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Existence Precedes Essence Concept In The Novel Americana

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Americana (1971), Don DeLillo’s first novel, has the protagonist by name David Bell. He is a young television advertising executive, who is in search of self- identity. The novel demonstrates DeLillo’s preoccupation with the American culture and the struggle between the individual and chaotic world. In this novel, DeLillo depicts the protagonist as a person who is successful in profession and fails in his personal life. The protagonist feels bored and unsuccessful in his daily routine life. He is unable to make sense of his place in the world. All these circumstances lead to disintegration of self. So, David Bell decides to transcendent his own self. The way he chooses to find his own self is the religious journey. On it, he decides to make a film of his own traumatised past, so that he might be able to find what was wrong in his life. DeLillo portrayed David Bell as a man who is destroyed by the modern American life and is forced to try and find meaning in the core of his own wrecked self.

The first Sartrean concept to be explained in the novel is ‘Existence precedes Essence’. Being in the modern American culture, David Bell wants to find meaning in his life. The particular notion ‘Existence precedes Essence’ is clearly apt for David Bell, since he tries to find essence in life by coming out of his routine boredom life. The way he chooses to create essence in life is filming his autobiography.

In the beginning of the novel, David Bell is successful young televisions execute who is very sincere in his work. He has the freedom to express his ideas for advertisement. In the first part of the novel, though he exists as a successful person in his profession, he wants to create more essence for his existence. He declared this notion by saying “I was wasting my life” (Americana 8). To create essence to his existence David decided to transcendent his self. The transcendence he tries to create is religious: “I’d like to do something more religious. Explore America in the screaming night” (Americana 10). To attain his new idea he decided to make a documentary on Navahos. He says, “I have to go out west anyway in a few, months to do a documentary on the Navahos” ( Americana 10). He made several attempts to get approval for the project. The project is based on Indians. He expects help from his friend Quincy. But he did not help him, rather explained the difficulty in taking the documentary. So everyone in the network office decides to drop the idea of Navahos project. This disappoints Bell. But he tricks Weede, superior to Bell and gets permission to continue with the Navahos project. Though Bell has existence, he tries to create new essence by moving towards the Navahos project along with Sullivan and Pike.

There are several other characters which explain the notion ‘Existence precedes Essence’. One particular nameless character depicts the concept ‘Existence precedes Essence’. This particular nameless character from the network office always sends strange memos to the employers. But the memo contains the real truth of that particular condition in the office. David Bell found a memo and it says, “and never can a man be more disastrously in death than when death itself shall be deathless” (Americana 21). By sending the strange memos the nameless character tries to attain essence for the existence. David Bell calls this nameless person as Trotsky. By giving name to that particular nameless person, David tries to give essence to that person existence.

Another important character which explains the concept ‘Existence precedes Essence’ is Meredith Walker. She was the ex-wife of David Bell. She lived in different places and felt all those life as unreal. David says, “she told me about some of the places in which she had lived and about the unreal nature of life on a military base; it was life without future tense, she said, and there was always the feeling that you would wake up one morning and find that everyone had left except the women and children” (Americana 31). She also adds that her past life is boring life; “I was getting bored” (Americana 31). Though their marriage life began successfully, it ends soon. When Merry realised their unsuccessful life, she decides to leave David and continues life with her parents in an essential ways. Later David see Merry as a successful woman in her profession as well as her own self.

David bell’s father gave three options for job after his senior class. David chooses the network office in order to give essence to his existence. Since the concept gives free will to choose, David bell adds, “Independence is everything, she said, especially when you’re just starting out in life” (Americana 34). David has the free will to choose his profession, his marriage life, and later the identity of his own self.

In the third part David starts his religious journey to attain Transcendent self. There he tries to create essence by deciding about his autobiographical film. Though he starts the journey with the religious notion, he fails to find his own self only at the end. He thinks through movie he can realise his shortcoming in the past and so it helps to know his own self for the future.

The next Sartrean concept of Existentialism is Anguish. Anguish prevails in the modern American society. David Bell is a person who lives in the Anguish prevailed society. Anguish towards the society, his boredom life made him to transcend his own self towards religious journey. Anguish towards his unsuccessful marriage life made him to have illegal affair with many women. When this affair leads to any emotional relationship, he stops that affair and moves towards another. He calls it as ego-moment in his life. Anguish towards the disappointment in the network office made him to drop the idea of taking documentary in the midway of the journey and decides to take his own autobiography as a film. Anguish toward the network office made the nameless person to write strange memos to the employees.

David’s relationship with his mother also reveals anxiety about death. David’s mother Ann dies of ovarian cancer at a relatively young age and it is her death that begins David’s obsession with youth and death. Benjamin bird on his article says about how David is affected by his fear of death. Bird claims that DeLillo uses David Bell to represent an archetype of “ American pathology”, a pathology rooted in “death- anxiety”, which DeLillo presents as “being endemic to American culture and causing Bell to fear and avoid subjective mental experience” (Bird 186). David’s fear of death causes him to close himself off from the world around him, as “his consciousness does not offer him reliable access to the world”, and also “it is impossible for him to create any recognizable form of selfhood” (Bird 185).

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David’s death anxiety manifests itself in his anxiousness over his physical appearance. He is obsessed with the ages of his fellow employees in the work place. He has to be the youngest in his level of authority at the network. David wants to be physically healthy and strong man. He constantly asks women to judge him based on his physical appearance and becomes upset if he feels de- valued by their opinion. He calls himself as “I was an extremely handsome young man…I was blue-eyed David Bell. Obviously my life depended on this fact” (Americana 11). His obsession with youth and appearance is one of the major reasons he does not change at the end of the novel, as he begins and ends the novel by checking a mirror to see if he has any dandruff. Reference to dandruff appears three times in the novel demonstrates how David is unable to change on his spiritual journey of self-discovery. American pathology of death anxiety becomes a physiological handicap for David.

