Memory, Self, and Consumption in Beloved and White Noise

“Personal identity itself, depends on the specificity of place” Lee Zimmerman asserts in “Public and Potential Space:Winnicott, Ellison, and DeLillo.” This notion is evident in both Don Dellilo’s White Noise as well as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but to two different extremes. The characters of White Noise are unable to differentiate their relationships with the places they’ve inhabited from the memories they formed there, and they also have very few, if any, memories or significant places in their lives. In Beloved, characters such as Sethe, Denver, and Paul D are unable to separate their memories from the places where they occurred, and are unable to detach their sense of “self” from these past experiences. This happens to such an extent that Sethe describes an experience that she dubs as “rememory;” which is a word used to describe the act of walking back into a memory when one revisits the place of its occurrence, similar in a way to experiencing deja vu. It is undeniable that human beings form a sense of identity through the combination of two main factors: significant places, and the memories that are formed at these places. Through our relation to these memories and places, we are able to verify who we are, discover ourselves, and orient ourselves in our particular world. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Don Dellilo’s White Noise, it becomes clear that there is a crucial balance that must be found when humans define themselves through these exterior determinants. If too much emphasis is based on the memories and places of our pasts, then our sense of “self” will be destroyed as these memories deteriorate and become hazy, or overpower the strength of the individual; but, if we have no memories or places to use as a means of contextualizing our significance, then we will be empty and destitute, and will turn to consumption and vanity as ways to fill the void where our sense of self should be.

In her article, “Embedded and Embodied Memories: Body, Space, and Time in Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Falling Man,” Katrina Harack presents the idea that the characters in DeLillo’s work lose their sense of place through “encounters with mnemonically unmoored spaces,” and resultantly, their “notions of time and memory are warped” (Harack 306). The characters in the novel lack an anchor in memory, which is one of the necessary factors when it comes to the determination of human self and significance. The lives of Jack Gladney and the people in his life revolve around places like the supermarket and the mall, which are simply empty products of a consumerist culture, not conducive to the formation of memories and an appreciation for the place where they occurred. This leaves the world of White Noise to be filled with “a proliferation of manic and depressed characters who do not know where they belong or where they come from” (Harack 308).

It is as if the characters are only aware of a present. But, as Peter Boxall addresses in his book Don DeLillo: The Possibility of Fiction, their present “fails, eternally, to become present” (Boxall 111), because there is no past to compare it to, derive it from, or look back on. The present simply is, there is no depth to it. As a result, the characters of White Noise are forced to find meaning through other avenues: their bodies, consumerism, and their appearance to the rest of the world. Babette is constantly trying to lose weight and live a healthy lifestyle, Jack gains weight in order to command respect among his colleagues, and he changes the way that he dresses in order to seem more knowledgeable and at home in the world of academia. Furthermore, Jack “experiences the temporary suspension of angst through consumerism,” (312), which is his only salvation as he can find no connection to his place–which is comprised of an “Airport Marriott, the Downtown Travelodge, the Sheraton Inn and Conference Center (Delillo15)” (Harack 310).  In his place, so void of meaning, Jack Gladney is unable to form meaningful memories because there is nothing for him to connect to within his surroundings, which are two of the most important components of a “self.”

The memories and places where we experience pivotal moments of our lives can also be destructive if we allow them to have too much power in our self-definition. We can lose our sense of self if it is overpowered by experience and place. Figuratively, the individual would become lost in a place. Memory and place are helpful in the sense that they give us something to contextualize ourselves within, but if we let these events and memories become so strong that they overwhelm the sense of self-establishment that is meant to be derived from them, then we lose sight of ourselves and end up living a life dominated by a particular memory of an event or a place. This can be seen in Beloved, and it is the inverse of the problem that is had by the characters in White Noise. Jack Gladney and the people in his life don’t have any places or memories to use as a means of figuring out who they are and where they fit in the world (Beloved has the same issue), but Sethe, Denver, and Paul D are too rooted in memory, too attached to specific places, to be able to nourish and cultivate a strong sense of self.

