Don DeLillo’s Mao II sheds light that reveals the invisible world between the makers and the consumers of images. DeLillo presents the treatment of Beirut’s image in three ways, with various degrees of their ability to effect change among the masses. His fictional character Brita treats the image from an individualist perspective illustrating the difference between reality and how the image was represented. The treatment of Beirut by the capitalists, and by Abu Rashid, a terrorist leader, fragments their ability to affect change.
The capitalist represents the mass merger of two separate cultures—Beirut and the West. The capitalist’s merger, or mass consciousness, only comes at the death of individuality. In contrast, Abu Rashid places his fundamental desires into the minds of his followers. Through this process, Rashid places his own reality into his child followers to replace their own identity. Brita, a main character within Mao 2, represents the treatment of the image from an individualist perspective.
She searches for the individuality within the mass consciousness of the ‘Crowd’ holding her affirmed believed that the main influence of the crowd is not the novelist, nor terrorist, but instead the Photographer. Brita started her life as a photojournalist as a means to capture unguarded moments to document the reality of “slashed men, prostitutes, emergency rooms” to provide the illusion that life isn’t scary through documentation (24). She peeled off the top layer of the world and realized that it was appearance and the image was treated as such.
She realized, After years of this, I began to think it was somehow, strangely-not valid. No matter what I shot, how much horror, reality, misery, ruined bodies, bloody faces, it was all so fucking pretty in the end” (24). DeLillo presents Brita as opposing the view, in which we only exist through how others see us in existence (Velcic). Brita believed a cathartic effect was the only way to find any individuality within the crowd to show the difference between reality and how it was actually represented by an image. This represented her own treatment of the image of Beirut.
In her mind the “Dead city photographed one more time” captured the aura that had left the city (241). Once the documentation of the city had been captured, its image now joined the mass consciousness of either the terrorist or the capitalist—Beirut was now “pretty” after documentation because its aura was lost. In the conclusion of the novel, Brita comes face to face with Abu Rashid, who represented the mass conscious she was challenging. Brita targets a Boy to seek for individuality within the cult of Abu Rashid. Brita provides the cathartic effect for the boy to see his own individuality within Abu Rashid’s cult—”removes his hood” (236).
DeLillo’s writing captures this effect as “She see’s his eyes decide, the little flash of letting go”, whereby the cathartic effect is applied and the boys own individuality was rejected for the protection of the cult (237). Brita understood that Abu Rashid was an image himself by “talking to these children every day” to perpetuate his aura and influence his own power to effect change (236). DeLillo’s presents this dialogue to reinforce his individualist rhetoric about the treatment of the image. The capitalist treatment of the image represents the merger of two cultures to create a mass identity, only at the death of individuality.
The capitalist’s incursion, Coke II, into war-torn Beirut directly opposes the image the terrorists are creating their own portraits to continue their own Maoist auras and cause change (227). Coke 2 is a parody of the Maoist rhetoric, which the terrorists are treating their image as. Don DeLillo “straddles two cultures”, in the words of Adam Begley, to emphasize the future capitalists could control in the image of Beirut (Begley, 478). Beirut’s magical aura has been lost, as now it conforms neither to the capitalist nor the individualist and not the terrorist.
Instead, Coke 2 fragments the treatment of Beirut’s image—”…thousands of Arabic words weaving between the letters and Roman numerals of the Coke 2 logo” (230). The merger of capitalist symbols dilutes the Maoist images that previously filled Beirut. Hardack labels “The West is creating its own East” through the mass reproduction of the logo (Hardack, 380). This is an indication of the future controlled by a monolithic culture; by extension, the capitalists will create this future (Velcic). The capitalist treatment of the image presents a rigid contrast between its power to change and its manipulation by capitalists.
Capitalism’s incorporation and branding of Maoist the aura has destroyed its uniqueness by becoming a political tool. The capitalist manipulation of the aura symbolizes the sacrifice of identity for protection and the perpetuation of the mass identity. By this definition, the aura has lost its power to affect traditional change, but instead now has the power to control the masses. The capitalist treatment of the image only appropriates terrorism because of “American consumer culture” (Hardack, 374). The capitalist reproduced identity in Mao II is a product of the West that is perpetuated by the Mideast terrorist.
DeLillo’s uses the terrorist, Abu Rashid, to treated the image from an iconoclastic perspective in order to create his own cult from his own individuality. Rashid’s autocratic reality assumes the place of his followers’ reality to becomes their own identity. Bill Gray, the main character of Mao II, toys with this idea and concludes that “…from the moment your picture appears you’ll be expected to look just like it and if you meet people somewhere, they will absolutely question your right to look different from your picture” (43).
The message DeLillo communicates, through Rashid’s fictional character, is that he is an artist capable of capturing the human consciousness. Rashid demonstrates how an individual is capable of manipulating his own aura to benefit his individual desires to create a “new nation” (236). Rashid uses the psychological power of his aura to overwhelm the individual and make them unable to understand his motivations. By purging the individuality from the cult’s followers, the image becomes distorted and loses its original meaning.
A profound reality takes over and his image accurately portrays his Maoist dogma— “expected to look just like it” (43). By assuming the reality of his aura, reality is quickly displaced and no longer trustworthy. DeLillo treats the terrorists as masking their own reality of the image from their own followers to enact change. In Beirut, shooting at rival images of leaders replaces the reality through surrogacy, representing a strong emotional connection to the image. DeLillo makes it clear that only terrorists are capable invoking political change.
Don DeLillo presents three treatments of Beirut’s image to illustrate the degree in which the aura effects change differently. The terrorist’s and capitalist’s create their aura to influence the mass consciousness they are creating. DeLillo’s individualized treatment of the image represents a third party, one that an individual can manipulate the image by withholding it or mass producing it to create a mass consciousness. Ironically if the individualist wanted to enact political change, they would have to conform to the terrorist or the capitalist treatment of the image to succeed.
Ironically too, the capitalist and terrorist are reliant upon the photographer to influence the mass consciousness with their image. The aura of the ‘image’ presents the idea of a collective identity. Both the terrorist and capitalist present the collective identity as a means of protection. Their followers are nodes in a network and their relationship is in how they participate. DeLillo’s terrorists use the aura to brand emotions to create a distinction between the creator and the follower. A strong emotional aura will cause the submission of one’s self— echoing the sacrifice of individuality the capitalist requires.
The capitalist and the individualist in Mao II lack the emotional aura of the terrorist to create a total submission of identity, however, the individualist strives to separate themselves from the crowd they created. In doing so, ironically, they are unable to influence a mass consciousness. By joining a crowd, as zealously as a terrorist or as subtly as a capitalist, the individualist would sacrifice his or her own unique self. The terrorists, capitalist, and individualist are all ironical parodies of each other, created by DeLillo to show the reliance all are upon each other.