Underworlds: DeLillo, realism and Dante

Giorgio Fontana

Virgil shows Dante the flames of fraudulent advisors, Inferno XXVI, by Gustave Doré, 1861.

Underworlds: DeLillo, realism and Dante

1. Everything is connected

"Bronzini thought that walking was an art."

It's the opening of Arrangement in Grey and Black, the sixth part of Don DeLillo's Underworld, set between 1951 and 1952. Arthur Bronzini is Nick Shay's (the protagonist) science teacher: in this marvelous ouverture he strolls through his neighborhood, the Bronx, portrayed with masterful richness of detail, and Flemish canvas-like vividness: fishmongers, children playing, day laborers, butchers, newsstands, bakeries, layabouts—all shine with an intimacy seldom felt in the grand, but guarded, seven hundred pages before.

Using this part as a starting track I will develop some reflections, jumping with some freedom from one connection to another. Doing so I hope to be faithful to one of the novel's conceptual pillars: "Everything is connected in the end" is a phrase set as a seal in one of the last paragraphs, and Underworld itself is an ode to connection—to the echoes that stories launch, to the amazing coincidences found decades apart. Just think of how the entire plot is built, or rather aggregated, around the historical baseball hit by Bobby Thomson in the 1951 game between the Giants and Dodgers—the first one televised, by the way.

In his article "The Power of History", DeLillo recounts that after reading about the anniversary of the game while eating breakfast, he initially forgot about it. Some time later it came back to him, and he went to the library in search of "an unexpected connection"—and there it was: on the same day as the match the Soviets exploded an atomic bomb. Everything is connected: cold war and sports, global nuclear threat and small individual destinies. It is not surprising, then, that the word underworld acts as a semantic multiplier, taking on various roles in the novel and linking very different realities: for instance "the Wall," a place in the Bronx dominated by graffiti artists; or the underground guerrilla movements and the invisible FBI maneuvers; or the city's criminal mob; or of course the endless accumulation of garbage, the book's leading theme from beginning to end.

As an adult, Nick Shay plays precisely a managerial role in this area; and a theorist he once met, Detweiler, believes that "garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilization in response, in self-defense." But no matter how hard we try to improve our civilized rituals, trash only increases; it's hidden and every now and then it appears in disturbing images of manifold lost things—because everything is connected.

But back to Underworld's sixth part: as I mentioned it possesses something very specific, a peculiar emotional temperature. In the aforementioned article "The Power of History", DeLillo insists on the "stealthy pleasure" of evoking the Italian Bronx's semi-dialectal words; and in a conversation with Gerald Howard for the Hungry Mind Review he confesses: "the Bronx episodes in Part Six particularly were written out of a sense of intimate knowledge. Something I discovered after I finished writing the book, as I was reading the proofs, is that much of the book is nearly saturated with compound words, hyphenated words, many of them which I invented or grafted together. In Part Six, suddenly the language is a bit different. It's a bit simpler. It's more visceral."

We find similar expressions in other interviews by the author, for example, for the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen in 1998: "that chapter in particular was easy to write in comparison to the rest of the novel. [...] I wrote these pages with a feeling of self-confidence and authority, that I'd wish I could have all the time when I write. It's a rare and wonderful feeling."

True; the warm, dry and nervous lyricism of these pages is unforgettable. Each line gives a kind of acute physical enjoyment: DeLillo's expressive power is now tinged with a dusky light—sometimes softened, sometimes snappy just like young Nick Shay.

Here he comes, by the way, after Professor Bronzini's long walk:

The young man struck the match with one hand. He’d learned this when he first started smoking, about a year ago, although it seemed to him that he’d been smoking forever, Old Golds, isolating the match by closing the cover behind it and then bending the match back against the striking surface below and driving the head with his thumb. Then he brought the flared match up to his cigarette, his hand cupping the whole book with the match still secured. He lit up, shook out the flame and conceded use of the other hand to pluck the spent match from the book and send it to match hell. You need these useless skills to make an impression on the street.

