Crowds of Like-Minded People: Is There Anything More Destructive?
By Hilary Maiorano
The critically-acclaimed author, Don Delillo, seems to continually create masterpieces that are celebrated by a wide range of readers across the world. His tenth novel, Mao II, is no exception. Through witty conversations between intriguing characters and edgy situations that have the reader on their toes, Delillo creates a conflicting world in which everyone is ruled by crowds. As Tom LeCaire stated in a lecture at Case Western Reserve’s annual “Discussion Day,” “It’s fair to say Mao II is crowded with crowds” (LeClaire). As stated in an article in The Economist, “even the novel’s title, inspired by Andy Warhol’s silkscreen packed with garish portraits of Chairman Mao, provokes memories of chanting mobs waving that little red book of quotations (Economist 19). Delillo explores the idea of a crowd of people and how destructive it can be to other people, as well as the crowd itself. People are either sucked into the whirlpool of following the crowd, or on the outside being affected by the crowd’s ideas and actions. Within Mao II, Don Delillo utilizes historical events to demonstrate how dangerous and destructive crowds can be.
Since the beginning of time, people have formed crowds. Whether it is to ally together to fight a war, or align to right an injustice, individuals have always joined together in unison to solve problems. In Mao II, Delillo asserts that “the future belongs to crowds” (16). After all, if two heads are better than one, many heads must be even further superior. Crowds can be very beneficial to society. A crowd of people is much more likely to influence the decisions of a government or large company than an individual by themselves. Large groups of people with the same ideas and goals can affect great change. This can be seen through lobby groups that try to change the government’s opinion on certain issues of concern. Sometimes, however, if the crowd’s ideas are negative, the consequences can be drastic and can even result in many casualties.
When a large group of people come together with similar goals involving hatred or prejudice, many people can be hurt. An example of this is the Holocaust. One man, Adolph Hitler, had an idea about how a culture should look and he brainwashed a crowd of people to believe his notion, which resulted in 6 million deaths. This one, massive crowd of programmed people were capable of exterminating such a large number of innocent human beings. This thought is terrifying and unthinkable. Within crowds, people can be manipulated to believe absurd ideas that make them act in unimaginable ways. Many of the dangers of crowds are explored throughout Delillo’s novel, Mao II.
The first time the reader is introduced to the topic of crowds in Mao II, it is when Karen is getting married to a complete stranger along with thousands of others in Yankee Stadium. Her father, Rodge, cannot even spot his daughter within the crowd, even with the aid of binoculars. He is very saddened that his daughter is getting married to someone she only just met along with thousands of other couples. “It knocks him back in awe, the loss of scale and intimacy, the way love and sex are multiplied out, the numbers and shaped crowd. This really scares him, a mass of people turned into a sculptured object” (Delillo 7). This signifies that when in a crowd, each individual loses their intimacy with the others because there are so many of them. This crowd of people is so powerful that they can deprive the sacred act of marriage of its holiness and intimacy. The crowd no longer sees each other as intimate beings, but just as parts making up the whole crowd, which is made out to be an object.
After many couples enter the stadium, “there are still more couples coming out of the runway and folding into the crowd, although ‘crowd’ is not the right word. He doesn’t know what to call them. He imagines they are uniformly smiling, showing the face they squeeze out with the toothpaste each morning” (Delillo 4). Within crowds, people lose their ability to act as individuals and end up following what the mass of people do. Karen even says “the single floating eye of the crowd” (8) when referring to who was watching Master Moon. Everyone loses their individuality to the crowd. People are too afraid to be different and be rejected by the crowd that they just follow along, which can end up harming them. The only thing that Rodge knows to help him find his daughter in the mass of people is the fact that her soon-to-be husband is wearing a dark blue suit and a maroon tie and she is wearing a lace-and-satin gown. This, however, turns out to be of no use at all due to the fact that all of the 6,500 couples are wearing the exact same outfits. The Economist states in the article Fear of Crowds that “this is just one of the bleak, sometimes nightmarish, images invoked to support the novel’s assertion that ‘the future belongs to crowds’” (Economist 19).
Delillo further explores the dangers of crowds when he makes a reference to the Sheffield soccer riots. In April of 1989 in Sheffield, England, “95 people are crushed to death at an English FA Cup semifinal game…when police open gates to alleviate crowding outside Hillsborough Stadium. The resulting rush of people onto the already filled terrace sections traps fans against riot control fences” (sportsillustrated.cnn.com). Ninety-five people were killed due to the massive crowd. If everyone follows everyone else in one mindless, careless mess, people will ultimately be harmed. In Mao II, Karen turns on the TV only to witness the mass of people being crushed in the stadium. “She sees a great straining knot of people pressed to a fence, forced massively forward. They show the metal fence and bodies crushed against it, arms upflung. They show the terrible slow straining and heaving” (Delillo 33). As people were being crushed and suffocated, no one stopped to notice this, making the situation worse as even more people thrust themselves into the over-crowded stadium. The crowd is one throng of parts that brainlessly follows the rest of itself. It is only when the individual feels threatened that they break free from the crowd and do anything they can to survive. It is only then that it is every man for himself. By then, however, it may be too late. While observing the events, Karen “sees men far back actually climbing on top of the mass of bodies, two men crawling on all the heads and shoulders” (33). This demonstrates how people only break free and betray the crowd when their life is threatened. When it is someone else’s life, it is okay to continue pushing them to their death.
A crowd of people can sometimes act like a group of lemmings. Lemmings are animals that do anything that another lemming does. Karen witnesses this on TV when “they show the fence from a distance, bodies piling up behind it, smothered, sometimes only fingers moving, and it is like a fresco in an old dark church, a crowded twisted vision of a rush to death as only a master of the age could paint it” (34). The people are rushing to their own death without even knowing it because they are following the person in front of them. There is a boy in the crowd who does not even realize what is going on and has a happy expression on his face while people all around him are dying. “The boy in the white cap with red peak standing in the midst, in the crush, only now he senses, his eyes are shut, he senses he is trapped, his face is reading desperation” (33). People get so caught up in the excitement of following the crowd that they do not realize the horror happening around them, until it is too late and they are trapped, consumed by the crowd.
