Essay: Sangster, Delillo, Nature and God

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[. . .] " (DeLillo 231) Here, it seems that nature itself has become a flat meaningless representation -- like the study of Hitler with no understanding of language and no meaningful ethical stance taken, the two-dimensional representation of nature on demand is just one of many things that seem to be offered in a parody-version of something more real. It is only later in the narrative, when Gladney begins to contemplate his own fear of death, that we get a more substantial reference to the concept of nature, within the context of Gladney's intellectual banter with his fellow academic Murray. Murray is presented as Jewish, and not particularly disturbed by Gladney's career in Hitler studies -- this is one of the many disquieting elements of the book. But in conversation, Murray offers a definition of nature as it exists in the world of White Noise:

"Would you prefer to know the exact date and time of your death?"

"Absolutely not. It's bad enough to fear the unknown. Faced with the unknown, we can pretend it isn't there. Exact dates would drive many to suicide, if only to beat the system."

We crossed an old highway bridge, screened in, littered with sad and faded objects. We followed a footpath along a creek, approached the edge of the high school playing field. Women brought small children here to play in the long-jump pits.

"How do I get around it?" I said.

"You could put your faith in technology. It got you here, it can get you out. This is the whole point of technology. It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature."

"It is?"

"It's what we invented to conceal the terrible secret of our decaying bodies. But it's also life, isn't it? It prolongs life, it provides new organs for those that wear out. New devices, new techniques every day. Lasers, masers, ultrasound. Give yourself up to it, Jack. Believe in it. They'll insert you in a gleaming tube, irradiate your body with the basic stuff of the universe. Light, energy, dreams. God's own goodness." (DeLillo 285)

If the television's promise of "CABLE NATURE" offers a version of natural sublimity domesticated by images and technology, here Murray is offering a definition of technology as itself being a refinement of nature. Technology "creates an appetite for immortality" -- in perhaps the same way that the natural landscape of eastern Canada draws Sangster's attention toward God and eternity. But in doing so, technology also "threatens universal extinction" in ways that the novel's vision of environmental disaster makes palpable. Murray's definition of technology seems to encapsulate the sort of paradoxes that Sangster ascribes to God and nature -- but of course technology is, by definition, something that is not part of nature. Instead, Murray's definition of technology as "lust removed from nature" seems to separate out human desires from anything transcendent or anything that could provoke the kind of conventional piety Sangster espouses. The conversation between Murray and Gladney points in all the same directions that Sangster's view of nature points -- Murray promises Gladney that technology offers a means of coping with the fact of death, and that it offers "God's own goodness," and he will go on to suggest Gladney select from a smorgasbord of different religious options to deal with his fear of death. Gladney picks Murray's most disturbing suggestion, that he should kill another human, and attempts that with no successful result. But the most interesting thing here is the way that the contradictions involved in a confrontation with nature have been entirely resolved by banishing nature entirely -- we are now in a world where technology is all that matters, and where nature exists only in mediated or spoiled forms.

In some sense, then, the idea of nature is presented by both Sangster and DeLillo as something that humans are permanently alienated from. The only difference comes in the awareness of this alienation, and what contemplation of nature can do in response. For Sangster, contemplation of nature leads to a need for connection -- of human beings to each other (in love), and of the individual to God (as the creator of both man and nature, and thus the only way in which the contradictions of such alienation can be resolved). However, as Bentley has noted of Sangster's poem, "although not stated (perhaps because not recognized by the poet) the implication is clear: man and nature are interconnected and, willy-nilly, a diminution of the natural world is a diminution of man's world" (Bentley 183). For DeLillo, the alienation is almost complete: nature itself is only experienced in the technologically mediated form of "CABLE NATURE" on the television, and the only things that can be contemplated as natural are internalized, elements of human nature like "lust" which can nonetheless be technically replicated. The only alternative to alienation in DeLillo is the internalization of nature -- but even Jack's badly-conceived attempt at murder, as a means of therapy almost, does not provide any relief. In both authors, humans are already alienated from nature -- for Sangster religion provides a way of making sense of that alienation, but in DeLillo's world there is only television and shopping. If the opposite of nature is always, in some way, ourselves, DeLillo offers the reader no possibility of escape.

Works Cited

Bentley, DMR. The Gay[Grey Moose: Essays on the Ecologies and Mythologies of Canadian Poetry. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1992. Print.

Buell, Lawrence. "Toxic Discourse." Critical Inquiry 24 (3): 639-665. Web. Accessed online at: http://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/2637816/Buell_ToxicDiscourse.pdf?sequence=4

DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin, 1986. Print.

Sangster, Charles. "The St. Lawrence and the Saguenay." Web. Accessed online at: http://canadianpoetry.org/longPoems/Sangster_Charles/St_Lawrence_and_Saguenay/The_St_Lawrence_and_Saguenay.html [END OF PREVIEW]

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