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Ephemeral Gods and Billboard Saints: Don DeLillo's Underworld and Urban Apparitions


In this essay, I examine the hyper-modern apparition with which Don DeLillo concludes Underworld alongside a “real-life” image, said to look like the Virgin Mary, which appeared in April 2005 in Chicago on the wall of a highway underpass. I argue that discussing these two apparitions together highlights how both images transform urban surfaces and waste, creating new sites around which collectivities take shape. The pairing also illustrates the mode of perception that the apparitions engender, one that makes urban realities of class dispossession and minority displacement visible. Drawing upon Walter Benjamin's notion of the wish image and Merleau-Ponty's concept of “perceptual faith,” I argue that these apparitions evoke the otherworldly but ultimately insist upon the material dimensions of urban life.

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1 Additional recent novels that feature apparitions include David Guterson's Our Lady of the Forest (2005); and Silvio Sirias's Bernardo and the Virgin (2007). The BBC television series Apparitions, which aired in 2008, follows a Roman Catholic priest as he examines evidence of apparitions and also performs exorcisms.

2 McClure, John A., Partial Faiths (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007), 95.

3 For a thorough history of the long-standing debate about the possibilities for faith in urban environments see Orsi's, RobertGods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999). There, Orsi explains that the very idea of “urban religion” seemed paradoxical until recently; the constant “fluctuations and discontinuities of the external milieu” appeared to leave little time or space for devotion. Ibid., 41.

4 Reading the two images together, of course, demonstrates the relay between fact and fiction that has long been understood as one of postmodernism's hallmarks: that “real” objects may appear in fiction and that “fictional” objects may also appear in reality. But, more significantly, pairing the two images highlights the way that apparitions themselves blur these categories. The apparition's dissolution of the boundaries between “fact” and “fiction” does not necessarily result in the secularized irony that is characteristic of postmodernism. Rather, it can infuse even the most profane matter with divine properties and reveal reading as an exercise not in skepticism but in belief. Cf. Nealon, Jeffrey T., Post-postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), 157.

5 Gamber, John Blair, Positive Pollutions and Cultural Toxins: Waste and Contamination in Contemporary U. S. Ethnic Literatures (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 5.

6 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, The Visible and the Invisible (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 35.

7 Banita, Georgiana, Plotting Justice: Narrative Ethics and Literary Culture after 9/11 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 71. In her discussion of Falling Man, Banita explains that community is formed by “exposure to pain itself or its reenactment.” She notes that during such exposure, “the presence of the spectators becomes a copresence of each other” (ibid., 72). Although the apparition at the end of Underworld may seem less an exposure to pain than a cathartic response to a traumatic event, it is still the case that the vision on the billboard is significant for the way it allows onlookers to relate to one another. Likewise, visitors to the underpass in Chicago often emphasize the presence of other believers in addition to the “miracle” of the apparition.

8 McClure, John A., Partial Faiths (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007), 66. Nealon, 154–57.

9 Hungerford, Amy, Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion since 1960 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

10 Ibid., 65.

11 Scandura, Jani, Down in the Dumps: Place, Modernity, American Depression (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 19.

12 Among others, E. L. Doctorow and David Foster Wallace have written novels in which trash plays a prominent role. Doctorow's early novels often reveal the decay present in otherwise grandiose historical moments (i.e. World's Fair and Ragtime). His most recent novel, Homer and Langley (2009) takes up trash more literally, through the story of two brothers who compulsively hoard everything from newspapers to automobile parts. Among postmodern artists, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg frequently repurposed trash to comment on the changing American landscape. For a comprehensive account of how New York artists engaged the economic and architectural transformation of the city during the 1960s by creating art with obsolete and discarded objects, see Joshua Shannon's The Disappearance of Objects: New York Art and the Rise of the Postmodern City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

13 This aligns with one understanding of utopia that Fredric Jameson has proposed: that utopia's main function may be to make us more aware of our ideological imprisonment. See his Archaeologies of the Future (New York: Verso, 2005). It is also possible to understand these apparitions as producing a new sensory experience that Jameson says can offer a “utopian compensation” for the fragmentation induced by modern capitalism. Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 7.

14 DeLillo, Don, Underworld (New York: Scribner, 1997), 818. Further references to the novel are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

15 Certainly DeLillo's decision to name the girl Esmeralda calls to mind the young, barefoot “gypsy dancer” of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831). Hugo's Esmeralda, hanged by the king in a desperate attempt to quell the chaos growing in Paris, is often read as an unjustly vilified, innocent girl whose death illuminates the inhumane conditions of the city at the time of Hugo's writing.