Another example of how destructive crowds can be comes later in the novel. Delillo references the disturbance of the funeral of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Millions of people mourned the death of Khomeini and when the body was delivered to the gravesite by helicopter due to the massive crowd, “the crowd swarmed in and grabbed pieces of the shroud, causing the corpse actually to fall to the ground” (Pipes). This demonstrates the brutal force of a crowd. The people defiled the corpse of their leader. People were so intent on seeing the body that “the roof of a bus fell in under the weight of people trying to see the body” (Delillo 188). The crowd distorts a person’s ethics and morals so that they do not care what happens to the individuals around them as long as the one crowd’s goals are achieved. “The living forced their way into the burial site, bloodying their heads and tearing at their hair, choking in the thick dust” (189). The crowd of people even harmed themselves in following each other to achieve their goal. They were distorted and twisted into something other than their true selves so that they ended up doing themselves more harm than good.
Karen watched in horror as the people “were fighting over the body and beating their own faces” (190). By the influence of a crowd, individuals lose their identity and become twisted and monstrous. The manipulation from the crowd causes a person to do something that they normally would not. Karen “thought of the delicate tending of the dead and watched the frenzy of this scene and believed she might pass out. It was an injury to the idea that the dead are protected” (190). The individuals within the crowd had lost themselves to the extent that they had begun to disrespect and sully the dead. The force of the crowd made people do horrible things. Crowds have the ability to dramatically transform a person from an individual into a mindless follower.
Through the usage of historical events, Don Delillo is able to demonstrate the horrible destructiveness of crowds. Although crowds can be beneficial, they can also be deadly. Within a crowd, a person forfeits their individuality, their identity, and their freedom to make decisions for themselves, to abide by the crowd’s decisions. Throngs of people are capable of sullying sacred acts of marriage, killing innocent people, as well as defiling the dead. Crowds of people can harm themselves as well as innocent bystanders. They are very destructive and dangerous and can change and distort a person’s values and beliefs so that they become almost inhuman. The question is: should people be scared? Is Don Delillo right in saying that “the future belongs to crowds?” (16).
Delillo, Don. Mao II. New York: Penguin Books, 1991
LeClaire, Tom. “Me and Mao II.” (1996). 19 January 2008. <http://perival.com/deli-llo/meandmaoii.html>
Pipes, Daniel. “Scenes From Three Funerals: Arafat, Khomeini, Nasser.” Danielpipes.org (2004) 19 January 2008 <http://www.danielpipes.org/blog/366>
“Fear of Crowds.” The Economist. 391(1991):86. 18 January 2008 <http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=5&hid=116&sid=1c386c63-9dfd-4638-bbaa-806ea77e140f%40sessionmgr102>
“Major Stadium Disasters.” Sports Illustrated CNN (2001) 18 January 2008 <http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/soccer/world/news/2000/07/09/stadium_disasters_ap/>Back to top
Crowds Versus Isolation: Is There Really a Difference?
By Natalie Gruver
When literary genius Don DeLillo released his tenth novel, Mao II, it was instantly hailed by critics as a grand masterpiece. Mao II is a commentary on the twisted lifestyles of present-day Americans, told through an intellectual, yet ironic, approach. The story focuses on destructive crowds and the effects they have on one’s identity. Contrastingly, DeLillo also explores the effects of identity on individuals who suffer, both voluntarily and involuntarily, from extreme isolation. From this exploration, questions arise: What exactly are the effects of being in a crowd and being alone? And are they really that different? Through the depiction of individuals in crowds and individuals in isolation, DeLillo explores the concept of self-identity.
The opening scene, also the first example of a crowd, in DeLillo’s Mao II depicts a mass marriage ceremony of the Unification Church at Yankee Stadium. The scene is narrated from the viewpoint of two parents, eagerly looking for their daughter among the crowd of sixty-five hundred young adults awaiting their marriage blessing from Sun Myung Moon, the leader of the Unification Church. Their search proves to be an extremely challenging task; all of the grooms wear matching blue suits, and all of the brides wear lace-and-satin gowns. DeLillo writes, “From a series of linked couples, they became one continuous wave, larger all the time, covering the open spaces in navy and white…They’re one body now, an undifferentiated mass, and this makes [the father] uneasy” (3). According to Let Us Reason Ministry, at the time of the first mass marriage of the Unification Church in 1982, the reaction of the public was highly unfavorable. People believed that these mass marriages were disrespectful to traditional marriage ceremonies. Also, the idea of marrying a stranger did not sit well with the American public; it was too impersonal. Apart from being disapproved by the public, these mass marriages also resulted in the loss of self-identity: “They all feel the same, young people from fifty countries, immunized against the language of self. They’re forgetting who they are under their clothes…” (8). The self-concept is “the accumulation of knowledge about the self, such as beliefs regarding personality traits, physical characteristics, abilities, values, goals, and roles” (social.jrank.org). In this mass wedding crowd, all self-identity is stripped away. Every individual is dressed in the same attire; every individual is in the same formation and reciting the same lines. Every individual has the same life aspiration: marry a practical stranger from a different country, recruit more members to the Unification Church, and please Sun Myung Moon. In crowds, the sense of self is lost. As DeLillo also stated, “They all chant for one language, one word, for the time when names are lost” (16). A name is the most personal thing one has, for it is the foundation of one’s self-identity. In prisons, the names of the prisoners are removed and replaced with numbers to induce of feeling of no self-identity. To do this to an entire population would be treacherous; a world without names is unfathomable. There would be no individuality, no uniqueness, no self.
