Don DeLillo's Underworld and Postsecular Models of Belief

You've probably noticed a rise in postmaterial systems of belief over the last year. I know I have. It seemed like everywhere I went someone was trying to tell me what my star sign (Taurus, FYI) meant, what the moon was up to, which esoteric therapy I should try. Elsewhere, Twitter was full of Catholics, from both the family values left and the Hapsburg-nostalgic, anti-miscegeny, eugenics-enthusiastic right.

I lack the energy and sociological nous to provide a comprehensive ethnographic reading of this trend. Likewise, any attempt to isolate its causes would likely result in generalisations such as 'late capitalism has failed to provide meaning beyond the material' or 'imminent climate apocalypse is causing people to long for an afterlife'. Others are better equipped for this work.

What I do want to do was suggest a precursor to this new spiritual market-for-growth. As is often the case, fiction provides us with a prescient reference point.

In 1997, Don DeLillo published his longest and best novel, Underworld. The cover depicts the World Trade Center towers foregrounded by a chapel, a cross imposed in front of the metal-and-steel blocks.

Aside from its eerie premonition of terrorist atrocity, the image juxtaposes two of the novel's key themes: financial capitalism and belief. These themes are not distinct. Rather, they bleed into one another. Technology, capital, globalisation, commoditisation: these are not secular zones. They are charged with a will towards the spiritual.

As Frederic Jameson suggested, postmodern capitalism provides its own sense of the sublime. Immanuel Kant saw a mountain and felt humankind's capacity to understand what was beyond comprehension and thus experience a sensation of transcendence. We can't know infinity, but we can understand it as a concept. Jameson saw the same in late capitalism's commodification of every worldly thing. We can still look at the stars and use them to predict our lives, and maybe this seems saner than expecting financial markets to provide us with a vision of God (or, yet more ridiculous, provide us with material wealth!) We can return to the old religions, render saints in pixels and quote from scripture to service petty Twitter beefs, but this is nothing more than an attempt to put the genie back in the bottle.

Better, in DeLillo's view, to look for transcendent potential in everyday life. In Underworld, a Catholic nun called Sister Edgar experiences worship in terms of capital transaction: 'Prayer is a practical strategy, the gaining of temporal advantage in the capital markets of Sin and Remission'. Her faith is inverted, corrupted by capital's nefarious influence. But later in the novel, she finds a new site for faith. Catholicism isn't providing her with an adequate model for belief. Instead, she finds transcendence online.

After the rape and murder of a young girl in the Bronx, a graffiti artist sprays the silhouette of an angel on a Lucky Strike billboard. When the subway goes past in the background, Sister Edgar sees the girl's face;

‘She feels the words before she sees the object. She feels the words although no one has spoken them. This is how a crowd brings things to single consciousness.’

Vitally, her vision is given its power by the participation of the crowd. The collective provides a postsecular manifestation of spiritual meaning, an alternative to institutional Catholicism. Sister Edgar finds 'another kind of belief, a second force, insecure, untrusting, a faith that is spring-fed by the things we fear in the night'.

Later, she somehow meets the dead girl online, in the cloud. Earlier in the novel, DeLillo references The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th Century Christian mysticist text based around the idea of radically accepting God through myth. The novel's conclusion channels this idea, but pushes it online, a place where 'All human knowledge [is] gathered and linked, hyperlinks, this site leading to that, this fact referenced to that, a keystroke, a mouse-click, a password-world without end, amen.'

This is not to say that we should look online for salvation or meaning. It is a suggestion that faith can exist through networks, through infinitely linked pools of collective knowledge, through human relationships and everyday life. The Internet functions as a metaphor for an idealised space of limitless potential. It must have been far easier for DeLillo to locate a postsecular spiritual afterlife on the Internet in 1997. But seeking such a space should be a priority for anyone exhausted and disappointed by the empirical restrictions and deadness of the material world.

To finish, DeLillo asks a question that gets to the root of such thinking:

‘And what do you remember, when everyone has gone home and the streets are empty of devotion and hope, swept by the river wind? Is the memory thin and bitter and does it shame you with its fundamental untruth-all nuance and wishful silhouette? Or does the power of transcendence linger, the sense of an event that violates natural forces, something holy that throbs on the hot horizon, the vision you crave because you need a sign to stand against your doubt?’