THE BIG NOWHERE CRUNCHby Anis Shivani
I make no claims to understand the term “omega point,” as used by theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and physicist Frank Tipler. As best as I can gather, the former refers to a complexification of consciousness until its eventual merge with God, and the latter refers to a future inevitable state of the universe, when its computational capacity outruns time itself—again leading to a merger with God, since all beings who have ever lived can be recreated. A more down-to-earth explanation of the term might be civilization’s infinite capacity for calculation and engineering, which in the present creates an illusion of omnipotence bearing no relationship to mankind’s actual capacity for wisdom. At least, that’s a guess on my part.
For a long time now, Don DeLillo and his cohorts—certain masters of the rhetoric of technological empire—have been exposing the scale of entropy involved in the real-time disaster of civilization witnessed since at least the Kennedy assassination. Moments of terrorism come and go, as though we were the lead actors; eternities of supposition are conjured into existence, full-blown and encyclopedic, only to become instant footnotes. After dealing, in a series of short books this decade, with the reckoning as it has overcome empire, DeLillo turns his attention to a point somewhere well beyond it. He is forcing us to look away from the mess we’ve created to the mess that can’t begin to be named—what our death will look like to us, if we were to become simulated creatures of our own imagination, eons from now. Time must slow down—radically and unimaginably so—if this function is to be realized.
Recreations of crucial scenes in Psycho become focal points in this short novel of the post-devastated imagination. Jim Finley, a filmmaker, meets 73-year-old Richard Elster—a scholar recruited by the U.S. government to advise on the invasion and occupation of Iraq—at MoMA, where Psycho has been slowed down so that it takes place over twenty-four hours. Elster doesn’t enjoy the experience, whereas Finley has the bright idea of asking Elster to star in his own slowed-down movie—a man standing against a wall, in an infinitely long shot.
How long can a long shot be? As long as the universe lasts, of course—it has no predetermined starting or end point. This is a commentary on the long shot as it applies to the novelist’s gaze: after a certain point, all emotion leeches out, leaving the subject beholden in its merger with God, its moment of annihilation. DeLillo again acquaints us with this point omega of the over-rational human mind brought low by the randomness of all he ought to have foreseen, but can’t. If the Iraq war was a fantasy of the best minds of the Pentagon as they sought to exalt a vacuum of power, where none existed before, then Finley’s visit to Elster’s house in the California desert, far removed from the distractions of civilization, represents power itself as a vacuum, where it can be easily traced to its origins.
Counterinsurgency, rendition, enhanced interrogation: these are the provinces in which Elster felt safe, until he was bowled over by his own swagger (one presumes). Elster tells his sponsors:
Iraq is a whisper…These nuclear flirtations we’ve been having with this or that government. Little whispers…Something’s coming. But isn’t this what we want? Isn’t this the burden of consciousness? We’re all played out. Matter wants to lose its self-consciousness. We’re the mind and heart that matter has become. Time to close it all down. This is what drives us now.” And as Elster tells Finley, “Look at us today. We keep inventing folk tales of the end. Animal diseases spreading, transmittable cancers.”
And “the climate,” of course. Finley waits day after day, hoping for Elster’s compliance in the filmmaking project. Then Elster’s daughter visits, and it is her disappearance in the desert that represents the acute transcendence: “Point omega. A million years away. The omega point has narrowed, here and now, to the point of a knife as it enters a body. All the man’s grand themes funneled down to local grief, one body, out there somewhere, or not.”
The American style of fascism (playing out now at the slowest imaginable speed) is grief; other cultures have had other literary and visual styles for their variants. No journalist can ever take us to the cold heart of war (the delirium to preemptively figure out point omega, long before the time is right for it) as DeLillo has in this short book. The personal and the political have at last not only refused to merge, they have explosively gone their own ways. How do we go about writing our own deaths, when we have become subjects so willing as to be mute men, standing infinitely silent beside our individual walls? This is how. We don’t know the first thing about grief; it’s all our culture inscribes and postulates. How acutely revealing, in the right hands!