Walking in Fear of Death with Murray and Jack in White Noise

Murray Jay Siskind, a postmodern satirical character in Don DeLillo's White Noise, is one of the New York émigrés who teaches at the College-on-the-Hill and is the best friend of the main character, Jack Gladney. On an otherwise typical afternoon, Murray and Jack take an unexpected long walk -- one which had practical consequences. During this academic walk, Jack is confronted and forced to cope with his fear of death. Murray, trying to help Jack think intelligently about death, offers him various methods on how he might cope with his fear. 

Each method explored, however, falls short of alleviating Jack of his fear of death -- all, he thinks, except the last method. What Murray is skeptical to admit, and Jack desperately vies to cling to as viable, is that there exists a reality beyond this mortal coil. The fear of death is a reality not to be repressed or ignored but to be acknowledged and respected, even shared with others and fully embraced. The long walk with Murray and Jack demonstrates to the reader that death is a reality which we all have to confront and, if possible, befriend. 

This hermeneutical principle can aid the reader as he or she examines Murray’s methods for overcoming one's fear of death. Do they really help Jack (or anyone else) overcome his fear of death? This question frames the content for this essay. Jack's isolation, and thus that of the reader, is the cause of his fear of death, and it is not until he immerses himself in the lives of others that his fear of death is constrained. 

Murray and Jack meet each other after one of Murray's seminars and the two of them take one of their friendly walks. This particular walk turned into "a serious looping Socratic walk, with practical consequences." (282) This long walk is Socratic or highly philosophical and theoretical by nature, given Murray's interest in highly intellectual language over various subjects. Murray admits: "We're a couple of academics taking a walk," and, "We're two academics in an intellectual environment." (291) By defining the conversation in this way, Murray indicates that the nature of the conversation is meant to be merely theoretical, without any practical implications. Three times Murray "seemed to shrug" at Jack's questions concerning death (283, 286, 291), which is ironic, since Murray is a deeply pensive character. Murray confesses that it is the academic's duty "to examine currents of thought, investigate the meaning of human behavior." (291) 

The reader, however, is not impressed that Murray could not answer Jack's questions; Murray merely needs time to think, to reason. He keeps telling Jack, who asked him, "Why can't we be intelligent about death?" (282) -- that he is merely theorizing how Jack could overcome his fear of dying. When Jack wonders if his fear could actualize death (282), he confesses that he is "just going through the motions of living." (282-83) He says: "I'm technically dead. My body is growing a nebulous mass." (283) Jack knows that death is a reality. He knows that he is going to die. Jean Baudrillard writes: "To dissimulate is to pretend not to have what one has." (Simulation and Simulacra, 2) Jack knows that he has a nebulous mass, so he is not dissimulating. As far as he is concerned, he is dead already; he is just simulating life. Again, Baudrillard writes, "To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn't have." (2) From Jack's perspective, life is a simulation. 

Yet, Jack is very much alive. He notes that there is "something artificial" about his death: it is "shallow, unfulfilling." (283) But still, he is alive, and fear did not bring on the nebulous mass which he is told will take his life. Fear of death, however, is all he thinks about. He confesses: "The deepest regret is death. The only thing to face is death. This is all I think about. There's only one issue here. I want to live." (283) 

Murray, in an effort to help Jack cope with his fear, asks him: "Do you believe the only people who fear death are those who are afraid of life?" To which Jack responds: "That's crazy. Completely stupid." (284) Jack's confession of wanting to live (283) testifies that he is telling the truth. Yet it is obvious that Jack's fear of death is keeping him from living. Murray asks him: "Doesn't our knowledge of death make life more precious?" To which Jack responds: "What good is a preciousness based on fear and anxiety? It's an anxious quivering thing." (284) For Jack, then, to truly live is to exist without the fear of dying: "Once your death is established, it becomes impossible to live a satisfying life." (285) Therefore, life for Jack is a simulation, not death. Death is the ultimate reality. 

Murray, try as he may to offer Jack some solutions to his fear of death, appears to be Jack's foil in the novel. Cornel Bonca, quoted at length, explains: 
Murray's own language is disembodied: it doesn't acknowledge a death-fear of its own, and thus Jack has nothing to "bridge" his own fear to. In Jack's mind, his only remaining option is to kill Willie Mink.

Murray, then, is both the novel's ecstatic seer and its evil presence. He mouths the most brilliant lines in the book ... At the same time, he is the most compelling element in the plot's movement "death-ward," and his clinical objectivity is unearthly. He may as well be from another planet. If every other character is actuated by his or her death fear, Murray's character is precisely defined by his lack of one. (Don DeLillo's White Noise, 473)
Where Jack is worrisome, Murray has not a care in the world. Where Jack fears death, Murray comments: "Fear is unnatural ... Pain, death, reality, these are all unnatural." (289) Murray is in the position to offer Jack advice on how to overcome something which he has never had to conquer. For example, Murray offers Jack purpose in life by suggesting he put his faith in technology: "This is the whole point of technology. It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other." (285) At first glance, this might have been appealing to Jack, given the importance of the television and radio in his house. But television has a tendency to blur reality.