16 Hansen, Miriam, “Room-for-Play: Benjamin's Gamble with Cinema,” October, 109 (2004), 345, 21.

17 For more on these connections see also Knight's, PeterEverything Is Connected: Underworld's Secret History of Paranoia,” Modern Fiction Studies, 45, 3 (1999), 811–36. There he discusses how the novel's many references must be understood both as a “coherent narrative of the quasi-conspiratorial collusion of hegemonic interests in the global economy” and as fragments that refuse to be neatly joined (Ibid., 813).

18 Boxall, Peter, Don DeLillo: The Possibility of Fiction (New York: Routledge, 2006), 180. Boxall also links the apparition to the Bruegel painting The Triumph of Death, which appears throughout the novel. He writes, “As the face of the dead Esmeralda miraculously reveals itself at the close of the novel … so the Bruegel pushes up to the surface throughout the novel, revealing the apocalyptic dimensions that lie latent in the quotidian.”

19 Benjamin, Walter, “Short Shadows (II),” in Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume II, Part 2, 1931–1934, ed. Jennings, Michael W., Eiland, Howard, and Smith, Gary (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 700.

20 Benjamin, Walter, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” in Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume II, Part 1, 1927–1930, ed. Jennings, Michael W., Eiland, Howard, and Smith, Gary (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 217. The concept of innervation appears several places in Benjamin's work. In “Surrealism” he examines how “body and image space interpenetrate” so that “revolutionary tension becomes bodily collective innervation.”

21 Many critics have written on the theme of recycling in Underworld. David Cowart, for instance, traces the repetition of themes and objects themselves throughout the novel. See also Evans's, David H.Taking out the Trash: Don DeLillo's Underworld, Liquid Modernity, and the End of Garbage,” Cambridge Quarterly, 35, 2 (2006), 103–32. I am less interested in the reappearance of particular objects in the novel than in the way that urban apparitions reposition and reanimate the waste products and wastelands of modernity, thereby engendering new modes of perception that erode the borders between the profane and the sacred.

22 Earlier in the novel, Matt Shay remarks, “Everything connects in the end” (465), while Sister Edgar's experience prompts the claim that “everything is connected” twice at the novel's conclusion (825, 826). An additional obvious connection has been much discussed by critics: the fact that in her Internet afterlife, Sister Edgar joins “the other Edgar,” J. Edgar Hoover, who has appeared earlier in the novel.

23 In The Visible and the Invisible, at 107, Merleau-Ponty describes the experience of being embedded in the world as “perceptual faith.” In his critique of transcendental philosophy, he argues that the radical skeptic absolutizes a single aspect of experience and then uses it to try and belittle our experience of inherence in the world, which he calls perceptual faith.

24 Cowart, David, “Shall These Bones Live?”, in Underwords: Perspectives on Don DeLillo's Underworld (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2002), 50–67, 55.

25 Ibid., 74.

26 Ibid., 374.

27 The critical interpretations of this ending are too many to summarize here. One of the most provocative, however, is Joanne Gass's assertion that the word is nothing more than another piece of data, a “word that promises much but is merely another piece of coded information. The word can do no more than cause longing, not unlike the longing Gatsby feels as he gazes at that green light.” Gass goes on to argue that this conclusion makes Underworld a cautionary tale that ends in cyberspace – “our isolation complete.” Joanne Gass, “In the Nick of Time: DeLillo's Nick Shay, Fitzgerald's Nick Caraway and the Myth of the American Adam,” in Dewey, Kellman, and Malin, 114–29, 128–29.

28 Like Joanne Gass, Peter Boxall reads the appearance of “peace” as a marker of something that does not yet exist in the world and instead creates unfulfilled longing that “puts us [the readers] to work” in an attempt to achieve it. Boxall, Don DeLillo, 195.

29 Jennifer Lebovich, “Faithful See Mary on Underpass Wall,” Chicago Tribune Online, 19 April 2005, Web, accessed 12 Jan. 2007.

30 Ibid.

31, “Faithful See Image of Virgin Mary,” 20 April 2005.

32 “‘Virgin Mary’ Stain Defaced, Covered in Chicago,’” Reuters, 6 May 2006, Web, accessed 24 Jan. 2007.

