill-considered attempts to, so to speak, draw conclusions from a major event—life-threatening and life-changing—before its denouement, there is more to his writings on Covid-19 than meets the eye. To begin with, the immediacy of the experience the philosopher and cultural theorist puts down on paper makes him a day-to-day chronicler of the pandemic, recording the developments and their implications as they unfold, which is in keeping with the subtitle of his second collection. Moreover, it is the broadly understood implications that are crucial here. Žižek would not be Žižek if he failed to rely on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan and did not adopt the philosophical, left-liberal and psychoanalytical perspective to bring politics, social problematics and popular culture into play. The end result are two volumes of essays to which there is more than an analysis of the 2020 Covid-related events. In fact, Žižek digs deep and steps back in time to ponder phenomena and issues which are older than the coronavirus pandemic, although the last-named may have brought them into the foreground. In brief, the fact that he did not wait until the end, albeit official and putative, of the pandemic is not necessarily of primary importance because for him the pandemic is, at least to a certain degree, a pretext for reflecting on no less than the dilemmas, ills and evils plaguing—no pun intended—modernity.

9To further complicate matters, while the three works discussed in the present article were published in 2020, the year of the pandemic’s official outbreak, only the essays by Žižek deal explicitly with coronavirus and its global effects. In The Silence, DeLillo does not mention Covid-19 at all. He does, however, refer to it directly in a short essay entitled “Man at the Window,” dated April 1, 2021, which was added to the novel’s later editions, including, for instance, the 2022 Polish one. As DeLillo himself obliquely admitted in an interview, his publisher or editor wanted him to add references to the coronavirus pandemic to the very text of the novel, but the writer refused (Marchese). The essay, which contains images of and unequivocal comments on the 2020 pandemic, may thus be a compromise, the result of a novelist conceding some of his authorial independence to a publishing world intent on marketing the book by tapping into the zeitgeist and capitalizing on the spirit of the times in the mid of an unprecedented historical moment. Possible marketing ploys and pressure exerted by publishers on authors notwithstanding, the fact remains that, with the benefit of hindsight, one cannot help reading The Silence as a prophetic work. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that DeLillo is believed by Tom Junod or Michiko Kakutani to have anticipated the 9/11 attacks (Masłowski, “Literatura jako kontropowieść” 221). In his latest novel, the atypical, almost absurd situation in which his characters find themselves, though caused by factors of a technical rather than sanitary nature, bears numerous resemblances to what people all over the globe experienced during the 2020 pandemic. In other words, the predicament DeLillo’s protagonists are obliged to face is strikingly pandemic-like.

10Published in 2020, The Silence is set in 2022, two years into the future and, although DeLillo could not have known it at the time of writing or even at the time of publication, two years into the Covid-19 pandemic. The plotline of what is in fact a micronovel, or short novel or novella, to use alternative generic terms, is relatively uncomplex and straightforward—or so it seems. Similarly, the story’s spatial framework is confined and the number of characters limited. The action unfolds in the space of one day. With the exception of two scenes—one in which two of the protagonists fly from Paris to New York and another in which they receive medical assistance at a clinic after their plane has made a belly landing—most of the novel’s action takes place in the same Manhattan apartment. The minimalist setting is important because, as it soon turns out, the five protagonists—the only other character being a clinic administrator—become more or less housebound.

11The initial circumstances seem simple enough: a married couple, Diane Lucas, a retired physics professor, and Max Stenner, invite three of their friends over. Their guests include another couple, the poet Tessa Berens and her husband Jim Kripps, who have just flown from Paris, and Martin Dekker, Diane’s former student, now a teacher himself. The aim of the social gathering is to watch the Super Bowl together. However, nothing comes of the characters’ plans because a general, probably global breakdown occurs, as a result of which electronic devices stop working. Predictably, the peculiar shutdown leaves the five protagonists feeling confused, helpless and, inevitably, insecure, prompting them to engage in endless speculation about the origins of the inexplicable problem they have to face and, importantly, about much more than the problem itself. To Jim and Tessa, the shock is double because they have just had a brush with death, and one similarly stemming from technological failure, which is very likely part of the overall conundrum affecting everybody else in the novella. The Silence, whose structure consists largely of monologs and dialogs which are at times so autistic that they resemble monologs, is a record of the protagonists’ behaviors and reactions. The novel follows them as they try, with varying degrees of success, to think, eat, sleep, have sex, go out and, in spite of what the title may suggest, talk.

12Accurate as it is, the above summary gives a false impression of the micronovel’s actual complexity and density, both thematic and formal. Overall, The Silence is not a simple work, but rather a challenging and thought-provoking one. As is often the case with DeLillo’s later, novella-length narratives, its austere format and style are somewhat deceptive, belying its intellectual depth and underlying philosophical and sociocultural messages. It also inscribes itself into a long literary tradition, which is that of—mostly French—existentialism and the Theater of the Absurd. In “Man at the Window,” which is an essay about the pandemic, but also a metaliterary statement, DeLillo writes:

It’s not over yet, not even remotely, Covid-19, the powerful term.
Where is the work that I ought to be doing? Instead I stand at the window or I walk the streets among the masked and unmasked, dodging, sidestepping, ever alert, looking always for openings, crossing against the light when traffic is blocked, buses and trucks seeming to exhale impatience, and I keep a distance from diners at the sidewalk tables and then hurry back to life indoors, to the window in the room where I stand and watch.
This is fiction, isn’t it, the existential stillness, people alone in shrinking rooms, Camus, Beckett, Bruno Schulz; only now it’s safety we are seeking, and if the room has a window with the previous year still encased, it is winter and I watch people stooped under heavy coats striding quickly as snow begins to fall, the painful wail of an ambulance, the death toll rising by the minute and scientists trying to make sense of the origins of the plague.
Rats, bats, insects. (121-22)

13The intertextual-metatextual passage loco citato only confirms what one may infer from a reading of The Silence: DeLillo’s novel is marked by a sense of absurdity and lack of purpose and meaning, which also pervaded the general atmosphere during the pandemic. To this is added “existential stillness”: enforced isolation, immobilization, inertia and imposed waiting, leading to inactivity, a feeling of claustrophobic entrapment, exposure to hostile and anxiety-inducing external factors, tension and apathy as well as a universal sense of doom. The predicament Diane, Max and their guests are faced with is the absurd predicament. As Žižek insightfully notes, there is a connection between catastrophes and the inevitable realization of the absurdity of the human condition: “And at an even more general level, viral epidemics remind us of the ultimate contingency and meaninglessness of our lives: no matter how magnificent the spiritual edifices we, humanity, construct, a stupid natural contingency like a virus or an asteroid can end it all… not to mention the lesson of ecology, which is that we, humanity, can also unknowingly contribute to this end” (Pandemic! 52).