For example, when Babette appeared on the TV screen, the experience was surreal to her family watching from home. Also, as noted by Leo Robson, "Jack may be repelled by the TV-inspired babble, but in a moment of potential panic, he soothes himself with the certainties of 'TV floods': 'I'm not just a college professor. I'm the head of a department. I don't see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event.'" (New Statesman, 51) Jack is impressed with technology, though, whether electronic or chemical. Robson continues: 
One of the side effects [of Dylar, the experimental drug which Babette was taking in order to eradicate her fear of death] is the inability to distinguish between events and their description, but most of the characters have already been frazzled by television. Jack's house is permanently abuzz with deranged digressional chatter -- what his colleague from the popular culture department calls "the other-worldly babble of the American family." (51)
By placing his faith in technology, Jack will never overcome his fear of death because of its inability to distinguish between simulation and reality. Technology, both electronic and chemical, cannot eradicate his fear of death, which is the only state of existence that he considers a person to be truly living.

Murray's next attempt at offering Jack a solution to overcoming his fear of death is belief in an afterlife. Murray states that "you can always get around death by concentrating on the life beyond ... Read up on reincarnation, transmigration, hyperspace, the resurrection of the dead and so on." (285-86) Notice, however, that Murray's suggestion only helps Jack "get around" death, not confront or conquer it. When Jack asks Murray if he himself believes any of these things, Murray does not answer: "Millions of people have believed for thousands of years. Throw in with them. Belief in a second birth, a second life, is practically universal. This must mean something." (286) Evidently, because millions of people believe in some sort of afterlife, validity is granted to the concept. Jack concludes that such belief is a "convenient fantasy, the worst kind of self-delusion." (286) Belief in an afterlife proves defective in helping Jack overcome his fear of death. 

Jack is perplexed why he had had a fear of death for so long, and so consistently, so he asks Murray to explain the reason. Murray's response is that Jack does not know how to repress: "We're all aware there's no escape from death. How do we deal with this crushing knowledge? We repress, we disguise, we bury, we exclude. Some people do it better than others, that's all." (288) Jack asks him how he might improve his ability to repress. Sadly, Murray admits: "You can't. Some people just don't have the unconscious tools to perform the necessary disguising operations." (288-89) Murray admits that he knows this because Freud had said as much. Sigmund Freud held that the "pleasure principle" is mankind's highest attainment. He asks: "And finally, what good to us is a long life if it is difficult and barren of joys, and if it is so full of misery that we can only welcome death as a deliverer?" (Civilization and its Discontents, 71) Jack and Freud have asked the same question, but Freud attempts to answer it through the lens of repression. Jack's attempt at an answer is through the lens of elimination. For Jack, repression is merely a band-aid on a terminal illness -- utterly useless.

Finally, as their conversation evolves, having reached no viable conclusion how Jack can conquer his fear of death, Murray introduces a new concept. By the end of the conversation, Murray's new theory will morph into potential practicality for Jack. It gives Jack the tangibility for which he seeks in overcoming his fear of death. Murray mentions his belief that there are only two types of people in the world: killers and diers. (290) Murray urges Jack to think about what it is like to be a killer: "Think how exciting it is, in theory, to kill a person in direct confrontation. If he dies, you cannot [die]. To kill him is to gain life-credit. The more people you kill, the more credit you store up." (290) Lest Jack think that Murray had lost his senses, he reminds Jack, "This is a theory. We're a couple of academics taking a walk." (291) Murray is merely talking theory with Jack, not encouraging him to turn into a murderer. Yet, for this reason, some critics view Murray as "the 'true villain' of White Noise," the one who "encourages and fosters the worst in Jack." (Explicator, 115)

Given Murray's insistence that he is merely talking theory with another scholar, the only way to substantiate this claim is to insist that Murray is somehow using the power of suggestion with Jack in order to get him to murder, so that he can overcome his fear of death. Murray's theoretical advice to Jack is explicitly noted as solely theoretical and not to be taken literally. If Jack receives Murray's theory as the power of suggestion (much like the effect that the media had on the characters when announcing the symptoms of the airborne toxic event), then it is Jack's failure to distinguish between simulation and reality. 

But what if Murray is right? Would Jack be desperate enough to murder someone in order to overcome his fear of death? Jack asks: "You think it adds to a person's store of credit, like a bank transaction." (291) Murray responds: "The killer, in theory, attempts to defeat his own death by killing others. He buys time, he buys life." (291) Theoretically, "violence is a form of rebirth" (290), admits Murray. By killing another human being, Jack can theoretically transform himself from a "dier" into a "killer," i.e., a man who kills rather than one who is killed.

