Underworld, Don Delillo’s magnificent, thousand-page vision of the last half of the 20th century and beyond contains intimations of truths arrived at by a gifted psychoanalyst, Dr. Bernard Bail in his revolutionary theory of the imprint. It is interesting that both the novel and Dr. Bail’s original essays about the imprint emerged during the latter part of the 1990’s, shortly before the millennium, and 100 years after Freud’s groundbreaking work, The Interpretation of Dreams.
Since the turn of the century, I have had the privilege of being close at hand to watch the emergence of this major breakthrough in psychoanalytic theory. The revolutionary theory of the imprint traces the origins of mankind’s ubiquitous emotional suffering to the earliest stages of life in the womb. Dr. Bernard Bail published the definitive book on the imprint, The Mother’s Signature, in 2007.
In brief, the theory states that each of us is imprinted in utero with the unconscious contents of our mother’s mind, her denied or unresolved painful feelings, usually inherited from her own mother. This trauma distorts the emerging, nascent being and the fetus is forced to attempt to help his mother by carrying this toxic burden in his own unconscious until the end of his life.
As if a discovery of this magnitude were not enough, Dr. Bail has gone on to write over 100 essays in which he delineates, through the dreams of his patients, the ways in which this imprint shapes the world, both on a microcosmic and macrocosmic level.
Unlike Dr. Bail, Delillo is not a psychoanalyst; but like all great writers he is a sensitive, intuitive observer of life, with the soul of a poet. The title Underworld orients us to the fact that Delillo is focused on the territory of the unconscious, just as Dr. Bail is. He is going to show us a deeper picture of our world, beyond appearances, which is the mandate of psychoanalysis.
One of the major metaphors in Underworld is waste management, the business of hiding the voluminous amount of garbage and waste that we generate, in landfills, underground and at the bottom of the ocean. Choosing this as a central theme is one of many of Delillo’s intuitive echoes of the imprint. Because what is the imprint, if not essentially the emotional garbage, undisposed of and unpurified, secretly hidden away out of shame or embarrassment in the unconscious, and passed on to the next generation in the womb? The imposition of this burdensome legacy often lays waste to the potential of the nascent real self by burying it under the detritus of those who came before us.
The major character of the novel, Nick Shay, has a career in waste management. He thinks about waste, discusses it with his colleagues in the industry and goes to conferences on the subject. In this way, Delillo is able to meditate on this metaphor at length. One waste management type has a vision for the future where garbage is not hidden and denied in landfills but celebrated in public displays. He also espouses the idea that waste was not a byproduct of early civilization but the problem that served as the impetus for the development of civilization. The burgeoning garbage created by man necessitated our organization into civilization in order to deal with its disposal. In other words, civilization evolved to effectively deal with our garbage. Certainly, the field of psychology did as well.
Another important theme in the novel is the dominance of the masculine paradigm and the necessary rebalancing shift to the feminine paradigm. This theme is carried implicitly in the very structure of the novel. It begins with an extended Prologue depicting a baseball game in copious detail. I wasn’t able to read Underworld on my first several attempts shortly after publication, largely because I could not get past this part. Delillo’s decision to begin with a sixty-page dissertation on a baseball game is not the best way to invite feminine sensibilities to the party. Now, after reading the novel in its entirety, I can see that this was done in the service of depicting a profound vision of the changing paradigm in turn-of-the-century America.
The famous ballgame played on October 3, 1951 between New York City’s two fierce rivals, the Giants and the Dodgers is linked, by Delillo, in time, to the moment that the US first learned of a successful atomic bomb test by the Russians, an event that dramatically intensified the arms race of the Cold War. He wants to begin by showing the elation evoked by the glorious apogee of mid-20th century and the masculine paradigm, as well as the terror unleashed by its imbalances.