The second example of a crowd in Mao II is the Sheffield soccer riots, which DeLillo retells through the thoughts of Karen, who is watching it silently on television. While the mass wedding of the Moonies was an organized crowd, the Sheffield soccer riots were dramatically destructive. The Sheffield soccer riots occurred on April 15,1989 in Sheffield, England. Ninety-five individuals were crushed to death when the police opened gates to alleviate crowds at the English FA Cup semifinal (sportsillustrated.cnn.com). In Mao II, Karen sits mesmerized watching this scene unfold:
She sees people caught in the strangleholds of no intent, arms upflung, faces popping out at her, hands trying to reach the fence but only floating in the air, a man’s large hand, a long-haired boy in a denim shirt with his back to the fence, the face of the woman with the tresses hidden behind her own twisted arm, nails painted glossy pink, a girl or woman with eyes closed and tongue showing, dying or dead. (33-34)
Many people lost their lives that day, the world watch the “crush of humanity” (Economist 19), and the victims died unknown. They are identifiable only by the color of a shirt, the type of hair, the color of nails. Again, due to the overwhelming size of the crowd, the self-identities of the individuals within the crowd are nonexistent. Due to the quirkiness of Karen’s personality, she is probably one of the few individuals who would even take the effort to notice the shirt color, hair style, and nail colors. In addition, they died by the “crush of humanity” (Economist 19). Everyone at that stadium shared the same goal: get close to see the game. Unfortunately, the aspiration that united the crowd also ended in disaster; in essence, they were crushed by humanity. One person’s overpowering desire for the game killed another. The ninety-five people who tragically died during the Sheffield soccer riots are not remembered for their entire self, only the part with the passion for soccer. When individuals make the choice to become part of a crowd, they sacrifice their self-identity.
Another theme within DeLillo’s Mao II is isolation. According to Paula Martin Salvan, this is a theme familiar to DeLillo’s work: “The pattern usually includes physical isolation and the abandonment of the communicative function of language, as well as different kinds of anti-social behavior” (ejas.revues.org). Bill Gray decides to take on a life of the utmost isolation. His fans have been tracking him for years; with only one being successful in actually reaching him, Scott. When Scott found Bill, Bill decided to let him work as his assistant; taking on odd jobs such as organizing the house, sorting the fan mail, and even offering advice to Bill regarding his novel. Bill opens up to Brita during their photography session about his life in isolation, “Once you choose this life, you understand what it’s like to exist in a state of constant religious observance. There are no halfway measures. All the movements we make are ritual movements. Everything we do that isn’t directly centered on work revolves around concealment, seclusion, ways of evasion” (44-45). He describes the intricate plans needed for simple procedures such as repairmen, delieverymen, and bringing Brita to the house. The narrator comments on Bill’s isolation, “He couldn’t understand how any of it had happened, how a young man, inexperienced, wary of the machinery of glass and distortion, protective of his work and very shy and slightly self-romanticizing, could find himself all these years later trapped in his own massive stillness” (45). Eventually, Bill will come to realize that his quest for isolation was a bad idea; he went into isolation for independence, but lost his self-identity in the process. Bill has been secluded for such a prolonged period of time, with only Scott and Karen to talk to. He is afraid to leave his house, afraid to be found. The only thing he ever wishes to do is to work on his novel; it has consumed him. The thought of never being able to successfully finish his novel haunts him day to night; it is inescapable. When Bill thinks of his novel, he sees “a neutered near-human dragging through the house, humpbacked, hydrocephalic, with puckered lips and soft skin, dribbling brain fluid from its mouth” (55). Not only has isolation made Bill even more eccentric than the average novelist, it has caused Bill to focus on only one aspect of his self, his novel. In doing so, he forgoes all other aspects of his self-identity.
The most intense example of isolation in Mao II is the poet held hostage. The hostage is imprisoned in a dark room, completely secluded from contact. Occasionally he can hear the television on the floor above him and the sound of bombs detonating outside. The only social interaction he receives if from a young boy who also wears a hood. The narrator comments on the hostage’s situation, “He conceded the fact of his confinement. He admitted to the presence of the plastic wire they’d used to fasten his wrist to the water-supply pipe. He conceded the hood. His head was covered with a hood” (108). The hostage accepted his captive situation, although he still becomes slightly deranged: obsessing over time, bricks, and outsmarting his captors. His derangement is exemplified when he feels an ant crawling on the back of his hand: “…he wanted to speak to it, explain his situation. He wanted to tell it who he was because this was now a matter of some confusion. Cut off from people whose voices were the ravel of his being, growing scant and pale because there was no one to see him and give him back his body” (110). Unlike Bill, whose isolation is voluntary, the hostage is held against his will. Similarly though, he has lost his self-identity. He no longer remembers who he is, where he has come from, why he is here. Every feature of his self, his personality traits, physical characteristics, abilities, values, goals, and roles, are lost; suppressed with his captivity. The narrator conveys the hostage’s most disturbing condition: “There was no one who knew him but the boy. First his government abandoned him, then his employer, then his family. And now the men who’d abducted him and kept him sealed in a basement room had also forgotten he was here. It was hard to say whose neglect troubled him most” (112). He felt completely alone and abandoned. Eventually, Bill will remove himself from his own, chosen isolation to help in the attempt to save the hostage. As Salvan again remarks, “He will abandon his individualistic isolation to become involved in the events that will confront him with an ethical dilemma: to go back home, to his harmless burrow, or to abandon Western society as a free speech martyr” (ejas.revues.org).
In DeLillo’s novel Mao II, the loss of self-identity can result from both crowds and isolation. While being an individual in a crowd and being an isolated individual are two very contrasting situations, they results that occur are strikingly similar. As stated in the book review by Economist, “there is little middle ground between the multitude and solitude.” Most often one must choose between a shallow public life or an intensive private one. The optimal solution would be to balance the two, for both participating in a crowd and isolation oneself requires a sacrifice of self-identity.
DeLillo, Don. Mao II. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
Salvan, Paula Martin. “The Writer at the Far Margin.” 18 January 2008 < http://ejas.revues.org/document1147.html>.
“Fear of Crowds.” Economist 391 (1991): 86. 18 January 2008 < http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=6&hid=116&sid=1c386c63-9dfd-4638-bbaa 806ea77e140f%40sessionmgr102>.