More visceral, that is. Here in the Bronx Nick Shay completes his initiation among friends, family and acquaintances, under the shadow of the absent father who torments him and whose history he tries to reconstruct. Here in these pages we can find fragments of teenage dialogues, insults in Italian, innuendos, the whole complex ritual of living on the street, days thrown at the tavern, the brutality of physical labor, small-time gangsters, and the specter of violence and poverty.
But this tense underworld contains another one, called "down the yards": "Close-set buildings, laundry lines, slant light, patches of weeds"—basement passages and stinking alcoves: and in one of them we find George the Waiter, George Manza, a heroin addict who consumes his vice there and with whom Nick plays card games.
He is the one who finds him a more regular job; the one who gives him "a lesson in serious things" and suggests that the local mob is "under the surface of ordinary things"; he who points him to a mobster who will tell something about his father.

Finally, it is George Manza whom Nick kills, and he does it right "down the yards": in that calm, damp basement Nick tests his friend's gun and then shoots him for no reason. And when the cops take him away, the young men watch him "closely and gravely, thinking this was a kind of history taking place, here in their own remote and common streets." Everything is connected, because it is in these remote streets, in such a cramped underworld, that Nick's real story begins: his journey of loss and recovery, which will lead him to clutch in his hands—at the end of the novel—the coveted baseball around which so many destinies have been knotted. But as he clutches it, he is not thinking about what he has achieved; he is thinking about something else entirely.

We will come to that: meanwhile, let's make a nice detour.

2. Nineteenth century underworlds and street realism

DeLillo's masterpiece is a little difficult to locate on the narrow shelves of literary studies. On the one hand, it is considered a peak of postmodernism; on the other, it undoubtedly has a classical magnitude. It collects remnants of pop quotations, it insists on the theme of consumption and dissolution, it accumulates seemingly split narrative sequences that reject the traditional plot; but it is also written in a marmoreal style, vigorous and amazingly accurate, never indulging in gratuitousness. And although fragmentary in appearance, the book turns out not to be a collection of separate passages but an organic narrative, pervaded by a most rigorous structural logic.

Like any masterpiece, it is therefore difficult to frame; it is something that goes beyond, opens a new threshold. But there is one aspect of classicism that I would like to underscore in particular: the connection between the surface world and the underworld. I use the world "classicism" in a strictly literary sense, because the nineteenth-century novel draws heavily from the dark innards of urban spaces, especially—sometimes with remarkable artistic results, and sometimes not—from the criminal underground.

Consider a hugely successful book like Eugene Sue's The Mysteries of Paris, portraying the Parisian slums. In the wake of his influence the theme then resonates in Hugo, in Balzac, in Dickens; or in Nerval, Nadar, Zola and so on. Or consider what Walter Benjamin called the "chthonic elements" in Baudelaire's Paris—whose flowers of evil find fertilizer not so much in sin as in cruelty, poverty, and discomfort of the modern metropolis. And of course Dostoevsky, who granted literary dignity to this faraway region while rebelling against the Cartesian-Kantian worldview. In Shestov's as always vehement words, "if ever a "Critique of Pure Reason" was written, it is to Dostoevsky that we must go to seek it, to The Notes from Underground, and the great novels which were wholly derived from it."

The trend cannot be ignored. In his essay Metropolis on the Styx, David Pike explains that the subterranean has been a dominant image of modernity since the late eighteenth century: "a site of crisis, of fascination, and of hidden truth, a space somehow more real but also more threatening and otherworldly than the ordinary world above." In this very period material and moral vision of the underworld come to overlap: it gathers nocturnal and dark impulses that find no citizenship in the "world above." Hence also the enormous spread of "devil shows", not without comic and grotesque aspects. During the nineteenth century, says Lefebvre, Satan was the lord of the urban slums. Linked to this was a kind of primal critique, or at least satire, of the emerging capitalist and commodity world (i.e. universal expositions): a theme that would find its ultimate fulfillment in Underworld, more than a hundred years later.

