We live in a world that confronts us with two realities, or perhaps three.
- The leaders we selected to run the joint are ruining everything.
- Our choices have been uniformly short-sighted and selfish.
- The remedy to the situation is a serious re-calibration of our estimate, not of those leaders but of ourselves.
Okay. Maybe four:
Our choices have been lousy, we deserve this punishment, innocent people will suffer for our selfish choices. That’s five, six and seven.
Okay. That’s harsh. But that’s “American Psycho,” the 2000 film directed by Mary Harron – co-written by Guinevere Turner — based upon Bret Easton Ellis’ genius 1991 novel of the same name.
Genius you ask? Well, yes. Because it’s not about what you think it’s about. But, living today, you are finally in a position to understand it. It’s not the timely critique of the Ronald Reagan “America” (of “Wall Street” fame) that most take it to be.
In fact, it’s a prophet and predictor of the future. And the future is now.
Given present realities—Biden’s America vs. Trump’s America, “American Psycho” becomes a morality play for the post-modern age.
And while progressives will want to frame Trump as some Diocletian, or perhaps a Caligula, they’d be closer in casting themselves as Julius Caesar against Cassius and Brutus with a decoction of Cicero.
Because “American Psycho” eviscerates not the world that it depicted, which is what the critics mistakenly thought, but it pre-eviscerated what would result unless we took its clue and taken out Julius Caesar when we had the chance.
Which, apparently, we didn’t.
What Ellis was doing was beyond anyone at the time’s ability to understand. We couldn’t predict present circumstances the way he could. He really is a visionary.
A Dramatic Take Two on ‘Psycho’
Full disclosure—I admit, I have not always understood what Ellis was doing. It’s been a long time coming for me, but Ellis was first and has remained not merely a genius but a prophet. Every single thing he’s produced is not so much a reading of our culture and status quo, but a diagnosis of our cultural (and political and religious) death by a cancer we have long embraced and even desired for no other reason than that suicide is preferable to admitting we are wrong about everything.
If I had a podcast right now, Ellis would be my first guest.
I did not like “American Psycho” when I first saw it. It made me uncomfortable. From a literary point of view, it never gives the audience a character with which it can identify.
This turns out to be a virtue.
Not because there is nothing about American culture to be admired—which is what I thought the first time I saw the film, and relegated to the “yeah yeah, I get it, Reagan is wrong and materialism is bad” category. It’s because there was always a strain in subjective individualism from the Enlightenment forward that would inevitably produce existentialism, the essential subjectivism which itself, at its foundation, is suicidal.
And not for the noble reasons it imagines, but for the perverse, nihilistic and narcissistic reasons Ellis’ work pillories and satires. And, yes, American Psycho is a satire. But it’s most obviously not a satire of Reagan’s America, which retains the virtue of actually believing what it believes.
No. It’s a satire of the individual who loves his subjective version of himself so much he allows that vision to replace all reality.
He must believe in his own delusion.
Question: What would reality look like if it was given over to a tribe of beings who consistently replaced it with their own versions of things and then came to believe their own false narratives?
How about—um, Putin invading Ukraine because he’s up against Biden, whose own version of reality is as delusional as Putin’s?
It’s Tweedle Dee v. Tweedle Dum in a contest of deadly nonsense. And we are the victims.
But, over time, I’ve come to believe that is Ellis’ point. But not for the reasons I might have first believed.
Those reasons have to do with my inference that Ellis was just piling on about how wrong Conservatism is—how wrong the ‘American Ideal’ or ‘Dream’ is, because it’s a pipe-dream unattainable trap that actually enslaves folks to the lie that individuals can find independence and freedom through hard work, merit, and private ownership.
Because that’s sure what it looked like back in the 1990s and early 2000s. In fact, that was the easy take.
But this is 2022 and Ukraine is on fire, Putin is on the march, Biden is drooling and Nancy Pelosi has box-wined herself into some kind of Prom Queen reverie. Plus, AOC is taken seriously by a know-nothing generation so abused by the selfishness of the power hungry they don’t even know they have embraced being not the Walking Dead of the Walking Dead but the Food of those who created the Walking Dead.
What Ellis’ critique looked like when his novel came out in 1991 was a critique of Reagan.
It was not a diagnosis of what was wrong about the past or even the (then) present. It was a prognostication that showed what the future would look like if those who replaced reality with their own narcissistic vision of reality actually believed that replacement to be true.