“Major Stadium Disasters.” CNN Sports Illustrated. 18 January 2008 < http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/soccer/world/news/2000/07/09/stadium_disasters_ap/>.
“Reverend Moon: The Dark Side of the Moon.” Let Us Reason Ministries. 18 January 2008 <http://www.letusreason.org/Moon.htm>.
“Self Concept.” 18 January 2008 < http://social.jrank.org/pages/554/Self-Concept.html>.Back to top
DeLillo and the Destruction of Writers at the Hands of Terrorists
By Vicki Bendus
One uses written words to deliver their message, while the other employs mass destruction. The first gains support by rationally and peacefully presenting their theories in novels, articles, and poems, while the second brainwashes, threatens, and uses religious implications to recruit their fanatical followers. Although writers and terrorists have radically different methods of carrying out their business, they have essentially similar agendas; they attempt to rally patrons to eventually alter the political landscape. In 1991, Don DeLillo published his novel titled Mao II, on the place that writers and terrorists hold in society. The fictional, but history laced story features a renowned author named Bill Gray who lives in complete isolation from the world around him. In his dialogues with his faithful assistant Scott, photographer Brita, and others, Bill expresses his grief in the changing times that has the power of novelists dwindling and the age of terrorism beginning. DeLillo symbolizes this concept within the plot on different occasions such as when the Swiss poet is being held captive at the hands of Beirut terrorists. Another example is the meaningless and quiet manner in which the world famous author Bill dies. As a whole, Mao II illustrates that despite similar societal roles, a transition in power is occurring causing the political influence of writers is waning, whereas terrorists are benefiting from a rise in power.
To begin to understand the shift in power from writers to terrorists, it is first vital to recognize the similar qualities that define both writers and terrorists. One noticeable parallel between the two is their extremely private lifestyles. The secluded life that Bill leads in Mao II illustrates the tendency of some famous novelists to separate themselves from the prying eyes of the public. After publishing two highly acclaimed novels, Bill goes into hiding and avoids all interaction with fans and readers, as well as any type of media for over thirty years. Many celebrated writers, such as the legendary J.D. Salinger, have gravitated towards this pattern of isolation. Although separating from society may initially seem like it would diminish their popularity, it in fact escalates their fame. Scott explains that it was the years after Bill’s famous novels were published that he began to get credit, “Bill is at the height of his fame. Ask me why. Because he hasn’t published in years and years and years . . . Bill gets bigger as his distance from the scene deepens” (52). This behaviour by writers may be a strategic ploy to gain fame, or it may simply be them avoiding the spotlight. Either way, separating themselves from the public is typical of writers and consequently garners them attention.
In doing so, writers are capable of controlling their self-image that is projected to the public. Without the biographies, news conferences, book signings, and public appearances, Bill’s image (and the image of writers in a similar scenario) is based on the style and content of the lyrics in his novels. The public cannot scar his image because they lack any substance to base it on. While Brita is speaking to Bill, she explains that she feels the image world is corrupt (36). Bill counters by explaining how denying people his image causes his status to rise, “In our world we sleep and eat the image and pray to it and wear it too. The writer who won’t show his face is encroaching on holy turf” (37). Bill therefore remains a mysterious figure whose identity can only be accurately be defined by his words, as opposed to having an image warped by the eyes of the public.
The lifestyle of a terrorist leader can resemble the hermit-nature that encompasses Bill’s existence. Finding a leader of a terrorist organization is not only close to impossible, but also a mission that would put any undertaker in grave danger. Terrorist leaders go to extreme lengths to ensure their current location is completely undetectable for both their enemies and most of their followers. The American’s hunt for terrorism’s poster boy, Osama Bin Laden, has been ongoing for several years to no avail, “the trail, despite the most extensive manhunt in U.S. history, has gone ‘stone cold’” (Priest A01). Similar to Bill, the longer a leader stays dormant and hidden from the public eye, the more the anticipation and fear of their next move intensifies.
Despite protecting themselves from public overexposure like writers do, terrorist leaders freely propagate their image worldwide in hopes of gaining support and power. In the story, terrorist Abu Rashid has photographs of himself wallpapered throughout the city of Beirut. The boys who he recruits and trains to become soldiers wear shirts bearing his face. Rashid explains the reason for this is to provide the boys with a sense of meaning, “The image of Rashid is their identity” (233). This suggests a difference in the way writers and terrorists make use of their image. A writer will use his image sparingly and only to impact his own public identity. On the other hand, a terrorist leader employs his image to connect and define the identities of his followers.
While identity and image are intriguing factors that are used by writers and terrorists, it is the power that they hold that is critical. Writers possess a unique ability to communicate their thoughts, feelings, theories, and ideas with their words to millions of people. Historically, writers have been able to influence society on a political level. For example, what would the world be like if twentieth century prophets Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi had not been influenced by the ideas of nonviolent resistance presented by Leo Tolstoy in his works such as The Kingdom of God is Within You? The impact of the more influential writers is still seen in culture today, even if their time has passed. It is impossible to imagine a high school English class that did not recite the prose of William Shakespeare, or follow the adventures of Scout and Jem Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. All things considered, writers hold influential, but positive, roles in society by using their freedom of expression to bring people together and change their way of thinking.
Terrorists are equally adept at gaining mobs of followers to carry out their deeds. These people obsessively obey the words of their leaders, causing them to be seen as fanatics, radicals, and sometimes even sociopaths. Abu Rashid says his “children” wear his image on their shirts because “it gives them a vision they will accept and obey” (233). Terrorist leaders gain patrons by convincing them their purposes in life are to carry out the barbaric duties they are assigned. Mohammed Hafez explains that terrorists go as far as manipulating Qur’anic verses to justify suicide terror (qtd. in Bloom 204). They use destructive actions to exemplify their power and achieve their goals, as opposed to the physically peaceful words of writers.
