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Jack Gladney: The Absurd Man

Don DeLillo’s White Noise is foremost a story about one man’s effort to come to terms

with the absurdity of his existence. Jack Gladney, the main character, is obsessed with death. In

many ways, Jack represents the modern man. As an atheist, he ascribes to no religious creed and

no metaphysical structure that offers a reassuring order to the universe. In Jack there is no

certainty of God’s existence, no afterlife, no a priori meaning to life, life is absurd in the sense of

Camus’ existentialism. For Jack, death is an unfathomable black void lying in wait for the stop

of his heart beat. Unable to accept the inevitability of his death and the absurdity of an existence

without essential meaning, Jack is tormented by an uncontrollable fear for the end of his own

life.

In order to avoid confronting the existential question posed by his fear of death, Jack

employs a variety of strategies in the course of the book. These strategies involve the creation of

simulacra, as addressed by Jean Baudrillard in his article “The Precession of Simulacra,” behind

which Jack attempts to hide from his fear and avoid the existential question, is there any meaning

at all in life? Ultimately, however, the fear of death, and the existential question that this fear

forces onto Jack, penetrates his defensive simulacra, forcing him to accept the absurdity of

existence and create life’s meaning for himself. By the end of White Noise, Jack becomes the

absurd man in the Camuian sense. One by one, Jack’s simulacra, the consumer, the Hitler expert,

and the killer, are shattered. They fall in rapid succession once Jack gains the knowledge that

death is immanent, he has been infected by the deadly toxic chemical Nyodene D and nothing

can prevent him from confronting his fear of death and the absurdity of existence.

Man’s search for meaning in consumerism is a major theme of White Noise. The white

noise represents the sound of consumption, manifested, among other ways, in the incessant

blaring of the television and radio, the sound of cars, and the jingles that repeat over and over

again in the Jack’s mind, urging him towards consumption and the instant gratification that
comes with buying things. The consumer, and the meaning inherent within consumerism, is a

simulacrum of Baudrillard’s (pg. 347) fourth order—it bears no relation to any reality

whatsoever. Consumerism can have no meaning in itself. In a universe without a priori meaning

provided by God, one must look inside oneself to create any meaning for existence. The

consumption of goods and services, being outside of oneself since one creates nothing in the act

of buying, can present no inherent meaning for life. Thus, the Consumer is a fourth order

simulacrum - any preexisting meaning to consumption is wholly a simulation.

The Gladney family’s trip to the mall illustrates the consumer simulacrum (pg. 82-4).

Jack describes the mall’s noise as, “the human buzz of some vivid and happy transaction.” As

the Consumer, “brightness” settles around Jack. As he buys, he “began to grow in value and self

regard.” He feels “expansive”, and the sums Jack spends on his goods “came back to [Jack] in

the form of existential credit.” However, the Consumer’s feeling of fulfillment is fleeting. When

Jack learns of his immanent death due to the Nyodene in his body, the consumer simulacrum is

shattered. Jack knows that the Consumer will deter his fear of death, he must confront death and

the existential question that it brings. Consequently, Jack begin purges himself of many of the

unnecessary items that he, as the Consumer, has collected (pg. 294). In doing so, he prepares

himself to confront death and the absurdity of existence by rejecting the consumer simulacrum.

“The Hitler expert” is another simulacrum that Jack employs in order to avoid

confronting his fear of death, and the absurdity of existence. For contemporary society, Hitler

has become an archetypal figure of death. Killing millions in a mad quest to purify the German

race, Hitler will live in infamy as the most horrific murderer mankind has produced. Hitler is a

historical character that takes on a persona that is “larger than death” (pg. 287), becoming almost

godlike as the full manifestation of the human capacity for evil, the measure against which all

evildoers will heretofore be judged. Jack made himself the preeminent expert on Hitler, teaching

Hitler studies at a Middle American liberal arts college, forging for himself the simulacrum of
the Hitler expert. In Baudrillard’s terms, the Hitler expert is a simulacrum of the third order

(Baudrillard, 347). The Hitler expert is a third order simulacrum since it masks the absence of a

basic reality that Jack has come to terms with—death. In becoming the preeminent expert on this

most infamous historical figure, Jack could not help but to be confronted daily with death in all

of its grandiose Nazi horror. Jack’s Hitler expert simulacrum takes the form of an imposing

figure, always in dark glasses and an academic robe. The image is of a powerful, looming

academic who, knowing the mind of Hitler so well, has accepted and affirmed all the horror and

death that Hitler is responsible for. However, this image masks the absence of Jack having come

to terms with death. By no means has Jack mastered his uncontrollable fear of death, in doing so

he must confront the absurd - Jack’s real challenge.