Kristin Boudreau addresses this indirectly in her article, Pain and the Unmaking of Self in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, more focusing on the way that memory can destroy one’s sense of self in the context of Morrison’s novel.  She does not try to downplay the importance of suffering in the human experience, as painful memories and painful places are often the ones that have the strongest effect on the individual’s self-validation, as is the case in Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved. However, Boudreau does not ignore the fact that too much pain and sadness can destroy a human being. Most readers see Beloved as a novel that emphasizes the way in which suffering highlights a “real” human experience, while Boudreau looks at the more detrimental effects of suffering, specifically how “[it] unmakes the self and calls violent attention to the practice of making and unmaking selves.” In order to understand the ways that pain can make or unmake a self, Boudreau introduces two common interpretations of pain within the genres of European romanticism and African American blues. European romanticism deals with pain in a very individual way. Characters feel and recollect pain in a private and tranquil state of contemplation. The African American blues tradition is much more communal: people face their suffering in public and everybody is involved in the healing process. Friends and peers help to better the individual’s understanding of whatever trauma has befallen him. Boudreau establishes that these two traditions of coping with pain are centered around the idea that the experience and understanding of pain are critical to establishing one as fully human and that suffering can heal and humanize by recognizing trauma and putting it into language in order to come to terms with it. However, traumatic memories can also unmake the individual if he or she loses control over the memory. Rather than having the memory be subject to the self, the self becomes subject to the memory, and the individual is unable to move past the past and embrace an ever-changing and blossoming self. In simple terms, if a person is too hung up on past experiences, then they will not be able to learn from them and establish a stronger self. This is what happens to Sethe and Paul D in Beloved, as they are so absorbed in the past traumas that they experienced, so focused on repressing certain painful memories, that they are unable to move forward. They exist in a sort of limbo where they aren’t delving into the majority of their past memories, but also aren’t trying to move forward and cultivate a full sense of self. They give too much power to the places, like Sweet Home, and the awful things they endured, like when Schoolteacher’s boys took Sethe’s milk, that they lose themselves. They become the memories, rather than utilizing the memories to become themselves.

Building on this idea of memories as agents of destruction, it is noteworthy that Boudreau proposes the theory that putting suffering into human language in order to come to terms with it is not applicable in the case of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The fact that the story ends with “this is not a story to pass on” (324), is indicative that the suffering endured by Sethe, Denver, Paul D, and others touched by Beloved would not be better understood if verbalized by the characters. The memories are simply too powerful, and would overwhelm the individuals recollecting it. Referring to the moment in the novel when Sethe recalls watching her mother’s death, Boudreau reminds us that Sethe developed a stutter for years afterwards. Clearly, Sethe proves that “the experience of vivid pain dismantles language itself, so that pain results in the impossibility of any intelligible utterance” (455), which refutes the idea that verbalizing pain helps one to grow from it and become a human with a strong sense of self. Furthermore, the loss of language and the ability to verbalize thoughts is undoubtedly a loss of a large portion of one’s “self.” Language, place, and memory “bear responsibility for constructions of self,” and since they are “dissolved by pain,” the self is also dissolved (457) when a memory or place becomes too powerful for a person to overcome. The self is not only subject to destruction by outside forces, but it can only be defined by these same outside forces. This is exemplified by Paul D, who was only a man because Schoolteacher said he was–his manhood was “invented and destroyed in the language of white men” (457). This is consistent with the idea that humans are only defined by their places and memories, which are both outside forces. Therefore, much like how Schoolteacher reserved the ability to revoke Paul D’s manhood, as he who gives somebody a definition is also able to take it away, memories and places that make selves and can also destroy them.

The novels White Noise and Beloved  illustrate both the necessity and danger of depending on places and memories in order to define a human self. Beloved herself exemplifies that when a person has no memories or places to relate to, it is human nature to resort to consumption as a way to validate one’s existence. Even in a society unlike the consumerism-centered one that Jack Gladney lives in, Beloved finds a way to consume to distract her from her seemingly meaningless existence in a world that she is not truly meant to be a part of and cannot relate to. Beloved can’t relate to her world because she was dead and the world continued on without her, therefore she did not have any experiences in any particular places through which she could orient herself. Jack Gladney cannot relate to his world because modern consumerist society no longer provides adequate places and memories for people to use as a means of defining themselves. When the depth of an individual’s sense of self is lacking, their means of filling the void is often through consumption–in White Noise we see an obsession with spending money and going to the mall as a way to be noticed by others, whereas in Beloved, we see that Beloved, who has no memories or sense of self since she was murdered as an infant, focuses on eating sweets, drinking water, and consuming the stories and memories of all those around her, even the repressed memories that Sethe has locked away for decades. Beloved’s hunger for understanding draws out all of Sethe’s memories and recollections of places that simply overpower her and force her to live in a bubble of what life could’ve been like if she had not murdered Beloved. Denver, Sethe, and Beloved isolate themselves from society and live in a microcosm where they’re wrapped up and obsessed with each other. Before Beloved’s return, Sethe lived in isolation because of her reputation and because she did not want to have to face society’s judgement of her choice to kill her two year old daughter. Once Beloved entered Sethe’s life, representing of the memories of her past, Sethe chose to remain in isolation for a different reason: she became over-attached to the memories that defined her and was unable to move forward in her life.