As the reader gets deeper into nto Mao II, they can begin to notice the recurrent allusions to the transition of power from writers to terrorists. In the beginning, Scott describes Bill’s sweeping popularity in America and some of the desperate attempts of crazed fans to meet him. Later on, Scott recounts a gathering of what seemed like brainwashed and deluded supporters for terrorist Yasir Arafat. Bill comments on several occasions that contemporary writers are no longer in positions of influence, “What terrorists gain, novelists lose . . . Beckett was the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative” (157). This statement is symbolized by the way DeLillo set up Bill’s quiet and meaningless death. He is implying that the power of the writer is fading quietly out of existence to seemingly no one’s notice. Additionally, the Swiss poet is being held hostage by Beirut terrorists signifies that modern writers are no longer free to shape society like they have in the past. Instead, it appears as though terrorists are riding a new wave of power that is centralized on threatening the innocent and brutally attacking the enemy. Ernest Evans agrees with this theory by predicting, “there is strong reason to believe that terroristic violence, which is already quite indiscriminate, will become even more so in the years and decades ahead” (179). With this in mind, it is difficult to argue the insurgence of power that terrorists have enjoyed over the past few decades and the influential demotion that writers have undergone.
The rise in terrorist power over the past few decades has caused a culture shock in the western world. The people of North America have suffered grief and sorrow in the most extreme way following the terrorist attacks of September 11th. They experienced heartache as the death toll of American soldiers from the war in Iraq climbed to the thousands. Terrorism impacts Americans’ lives every day, whether it be watching the destruction caused by another suicide bomber attack on the news, or going through extra security precautions at the airport. As a whole, in Mao II, DeLillo managed to capture the reality of the transition of political supremacy from writers to terrorists that is consuming the world today. Maybe if someone would have given these terrorist dictators a pen and pad of paper when they were younger the world would be free of many of the global conflicts that are happening today.
Bloom, Mia. "Manufacturing Human Bombs: the Making of Palestinian Suicide Bombers."
Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 25.3 (2007): 203-205.
Delillo, Don. Mao II. New York: Penguin Group, 1991.
Evans, Ernest. "The Mind of a Terrorist." World Affairs 167 (2005): 175-179.
Priest, Dana, and Ann S. Tyson. "Bin Laden Trail 'Stone Cold'" Washington Post 10 Sept. 2006,
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The Importance of Image
By Erin Lewis
Novelists, terrorists, and images: three words that are not usually connected in the same sentence. However, if one stopped and considered these words, one would find they are very connected in an abstract way; novelists and terrorists use images to evoke the emotions of the people reading or watching their work, hoping to influence and change how people feel. Novelists use words to describe the images that they want to portray in a novel, hoping to rouse a response and spark a change. Terrorists, through images of propaganda and images of destruction, provoke people to change their actions and thoughts to deal with the pain and suffering terrorism causes. Images, in either case, become the most powerful tool in creating that change. Don DeLillo makes this point in his novel, Mao II. Other authors who argue the same idea are Leonard Wilcox in his essay “Terrorism and Art” and John Carlos Rowe in his essay “Mao II and the War on Terrorism.” The case that is presented makes the point that the use of images connects and separates novelists and terrorists, and these images allow the two creators to define an entire historical event with either a single illustration or a small set of individual pictures.
A novelist is, obviously, a person who writes novels. But for Bill Gray, the novelist in DeLillo’s Mao II, a novel is much more than just a book. The novel is the novelist. In Mao II, Bill states, “I’ve always seen myself in sentences. I begin to recognize myself, word by word, as I work through a sentence. The language of my books has shaped me as a man. There’s a moral force in a sentence when it comes out right. It speaks the writer’s will to live (DeLillo, 48).” For Bill, the images in the novel are who he is as a person; the images are how the readers see Bill as a person. The idea of novels becoming the people who wrote them can be seen other places, outside of DeLillo’s work. For example, Stephan King’s novels define him as a person. Each novel he writes tends to be very dark and creepy. In essence, when one thinks of King, one thinks of a very uncanny man with large rimmed glasses; a man whose eye is always slightly closed; a man who always has his head cocked one way, so create an eerie shadow across half of his face. Though King is married, has children, and lives in a bright red house, people still see him as a lonely, strange, mysterious man, whose words cause the their nerves to stand on edge. Another character in DeLillo’s novel who understands this idea is Scott. He describes it as “the “book disappear[ing] into the image of the writer” (DeLillo, 71). Every novelist is defined by the images that they portray in their novels, whether or not the image is who they really are.
In the same way, terrorists are defined by the images and words they create, rather than who they are. In America, terrorists have become Islamic extremists. They have become Al Qaida. They have become the twin towers. Leonard Wilcox, a journalist, accentuates this point: “Terrorism is related precisely to a media-saturated culture in which informational events stand in for the real, in which the grand narratives by which people live mythic, hyperreal, and in which those observing the terroristic act are swept up in the mise en abyme (frame within a frame) of its staging” (Wilcox, 2). People see terrorists as the images that the terrorists intend to create and actually create to give themselves more power. The images they provoke becomes synonymous with who all terrorists are.
Both novelists and terrorists depend on the images they create to define them in the world. They are both artists in their own abstract way. Novelists create fantasy images that explain their inner most thoughts, and portray them to others, hoping to cause some influence on the person, or at the very least, so that person can enjoy them. The terrorist, on the same hand, is an artist in that he creates images to explain his innermost thoughts. Though the thoughts of the terrorist are completely different from the novelist’s thoughts in most cases, the terrorist still seeks to promote change and influence in a world that disregards him. In both cases, the images created define a moment in time and the character of the person creating the image. Novelists and terrorists are also the same in their need to be recognized. DeLillo points out in his novel that Bill is in seclusion from the world. They do not know if he is dead, alive, writing, or not writing. All they know is that he wrote one wonderful novel which contained no picture of Bill, himself. Because people are always looking for that image, and Bill never gives it to them, it becomes his source of fame. Not knowing anything about him leads people to be more curious about him. No one knows when he is going to publish his next work or, metaphorically speaking, strike again. In the same way, as Wilcox points out, “Terrorist […] acts are staged for the media and become part of the world of self-referential signs, part of the hyperreal condition” (Wilcox, 2). Everything that a terrorist group decides to do is planned out so that it will get the most attention from the media. The novelist and the terrorist play these games with the media because they want the world’s attention for as long a time as possible.