What becomes of the homerun baseball that won the ballgame for the Giants becomes the thread that moves the plot forward and provides several encounters with one of the most interesting characters in the book, Marvin Lundy, a wise old sports memorabilia collector and expert on the masculine paradigm. In a scene set in the late 1980’s Marvin tells another character that the ending of the Cold War is the beginning of his worst nightmares because “…other forces will come rushing in, demanding and challenging. The Cold War is your friend. You need it to stay on top.” He goes on to elaborate, “You don’t know the whole thing is geared to your dominance in the world? You see what they have in England. Forty thousand women circling an air base to protest the bombs and missiles. Some of them are men in dresses.” Here it seems clear he is talking about the end of the dominance of the masculine paradigm. But in a deeper sense, I believe he is referring to the cauldron of emotions that comprises the imprint and humanity’s need to dominate and thereby defend against their eruption. I am reminded of the theme that Lloyd DeMause has written extensively on in his very interesting Journal of Psychohistory: that humanity needs to have an external (and eternal) enemy to absorb the emotions of our internal conflicts. Although neither Delillo nor DeMause understands the mechanics of the imprint that Dr. Bail has so profoundly understood, they do know that world problems are but the reflection of the individual’s unconscious emotional conflicts. Delillo says of the crowd at the baseball stadium that day, “Longing on a large scale is what makes history…even if they are not a migration or a revolution, some vast shaking of the soul, they bring with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day…” He is talking about imprint, the legacy of unresolved feeling that haunts each one of us in every aspect of our lives.
Marvin Lundy also expresses an understanding of how unconsciousness operates when he says, “People sense things that are invisible. But when something’s staring you right in the face, that’s when you miss it completely.” Delillo’s preoccupation with the unconscious is evident as he returns to this idea a number of times over the course of this long book.
Many have thought Underworld to be a dark and disturbing, even a bleak book. I do find it dark and disturbing, as the truth often is, but also transcendent and hopeful, offering some glimpse of a direction, to those who can see it, a way out of the “shit”, the waste, of the imprint so that it will not bury, poison, and ultimately, kill us. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know about the imprint and hasn’t experienced the analysis of his dreams from this perspective. If he had, he would understand that these are the very specific tools necessary to dispose of our waste permanently and transform our world.
What Delillo does see are two directions leading out of the waste in which we are mired; first is the word, the gift of human evolution that we alone possess on this planet. In an exquisite scene between Nick and his Jesuit teacher, Father Paulus, arguably the most powerful scene in the book, Delillo delivers his most hopeful and eloquent vision on seeing, naming, and escaping the imprint.
Nick as a young adult, freshly out of a correctional institution has come to the hinterlands of Minnesota to be educated at a Jesuit school, named Voyageur, for “…those who were bright but unstable, those who could not adjust…” Father Paulus describes the Jesuits’ mission eloquently, “One of the things we want to do here is to produce serious men” with “…a certain depth, a spacious quality…” He wants to “…unnarrow the basic human tubing” to lead “…a young man toward an ethical strength that makes him decisive, that shows him precisely who he is…and how he is meant to address the world.” By giving the same name, Voyageur, to this school in the hinterlands of Minnesota as NASA’s grand project for exploration of outer space, Delillo must be having a bit of a chuckle. Exploration of internal space is kept as far away as possible from the center of our culture while exploration of outer space is glorified.
After braving a freezing snowstorm to visit his office, Nick is being queried by Father Paulus on his development, what he calls “…a young man’s progress.” Nick replies with an odd non sequitur, saying simply that he borrowed a pair of boots. Father Paulus doesn’t miss a beat and asks him if they fit, to which Nick responds in the negative. This is a brilliant metaphor for the imprint, the false personality, the foundation, we “borrow” from our mother in order to survive the vicissitudes of life. At some point we have to face that it does not fit. Father Paulus goes on to test Nick’s ability to name the parts of his borrowed boot and Nick knows only a few. Father Paulus reels off the names of a surprising number of parts and finally he makes this remarkable statement, “You didn’t see the thing because you don’t know how to look. And you don’t know how to look because you don’t know the names.”