Another great novel by DeLillo, Libra, opens with the description of Lee Harvey Oswald traveling through the New York subway system, to the edge of the city, offering us a magnificent subterranean glimpse: "It did not seem odd to him that the subway held more compelling things than the famous city above. There was nothing important out there, in the broad afternoon, that he could not find in purer form in these tunnels beneath the streets." Libra is also about Oswald's upbringing in the Bronx where he lived with his mother. The book is dedicated "to the boys at 607: Tony, Dick and Ron", which seems to recall house number 607 in Arrangement in Grey and Black—also, as we know, set in the Bronx (which itself was young DeLillo's homeland).

Now "Bronx" is a word that has become a trite stereotype for "dangerous area"; and in Underworld itself there's a critique of this cliché: a nun, Sister Gracie, takes issue with a bus announcing a tour in the "South Bronx Surreal," protesting against European tourists: "It's not surreal. It's real, it's real. Your bus is surreal. You are surreal."

Yeah: it's real, it's real. And the shrewd street realism of Arrangement in Gray and Black also brings us to admit that our world stands on another unknown world. Underpaid workers who bring food to our tables; beggars and homeless people and prostitutes; sans-papier, thieves, drug dealers, and so on. We have a lot of stories about these people, but they are mostly told in a patronizing or sensationalist way, adding more and more "surrealism" to the mainstream narrative. On the contrary, Underworld shows us how the narrative of poverty or marginalization as commodities leads us to a new conformity, and lets our moral organs slowly decay. This is not because DeLillo's novel has tasks of ethical education; it is simply because its realism is extremely well crafted: his highest formal rigor destroys all

3. Dante's Ulysses

DeLillo explained to Publishers Weekly the origin of the title by tying it to a few suggestions: first and foremost, plutonium waste buried deep in the earth (also linked to the terror of the atomic bomb, with which the book begins).

Suppose everything above ground is destroyed: what would be left? The underworld: the garbage, the abandoned waste, and perhaps the inhabitants of the eerie underground cosmos. "Waste is the devil twin," says Viktor, the Soviet entrepreneur met by Nick Shay at the end of the book. "Because wast is the secret history, the underhistory, the way archaeologists dig out the history of early cultures, every sort bones heap and broken tool, literally from under the ground"; and it has a close relationship with weapons, because "we destroy contaminated nuclear waste by means of nuclear explosions." So Nick and his wife "see products as garbage, even when they sat gleaming on store shelves, yet unbought." Such a nightmare of collective destruction today has by no means disappeared; it has only become more uncontrollable and dramatic.

In the same interview for Publishers Weekly, DeLillo then makes another connection: plutonium and Pluto, the god of the underworld. After all, death is a theme well present in Underworld, from the very beginning—Bruegel's Triumph of Death appearing in Hoover's hands at Yankee Stadium, in the form oftrash itself: a tattered piece of magazine tossed from the stands along with thousands of others. Trash is the fate of inanimate objects; death is the fate of living beings. But this process of disintegration can be fought, at least in order not to lose self-awareness, once again through literature. Through language. In an interview given to the Los Angeles Times, DeLillo remarked that there is something in language itself that opposes history—that it is "contrary to the kind of death and destruction that tends to inform
history at any given time."