Though it can be said that novelists and terrorists are trying to accomplish the same thing, Bill believes, “380ovelists and terrorists are playing a zero-sum game […] What terrorists gain, novelists lose” (DeLillo, 156-7). Bill believes that, at one point, novelists influenced people more than terrorists did, but with the media we have today, novelists are slipping from influence, and everything that they drop, terrorists pick up and run with. Bill says, “News of disaster is the only narrative people need. The darker the news, the grander the narrative” (DeLillo, 42). This shows that people are more interested in the news than what novels say. Before television, written images were what influenced people, but since the development of this technology, people are more interested in watching the images and filling in their own words to accompany them. Terrorists, in this sense, have the edge on novelists because terrorists provide the public eye with horrifying images, and little or no reason as to what the image means or why it came about. Bill says,
There’s a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists. In the West we become famous effigies as our books lose the power to shape and influence […] Years ago I used to think it was possible for novelists to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. (DeLillo, 41)
Bill sees and understands that novelists are losing influence to terrorists because the terrorist produces much more dramatic images. Moreover, it is easy to see how correct he is in real life. Novels no longer have the ability to affect the judgments and attitudes of people in everyday life. People read novels for pleasure or because they are forced to, but the media has taken the spotlight in the sense that people would rather watch television or play video games than read. Because terrorists use the media in everything they do, it is almost guaranteed that people will see the images they create. John Carlos Rowe describes this relationship in his essay: “The terrorist commodities his hostages, who are targets and victims and symbols; the author compels his readers, those strangers to talk back, thereby making themselves known” (Rowe, 27). People have no choice about seeing terrorism; terrorism is forced upon them. In Mao II, DeLillo uses Abu Rashid, a terrorist, to show how terrorism is thrust upon people. Rashid says, “Terror is what we use to give our people their place in the world. What used to be achieved through work, we gain through terror” (DeLillo, 235). Terrorists believe that causing terror is the only way to be recognized in a world that does not focus on the third world, where as novelists, as Rowe said, try to bring the reader to discover something more about themselves because they read the novel.
While novelists and terrorists use images to portray themselves and increase their fame in the world, it is really the image that makes the difference. Novelists write about the image they want people to see, while terrorists create the chaotic images that people do see. In Mao II, DeLillo uses images to make the point that images can be more effective than words. Throughout the novel, DeLillo periodically puts pictures into the novel and describes real images that occurred in the period when he wrote the novel. The images he uses are all meant to bring out specific emotions of the reader such as confusion, wonder, shock, fright, forlorn, or empathy, though the images themselves have little to do with the actual novel. Each image, however, does cause some sort of reaction, leading eventually to the themes of identity, tragedy, helplessness, and regret. Each image relates back to novelists and terrorists. Each novelist and each terrorist group are in the constant struggle to gain their identity in the world. Novelists and terrorists both happen upon tragedy, when they cause the death of someone important, whether it is in a novel or in real life. When reading a novel or watching a terrorist attack, there is a certain amount of helplessness involved in that the observer cannot change what is happening. After an event takes place in a novel or on television, the emotion of regret comes about because the viewer cannot change what has happened. Each of these emotions is brought about by the images that DeLillo uses, as well as many other images that other authors use. The images are what really bring the observer to appreciate the words and works of both novelists and terrorists.
Novelists, terrorists, and images create the world as it is today. Novelists use images to portray the world through their experiences through their eyes. Terrorists attempt to redefine history to make sure they retain a place in it. Images, unlike novels and terror, can retain their meaning throughout centuries of time because they always retain their power. Images parallel the cliché, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Each image leaves a great impact on the viewer which is why the battle for the image becomes a competition for novelists and terrorists in the past, around the world today, and in the future as well.
DeLillo, Don. Mao II. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.
Rowe, John Carlos. "Mao II and the War on Terrorism." The South Atlantic Quarterly. 103. (January 2004): 21-43. Muse. 17 January 2006 <http://muse.jhn.edu/journals/south_atlant
Wilcox, Leonard. "Terrorism and art: Don DeLillo's MaoII and Jean Baudrillard's The Spirit of Terrorism." Mosaic. 39.2 (June 2006): 89-96.
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The Not so Unidentified Masses
By Melissa Kirwin
From reading a book, to watching events unfold on television, to a terrorist bombing a building, people are connected. Everyday actions are the masses attempts to form a cultural, or self-identity. People long for the sense that they belong to something larger, maybe even cosmic. Finding one’s place in the world, or one’s self can perhaps be one of the hardest tasks in life. So many people try to rebel, and be different from everyone else. Arguably, these rebels do nothing more than join a different crowd, a different mass identity. Mass identity drives American culture; everyone searching for a connection. Mao II, by Don DeLillo, epitomizes mass identity in underlying tones throughout the novel. The reoccurring images of crowds and masses drive the novel Mao II by representing more than just tangible pictures; they become the intricate themes that are the very foundation for the ideas and concepts in the book.
The reader is introduced to Mao II by a crowd of thirteen thousand at Yankee Stadium (5). The crowd is assembled to be married by the Reverend Moon, in a massive ceremony. The field is a blur of wedding dresses suits with anxious spectators peering over the sea of faces to find their loved ones. Karen, one of DeLillo’s main characters, is amongst the faces as her dad scans the field carefully looking for her. He thought, “crowd’ is not the right word. He doesn’t know what to call them” (4). “He works his glasses across the mass, the crowd, the movement, the membership, the flock, the following” (5). The crowd is more than a huddled mass; it takes on a new meaning.
Crowd seems to be a reoccurring image, or symbol, throughout Mao II. One of Karen’s favorite past times is to view the news with the volume down and narrate the footage on the television. With the volume lowered, this allows her to fully grasp the image and interpret the real emotion of the masses. She witnesses some history defining events in her own way, including, the Sheffield Soccer Riots, Tiananmen Square, and Ayatollah Khomeini’s funeral which all deal with an incredible amount of people.