The next Sartrean concept taken to examine is Forlornness. Forlornness implies trusting instincts and choosing our own being. In the novel Americana (1971), the main protagonist David Bell trusts his own instincts and creates his own being. In the first part David felt boredom of his present life and decides to choose something new for his own being. There he comes up with the idea of making documentary on Navahos. When it comes to marriage life, David felt that both Merry and he are not matured enough to handle problems. By trusting the instincts David choose to get divorced for his own wellbeing. During his childhood days, David’s mother and father decides Virginia and California as a place for his further studies. David trusted his own instincts and chooses to study in a small school outside his city. For his own being, he left his family and came out of the city. When David started his religious journey, he aimed to make documentary on Navahos. But his instincts insisted him to drop the idea of Navahos. Rather his instincts made him to choose the idea of taking an autobiographical film. Though he divorced his wife Merry, his instincts allowed him to re-join with her at the end of the novel. He adds, “At Love Field I turned in the car and bought a gift for Merry” (Americana 377).

The main protagonist in the novel Americana (1971) is a man who dissatisfied with life and embarks on a spiritual journey of self-discovery. Don DeLillo created David Bell as a representative of the modern American protagonist in the effect of “inventing the primitive” (Americana 283). The concept of Sartre’s transcendent self is clearly examined through the character David Bell. The concept of inventing individual is spoken by David twice in the novel. First it appears as David recalls his work on the filmed autobiography:

The illusion of motion was barely relevant. Perhaps it wasn’t a movie I was creating so much as a scroll, a delicate bit of papyrus that feared discovery. Veterans of the film industry would swear the whole thing pre-dated Edison’s kinetoscope. My answer to them is simple. It takes centuries to invent the primitive (Americana, 238).

The second appearance of the concept inventing individuals occurs when David responses “I’m inventing the primitive” (Americana, 238) to Austin Wakely, actor in David’s film, who criticises the Autobiography. David by re-defining and re-creating his own past shattered self, tries to create transcendent self for the present and future.

Don DeLillo links David with James Joyce’s protagonist, Stephen Dedalus. At Leighton Gage College, David identifies himself as Kinch, the nickname of Dedalus in Ulysses. He says, “…I wanted to be known as Kinch” (Americana, 143). He also claims that the book Ulysses “…was our sacred scroll” (Americana 145). Dedalus is a person who tries to find his own self in religious ways and later realises that only art gives him pleasure. Similarly, David tries to find his transcendent self in religious journey and later found it by creating an autobiographical film.

As a modern American representative, David wants a single answer for his unhappiness and boredom in life. He searches for ‘absolute truth’ in his life. David’s obsession of creating autobiographical film is the key to find his own self. He re-interrupts and re-configures his own memories along with fictitious narratives to find the notion ‘absolute truth’. In order to find ‘absolute truth’, David creates some untruth incidents such as the scene of his father retelling his involvement in the Bataan Death March. David’s father never shared these events with him. Rather David collects the historical background information for this scene from a local library and invents a narrative that simulates what a retelling of the event by his father have looked and sounded like. As an autobiography, David’s film should be historically accurate. But it is not as David re- invents his personal history for the film, putting in fictitious narrative. By re-creating his past memories, David simultaneously creates a simulacrum of his past and equating his past experiences with fiction.

David’s autobiography fails because David’s scripted film effectively replaces his own memories. Hence David’s use of film as a means to find his own self ultimately fails. David Cowart in an article examines the inability of David Bell to find his own self. Cowart claims that Americana represents a re-thinking of identity and alienation as a theme in American Literature after the end of the World War II. DeLillo’s David Bell has to deal with the fact that “postmodern identity is not something temporarily eclipsed, [and not] something ultimately recoverable” (Cowart 602). DeLillo uses David Bell as “a postmodernist exemplar, a dazzling demonstration of the subject’s inability to know a definite version of itself” (Cowart 604). David Bell in his failure to find his own self can thus be understood as an indicative of a longer American reality, a reality in which the traditional notions of self no longer exist.

The inability to achieve self- knowledge is tied with consumerism. David is very much a part and a contributor of American commercialism and consumerism. David’s first introduction to consumerism comes at an early stage as his father exposes him to American consumer culture and mass media. David’s father as an ad agent spent time with his children by allowing them to watch and analyse commercials. After college, David with the help of his father attains the job at a television network as a young television advertisement executive. David continues his participation in American mass media culture through his job. David’s job and his experiences with his father as a young boy influenced David to use film as the central tool to find his transcendent self. David feels disconnected from his father. By creating his father’s involvement in Bataan Death March, David not only attempts to understand his father, but also to understand a part of his own self.

Film is a part of American culture. But for David, film takes a religious connotation. As a young boy, while going to the film, David remarks: “I was glad I had not asked anyone to come to the movies with me. This was religion and it needed privacy” (Americana, 135). That is why, David uses film as the medium to find his own self. DeLillo considers consumerism as “a form of mass anaesthesia. It has its own artificial and dulling language, its four- color mosaic of images and patterns. It causes unfulfilled desires to rise above the rooftops. It makes people lonely” (DeLillo 27). The consumerism prevailed in America and the commercial job David underwent made him to create his own autobiography. Through that David tries to find his own self. But finally fails in finding his own self. Though he chooses religious connotation for films, but he is still unable to escape the commercial and technological connotation of film making.

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Existence Precedes Essence Concept In The Novel Americana. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved August 14, 2022, from
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