Libra (Don DeLillo)

Libra: A Well-Intentioned Conspiracy


I love conspiracies.

And they don’t come much bigger than the Kennedy assasination.

Conspriacies aren’t always true, but it’s nice to believe they are true, nice to believe that someone is in control and has a master plan, even when they don’t, or even when that master plan isn’t the master plan you thought it might have been. So like Pinky and the Brain, where a couple of disillusioned mice try to take over the world every night, the characters in Don De Lillo’s Libra try to impose their own version of reality on the world at the same time as those around them are busy making their own versions of reality.

Unfortunately, world making brings conflict as reality occasionally intrudes, despite all efforts to keep it away.

Marxism, the Allure of a System

There are conspiracies your own and conspiracies that belong to someone else. The allure of the latter is that they are preprepared. Someone has thought it out for you and all you have to do is join and be told what to do. Redemption will follow.

As Lee Harvey Oswald reads at random through the stacks, he learns about Marxism. This gives him a narrative that fits his life and starts him on the path to Russia, where they find what he knows valuable, then back to the US, where they find what he knows valuable as well, and finally to the US who want him not for what he knows, but for what he has become, locked in the web of truths.

But that’s far in the future. For the moment, reading has set him free. Suddenly it all becomes clear.

He saw himself as part of something vast and sweeping. He was the product of a sweeping history, he and his mother, locked into a process a system of money and property that diminished their human worth every day, as if by scientific law. The books made him part of something. Something led up to his presence in this room, in this particular skin and something would follow. Men in small rooms. Men reading and waiting, struggling with secret and feverish ideas.

(Libra, Don De Lillo, Page 41)

As it turns out, the important part here is the “secret” and “feverish”. It’s not a truth, it’s the idea of something secret and the emotion, the excitement that goes with that. What the truth is, is not important. As Oswald finds out later on getting beaten by the guard in jail, “There are no right answers” (page 104), the facts of the matter don’t matter.

What does matter is how the knowledge he has fits into the narrative someone wants. In jail, his knowledge has no use, no one wants it, but when he gets out, he takes that knowledge to a new place and in Russia that same knowledge, those worthless answers, will take on new a value simply by being framed in a different context.

And so he goes to Russia, and the secret police try to learn all about America from him. he gets disillusioned and returns to America, where again people try to find out the truth from him. And the truth is never neutral, all the observations he has made have a value to somone who wants them, and wanting them changes things. “A fact is innocent until someone wants it” (page 247) someone tells Oswald, and before he comes along there is a place prepared for everything he know. “Every bit and piece and whisper in the world that doesn’t have a life until someone comes along to collect it” (page 143)

But he’s looking for something new now, and as luck would have it, something new is being fashioned especially for him.

The Conspiracy

While Oswald has been off living his life, the invasion of Cuba has taken place and failed. A humiliation for America. In the shady world of the CIA, plans have been made, failed or succeeded, been reshaped and moved on. To an extent the practical side doesn’t matter too much (unless you are on of those on the ground who executes, in which case it is life or death, but still ultimately not important).

Knowledge was a danger, ignorance a cherished asset … brilliant riddles floated up and down the echelons,to be pondered, solved, ignored. It had to be this way, Win admitted to himself. the men at his level were spawning secrets that quivered like reptile eggs.

It was the president. of course, who was the final object of their protective instincts … the White House was to be the summit of unknowing. It was as if an unsullied leader redeemed some ancient truth which the others were forced to admire only in the abstract, owing to their mission in the convoluted world.

(Libra, Don De Lillo, pages 21-22)

And the point is that someone must remain clear. the idea of a pure leader is the alchemy. The ideas need alchemy, because their origin is ordinary stuff, not quite clay, but “Pocket litter.  Win Everett was at work evising a general shape, a life. He would script a gunman out of ordinary dog-eared paper, the contents of a wallet.” (page 50)

This has changed.

I’m not sure if the world itself qualifies as a conspiracy, but there is a lot happening below the surface and the reason it doesn’t make sense is because it’s not supposed to. The fake news flow scandals around the recent (real world) US elections brought this to popular attention, I knew I wasn’t supposed to believe everything I read, see and hear, we have seen the amplified power of lying when released on a world where reporting is predicated on people at least trying to tell the truth. Now, truth is not falsified, or contested, but of secondary importance.

One reason for this is given in Libra. As the world gets more complex, and as we try harder to understand it, as we stop and stand still and reflect, passion goes. “The more complex the system, the less conviction in people. Conviction will be drained out of us” (page 77). Don’t give us the truth, we can’t be bothered understanding it in all it’s nuances and complexities. Give us something to reinforce our prejudice. A slogan. A banner. A shorthand.

It might be thought the enemy of all this is thinking. When the bullets are flying, there’s no time to reflect, everything is clear in the moment. But afterwards

“peace can wear away the bonds of friendship. This is the lesson of the samurai. Action is truth , and truth falters when combat ends and the villagers are free to go back to their planting.”
(Libra, Don De Lillo, Page 295)

So the alchemy of the president who transforms the reality into golden, transitory  feelings is essential.

But thinking is not without its problems.

Taking Names as Reality Kicks Ass

Nicholas Branch is a character charged with making sense of what happens. He has access to unlimited facts, documents, photos, tape recordings, films, truths. But it doesn’t help him make sense of it, because everything is contradictory, humans and the information they collect are unreliable. He “has decided it is premature to make a serious effort to turn these notres into coherent history. Maybe it will always be premature. Because the data keeps coming. Because new lives enter the record all the time. the past is changing as he writes” (page 301).

