December 3, 2015

Death Made in the Laboratory

I ended my literature survey course today with postmodernism and Don DeLillo's novel, White Noise (1985). My favorite sequence in this novel is the "Airborne Toxic Event." A shipment of toxic waste has spilled near a suburb, and a family living in that suburb is forced to evacuate their house. They have only heard about the "toxic event" over the radio. The following passage narrates when they finally see the effluent of the chemical disaster:
"The enormous mass moved like some death ship in a Norse legend, escorted across the night by armored creatures with spiral wings. We're weren't sure how to react. It was a terrible thing to see, so close, so low, packed with chlorides, benzines, phenols, hydrocarbons, or whatever the precise toxic content. But it was also spectacular, part of the grandness of a sweeping event [...]. 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."
This is so compelling. Here a man-made disaster appears like a natural disaster, "some seasonal perversity of the earth." The artificial and the natural have blurred. The artificiality that appears natural is a horrible threat, a sinister harbinger of death. And it becomes curiously shaded when we remember that the evil is something we have created. The "toxic event" is a kind of Frankenstein, a monster of human creation.