This is absolutely correct. We can’t see what we don’t have words for. Conscientious parents spend enormous amounts of time and energy helping their children to correctly name concrete objects in the world around them as they are learning to talk and yet how much time is devoted to identifying feelings and states of mind, the most important facts of a human being’s internal world? Psychoanalysis, “the talking cure”, was Freud’s attempt to put words or names to our inner states. His theory and paradigm were incorrect; he gave us the wrong names. But his brilliance was in discovering a method to access the truth of dreams and in recognizing the healing potential of finding the words to name our deepest thoughts and feelings.
After this meeting with Father Paulus, Nick races home with a passionate desire to learn the words. “I wanted to look up velleity and quotidian and memorize the fuckers for all time, spell them, earn them, pronounce them syllable by syllable—vocalize, phonate, utter the sounds, say the words for all they’re worth.” And then Delillo drops the bomb that brings the entire scene into perspective and connects it directly to gaining freedom from the imprint, “This is the only way in the world you can escape the things that made you.” Being able to see, to be conscious of the boots we have borrowed, the imprint, allows us to find a truer fit or foundation.
The second direction out of our global mess in Delillo’s vision, as well as in Dr. Bail’s, rests in the mystery of the Feminine. The final chapter is entitled Das Kapital, fittingly, since the novel centers around the Cold War, the conflict between a masculine dominated economic philosophy, capitalism, and a feminine one, communism. The section ends with two nuns, Sisters Grace and Edgar who have been involved with feeding the poor at a tenement squat in the South Bronx called The Wall. Sister Edgar was Nick’s teacher many years ago and has long since lost her faith and become fixated on the rules and regulations of the Church and her sadistic enforcement of them. Clearly, she is representative of the old paradigm of Church and State. Delillo has even given her the same name as J. Edgar Hoover, another one of the huge cast of characters in the book, and he has made explicit the similarities between the two Edgars.
An older graffiti artist named Ismael Munoz is the leader of the group of adolescent squatters living at The Wall. He has developed a salvage business for junked automobiles, supporting the squatter community with his version of waste management while at the same time training them in the art of wild-style graffiti. Delillo seems to be poking at our complacency by questioning which side really won the Cold War by showing us how poverty in the midst of affluent NYC has forced this group into living a communistic lifestyle to survive.
The nuns have been trying for some time to catch a young homeless girl named Esmeralda who protects herself by running everywhere she goes in the desolate neighborhood. They want to help her, feed her, take her to a safe place, but she always eludes them. They are devastated when they hear that she has been raped and disposed of by being tossed off a rooftop.
Some days later they hear about a miraculous vision of Esmeralda’s face that has begun to appear on a nearby billboard advertising orange juice whenever an elevated train momentarily illuminates it. Hundreds of people begin gathering to view the phenomenon and soon CNN is reporting it live. Sister Edgar is determined to see the vision for herself, in spite of the younger nun’s exhortations not to dignify the tabloid, media-driven spectacle. Sister Edgar is resolute and witnesses the mystery with her own eyes. Her heart opens and she is able to let go and die peacefully within weeks.
In the midst of this final section, Delillo gives us a mercifully short cut scene of the rape and murder of Esmeralda as seen through the eyes of her killer whose rage at the vulnerable feminine escalates as he refuses to look her in the eye. Delillo explains, “Last woman he looked at was his mother.” Delillo shows with this that to understand our brutality leads us back to the family; unhappy, frustrated, used and abused women and the template for suffering and the legacy of rage they pass on to their children through the imprint.
As all great artists do, Delillo has shown us some important truths about the world in which we live. He may not even be completely conscious of what he has revealed in his remarkable book. It is exciting and confirming that this great literary artist intuitively arrived at similar insights into humanity’s pain and struggle to evolve, as those that Dr. Bail has been able to elucidate with such rich, clinical detail in his great work The Mother’s Signature as well as in his many essays.