On April 15, 1989, at an English FA Cup semifinal game in Sheffield England, an atrocity happened, according to CNN and Sports Illustrated. During the game, police opened the gates to the terrace where spectators could stand and watch; however, they could not contain the large crowd pushing to enter. The massive rush of people bombarded the platform, crushing others against the riot control fences; ninety-five people died.
BBC News reported that Tiananmen Square happened on June 3, 1989, in Beijing. The protests in Tiananmen Square began with a march to honor deceased, former party leader Hu Yaoban; however, millions of people joined the walk calling for democracy and condemning the corruption of the government. The government said they would take whatever steps necessary to stop the “social chaos”. Hundreds of civilians were killed by the Chinese Army in order to quell the democratic protest.
Ayatollah Khomeini died of prostate cancer on June 3, 1989; he was the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran (NNDB).Daniel Pipes recalled the chaotic funeral: During his funeral, mass chaos broke out to the point that the authorities were surprised at the mourners’ reactions. People beat their chest and beat themselves with chains. When, Ayatollah’s body was delivered by helicopter the first time, it was ripped out of the shroud and onto the ground by the frenzied crowd. Mourners refused to leave the graveyard; some even threw themselves into Khomeini’s grave, preventing him from being buried. Some people ran twenty-five miles to the graveyard to pay homage, while others crawled on collapsing roofs to see the deceased Khomeini. Finally, after convincing the majority of the millions of mourners that they postponed the funeral, they secretly, or not so secretly, attempted to bury Khomeini again. They were successful despite more resistance. “According to official sources, 10,879 people were injured and received on-the-spot medical attention, 438 were taken to hospitals, and eight died in the crush to view Khomeini's body.”
These are the important historical events that Karen watched on the news, but she saw them in a way that was unique to her. “It was possible to believe that she was the only one seeing this and everyone else tuned to this channel was watching sober-sided new analysis delivered by three men in a studio with makeup and hidden mikes” (190). Karen believes that she can connect with the raw emotion in a way that no one else witnessing the events could possibly begin to understand. She views the events; however, she notices the pain and suffering of the people. Though she is aware of what is taking place, she focuses on the people, individualizing them. “She sees a boy in a white cap with a red peak and he has an expression on his face of what a nice day or here I am on my way home from school and they are dying all around him, they are writhing and twisted with open mouths and bloated tongues showing” (33).
One of the pertinent issues with crowds is loss of identity. People conform to hide under the unifying sheet of the masses. No better example in Mao II would be the Unification Church, or the Moonies. Karen, one could say, fell victim with the masses in conforming her beliefs, traditions, values, and customs to fit her new cult-like identify. Karen gave up her personal identity for a group identity.
Richard Hardack tries to explain this phenomenon in Mao II more. He is the author of “Two’s a Crowd: Mao II, Coke II, and the Politics of Terrorism in Don DeLillo.” He has made a compelling argument supporting the underlying theme of crowds and mass identity as a driving force throughout Mao II. He contends that almost every image in the book can relate back to the masses somehow. He even quotes Don DeLillo, the author of Mao II, “I keep thinking, without too much supporting evidence, that images have something to do with crowds. An image is a crowd in a way, a smear of impressions. Images tend to draw people together, create mass identity” (374). DeLillo’s character Karen emulates his idea of the image of the crowd corresponding to art while viewing news footage on the Sheffield Soccer Riots, “They show the fence from a distance, bodies piling up behind it, smothered, sometimes only fingers moving, and it is like a fresco in an old dark church, a crowded twisted vision of a rush to death as only a master of the age could paint it” (33). This quote coincides perfectly with the obsession of images in Mao II.
Andy Warhol is the artist whose works are an enigma throughout the novel. Several of his pieces are discussed, including his famous “Mao.” An interesting fact about Mr. Warhol is the way he produced his pieces. He was a silk-screener; this allowed him to create multiple copies of the same images. Mass reproduction (382). This does not only parallel the reoccurring art in the book, it parallels the beginning scene, the wedding. Karen’s father notes, "a few simple formulas copied and memorized and passed on. And here is the drama of mechanical routine played out with living figures … the way love and sex are multiplied out, the numbers and shaped crowd. This really scares him, a mass of people turned into a sculptured object" (7).
The wedding scene is just not about mass identity; Yankee’s Stadium represents American identity (382).
The idea of mass reproduction and crowds can even be expanded into the realm of Americanism and terrorism, according to Hardack. “Don DeLillo stages a battle between the notion of an individual Western identity and that of a "mass-produced" foreign consciousness, a contest producing equal amounts of xenophobia and paranoia” (374). Hardack believes one of the roots for terrorism is the conformity so loudly radiated from Western culture. America pushes for reforms rather than embracing foreign differences. Even the title of Hardack’s essay implies that the Coke II sign in Beirut is an ironic connection to the West’s attempts to “colonize the world” (375). Richard Hardack also believes that American mass identity can be taken a step further to be defined as white male individuality (375). Once again implying giving up ones personal identity for a group identity, thus, one receives their individuality.
However, there is one character that seems to support and discredit the idea at the same time. Bill Grey is an author who is the main character in Mao II. What makes Bill so interesting, is that in his quest to break apart from the masses, he does not discover personal identity but seems more lost than ever. As he isolates himself from the rest of the world he becomes unsure of his self-identity. While he appears to be content alone, he depends on the masses. Bill Grey “belongs to a lineage of isolated white male individualists who oppose, yet also depend on, the mass in American literature” (376). For this reason, Richard Hardack, and even Bill Grey, attests that this is an important motive for the American writer making his alter ego the terrorist (375).