14The connections between DeLillo and Samuel Beckett, the most celebrated exponent of the Theater of the Absurd, are often pointed out. To quote but one example, Peter Boxall remarks that “DeLillo’s work is driven by an investment in the possibilities of aesthetic silence, an investment that he inherits, to an extent, from Beckett” (46). The protagonist of DeLillo’s Mao II goes further, claiming Beckett to have “shape[d] the way we think and see” (157). In several respects, The Silence is akin to an unconventional and avant-gardist absurdist play, albeit one largely devoid of the humor likely to be found in dramas representative of the Theater of the Absurd. DeLillo’s protagonists resemble dramatis personae who realize that theirs is the condition of the homo absurdus. They hold intellectual—and sometimes pseudointellectual—conversations or deliver soliloquies which often lead nowhere. They multiply unrealistic or even hardly rational and sometimes uncontextualized utterances, made of aphorisms, rhetorical questions and verbless clauses, of shreds of thoughts and scraps of reality. Unable to watch the game on the now defunct television screen, Max starts to imitate a sports commentator’s manner of speaking, uttering “[h]alf sentences, bare words, repetitions” (DeLillo, The Silence 46). In an attempt to make sense of the sports jargon, his wife “want[s] to think of it as a kind of plainsong, monophonic, ritualistic, but then t[ells] herself that this is pretentious nonsense” (46). The characters in The Silence become entangled in their ramblings and incommunicability, which are sometimes hysterical and nonsensical. Maciej Masłowski’s statement that the protagonists of Point Omega “conduct[] long conversations which revolve around momentous topics but never touch upon their essence” (“Agonia wszechświata” 254, translation mine) is, to some extent at least, applicable to The Silence as well. Such a state of affairs seems ineluctable “because the current situation tells us that there’s nothing else to say except what comes into our heads, which none of us will remember anyway” (DeLillo, The Silence 111). Jerzy Jarniewicz sees the first scene of DeLillo’s earlier micronovel, The Body Artist, as “[i]nvoking the Beckettian doubt about the possibility of true communication and the equally Beckettian belief that one must talk, as if life were dependent on talking” (191, translation mine). Similarly, in his reading of Great Jones Street, Marek Paryż distinguishes elements which hark back to the Theater of the Absurd: “a voluntarily inert antihero,” “characters [who] talk a lot but act little,” “conversations [in which] the differences between trivial and fundamental topics are blurred” (“Parametry impasu” 42, translation mine) and confined space (43). To a greater or lesser degree, the same may probably be said of The Silence.

15However, while the five protagonists are generally overwhelmed with their own powerlessness, the novel’s exegete finds help in analyzing and interpreting DeLillo’s prose by drawing on the literature about the pandemic such as Žižek’s essayistic duology. The essays in question contextualize, overlap with, complete and illuminate a literary work which may have been dismissed as hermetic or overly experimental in different circumstances. The cross-fertilization of themes and ideas between the American writer and the Slovenian philosopher which lies at the heart of the present study benefits a reading of both DeLillo and Žižek. While the clean, minimalist, understated aesthetic that characterizes the American writer’s prose, in particular his later, twenty-first-century works, such as The Silence, leaves certain things unsaid in his latest, appropriately titled, novel, Žižek’s straightforward, matter-of-fact, no-nonsense essayism fills those lacunae, foregrounding meanings which may otherwise have been ignored or dismissed as farfetched or irrelevant and offering worthwhile interpretive vistas.

3. The Trap of Technology

16In the essay constituting a later addendum to The Silence, DeLillo points out the centrality of science to what is now classified as the fifth deadliest pandemic in global history. Scientists were the ones the world looked to, as the American writer puts it, “to make sense of the origins of the plague” and to develop new treatments, a vaccine and, possibly, a cure. Science is, of course, inextricably linked with technology, whose role in our lives DeLillo explores in his micronovel. While a sanitary crisis which later reached worldwide proportions may seem very different from a technological one, in an essay entitled “Welcome to the Viral Desert,” Žižek notes, interestingly enough, the parallel between the real world and virtual reality in the context of the pandemic: both can be infected by viruses. In his two essay collections, the philosopher and cultural theorist expresses his firm conviction that the coronavirus crisis is merely one of many such catastrophes which are bound to come in the future: health, environmental, social and humanitarian crises, including epidemics and pandemics. The risk of infection becoming constant and omnipresent, virtual reality is likely to remain the only place where one can find a safe haven from contamination but not without reservations:

But even here, at the level of virtual reality and the internet, we should remind ourselves that, in the last decades, the terms “virus” and “viral” were mostly used to designate digital viruses that infected our web-space and of which we were not aware, at least not until their destructive power (say, of destroying our data or our hard drive) was unleashed. What we see now is a massive return to the original literal meaning of the term: viral infections work hand in hand in both dimensions, real and virtual. (Pandemic! 44)

17A crisis like the one depicted in The Silence has more in common with a public health event such as a pandemic than might be expected at first glance. Both are overwhelming and paralyzing, and both lead to panic, as the cover designs of the English and Polish editions of the Žižek books discussed here aptly demonstrate: the word pandemic is written in such a way that it becomes panic, the missing letters which differentiate the two words from each other being inscribed in the title. On the surface, there appears to be a substantial difference between the outbreak of a highly contagious and potentially lethal disease and what may in simplistic terms be described as a massive power failure. Yet the gap between the two is not as wide as it seems. One reason for it is the increased dependence on digital technology, mostly on computers and the internet but also mobile phones and smartphones in particular, as well as on more traditional means of communication such as landlines, which obviously resulted from the coronavirus pandemic and the social distancing it imposed. However, as DeLillo’s micronovel shows, the situation is more complicated than that, and did not begin with the Covid-19 pandemic.

18The Silence revolves around technology in general and digital communication in particular, which is far from making the novel an exception in DeLillo’s œuvre: as it happens, “the relation between humans and technology” is one of the “themes that DeLillo has explored throughout his fiction” (O’Donnell 108). The essay which is the short novel’s companion piece also dovetails with its main themes. The narrator, the eponymous “man at the window,” probably DeLillo himself, is torn between a television broadcast of a baseball game and the people-watching made possible by the fact that the apartment overlooks the street: “But I keep looking out the window, away from the TV screen and down into the street. Traffic building into gridlock, people walking, talking into phones, a jogger with skinny legs bouncing along the sidewalk, red-and-white sneakers on a gray day. That’s all, nothing much, but the grimness of the past year lingers, when the streets were nearly empty at times, the danger literally in the air” (“Man at the Window” 121, emphasis added). Still, on a visual level, the pandemic is not just about real-life images but also about digital ones:

But the Covid numbers continue to climb and I ease back a few feet to watch the sparse crowd on the TV screen, masked and unmasked, very little movement, the game in active pause, an image in a photograph as galleries and museums begin to reopen, movie theaters, large screens, and as news arrives that the game between the Mets and the Nationals has been postponed.
No need to wonder why.
Now at the window, I’m not watching the world go by. The world is mostly standing still and I imagine many millions at home staying safe and I think of the perennial images on TV news, needles in arms, the global jab, but I glimpse a hint of poetry in the term ‘home health aide.’ (124)

19All the images in question contradict Jenkins’ statement that “[t]he COVID pandemic lacked visual impact. Except for those directly affected, COVID’s toll remained abstract. There was no modern equivalent of town criers calling ‘Bring out your dead’ accompanied by carts making the rounds to collect corpses” (“Pandemics Don’t Really End”). In fact, what Jenkins appears to overlook is the importance of seemingly trivial details such as passersby “masked and unmasked” one could see not only on television but also while walking the streets—and trying to dodge those one passed—or just looking, as does DeLillo’s narrator, out of the window. Crucially, Jenkins also downplays the impact of images diffused by the media, on which people arguably relied more heavily during lockdown than on what they could see with their own eyes because the latter sights were limited by the enforced isolation. DeLillo does not make this mistake when relating directly to the pandemic in “Man at the Window.”