While Sethe displays how too much reliance of memory, place, and retelling of stories can destroy any sense of self that a person may have formed, White Noise shows how characters who have no memories or places of significance are forced to resort to secondary means of self-validation, methods that never truly amount to a fully formed self. White Noise is focused on “a decentered subject, Jack Gladney, who cannot orient himself in his world” (304). It is easy to understand why he is unable to find a center, because there is simply nothing in his world that he relates to. The novel emphasizes the “holiness” of supermarkets, comparing them to the temples of Tibetan monks. Some may argue that DeLillo is claiming that society has found holiness in everyday things, but it is much more realistic to recognize the irony in White Noise, which is more critical of the modern world. DeLillo is basically saying that the world today is so empty and devoid of meaningful places, memories, and even meaningful conversations, that people see a place as mundane and insignificant as a supermarket as a modern-day Mecca. Places that have no meaning to the individual are given meaning by the masses and the media, but they do not help people define themselves on an individual level. For example, Jack and his family go to see “the most photographed barn in the world,” and the experience is completely worthless. The family recognizes that they are not visiting the barn to “capture an image,” but rather to “maintain one.” They recognize that “every photograph reinforces the aura. . . an accumulation of nameless energies.” They “only what the others see. The thousands who were [t]here in the past, those who will come in the future.” The Gladneys become “part of a collective perception.” There is no sense individuality to be taken away from the experience of the place, nothing is gained. Without meaningful places outside of themselves, humans try to define themselves inwardly, which is simply not really possible or nearly as effective as defining ourselves through the outside world and our experiences with it. The characters in White Noise become trapped in their own images. A great portion of the text is dedicated to Jack’s transformation into what a department head is supposed to look like, as well as Babette’s obsession with weight and exercise. The society is so shallow that the people who live in it become even shallower byproducts. They exist within a world that does not provide depth, and the only option is for the individual to integrate into the world in order to feel purpose or meaning. They do this through image, as has already been mentioned, but also through consumption and the spending of money. There is a good feeling that comes with spending money, and that is the only relief and validation that the characters of White Noise can find. It is a sensation of inclusion, as well as a feeling of accomplishment that the individual has spent time working to earn money, and then through their work they are able to buy the right clothes or the right goods in order to be perceived as the role they are supposed to fill in the world.

This same idea of consumption can be seen in Beloved through the actions of Beloved herself. She is constantly consuming. First water, then sweets, then the stories of Sethe’s past, and eventually she sexually consumes Paul D. She has no life of her own , so she feeds off the lives of others in order to feel included, much like the characters of White Noise who only feel verified when they feel included in societal structures by appearing to fill whatever purpose in society they are meant to fill. Beloved has no other sense of purpose, so she drinks and eats in order to feel alive. Furthermore, she has no experiences of her own, so she steals the experiences of Sethe and Denver because she wants to feel a part of the family that she missed out on after Sethe murdered her at age two. She has no experiences and is forced to resort to consumption in order to feel a part of the world, in order to feel like a human being and to fit into the role that she was never alive to fill: the baby of the family. Beloved is the exception in Beloved as most characters in Beloved are so consumed by the past that they cannot leave the places and memories they formed behind. Beloved would fit in more with the Gladneys, as both she and that family have no experiences and are forced to rely on secondary methods to feel self-worth.

Both of these novels reveal related truths regarding human nature. First, we learn that it is in human nature to seek validation through experience, whether that experience be in relation to places and memories, or if it is based on the experience of changing oneself to fit into a certain category that society deems we should squeeze into. The true power of human definition relies in certain outside forces; we learn who we are through going places, gaining experiences, and then orienting ourselves in the world based on the places around us and how we relate to them. However, it is these very forces that create our sense of self that have the power to destroy us. This is evidenced by Sethe and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, as the people in this novel are all so focused on their traumatic pasts in slavery and at Sweet Home, that they are unable to move forward. The places they’ve been and the painful memories they have are too strong and overpower the selves that could be forged. The opposite issue exists in DeLillo’s White Noise, as the characters in the novel live in a world where there are no places of significance and they are unable to form meaningful memories. This leaves them lost in the world, and they are forced to look at themselves for validation, rather than the outside world. They are obsessed with appearance and making sure that they fit the mold that they’re supposed to fit in their empty society. In cases like this, where the depth of an individual’s sense of self is lacking, their means of filling the void is often through consumption–in White Noise we see an obsession with spending money and going to the mall as a way to be “noticed,” whereas in Beloved, we see that Beloved, who has no memories or sense of self since she was murdered as an infant, focuses on eating sweets and consuming the stories and memories of all those around her, even the repressed memories that Sethe has locked away for decades. Both of these novels deal heavily with the idea of the human self, how it is defined in varying situations, and how easily it is lost–whether through overpowering memories that drown the self as in Beloved, or in a society so empty that there are no experiences to be had in order for one to define himself, as is the case in DeLillo’s White Noise.

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