The terrorist unites people together by raw emotion whether it is fear, or grief; writers have the same ability to unite the world with powerful words. That is the bond they share. Karen asked herself this question while viewing Khomeini’s funeral, “If other people watched, if millions watched, if these millions matched the number on the Iranian plain, doesn’t it mean we share something with the mourners, know an anguish, feel something pass between us, hear the sign of some historic grief?” (191)
Everyone can feel connected whether they would like to or not. Even Bill Grey could not isolate himself from the world because they depended on his compelling books and he depended on the masses. Crowds and masses seem to be the single elements that most every point in the book traces back to. When broken down and analyzed, the most important events and themes such as the wedding, paintings, terrorism, images, and self-identity are followed back to the fundamental idea of the masses. Crowds inescapability now seems to transcend Mao II into real life. Don DeLillo said it best, “The future belongs to crowds” (16).
"Ayatollah Khomeini." NNDB. 2008. 15 Jan. 2008
DeLillo, Don. Mao II. New York: Penguin Group, 1991.
Hardack, Richard. "Two’s a Crowd: Mao II, Coke II, and the Politics of Terrorism in Don
DeLillo." Studies in the Novel 36.3 (2004): 374-392. Academic Search Premier.
EBSCOhost. 14 Jan. 2008.
"Major Stadium Disasters." CNN Sports Illustrated. 9 May 2001. 14 Jan. 2008
Pipes, Daniel. "Scenes from Three Funerals: Arafat, Khomeini, Nasser." Daniel Pipes. 12 Nov.
2004. 15 Jan. 2008 <http://www.danielpipes.org/blog/366>.
"1989: Massacre in Tiananmen Square." On This Day. BBC News. 14 Jan. 2008
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The Power of an Idea
By Eve Klajbor
The examination of art is as much interactive as it is subjective. The eye perceives, stimulating the emergence of individual ideas which blossom upon one another, growing in complexity and depth as the observation develops. Viewers gain an interpretation of the artist’s idea when they retreat from the display of the piece of artwork. Whether the idea is an interpretation of an historic event, a perspective on a current event, or even a progressive penetration of a future event, one thing is certain: the unpredictable influence of the artist has forever changed the perception of the world for the viewer. The same may be said in regard to writers, singers, activists, and even terrorists: an idea, spread by one, envelops those who stop to witness, listen and experience. The novel, Mao II, by Don DeLillo, centers itself on a writer, Bill Gray, whose life’s work is to write – write in such a way as to see “[himself] in sentences” (48) and thereby pass his ideas onto society. Bill’s obsession with the meaning behind his words serves as an overall theme in which DeLillo juxtaposes the writer with a terrorist, in that both strive to make an impact through their work and disseminate their ideas to onlookers. It is through the author’s and terrorist’s representation, by word and by action, that other individuals comprehend the command of an idea.
The writer and the terrorist both strive to change the world through the culminating idea of an idea. The secluded character Bill Gray meticulously writes his novels so that every word is crucial to his overall message, consuming his avid followers, Karen and Scott, as well as intriguing the photographer, Brita, with his mysterious isolation. Conversely, the terrorist leader, Abu Rashid, uses violent action to present his idea for change to the masses. Both men seek to transform the world with their profound ideas, shaping others’ perception of reality and history before their own eyes. According to Bill and his publisher, Charlie, “A person sits in a room and thinks a thought and it bleeds out into the world. Every thought is permitted. And there’s no longer a moral or spatial distinction between thinking and acting.” (132) Therefore, thinking and acting fuse into one entity, the transcendent idea. This visionary understanding heralds the hope of changing the course of history through others’ internalization of the idea. Bill dispenses his ideas precisely, precluding his past and his physical present from escaping into his work to taint the pure idea – the words are the revelation of his idea. For Abu Rashid, his face represents the idea behind the change he wishes to elicit. In both cases, the idea moves beyond the creator and their personal image, fueling a burning desire for society to own and act upon the idea. Ideas break free of images and engulf society in every way, altering the course of history.
The flash and color of images bombard society constantly: on the sidewalk with billboards and signs, in the workplace with posters and advertisements, in the home through television and the radio. All exert an influence that sculpts the way in which the world is seen and historically represented; for history is constantly evolving, surrounding us and stimulating us in its newest chapter while even past history is subject to reinterpretation. This growth of new history is inevitable and is colored by the words and actions of free speech, by those who wish to alter history by their interpretation. Time has proven that people consider “the freedom of speech to be a necessity…that helps them determine the best political and social policies.” (Lieberman) Not only do individuals strive to gain an objective view for the sake of policy, but also in order to better understand the history that unfolds before his or her eyes. The photographer, Brita, in Mao II, whose job was to photograph the writer, Bill,journeys to Beirut on a photographic assignment and witnesses the plethora of propaganda that signifies the churning ideas propelling the discord there. From her eyes, “The streets run with images. They cover walls and clothing – pictures of martyrs, clerics, fighting men, holidays in Tahiti…Posters of bare-chested men with oversized weapons, grenades lashed to their belts and cities burning in the background.” (229) Other than her exposure to these profoundly idealistic posters, Brita spends the latter of her time reading “a magazine piece about Beirut because what else can you read or think or talk about in a place like this” (238) – a place teeming with ideas. Brita’s actions represent her approach to gain a broader understanding of the situation in Beirut because, with the more she sees and the more she reads, she will gain her own understanding of the situation and allow her own idea of the situation to spring forth, escaping the images and words of others. This is a tactic to integrate history into the self, to realize the relation of oneself to history. By writing about and photographing surroundings, history is documented from one view – an interpreted view that can alter the representation of history. But, far stronger than the action of writing or photographing itself, is the action of acting.
Part 1, Chapters 1 and 2 Summary
Chapter 1 - A young man browses a bookstore crowded with both books and customers, eventually finding copies of the two novels written by Bill Gray and witnessing a quiet altercation between a poorly dressed street person and security. The young man, eventually identified as Scott, leaves the bookstore and makes his way to an art gallery, where he browses works by pop artist Andy Warhol, paying particular attention to representations of the face of Mao Zedong (Chairman Mao). After leaving the gallery, Scott makes his way to the lobby of a hotel, where he keeps an appointment with photographer Brita Nilsson. He pays only partial attention as Brita tells him how, after too many years of taking too many pictures of too many kinds of suffering, she focused on taking pictures only of writers, making "a planetary record" of...
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