In theory, the killer is attempting "to defeat his own death by killing others." (291) Defeating death is what Jack has been after all along. Finally, Jack obtains, at least in theory, a tangible way to conquer death! This survivor-of-the-fittest worldview, admits Murray, is as old as man himself: "We start our lives in chaos, in babble. As we surge up into the world, we try to devise a shape, a plan." (291) From his beginning, man has tried to survive, and like death, the more he can kill, the better his chances of survival: "He dies, you live." (291) Mark Conroy comments: 
The moral simplicity of Jack's retribution is complicated by the fact that he believes himself to be dying and his own death to be less likely if he kills someone else. Babette's father provides the practical means [by giving Jack his gun], but -- again fittingly -- it is Murray Jay Siskind who gives the casuistical theory that justifies the gun's use: "It's a way of controlling death. A way of gaining the ultimate upper hand. Be the killer for a change. Let someone else be the dier. Let him replace you, theoretically, in that role. You can't die if he does. He dies, you live." (291) (Critique, 104-05)
Jack, however, is still going to die even if he kills everyone on earth. Even if Jack could delude himself into thinking that he is not going to die, or if he could overcome his fear of death, he will still die. Like death, once everyone else is dead, its purpose is done. Death is as much a part of our reality as is life. Death is not an image or a concept or a simulation. 

What Murray has theorized for Jack as a viable option in overcoming his fear of death is nothing short of fantasy. For Jack, murdering another human being will merely have been a simulation of his own death, not a cure in overcoming his fear. Jack is going to die regardless of how many people he kills. We cannot forget his own admission that he has "a growing nebulous mass." (283) Killing other people will not shrink or eradicate that mass. 

What Jack needs is advice on how to live with a nebulous mass -- how to live knowing that death is a reality for everyone -- how to live in communion with those around him rather than in isolation and fear. In spite of Murray's theories on how to overcome one's fear of death, I think Jack learns that his fear is "our" fear: fear of death is universal, and Jack joins the human race by the end of the novel. Having failed to kill Mr. Gray (Willie Mink), Jack remains a "dier." He has transformed from Murray's "chaotic surge" (291) into a human being who, though he shoots another human being, comes to care for him. Jack learns to live in community; he joins a social consciousness. Jack, commenting on the sunset, remarks: 
Certainly there is awe, it is all awe, it transcends previous categories of awe, but we don't know whether we are watching in wonder or dread, we don't know what we are watching or what it means, we don't know whether it is permanent, a level of experience to which we will gradually adjust, into which our uncertainty will eventually be absorbed, or just some atmospheric weirdness, soon to pass. The collapsible chairs are yanked open, the old people sit. What is there to say? The sunsets linger and so do we. (324-25)
Jack's self-centeredness has vanished, and so has his fear of death. DeLillo leaves us in the supermarket at the end of the novel: a place of community. There have been a lot of technological changes in the market, as well as the shifting of products all over the store. Jack comments: "But in the end it doesn't matter ... The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living." (326) No longer do the living ponder the realm of the dead. Now the dead are speaking to the living.

He still remains in a posture of community: "And this is where we wait together, regardless of age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods ... Everything we need." (326, emphases added) In the community of the supermarket, "we don't die, we shop." (38, emphases added). Steven Conway comments: "Jack does seem either incapable or unwilling to stand apart from the consumer culture, presenting the reader with the supermarket checkout line as a compelling metaphor for life and hope." ("Death and Dying in DeLillo's White Noise," 3). Jack's "life and hope" are found not in a self-absorbed preoccupation with a fear of death but in existing in the land of the living.

What Jack needed in order to overcome his fear of death was the one piece of advice Murray failed to offer, though he hinted at it by stating, "I'm saying you can't let down the living by slipping into self-pity and despair. People will depend on you to be brave." (284) We should not live for ourselves and we should not die for ourselves. In the supermarket -- in the community of life with the living -- we stand in a "slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time." (326, emphasis added)



Baudrillard, Jean. "The Precession of Simulacra." Simulation and Simulacra, ed. and trans. Sheila Fraser. Paris: Gallirnard, 1976.

Bonca, Cornel. "Don DeLillo's White Noise: The Natural Language of the Species." White Noise: Text and Criticism, ed. Mark Osteen. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Conroy, Mark. "From Tombstone to Tabloid: Authority Figured in White Noise." Critique 35, no. 2 (Winter 94 1994): 97. Academic Search Premier, EBSCO (accessed April 15, 2010).

Conway, Steven. "Death and Dying in DeLillo's White Noise." 1995. www.subverbis.com/essays/white%20noise.rtf (accessed May 21, 2010).

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

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Translated and Edited by James Strachey. New
York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.

Laist, Randy. "DeLillo's Only Intertextual Character: Tracing WHITE NOISE's Murray Siskind Back to DeLillo's Pseudonymous Novel AMAZONS." Explicator 66, no. 2 (Winter 2008, 2008):115-118. Academic Search Premier, ESBCO (accessed April 15, 2010).

Robson, Leo. "The Latest Phase in His Dying." New Statesman 139, no. 4991 (March 8, 2010):50-51. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO (accessed April 15, 2010).


My photo

My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.