In the end it comes down to something simple, something physical. People start sending him physical things (bullets, goat heads that have been used to test bullets).

They are saying, “Look, touch, this is the true nature of the event. Not your beautiful ambiguities, your lives of the major players, your compassions, sadnesses. not your roomful of theories, your museum of contradictory facts. there are no contradictions here. Your history is simple. See, the man on hte slab. the open eye staring. the goat head oozing rudimentary matter.”
(Libra, Don De Lillo, Page 41)

In other words, words can’t be used to make sense of this. It is what it is and can;t be represented. There are theories, myths and a “feeling”, but no truth to it all. Life has no truth.

A Place in History

It all comes together at last for Oswald. With a Libra star sign, he is the scales, keeping things in balance and plays off Russia and America, FBI and CIA dissidents. He has to decide whether to be part of this conspiracy to kill the president, the life of the president is in his hands, depending on which way he decides to go.

But of course all this is a farce, the decision has already been made and taken out of his hands. As Ferrie tells Oswald, “think of two parallel lines…one is the life of Lee Harvey Oswald. One is a conspiracy to kill the president. What bridges the space between them? … There is a third line… It puts the man on the path of his destiny.” (page 339)

And so Lee Harvey Oswald gets a job in the Book Depository, the cavalcade comes past andhe shots, just as he’s been told to do. But the action reveals his place in hstory is all a lie. Or rather he has a place in history, it’s just not the one he thought was mapped out for him.

He was set up, yes he made the shot, two shots, three shots, but not the fatal one on the president.

Meanwhile the president was dead, there was no one able to take this reality and add to it the alchemy that was needed for this moment. People stuck in a world of their own making, surrounded by their own explanantions, reporters “hearing their own reports on the radios and portable TVs”.

People were lonely for news, only news could make them whole again, restore sensation. A word is a magic wish. A word from anyone, With a word they could begin to grid the world, make an instant surface the people can see and touch together.

(Libra, Don De Lillo, Page 415)

People were turning to Oswald for the explanation, he had done it, surely hehad an explanation. But the whole book reiterates the people who do the things aren’t the ones who understand what those things mean. And Oswald, who has been set up, made “a dupe of history” understands even less.

He believes that lack of understanding makes him innocent and that liike gary Powers, the U2 pilot caught by the Russians, he will be set free. It’s just a misunderstanding. But it’s not a misundrstanding and people have no interest in realising that it might be. And so Jack Ruby is sent in to kill Oswald. Ruby has a clear motive for this, money, and people who have clear motives like money are the most reliable. And he is. And he does it.And he’s surprised at the reaction, “at a loss to understand their attitude.”

The result is Oswald returns to the physical as the “pain obliterated words, then thought”.

Back to the Words

But there’s one man who believes in the power of words and evidence to explain. Nicholas Branch is left in his office sifting through ever increasing mounds of evidence to come to some sort of overwhelming conclusion. Of course, there’s always one more piece to check, to consider, to fit into, and the pieces have to fit:

If we are on the outside, we assume a conspiracy is the perfect working of a scheme … A conspiracy is everything a life is not. It’s the inside game, cold, sure, undistracted, forever closed off to us.”

(Libra, Don De Lillo, Page 440)

And as he sits there piecing them together, slowly starting to think that the success might have been more to do with an accident than planning, life goes on. Oswald is buried, his mother thinks back on his life and about whether he was always in their plans. the benefit of hindsight makes it look as if this must have been planned from the start. “How far back have they been using him?” A predestination that could  have ended in no other way.

And Oswald’s mother goes over the facts of his life, saying them aloud searching for a meaning in it all, there is one thing that holds true. No matter what she uncovers of connects or doesn’t connect, she realises there is one thing she can hold on to. He has become a part of history, but even more important, all the ambiguity has moved him out of the realm of fact and into myth. the one thing that remains is “the true and lasting power of his name”.

In Conclusion

So I liked the book. The ending was al happening very quickly, all the plotting and planning that had gone on before turned into a messy life, then the characters began the process of making myth and meaning out of it all.

Reassuring to have the people planning things, the puppet masters of the world revealed as normal people with normal motivations and as capable of messing things up as not.

There was a piece in today’s Sunday Times that had me thinking back to this book (as I was closing in with 50 pages to go). It related to England’s cricket tour of India and whether the captain is to blame.

Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel prize in economics, had a theory about why we misunderstand causes. “We’ll keep the situation fixed and have the actor move,” he wrote. We are drawn to the idea of great men shaping events. But they don’t, not often. Circumstances change more quickly and significantly than people.

Keep Kahneman’s theory in your mind and reconsider Cook’s captaincy this tour. If he had used the seamers better, if England had settled on a better team balance . . . Then nothing, actually. Not much would have changed. India would still be winning and a different set of tactical objections would be being levelled at Cook.

Getting Rid of Cooke Won’t Solve Problems Sunday Times 18/12/16

If things had been different, “then nothing, actually”. I like that as a summary of the book, trying to explain history by people seems to make sense retrospectively. Facts can be collected together, but facts leave us unsatisfied, can drain conviction. What we need is a myth, and people are the ideal repositories for that type of myth. So Oswald becomes a shorthand for conspiracy, for without him, well, nothing, really.


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