20The aforementioned images in the essay signal the pivotal themes of the novel itself. The events in the story are triggered off by what, for the protagonists, starts as a television malfunction. To the lost broadcast of the Super Bowl is added the image of nomophobes who practically “live inside their phones” (DeLillo, The Silence 52): together, they illustrate the extent to which modern man’s life is contingent on technology, digital communication and the media. At the beginning of the third millennium, the world is peopled by individuals who nearly develop a relationship with the television or, more frequently perhaps, the mobile phone screen and whose life functions—walking, talking and living itself—often seem to be tied to their mobile phones. Like any dependence or addiction, the one identified and explored by the American writer manifests itself most poignantly when one is cut off from what one is reliant on and starts to have withdrawal symptoms. Having ventured out into the street, Max realizes the difference between the pre- and post-shutdown versions of the world, which, as his wife has noticed earlier, is now filled with “many millions of blank screens” and almost unimaginable “disabled phones” (52): “In other times, more or less ordinary, there are always people staring into their phones, morning, noon, night, middle of the sidewalk, oblivious to everyone hurrying past, engrossed, mesmerized, consumed by the device, or walking toward him [Max] and then veering away, but they can’t do it now, all the digital addicts, phones shut down, everything down, down, down” (99).

21It may be inferred that DeLillo does not view this symbiosis of man and machine as either positive or necessary. The Silence shows twenty-first-century people who are perplexed and lost because the lights and screens went out and phones, both landlines and mobiles, as well as television sets, desktop computers and laptops are inoperative. The absence of what the American novelist refers to as “digital assistance” (14) throws everyone off balance, resulting in men and women all over the globe being “puzzled, abandoned by science, technology, common sense” (29). In shock and disbelief, the protagonists of The Silence, accustomed to being supported and surrounded by all sorts of technological props, which are not just elements of life but come dangerously close to constituting its essence, tussle with the mystifying obstacle, wavering between mechanical gestures and helpless anger:

They watched and listened. But there was nothing to listen to. Max picked up the remote control device from the floor in front of him and hit the volume button repeatedly but there was no audio.
Then the screen went blank. Max hit the power button. On, off, on. He and Diane checked their phones. Dead. She walked across the room to the house phone, the landline, a sentimental relic. No dial tone. Laptop, lifeless. She approached the computer in the next room and touched various elements but the screen stayed gray.
She returned to Max and stood behind him, hands on his shoulders, and she waited for him to clench his fists and start cursing. (26)

22The extent of their stupefaction and distress is verbalized when, shortly after the broadcast of the game breaks off, Diane starts wondering what the true nature of the failure is: “Is this the casual embrace that marks the fall of world civilization?” (The Silence 35), she asks, only half-joking.

23Technological abandonment generates a feeling of entrapment which is both dramatic and grotesque, but equally dramatic and grotesque is being enslaved and thus also entrapped by modern technology. Furthermore, there is a sense of loss resulting from the constant modern interaction with technology: opposed to the “digital assistance” is “the otherworld of what was known and lost” (DeLillo, The Silence 15) because “[t]here is almost nothing left of nowhere” (14). DeLillo’s micronovel suggests that the devices we use on a daily basis, often mobile and portable and therefore accompanying us everywhere, do not merely fulfill a utilitarian function: they also serve as a distraction in both senses of the word and, more importantly, as a refuge. As Paryż observes, apropos of Players, “the television set acts as a fuse of sorts, an ideal free-time filler which eases the tension” (“Algorytmy” 54, translation mine). In a similar vein, John A. McClure points out that in DeLillo’s most famous novel, “the white noise of television” is “part of the popular culture of systematic distraction,” which, according to some exegetes of the American writer’s prose, “keep[s] the characters going from day to day and give[s] them some respite from the terror in their souls” (172). In The Silence, referring to an aircraft cabin interior component, Tessa tells Jim, “But you’re happy about the screen. You like your screen” (DeLillo 13), to which he replies, “It helps me hide from the noise” (14). However, the technological predicament is more serious than that: most regrettably, the said devices also act as fillers of emptiness, including an existential void. In times when mankind lives with, inside and thanks to technology, losing your foothold in the latter is tantamount to what feels like a total loss of control.

4. Crises and Conspiracism

24While, in what resembles a comic and absurd variation on the actual resuscitation procedure, Diane and Max are vainly multiplying random and desperate actions in the hope that the various “lifeless” devices in their apartment will resume functioning, Martin offers a possible explanation for the breakdown: “It could be algorithmic governance. The Chinese. The Chinese watch the Super Bowl. They play American football. The Beijing Barbarians. This is totally true. The joke is on us. They’ve initiated a selective internet apocalypse. They are watching, we are not” (DeLillo, The Silence 26-27). To one reading The Silence after the pandemic, the association with Wuhan, the cradle of coronavirus, is, of course, inescapable. However, what seems truly relevant and more interesting when it comes to the passage in question are the problematics of conspiracy theories, generally relevant to crises, the Covid-19 one being no exception. Dekker, the sophisticated intellectual and erudite, of whom Diane says, “Nobody is smarter than the Chinese except for Martin” (28), puts forward an arbitrary and chauvinistic theory, phrased rather crudely, xenophobically and racistically. This uneasy and paradoxical mixture of digitalization, globalization and paranoid prejudice brings to mind Žižek’s insightful claim that “[t]here is a paradox at work here [in the context of the pandemic]: the more our world is connected, the more a local disaster can trigger global fear and eventually a catastrophe” (Pandemic! 55). It also brings to mind a phenomenon which was rife in the coronavirus-dominated world but which has also, as Libra, his 1988 novel about John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s assassination, shows, long preoccupied DeLillo, namely conspiracism. Writing about DeLillo’s Underworld, Peter Knight remarks that “the novel conducts a historical investigation of the shift from the paradoxically secure paranoia of the Cold War to the less stable insecure paranoia of postmodernity, in which it is no longer clear who or what is the enemy” (36). Paranoia seems inherent in modern man’s condition because “[i]n this situation fear of hidden dangers and hidden agendas is a pervasive attitude for characters living under the shadow of nuclear destruction, pollution, and other forms of unpredictable technological nightmare that create a permanent environment of risk” (36).