From Artistic Icon to Cancel Culture Target
Ellis has been a victim recently of “cancel culture.” There are two reasons for that: He was right; and he didn’t mean what his progressive champions thought he meant and they just figured it out. Let us pray he stands up like Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais.
Ellis was a young Moses back in the 1990s, and he’s been a defender of his views ever since. And this has made him a quite confusing figure for those who championed his talent (which is undeniable) early on.
For “American Psycho,” he based his prognostications upon a critique of Reagan’s policies, though they are clearly the touchstone and foundation of a deeper dive that wants itself to reach into a future he sees coming.
Well, it’s here.
What the champions missed out of the gate was that his “American Psycho” was not one sided. It shot its arrows in every direction and, as it turns out, hit bull’s eyes everywhere and just about every time.
We were his targets, and now we bleed.
The Sorry State of the World
Consider: A warmed-over Cold War Communist leftover has invaded an invigorated revolutionary young country (corrupt though it may be) animated by the very ideas that, out of the Age of Reason, ended slavery, championed universal women’s suffrage, private property, and created the (real) United States of America.
Isn’t this what the business card business of “American Psycho” is about? Isn’t Ellis’ trope a playing out of the absurdity of the post-modern idea that meaning itself is merely conferred?
Is an honorific that is granted—as if merit itself is not the result of effort and work but is merely a piece of paper granted to the Scarecrow by the Wizard of Oz at the end of some fever dream?
Think about that for a minute.
Because Patrick Bateman, the film and novel’s tortured anti-hero, never gets the diploma. And, as we understand, he never had the success, clothing, apartment or physique we’re told he had.
He never even had the business card. And he is insane because he’s created for himself a perfection that he believes he can never attain. And that is the key to Bateman’s psychosis: the positing of perfection as a human effected thing that is impossible to attain.
His self-fulfilling prophecy is the disaster and suicidal end of the film. “American Psycho” makes “Fight Club” look like a weak, imitative joke. Watch them back to back. You’ll see what I mean.
Because the honorific must be conferred by someone else; by someone who has a superior business card than you.
Note that Bateman’s character is moved first to envy and then murderous rage every time someone else flips out a business card. It’s the sign he can never ever win. No matter what. But pay attention: that is precisely what he wants.
It’s a philosophy that might move someone to want to murder everyone in the room.
The novel and the film take aim not at fanaticism but complacency. The complaint of the protagonist is that life under these circumstances—being pulled between fanatics on either side—is literally intolerable and deserves not merely condemnation but annihilation.
Why? Trump. Trump. Trump.
How did Ellis get the Trump virus in 1991 before everyone else saw it? Go back and read the book—see the film. It doesn’t mean what you think it means.
The story’s first murder victim is a guy who is identical to the protagonist. So, it’s a self-hatred thing.
Think about that for a second.
That last thing anyone ever wants to do is admit he or she is wrong—and they will kill to avoid admitting that’s actually true—“true” in the sense that one has to admit failure because “truth” exists somehow mysteriously outside one’s own subjective view. And this film simply shows you what that looks like.
Shocking. But the Communists murdered more than 100 million people in the 20th century to avoid making the same admission. So, crazy is as crazy does.
“American Psycho” is the story of a killer who murders any version of his own weakness he meets. This is dehumanizing on two levels. He avoids his own error by projecting (and then punishing it) upon other people and he grants himself a reprieve from his own punishment by ridding the world of people that he recognizes are just like him. Until the only one left to destroy is himself.
But he never quite commits suicide. Why?
Because he actually believes in redemption and desires it for himself.
He wants to be saved. He confesses to his attorney, tearfully, at the end of the film, in a failed attempt to get someone else to save him. To turn himself over to some other that has a reality outside of his own selfish narcissism that might save him.
Note, as you re-watch the film, how many scenes show the delusional protagonist passing by “Exit” signs. But he never takes them. Or he never takes the right one. Note toward the end of the film when he stands in front of a door upon which reads a sign that says, “This is NOT an Exit.”
We exist in Patrick Bateman’s world right now. Caught not in Bateman’s own nightmare, but between two delusional subjectivists who share a utopian’s vision that his vision of reality is real. Biden or Putin.
Of course, as Ellis’ work shows, that’s a classic “false dichotomy.”
There’s also Trump.
We are in dangerous territory.
Ellis tried to warn us; it’s not too late, I think, to listen to him.