Devil, underworld, death, the redeeming or otherwise metamorphic power of language, the dialectical relationship between above and below... There is not much distance between all this and Dante's Inferno. This last connection is irresistible, so let us then descend into the eighth pouch of the eighth circle, among fraudulent counselors: here in the midst of the thickest darkness the souls of the damned burn wrapped in eternal fire. This is how Ulysses appears, in the form of a flame, and tells Dante about his extraordinary last journey beyond the Pillars of Hercules. In order to reassure his companions, he then pronounced a beautiful speech ending with two famous lines: "fatti non foste a viver come bruti, / ma per seguir virtute et canoscenza": "you were not made to live like brutes, / but to follow virtue and

Olof Lagercrantz, who in From Hell to Paradise has read the Comedy with stimulating interpretive freedom, noted that Dante's only remedy to boundless suffering is awareness and remembrance; so following him in his unsettling journey is being asked to expand our emphatic capacity. That said, he argues that Ulysses is the most dangerous character of all: he and not Lucifer should be lord of hell, since for Ulysses knowledge and free inquiry are more important than God himself. But as was the case with his old master Brunetto Latini, Dante pays homage to Ulysses of true human stature; and he does so at great risk, for his piety could be mistaken for a criticism of divine judgment.
However Ulysses is not in Limbo, he is not an enlightened pagan; he is a prisoner of the lower Hell, having dragged his companions into misfortune—a sign that his enterprise was conducted in the absence of divine Grace. His famous speech is dangerous precisely because it is in appearance lofty and inspiring: using various rhetorical techniques, combined with his proverbial cunning, Ulysses downplays the dangers and manipulates his listeners. his punishment, the eternal flame, is above all an obvious counterbalance to his ability to "inflame" others.
Dante and Ulysses thus diverge irretrievably in the way they understand virtute et canoscenza. For the poet, cultivating them corresponds to a religious and moral elevation: he ascends to Paradise primarily by divine will, in a continuous effort to master earthly passions. In the words of Jurij Lotman, he is a pilgrim while Ulysses is an explorer; and I would add that in this light the Greek's face almost deforms into the face of Captain Ahab.

Yet Dante is well aware of Ulysses' longing. As the great scholar Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi has written, "That man who sets out, full of ardor, toward the unknown sea of knowledge, aware of the supreme dignity that distinguishes man from brutes, not only resembles Dante, but is Dante himself. This, however, does not declare his innocence; on the contrary, according to the phenomenology proper to the first cantica, it suggests the opposite."

Giving up the part of himself that resembles Ulysses, Dante relies on God to satiate the ardor that inhabits him: he chooses to be led and not to lead, because in his vision human beings alone cannot save themselves. But the resolution is dramatic, and it is impossible to remain indifferent to the ambiguity that the verses proffer. So, while condemning him, Dante sees in Ulysses something irreducible to the punishment he serves. To put it with Lagercrantz, the flame burning him is also a symbol of his yearning for ever greater knowledge—both a curse and a blessing.

4. Real

At the end of Underworld, when Nick Shay has become a top executive and flies to Zurich and Lisbon and his kids are well and he and his wife live peacefully, in this museum-like vision of his own present, in this bourgeois perfection, he thinks back not so much to lost innocence—we finally get back to it, and it is DeLillo himself who makes this clear—but to lost guilt.

Clutching the baseball, he's invaded by a sort of calm fury. "I long for the days of disorder," Nick states, "I want them back, the days when I was alive on the earth, rippling in the quick of my skin, heedless and real." Again that adjective, like a signature: real. Material, present, exposed to risk. And how it resonates, decades later, in a world where relationships have become progressively immaterial and one's self is subject to constant digital cosmetics, sheltered from the disorder of what's outside. But we shouldn't mistake these lines for simple nostalgia: their measure is entirely tragic. Nick cannot be content with the heavenly, comfortable existence that even he's earned solely by his own efforts, emerging from the underworld of the Bronx. Just like Odysseus, his hunger is insatiable and guilt (however you define it, according to the parameters of a happy life in late capitalism) is more attractive than glory. Nick's true essence lies in this restless quest: and if it would push him to some kind of hell, so be it. Thus the mysteries of disorder and the underworld never cease to invest restless spirits, fueling their and our desire for virtue, for knowledge.

Giorgio Fontana

Giorgio Fontana is an Italian award-winning writer and essayist. His books are translated in eight languages. He has contributed, among the others, to The European Review of Books, Public Seminar and Neuer Zürcher zeitung.

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