25As Michael Butter and Peter Knight note, “During the course of the pandemic, conspiracy theories had become a prominent feature of public discourse in many countries around the world. The virus has caused great alarm, but so too has the viral spread of conspiracy theories. Many of same conspiracy narratives were shared around the world, often spread via social media that has increasingly global reach” (“Introduction”). As is often the case with pandemic-related issues, Covid-19 conspiracy theories reveal even more about the modern world than they do about the coronavirus crisis itself. The Chinese lead invoked in DeLillo’s novel actually inscribes itself in a larger context:

while there is a great variety in the specific strains of conspiracy narratives that emerged and mutated since the initial outbreak [of the coronavirus pandemic], they often express a core belief that ‘they’ (the government, the health authorities, the mainstream media, the global elite, the leaders of powerful nations like China or the United States, etc.) are lying to ‘us’ (the ordinary people, the members of a specific nation, ethnicity, culture, or religion etc.). (“Introduction”)

26It would, however, be a mistake to assume that the nature of such conspiracy thinking is as recent as the pandemic itself. Butter and Knight remind us that conspiracism has a long tradition and that the pandemic merely awoke old fears and demons, albeit sometimes in new clothes:

Another common claim in media warnings about the rise of popular conspiracism during the pandemic is that the theories being circulated are bizarre and surprising. Yet to historians of conspiracy theories, many of the narratives in circulation are quite familiar. The underlying conspiracy narratives were often already in place, and merely adapted to fit the pandemic, which in turn provided confirming “evidence” for true believers of what they had suspected all along. (“Introduction”)

27Žižek makes a similar point when he argues, again in the essay “Welcome to the Viral Desert”: “The ongoing spread of the coronavirus epidemic has also triggered a vast epidemic of ideological viruses which were lying dormant in our societies: fake news, paranoiac conspiracy theories, explosions of racism. The well-grounded medical need for quarantines found an echo in the ideological pressure to establish clear borders and to quarantine enemies who pose a threat to our identity” (Pandemic! 39).

5. Crisis, Cooperation, Community

28Counterintuitively, the conclusions drawn from Žižek’s diagnosis do not necessarily have to be pessimistic. The Slovenian philosopher voices the view that the coronavirus pandemic will be a crisis in more than one sense of the word: a peril, but also a turning point. There is a chance that, having come to their senses, people may be infected by “another and much more beneficent ideological virus” (Pandemic! 39), namely “the virus of thinking of an alternate society, a society beyond nation-state, a society that actualizes itself in the forms of global solidarity and cooperation” (39). Žižek’s standpoint expressed in his two volumes of essays devoted to the pandemic is crystal-clear and comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with his thought: it is a leftist and Marxist one, arguing the need for what is vaguely referred to as a return to “a new form of what was once called Communism” (56) in the face of the imminent crisis of global capitalism (46). While Žižek’s ideological stance leaves no doubt, the question of ideology is much more nuanced when it comes to DeLillo. Writing about the author-protagonist of Mao II, David Cowart observes: “Struggling to affirm the validity of the individual imagination, he wrestles with forms of ideological coercion at once subtle and immensely powerful” (114). Despite disagreeing with such a view himself, Philip Nel admits that “if, as Jameson has argued, one characteristic of postmodernism is its absence of political engagement with postmodernity, then the uncertain goals of DeLillo’s critique leave it vulnerable to the charge of representing a depthless postmodern ” (18). In a much stricter assessment, John Kucich denounces in DeLillo “the ideological aimlessness of most white male American writing” and the protagonists’ “unwilling[ness] or [i]nab[ility] to take the next step toward any kind of political assertion” (qtd. in Hutchinson 67). Nevertheless, it remains unarguable that capitalism is central to DeLillo’s œuvre, as is a critique of the capitalist system and its implications. In spite of addressing political issues, DeLillo may not be a political or ideologically minded writer—and certainly not a confirmed Marxist—but that does not have to prevent a reading of The Silence as a call for human solidarity and understanding beyond boundaries, albeit one that is subtler and more subdued than Žižek’s.

29Such solidarity and understanding may begin with regaining the human touch, often lost in modern societies. Drawing on the biblical “Noli me tangere” episode in the opening of his first Pandemic book, Žižek predicts that the social distancing imposed by coronavirus may paradoxically strengthen bonds between humans. He argues, somewhat counterintuitively, that what unites people during a pandemic is avoidance of contact or even isolation (Pandemic! 1-3). One of the few advantages of the oppressive and traumatic situation is that hopefully it will make us realize the need for global cooperation, solidarity and coordination, for an alternative, transnational society.

30The point made by Žižek seems to be echoed by DeLillo in The Silence. In the immediate aftermath of the TV screen going blank, Max leaves the apartment in an attempt to “talk to people who live in this building. Our so-called neighbors” (30). The use of the adjective so-called clearly indicates a deficit in human relations and sociality, social atomization, suggested by the words “This floor, near neighbors, why get involved” (34), being a sign of the times. It is a marker of the fact that DeLillo’s protagonist distances himself from the very notion of neighborhood as well as from the biblical sense of the word neighbor. Yet Max’s venture into the common spaces in the building, which, ridiculously enough, acquires the proportions of an expedition, also marks a turning point of sorts. Upon coming back, he reports: “They saw and heard what we saw and heard. We stood in the hallway becoming neighbors for the first time. Men, women, nodding our heads” (34). Although it is implied that the tenants do not even know each other’s names, some semblance of bonding develops as a result of the interaction. Max’s sense of having connected with his fellow men and women, if only at a symbolic level, is reinforced by another allusion to the Chinese lead in the novel. To Diane’s question about the possible explanations for the shutdown suggested by the neighbors, Max replies: “Something technical. Nobody blamed the Chinese. A systems failure. Also a sunspot. This was a serious response. A guy smoking a pipe. No, I did not tell him that smoking is not allowed in this building” (34-35). The fact that China was not mentioned by the other tenants acts as a counterbalance to Martin’s earlier racist and xenophobic reaction to the failure, just as Max’s refraining from chastising his neighbor for smoking partly compensates for his earlier detached attitude to the other people living in the building. Drawing on Fredric Jameson’s work and applying it to the pandemic, Žižek observes: “Such a universal threat gives birth to global solidarity, our petty differences become insignificant, we all work together to find a solution – and here we are today, in real life. This is not a call to sadistically enjoy widespread suffering insofar as it helps our Cause—on the contrary, the point is to reflect upon the sad fact that we need a catastrophe to be able to rethink the very basic features of the society in which we live” (Pandemic! 41). The fact that doors are the leitmotif of the report Max gives when he returns to the apartment is also highly metaphorical, as doors constitute a barrier but may also be opened.

6. Times of Uncertainty

31Never is human and social connection more desirable than in times of uncertainty. The Silence being, at a basic level at least, a depiction of people’s response to an unusual and staggering situation, it is worth taking into consideration the psychological motives behind the already mentioned conspiracy thinking, which may also generally account for various behaviors engendered by unexpected large-scale crises of the kind DeLillo portrays in his novella. “In the last two decades, research in the field of psychology has endeavored to identify the universal psychological drivers of conspiracy belief”, which is born out of the urge “to satisfy epistemic needs (such as coping with uncertainty or avoiding a sense of randomness); existential needs (e.g., reclaiming a sense of individual agency); and social needs (which include promotion of an ingroup and self-positioning as unique and/or victimized)” (Butter and Knight, “Introduction”). Naturally, not everyone faced with a crisis or catastrophe is prone to conspiracy theorizing, but hardly anyone can entirely resist the impulses listed above when dealing with a dire predicament. Arguably, they may also be impulses that are deeply ingrained in the modern consciousness, which, in turn, is a product of the modern world or at least is strongly affected by it. As has already been stated in the early parts of the present article, both DeLillo’s novel and Žižek’s essays on coronavirus and its implications subscribe to the idea that disasters of various kinds are more than problems in themselves: they are manifestations of pre-existing and more complex issues, symptoms whose causes are deep-rooted and inherent in the twenty-first-century world.