The Hitler expert simulacrum shrouds Jack. He hides behind it, trying to use it a shield

to ward off his fear and the existential question that his fear brings to bear on him. The

knowledge of his immanent death due to Nyodene D infection makes Jack’s fear of death all the

more immanent. Now, as is related to the reader through Jack’s conversation with Murray

(p.287-88), Jack is no longer able to ward off the confrontation with his fear, and the absurdity of

existence, using the Hitler expert simulacra.

With the consumer and Hitler expert simulacra shattered, Jack turns to the killer

simulacrum in a final attempt at deflecting his realization of the absurdity of existence through

confronting his fear of death. The idea that by killing, one can somehow defeat death and “gain

life credit,” presented to Jack by Murray (290), represents a fourth level simulacrum since it

bears no relation to any reality whatsoever. No matter how many people one kills, death remains

inevitable and possible at any moment. The killer simulacrum is manifested as an ambient

vibration that surrounds and exults Jack the Killer in the hotel room. “Great and nameless

emotions thudded in my chest. I knew who I was in the network of meanings.” This, however, is
a false meaning produced by the killer simulacrum. Only by discarding the Killer can Jack

confront his fear of death and accept the Absurd.

Jack’s trip to the motel is foremost about killing Mink. Gaining possession of the Dylar,

the drug that alleviates the fear of death is his secondary goal. In chapter 39, the Dylar and the

gunshot combine to shatter the killer simulacrum, bringing Jack a step closer to affirming life and

the absurdity of existence. A side effect of the Dylar is the loss of free will. Mink has taken so

much of the drug that he is a complete slave to the slightest suggestion, crawling into the

bathroom in the effort to escape the hail of bullets that Jack merely tells him is the situation in

the room (311). In the bathroom, Jack fires two bullets at Mink. Thinking that Mink is dead,

Jack places the gun in Mink’s hand, and is surprised when the still living Mink shoots him in the

wrist. The shot to Jack’s wrist shatters the killer simulacrum. Here, Jack regains humanity, “The

old human muddles and quirks were set flowing again. Compassion, remorse, mercy.” (313). In

deciding to take Mink to the hospital and save his life, Jack affirms the value of life. Jack has

faced death and chosen life. He has also decided to maintain his free choice by choosing not to

take the Dylar. In giving up his one hope of assuaging his fear of death, the Dylar, Jack

confronted his fear and chose to live with it, bringing him a step closer to the acceptance of the

Absurd.

Jack’s final step towards accepting the Absurd comes in the hospital when he confronts

his nostalgia for absolute meaning. The irreverent nun who works on him in the hospital reveals

to Jack that not even Catholic nuns believe in God anymore (317-20). The idea that some people

still believe in God represents a bipolar tension between believers and non-believers in modern

society. God is not truly dead until everyone has laid him to rest, his shadow still lingers on the

wall of the allegorical cave. The tension caused by Jack’s equivocal stance on the existence of

God prevents Jack from accepting the Absurd, making his fear all the more acute since Jack

hangs somewhere in the limbo between absolute meaning and the Absurd. The tension between
the two poles fuels his fear. Upon his discovery that God is dead even for Catholic nuns, that

they are nuns foremost because they create meaning for themselves through service, the way is

cleared of nostalgia for absolutes. With this final barrier out of the way, Jack is able to accept

the Absurd, becoming the Absurd Man (318-319).

Now, that Jack’s simulacra of the consumer, the Hitler expert, and the killer, as well as

his nostalgia for absolute meaning had been overcome, “There was nothing to do but wait for the

next sunset…” (321). Having discovered that he could not protect himself from the fear of death,

and the existential question his fear presents to him, through the creation of simulacra, Jack must

affirm an absurd life by creating his own meaning for life. The final act of affirming life in all of

its absurdity comes in the final chapter as Jack, Babette, and Wilder observe the sunset. The

sunset becomes a work of absurd art, an aesthetic phenomenon with an ego-less creator. Jack

idealizes the sunset, assigning it aesthetic value and finding meaning within it. Jack has accepted

the absurdity of his existence, he knows now that the only meaning to be found in life is the

meaning that one assigns to life. He values the cars as they come from the West as another part

of the beautiful, sunset-lit world (325). Even the stories in the supermarket tabloids become

valuable as something to which meaning can be freely assigned. Jack has become the Absurd

Man, his affirmation of life in its entirety is his answer to the existential question posed by his

ever present fear of death in a universe devoid of absolute meaning.