33 The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat reports that in 2009 Chicago was the “skyscraper capital of the world.” It boasted the tallest building completed in 2009 – the Trump International Hotel and Tower and five 200-meter-plus buildings opened in the same year, far more than any other city in the world. See

34 Benjamin, Walter, The Arcades Project, trans. Eiland, Howard and McLaughlin, Kevin, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 462.

35 I am following Walter Benjamin here, who recognized the temporal contradictions of the Paris metro during the first half of the twentieth century. In The Arcades Project, 84, C1a, 2, Benjamin describes the metro, “where evenings the lights glow red shows the way down into the Hades of names: Combat, Elysée, Georges V, Etienne Marcel, Solferino, Invalides, Vaugirard have thrown off the tasteful chain of streets and squares, and here, in the lightning-pierced, whistle-pierced darkness, have become misshapened sewer gods, catacomb fairies.”

36 The enduring popularity of estampas and altares, bearing the image of the Virgin and used to ornament the home or the body, speaks to the particular role of the religious artifact in Latino Catholicism. Religious scholars have argued that these material practices assume special significance for Latinos because of their ability to transport followers to the “homeland.” Although there is no single “homeland” common to Latinos living in America, religious artifacts and images of the Madonna have been mobilized frequently in the creation of “pan-Latino” communities. For more on these practices see Tweed, Thomas, Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Catholic Shrine in Miami (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); and Cockcroft, Eva Sperling and Barnet-Sánchez, Holly, Signs from the Heart: California Chicano Murals (Albequerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990).

37 Bucktown, the neighborhood where the Fullerton Underpass is located, lies approximately three miles northwest of downtown Chicago. Originally settled by Polish immigrants in the 1830s, Bucktown saw an influx of Germans in the 1840s and 1850s, followed by European Jews at the end of the nineteenth century and Mexican and Puerto Rican immigrants beginning in the twentieth century. From the 1950s to the 1980s the neighborhood was predominantly Latino: in the year 2000, 65.1% of area residents identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino. But in the past decade the cost of living in Bucktown has increased, while the incomes of Latino Chicagoans have remained relatively static. These statistics are available on the Chicago Chamber of Commerce website at For more on Chicago's changing demographics see Koval's, John P.The New Chicago: A Social and Cultural Analysis (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).

38 Taussig, Michael, The Magic of the State (New York: Routledge, 1997), 197.

39 For a thorough history of Our Lady of Guadalupe and her iconography see Brading, D. A., Mexican Phoenix: Image and Tradition across Five Centuries (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

40 Robert Orsi, Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 41.

41 It is worth noting that a great number of apparitions are Marianic visions. Religious scholars suggest that Marianic visions may be especially common because of the Virgin's unique status as intercessor. Christian doctrine holds that because Mary was born free from original sin, she could give birth to Christ, physically translating God into human form. Her eventual assumption into Heaven is said to complete the circulation of translation and her image seems to retain a special degree of mobility. I am indebted to Judith Weisenfeld for her generous guidance on this point. Rosemary Muir Wright's work also provides an extensive discussion of Mary's many meanings.

42 Hallam, Elizabeth and Hockey, Jenny, Death, Memory, and Material Culture (New York: Berg, 2001), 8.

43 Laura Tanner, Lost Bodies: Inhabiting the Borders of Life and Death (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), 4.

44 David Morgan argues this point in the context of religious visual culture in his book The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

45 Wojcik, David, “‘Polaroids from Heaven’: Photography, Folk Religion, and the Miraculous Image Tradition at a Marian Apparition Site,” Journal of American Folklore, 109, 432 (Spring 1996), 129–48, 142.

46 This mission statement is posted on the Teatro Vista website. The play received largely positive reviews and was especially praised for its humor. On his theater blog for the Chicago Tribune Chris Jones writes, “Saracho is the kind of writer able to poke fun at Chicago's ethnic divisions while advocating a kind of amused tolerance for the dysfunctional charm of the city in which she now finds herself.” Chris Jones, “‘Lady of the Underpass’ by Tanya Saracho Is True Chicago Story,” Chicago Tribune Online, 13 March 2009, available at, accessed 11 May 2014.

47 Saracho, Tanya, Our Lady of the Underpass (2006), MS. Teatro Vista, Chicago, 34.

48 Cather, Willa, Death Comes for the Archbishop (New York: Vintage Classics, 1990), 50.

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