32Some if not all of the feelings and states of mind mentioned in the previous paragraph are evoked in The Silence even before the aborted Super Bowl night begins. At the clinic where Jim and Tessa are taken after the belly landing, the administrator admits to an overall sense of confusion and helplessness, simultaneously announcing many of the short novel’s dominant themes: “Whatever is going on, it has crushed our technology. The word itself seems outdated to me, lost in space. Where is the leap of authority to our secure devices, our encryption capacities, our tweets, trolls and bots. Is everything in the datasphere subject to distortion and theft? And do we simply have to sit here and mourn our fate?” (59). Žižek uses a strikingly similar turn of phrase when stating that “[w]hat we are really mourning [in addition to the dead Covid-19 sufferers] is the abrupt end of an entire way of life” (Pandemic! 2 93). No sooner does the administrator utter those words than darkness envelops the building: “The overhead lights blinked and dimmed and then went out. There was instant silence throughout the clinic. Everyone waiting. A sense also of fear-in-waiting because it wasn’t clear yet what this might mean, how radical, how permanent an aberration in what was already a drastic shift of events” (DeLillo, The Silence 60). The woman asks rhetorically, “What do we do? Who do we blame?” (61), before concluding:

The more advanced, the more vulnerable. Our systems of surveillance, our facial recognition devices, our imagery resolution. How do we know who we are? We know it’s getting cold in here. What happens when we have to leave? No light, no heat. Going home, living where I live, above a restaurant called Truth and Beauty, if the subways and buses are not running, if the taxis are gone, elevator in the building immobilized, and if, and if, and if. I love my cubicle but I don’t want to die here. (61-62)

33The scene in question reminds us that technology is a mixed blessing and the locus of paradox: supposed to reduce our vulnerability, it makes us unprotected in other ways. “Ironically, while technology has the potential to save humans and enhance life, what it seems more commonly to do is frighten and alienate us from our own (frail) bodies,” Ruth Helyer notes, before referring to DeLillo’s “Cosmopolis [which] suggests a world turned full-circle where the sophisticated technology of voice-activated guns, mobile offices, and constant surveillance, rather than enhancing life, mitigates against its full and satisfying development” (135). As Žižek points out, both the pandemic and the infamous volcanic eruption that took place in Iceland in 2010 exemplify the ambiguous character of technology well:

It was a sharp reminder of how, despite all its tremendous activity of transforming nature, humankind remains merely another of many living species on planet Earth. The very catastrophic socioeconomic impact of such a minor outburst is due to the fragility of our technological development, in this case air travel. A century ago, such an eruption would have passed unnoticed. Technological development makes us more independent from nature and at the same time, at a different level, more dependent on nature’s whims. And the same holds for the spread of coronavirus: if it had happened before Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, we probably wouldn’t even have heard about it. (Pandemic! 55).

34As has already been discussed, The Silence demonstrates that when technology fails us, our dependence on it reveals itself to be tragicomic or perhaps even downright dramatic. However, for DeLillo, the technological predicament stands for much more than itself, representing the modern existential predicament. In a similar vein, Žižek observes that “[t]he ongoing pandemic hasn’t just brought out social and economic conflicts that were raging beneath the surface all along; it hasn’t just confronted us with immense political problems” (Pandemic! 2 3) and that “[t]his conflict is a serious existential one” (4). The administrator’s monolog is replete with interrogative and conditional sentences, the latter in elliptical form. The technological devices she invokes may be state-of-the-art and sophisticated ones, but the rhetorical questions she starts asking in the wake of the blackout seem to have a deeper philosophical dimension, emphasized by the comic but also elevated name of the restaurant above which she lives. Truth and beauty, existence and death come into play in a seemingly down-to-earth situation caused by the lights going out. The darkness and the silence which follow are terrifying and paralyzing because they signal an overwhelming emptiness, literal and ontological. Indeterminacy, both epistemic and temporal, the possible duration of the crisis being unknown and unpredictable, and ambiguity set in, as does absence of meaning. Affected by technology on a daily basis, hemmed in and cornered by it, humans lose their sense of self. The technological predicament, exacerbated in a time of technological crisis, brings on an identity crisis.

35All this ineluctably entails the question of responsibility and the need to find out who is to blame, which could even assume grotesque forms such as conspiracy narratives. For the conspiratorial “mode of reasoning” is underpinned by “the assumption that nothing is as it seems; that nothing happens by accident; and that everything is connected” (Butter and Knight, “Introduction”). Since nothing happens by pure chance, “[c]onspiracy theories involve a claim that prominent events such as pandemics are not an unfortunate accident but are the result of the secret plotting by nefarious groups to deliberately bring about this state for [sic] affairs for their own ulterior motives” (Butter and Knight, “Introduction”). Radical responses are hardly surprising: “The situation [during the pandemic] is so messy and there are so many unknowns—no wonder we are prone to oscillate from one extreme to another” (Žižek, Pandemic! 2 93). Unavoidably, even those immune to conspiracism start asking themselves questions. Importantly, the confusion DeLillo’s characters experience does not just stem from the shutdown, but is in fact much older: at least as old as the new millennium, perhaps as old as the digital age. This brings us back to the thesis of the present article, namely to the claim, made directly in Pandemic! and Pandemic! 2 and less directly in The Silence, that the coronavirus crisis and other similar catastrophes are merely symptoms of much more numerous underlying diseases gnawing at the system rather than a source of problems per se, the word disease being used in a metaphorical rather than a literal sense.

7. The Tip of the Iceberg

36As has been signaled before, the overarching theoretical and philosophical framework employed by Žižek in his essays on Covid-19 includes not only Marx, but also Hegel and Lacan, Lacanianism involving Hegelianism and, inescapably, Freudianism. It is in Lacanian and Freudian terms that the Slovenian philosopher expounds on the backdrop to the pandemic and its accompanying misfortunes:

This is how we should apply Hegel’s idealism to the reality of the pandemic. Here also, we should bear in mind Lacan’s claim that there is no reality without a fantasmatic support. Fantasies provide the frame for what we experience as reality—the Covid-19 pandemic as a fact of our social reality is therefore also a mixture of fantasies and the real: the whole frame for how we perceive and react to the virus is sustained by different fantasies—about the nature of the virus itself, about the causes of its social impact, etc. The fact that Covid-19 almost brought the world to a standstill at a time when many are already dying of pollution, hunger, and war, clearly indicates this fantasmatic dimension: we tend to forget that there are people for whom Covid-19 is a minor issue. (Pandemic! 2 112-13)

37Taking as his starting point the Freudian dream-thought, Žižek resorts to digital metaphors, referring to the layers of the internet, which parallel the unconscious/preconscious distinction: “Similarly, the panoply of antagonisms and crises that forms the background of the Covid-19 pandemic is its deep web, accessible through simple social analysis, while the transcendental-ontological catastrophe triggered by the pandemic is its dark web, a space that most of us are not even aware of” (Pandemic! 2 131). Seeing the pandemic through a psychoanalytic lens, Žižek continues to draw on Freudianism:

My hypothesis is that we can easily locate the same Freudian triad beneath the pandemic as a social fact. Covid-19 itself is the ‘manifest dream text,’ the focal point of our media, what we talk (and dream) about—not just an actual phenomenon but an object of fantasy connections, of dreams and fears. The pandemic is, today, a Master-Signifier, or, as Claudio Magris put it, ‘a tyrant of our thoughts. Like all tyrants, it wants that we don’t talk about anything else than itself.’ This Master-Signifier is overdetermined by a whole series of interconnected real-life facts and processes (today’s riders of the apocalypse) that form its ‘dream content’: not only the reality of the health crisis but also the ecological crisis (global warming, the effects of deep sea pollution and mining, etc.); economic crisis (unemployment, threats of widespread hunger); new waves of social unrest bringing many countries to the edge of civil war; international tensions that can easily erupt into war; and, of course, the mental health crisis. In short, the pandemic functioned as a kind of detonator that exploded already existing tensions in our societies. (Pandemic! 2 131-32)

38The Žižekian view that the gravest and most pressing problems of the modern world are inextricably linked, that they are in fact communicating vessels and that it was the pandemic that gave salience to those problems sheds light on the following fragment of The Silence, largely uncontextualized and unascribed to any of the protagonists:

But the war rolls on and the terms accumulate.
Cyberattacks, digital intrusions, biological aggressions. Anthrax, smallpox, pathogens. The dead and disabled. Starvation, plague and what else?
Power grids collapsing. Our personal perceptions sinking into quantum dominance.
Are the oceans rising rapidly? Is the air getting warmer, hour by hour, minute by minute?
Do people experience memories of earlier conflicts, the spread of terrorism, the shaky video of someone approaching an embassy, a bomb vest strapped to his chest? Pray and die. War that we can see and feel.
Is there a shred of nostalgia in these recollections? (DeLillo 77-78)

39The content of the passage loco citato overlaps in several respects with the Žižek hypothesis cited earlier. The telegraphic style DeLillo adopts in the fragment under discussion, with its accumulation of nouns or adjective-noun combinations, verbless clauses and rhetorical questions, may be less explicit, but its catalog-like structure provides a common denominator for phenomena which are seemingly diverse but in fact correlated, such as war, cyberterrorism, biological warfare, epidemics, famine, ecological disasters and terrorism. They are a modern variation on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse known from the Bible and evoked by the Slovenian philosopher. Moreover, DeLillo, who, in the words of Andrzej Antoszek, “knows how to show that in fact everything is interconnected—the past, the present and the future—and that human life is the resultant of relations, networks and even conspiracies, to which the writer consistently returns in his books” (217, translation mine), also establishes a link between the recent past and the present. In doing so, he suggests that faced with ever-new catastrophes, one may, paradoxically and ironically enough, feel nostalgic about what various dangers and conflicts, be it terrorist acts or wars, used to look like. Most importantly, in DeLillo’s interpretation, a modern crisis may be a logical consequence of the crises of the past, of their evolution and mutation.

40This particular thread of the novel, which is certainly a major one, is picked up ten pages later, when Tessa embarks on a monolog whose main idea dovetails with DeLillo’s vision of the past and the present discussed in the preceding paragraph:

‘What comes next?’ Tessa says. ‘It was always at the edges of our perception. Power out, technology slipping away, one aspect, then another. We’ve seen it happening repeatedly, this country and elsewhere, storms and wildfires and evacuations, typhoons, tornadoes, drought, dense fog, foul air. Landslides, tsunamis, disappearing rivers, houses collapsing, entire buildings crumbling, skies blotted out by pollution. I’m sorry and I’ll try to shut up. But remaining fresh in every memory, virus, plague, the march through airport terminals, the face masks, the city streets emptied out.’
Tessa notes the silence that attends her pauses.
‘From the one blank screen in this apartment to the situation that surrounds us. What is happening? Who is doing this to us? Have our minds been digitally remastered? Are we an experiment that happens to be falling apart, a scheme set in motion by forces outside our reckoning? This is not the first time these questions have been asked. Scientists have said things, written things, physicists, philosophers.’ (The Silence 88-89)

41Again the passage is structured in a catalog-like fashion, but this time the catalog is at once more exhaustive and more restricted, the list of nouns or adjective-noun combinations denoting various types of environmental disasters. These are followed by images which evoke memories of the coronavirus pandemic although, as mentioned at the beginning of this study, DeLillo’s micronovel was actually written before its outbreak. Rather dramatic rhetorical questions complete Tessa’s soliloquy, which in some respects seems to echo the clinic administrator’s utterance. Her monolog expresses the view, already implied in the earlier, uncontextualized passage, that the recent history of catastrophes is, so to speak, a chronicle of a crisis foretold, of crises which were anticipated, which multiplied and which engendered or turned into other crises. The long string of disasters the protagonist enumerates as well as the accumulation of rhetorical questions, which are, in a way, also listed, and thus the very stylistic structure of the fragment in question reinforce the general sense of Tessa’s speech.

42Central to Tessa’s soliloquy are the notions of repetition and anticipation as well as perhaps that of a possible cause-and-effect relationship. Implicit in it is also the idea that what happened in the past and is happening in the present may also repeat itself in the future, in more or less altered form. What may also be inferred from Tessa’s ramblings about crises and catastrophes is that, generally speaking, humankind has them coming and is to expect them. A similar inevitability is expressed in another monolog, this time Diane’s: “But didn’t this have to happen? Isn’t that what some of us are thinking? We were headed in this direction. No more wonder, no more curiosity. Totally impaired orientation. Too much of everything from too narrow a source code” (DeLillo, The Silence 104-105). The frozen world of DeLillo’s novel is also a world turned upside down, for which humankind may be to blame. Diane seems to associate her personal responsibility with her profession, probably assuming that professors and, more generally, intellectuals, that is those who are supposed to be cognitively ahead of others, guide them and enlighten them, are also the ones who should have more insight, see further and predict certain dangers. Symbolically, she now finds herself, together with a former student of hers, in a situation resembling a film: “The end-of-the-world movie. People stranded in a room. But we’re not stranded. We can leave anytime. I try to imagine the vast sense of confusion out there. My husband does not want to describe what he has seen but I am guessing bedlam in the streets and why am I so reluctant to get up and walk to the window and simply look?” (104). The scene visualized by Diane calls to mind a state of affairs all too familiar to anybody in a post-pandemic world: isolation on the one hand and mutinous chaos on the other.

43Seemingly unsystematic, perhaps even uncontrolled and nervous, the DeLilloesque catalogs discussed above are congruous with Žižek’s central thesis, which is that the Covid-19 pandemic is inextricably connected with a wide array of problems and as such transcends various areas of life and human activity. Opposing a tendency to see the coronavirus crisis as merely a problem in itself, the Slovenian philosopher argues that this transcendence is not just what should be noticed but what should be given particular attention if the issues in question are to be resolved:

The crucial ideological and political battle that is occurring today concerns the relationship between three domains: the pandemic, the ecological crisis, and racism. The establishment seeks to keep these three domains apart, and even to hint at tensions between them. One often hears that our main task now is to get the economy moving, and that to do this we should neglect ecological problems a little bit. One hears that chaotic anti-racist protests often violate social distancing and for that reason contribute to the spread of Covid-19. (Pandemic! 2 71)

44Žižek’s counterarguments to such propositions are as follows:

Against this line of reasoning, one should insist on the basic unity of the three domains: epidemics erupt from our unbalanced relationship with our natural environs, they are not just a health problem; in addition to being the overwhelming targets of police brutality, Black people are much more vulnerable to viruses than the white majority who can afford self-isolation and better medical care. We are thus dealing with crises that erupt as moments brought on by the dynamics of global capitalism: viral epidemics, ecological crisis, and racial unrest were all not only predicted but were already with us for decades. (Pandemic! 2 72)

45The motif of social unrest is also found in The Silence. Although nothing of the sort happens in DeLillo’s novel, his protagonists anxiously anticipate such problems or similar ones before they even arise. Tessa wonders if “people in the streets [are likely to] become flash mobs, running wild, breaking and entering, everywhere, planet-wide, rejecting the past, completely unmoored from all the habits and patterns” (87). Hers is more than a vision of unrest, justified in the case of the Afro-Americans Žižek makes reference to in his essays. It is a terrifying, nightmarish foreboding about an uncivilized and aggressive humanity, uncontrollable and unpredictable, inevitably and apocalyptically brutalizing others, perhaps—although the American writer does not say so explicitly—due to the fact that it has itself been brutalized by catastrophic circumstances but also due to various other factors which have been accumulating for a long time, longer than the catastrophe itself. The image of menacing-looking, unbridled human masses later recurs in a scene where Max has to push his way through the crowd in New York. In another series of rhetorical questions, DeLillo seems to suggest the global dimension of the ghastly forecast: “Is it like this in other cities, people on a rampage, nowhere to go? Do crowds in a Canadian city spill down to join crowds here? Is Europe one impossible crowd? What time is it in Europe? Are the public squares swarming with people, tens of thousands, and all of Asia and Africa and elsewhere?” (The Silence 98). Meanwhile, the New York crowd becomes disquietingly violent: “people hunched against the cold, a thousand faces every minute, people wrestling, throwing punches, a small riot here and there, curses rising into the air” (99).

8. The War on Crisis

46Many would agree that the most extreme and barbaric form of large-scale violence is war. Military terminology and rhetoric are to be found in both The Silence and the Žižek essays in light of which I propose to read DeLillo’s micronovel. Max dismisses the military planes traditionally flying over the Super Bowl stadium as “[a]n outdated ritual” and goes on to comment: “We’ve gone beyond all comparisons between football and war. World Wars in Roman numerals, Super Bowls in Roman numerals. War is something else, happening somewhere else” (DeLillo, The Silence 28). Much later, in what constitutes a separate and strikingly brief section of the novel, Martin remarks: “Nobody wants to call it World War III but this is what it is” (79). While the passages loco citato are economical and elliptical as well as somewhat cryptic, what is left unsaid in DeLillo’s prose, prepandemic but insightfully foreshadowing what was soon to come, acquires additional meaning and significance upon closer examination, especially when set against scholarly scrutiny of a phenomenon signaled by the American novelist.

47Linguists have drawn attention to the way politicians and other officials, governments and various public institutions resorted to bellicose language during the pandemic. “At the outburst of the COVID-19 pandemic and all throughout its continuation in 2020 and 2021, the metaphor of ‘war’ has been one of the most pervasive and recurrent globally,” Paola Giorgis, Olena Semenets and Bilyana Todorova point out. “Expressions like ‘We are at war,’ ‘Our heroes are fighting at the forefront,’ ‘We will win this war’ and the like contributed to create [sic] symbolical cross-cultural responses that, by playing on emotions such as fear, uncertainty and, in some cases, national pride, contributed to the creation of a new state of reality, that of the ‘new normality,’ calling for specific actions and behaviors.” In extralinguistic praxis, such tendencies manifested themselves for example by high-ranking military officers and medical doctors being involved in and given prominence in national pandemic management tactics. Hardly new, such policies inscribe themselves in the larger scheme of things: “In the last decades, the neoliberal governments have applied the war metaphor to various domains—e.g., war on crime, war on drugs, war on AIDS, war on terrorism—creating a logic of perennial war that has justified measures of securitazion [sic] and control of the bodies” (Giorgis et al.). While such a use of military discourse may be condemned as “[d]ivisive” and “polarized”, the aim of those who employ it and devise the strategies it entails is to take advantage, often for political or manipulatory reasons, of the key characteristics of such rhetoric, namely “an appeal to unity, the mobilitization [sic] against a common threat, the rhetoric construction (or reconstruction) of a specific national identity, the legitimization of security measures” (Giorgis et al.).

48In a similarly skeptical but considerably less categorical vein, Žižek also uses military terminology, referring to the coronavirus crisis as “a state of medical war” (Pandemic! 45) and even going so far as to argue that “wartime measures are needed” (104) under the circumstances. At the same time, touching upon the question of the pandemic’s visibility, which has been discussed earlier in this study, the Slovenian theorist observes that he “find[s] problematic the use of the term ‘war’ for our struggle against the virus,” since, as he sees it, “the virus is not an enemy with plans and strategies to destroy us, it is just a stupid self-replicating mechanism” (104-105). Coronavirus may thus be described as mindless and seemingly unreal. As Žižek delicately suggests, invoking a discussion with a friend who voiced such an opinion, it may even be a phantom threat, remaining largely unperceivable, at least until one is directly hit by it. Visibility or lack thereof does not, however, make the virus less dangerous or frightening. As the philosopher’s friend specified, “if there is no great change in our daily reality, then the threat is experienced as a spectral fantasy nowhere to be seen and all the more powerful for that reason. Remember that, in Nazi Germany, anti-Semitism was strongest in those parts where the number of Jews was minimal—their invisibility made them a terrifying specter” (130). If, as I have noted earlier, DeLillo does not seem to subscribe to a view of the pandemic as “invisible,” associating it with concrete images in “Man at the Window,” he does realize the undeniable and disturbing potential of war to represent, obviously enough, an actual threat but also the epitome of human fears and a source of metaphors. His protagonists mention war—or wars, or a concrete war—possibly because they are impregnated with the kind of rhetoric which those in power have been relying on for decades, the pandemic being merely one more opportunity to use it; because, in short, Max, Diane and their friends as well as innumerable other people across the globe live in what Giorgis et alia term “a logic of perennial war.” However, the characters in The Silence also talk of war simply because they are exposed to all sorts of fear-inducing facts and phenomena, which, whatever their exact nature may be in each specific case, include war and which war and all things warlike stand for.

9. Conclusion: Time for Reconsideration

49The second of the collections of essays by Žižek on which I draw in the present article is entitled Pandemic! 2: Chronicles of a Time Lost. The subtitle inevitably recalls Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, arguably the greatest and best-known twentieth-century literary work dealing with the problematics of time and memory, but also, and more importantly in the context of my analysis, gives food for reflection on the link between temporality and the collective experience of the pandemic. Contrary to what the title of the volume seems to promise, time per se is not the principal object of the Slovenian philosopher’s musings. He does, nevertheless, refer to it on several occasions in the sequel to the first collection of essays, from which such reflections are largely absent. Similarly, time underlies the absurdist experience the characters in The Silence go through, pervading their thoughts and philosophical enunciations.

50In one of the novella’s sections, the American writer paints a disquieting vision of humankind, painfully aware of its mortality and having reached a point when reality defies belief, leaving everybody disoriented and helpless, but, counterintuitively, also making some peculiarly relieved:

People begin to appear in the streets, warily at first and then in a spirit of release, walking, looking, wondering, women and men, an incidental cluster of adolescents, all escorting each other through the mass insomnia of this inconceivable time.
And isn’t it strange that certain individuals have seemed to accept the shutdown, the burnout? Is this something that they’ve always longed for, subliminally, subatomically? Some people, always some, a minuscule number among the human inhabitants of planet Earth, third planet from the sun, the realm of mortal existence. (DeLillo, The Silence 78)

51For DeLillo’s protagonists, nearly everything becomes problematic during the blackout, including the way in which they experience temporality. Time turns out to be unfathomable at a very basic level as the characters become unaware of its passage and are gradually engulfed by it: “I’m done with all this. Sunday or is it Monday? February whatever. It’s my expiration date” (84), Max observes, impatiently and ironically picturing himself as a product whose usefulness is determined by temporal constraints. Later, in the opening of a monolog already cited in the present article, Diane visibly accuses herself and other people of “[s]taring into space. Losing track of time” (104) long before the shutdown actually started. The passage of time no longer seems marked by any points on the timeline, by events which were anticipated but now, the protagonists begin to fear, may never happen. Shortly after the interruption of the broadcast, Martin mentions “[s]omething to eat,” to which Diane responds: “Maybe at halftime. If halftime ever comes” (31). What she, her husband and their friends await is in fact the end of the predicament they have found themselves in: “‘When we’re finished with all this, it may be time for me to embrace a free death. Freitod,’ he [Martin] says. ‘But am I serious about this or simply begging attention? And the situation we are in. Shouldn’t I be home, alone, in my room? Isn’t this what the circumstances warrant? No word from anyone, anywhere. Time to sit and be still’” (102).

52While the qualms DeLillo’s protagonists have about temporality may appear to be largely due to the peculiarity of their condition, shaped by the distressing circumstances of the blackout, and are in keeping with their general tendency, which is serious and somewhat ridiculous at the same time, to philosophize on existential issues, Žižek’s conclusions concerning time—the time of the pandemic and time in the context of the pandemic—shed light on what I would argue is the overall message of The Silence. The Slovenian theorist begins the second of his books on the coronavirus crisis by invoking Francis Fukuyama’s famous belief that the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe was tantamount to the end of historical progress: “As Alenka Zupančič put it, the problem with the idea of the end of the world is the same as with Fukuyama’s end of history: the end itself doesn’t end, we just get stuck in a weird immobility. The secret wish of us all, what we think about all the time, is only one thing: when will it end? But it will not end: it is reasonable to see the ongoing pandemic as announcing a new era of ecological troubles” (Pandemic! 2 12). In other words, the long-anticipated and eagerly awaited end will not come because it is in fact merely the beginning of other, equally or even more crushing disasters. Fearing “a new barbarian age in which our attention to the health crisis will only enable conflicts like the reignited Cold War between the US and China, or the hot wars in Syria and Afghanistan, to continue out of sight of the global public” (14-15), Žižek observes that “[t]hese conflicts operate in the same way as a virus: they drag on interminably” (15). Not only is the pandemic unlikely to ever really end, but it is not a real beginning either, since it represents “a link in a long chain of crises that besets our world, from threats to our environment to economic and social conflicts” (149).

53The Silence is an open-ended novel: it closes with an image of Max “star[ing] into the blank screen” (DeLillo 116). DeLillo does not offer definite answers, and certainly no black-and-white ones. Perhaps this is so because answers are inextricably linked with deeper meaning, but, as Žižek somewhat provocatively notes, there is no hidden meaning behind the Covid-19 pandemic. That we try to look for it results from our unwillingness to come to terms with the fact that human beings themselves are meaningless, merely one of many species (Pandemic! 14). As has already been mentioned, epidemics, he argues, are traumatizing not only in themselves, but also because they make us realize the randomness and meaninglessness of our existence. Paradoxically, however, the supposed lack of deeper meaning is, to some extent at least, ostensible. As the present study has attempted to prove, for both DeLillo and Žižek, the 2020 pandemic—or, in the former’s case, a pandemic-like condition—is actually laden with meaning, or, to be more precise, meanings. As I have shown, the meanings in question are played out on numerous levels, encompassing society, culture, politics and the economy, and concern numerous phenomena, all of which are crucial to twenty-first-century reality. They include science and technology, globalization and capitalism, war and threats to the environment, and, most significantly, the irreplaceability of the human touch. Strikingly, these meanings do not, or at least not only, concern a particular cataclysm as such but its implications and, most importantly, already existing problems, dilemmas, more or less latent crises and, eventually, catastrophes which are yet to come. Overwhelming as it may be, a disaster such as the Covid-19 pandemic is actually more than what it is at the most basic level: it is also what it stands for, what it foregrounds and uncovers. It is, in short, a pretext for coming face to face with modernity and pretty much everything that is inscribed in it as well as with the resultant fear and fragility. As Joseph Dewey points out, in End Zone and Ratner’s Star, the protagonists “confront events with apocalyptic implications that offer opportunities to embrace the wider perspective DeLillo values” (54). The Silence seems to be built on a similar premise. As we remember, Žižek observes that it takes a disaster to make people reexamine the world they live in. During lockdown, he adds, we can do so because, cut off from hecticity, we finally have the time (Pandemic! 57). This is largely what the protagonists of DeLillo’s latest novel do. Having found themselves “[i]n a tumbling void” (The Silence 96), to borrow the opening line of a poem Tessa is planning to write, they endeavor to make sense of what is and has been happening to them and the world they live in, forcing the reader to do the same.

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References

Electronic reference

Alicja Piechucka, Pandemic as Pretext: The Implications of Global Cataclysms in Don DeLillo’s The Silence and Slavoj Žižek’s Writings on Covid-19European journal of American studies [Online], 19-2 | 2024, Online since 07 June 2024, connection on 24 July 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/22265

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About the author

Alicja Piechucka

Alicja Piechucka is Associate Professor of American literature in the Department of North American Literature and Culture at the University of Lodz. She is an Americanist, English philologist, literary scholar, literary and film critic. In 2006, she received her Ph.D. from the University of Lodz, based on a doctoral dissertation devoted to T.S. Eliot’s poetry. In 2020, she obtained her habilitation in literary studies, based mostly on works dealing with Hart Crane’s œuvre. Her academic interests include American literature, French literature, modernist poetry, modernist and contemporary prose, and comparative literature. She has authored over 100 publications, including two monographs.

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