Table of Content
2. About the author
3. Historical background
4. What is violence?
5. Forms of violence in American Psycho
a. Purification and Sacrifice
b. Overcoming Superficiality/Experiencing Realness
c. Aesthetics of the Ripper/Sex Killer
6. What makes the violence in American Psycho special?
b. Casual Silence
c. “And I do not hope for a better world for anybody”
7. Discussion of results
In 1991, Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho was published and took the literary world by storm. Even though the publishing house vetoed its decision to print the book after reading and evaluating the script, it was published and changed standards in literature, society and subsequently scholarly work on literature as well. Despite being put on the index in many countries, American Psycho became a bestseller and was not just heavily discussed in society but also became what many people refer to as a “game changer”. One of the reasons why it was so controversially discussed by audiences, newspapers and the public was its blatant illustration of violence. However, violence has been part of almost every medium ever since, so the question remains: Why was there such a public outcry about American Psycho ? To add further dimensions to this question, this paper will try to provide a deeper insight on the functions of violence in American Psycho.
To pursue that goal, this paper follows a certain structure: After providing background information on the author, historical context and also the creational process of the book itself, violence as portrayed in American Psycho will be analyzed. Therefore, a theoretical framework, which ascribes specific functions to certain forms of violence, will be created. In a second step, the forms of violence as presented in American Psycho will be discussed and classified on the basis of the previously constructed framework. After having found, named and classified distinct features of violence and their functions in the novel, it will be investigated to what extent the horror Bret Easton Ellis has created differs from traditional illustrations of violence and horror. The overarching question of this segment will be: What did Bret Easton Ellis do differently which would explain the audience’s intensive feeling of horror?
The introductory hypothesis is that American Psycho was able to use violence on various levels and with multiple functions. Violence is not solely used to assign certain character traits to the protagonist and the society he lives in but also serves as vehicle to overcome the protagonist’s problems, namely anonymity of the cold-hearted world presented in the novel. Furthermore, violence also serves as a symbol for a constant and omnipresent threat, which creates the feeling of horror. Additionally, violence is also used as a provocation while simultaneously hinting at the absence of ethics, which then again turns out to be social criticism of the protagonist’s world. In addition to this, the horror Bret Easton Ellis creates unites well-known concepts, brands, locations, etc. and combines those with an, until then, unknown feature, namely irrational and thereby uncontrollable violence. This creates a feeling of realism which, together with the absences of ethics, moral judgment and rationality, leaves the reader behind in a more vulnerable state than solely explicit violence in a surreal setting. This hypothesis will be taken up by the end of the paper and will then be verified, falsified or further modified.
2. About the author
Born in 1964, as the first of three children, Bret Easton Ellis lived in the suburbs of Los Angeles. His father, working in real estate, and his mother “separated unamicably”1 during Ellis’s adolescence (cf. Murphet 11). Even though he was raised by his mother, his father still had a negative impact on him as “[h]e was the sort of person who was completely obsessed with status and about wearing suits […]” (ibid). Arguably, his father’s influence served as an inspiration for his later works, which mainly focus on upper-class societies. While still being enrolled in college, Ellis published his first novel Less than Zero (1985) which turned out to be a huge success. Less than Zero “recounts the lives of cynical, over-privileged young people” and established Ellis as a writer of his generation, which was and still is widely referred to as Generation X (cf. Mandel 2). Ellis was turned into the spokesman of an entire generation and, as he has hit the zeitgeist perfectly, he was exposed to huge media attention and also made a tremendous amount of money, gained recognition and further opportunities opened up.
After becoming famous by publishing his first novel, he decided to move to New York City and “got stuck into this whole yuppie-mania […]” (cf. Murphet 14). His second novel, Rules of Attraction, which features the story of Patrick Bateman’s brother Sean and his friends at college, was published in 1987 and turned into a “critical and commercial disappointment” (cf. Mandel 2). “For many reviewers the success of the brat packers’ [authors of the Generation X] first books had been an illusion and their second books proved their lack of literary significance” (cf. Baelo-Allué 79). The main criticism was that the authors did not deserve the merit media gave them because, according to critics, they hardly cared for the medium itself and the “the death of the novel” had been predicted (cf. Rafferty 142). The generation of authors around Ellis, widely referred to as the brat packers, was found guilty of symbolically committing that murder. After failing to connect to the success of Less than Zero, media and critics withdrew their, before often used, comparisons of Ellis to literary prodigy J.D. Salinger and labeled him as insignificant.
As a reaction to the rejection and the experiences Ellis made in upper class New York City in the 1980s, he planned his third novel American Psycho. The main topics show resemblance to his personal circumstances (yuppie-mania, conspicuous consumption, status and greed) and even though some scholars consider American Psycho a semi-satirical attempt to cope with his experiences2, the novel still had some disturbing traits. Triggered and disturbed by the blatant illustrations of physical and psychological violence, Simon & Schuster decided in 1990 to not publish the novel even though it was already edited and announced (cf. Voßmann 22). Confronted with two negative reviews by Time and Spy, the people in charged prohibited the publication of the novel in a last-second decision. The book itself, the reaction of the publisher and the purchase of the rights by Random House were intensively discussed in mass media as well as in society (cf. 23). Overnight, Ellis turned into one of the most hated men in America and became victim to hatred campaigns started by feminists (cf. 24/25) and other groups. American Psycho blew up a lot of dust and sparked numerous debates (i.e. on (self-) censorship, violence against women, pornography and ethical responsibility of fiction (cf. Leypoldt 250)). Nonetheless, it helped America but also literature to develop a new culture of discussion and thereby, at least to some extent, to grow as a nation and also further developed the medium literature. Lastly, it also turned Bret Easton Ellis into a controversial but undoubtedly also into one of the most influential authors of the past two decades.
3. Historical background
The 1980s were politically heavily dominated by Ronald Reagan and with Reagan’s politics and policies, especially concerning the economic sector, America encountered a new form of conservatism (cf. Batchelor/Stoddart 4). “Reaganomics” were based on a laissez-faire attitude of the state and believed in the power of the market to solve its problems. This caused a huge shift of wealth within society from bottom to top (cf. 1). Wealth and poverty lived next to each other and many authors perceived that time as if America were to be torn apart. Ellis also picks up that topic and partly mentions it in American Psycho by using Bateman’s cruelty as a metaphor for the society’s apathy and ruthlessness (cf. Schnatwinkel 183). The division of society, caused by capitalism in its purest form and as a consequence thereof social Darwinism (cf. Voßmann 123), enabled the wealthier part of population to follow their needs in very relentless ways. Ellis’ novel American Psycho reenacts and to some extent parodies that lifestyle. Attitudes applied in economics and the professional life were partly adapted to all areas of life and so the ‘everything is possible’ mentality found its way back into American society. The (neo-) liberal mindset had not been turned into a societal axiom since the Roaring Twenties, which were harshly ended by the stock market crash in 1929 and the following World War. Although society shifted towards conservatism, many occurrences and trends were countering this movement. One of them, threatening one of the ultimate bastions of conservative lifestyle, was divorce, which has also been experienced by Bret Easton Ellis as a child. Many children grew up as latch-key kids and single parents shifted towards the center of society (cf. Batchelor/Stoddart 26). This was pretty much the first time that love based relationships were questioned and failed on a large scale.
Another occurrence, which is also addressed in American Psycho, threatened people’s lives in the 1980s. Turned into a headline by The New York Times in 1981, “gay cancer”, later identified as AIDS, made people more aware to protect themselves when having sexual intercourse and recalled the dangers of an uncontrolled and promiscuous sex life (cf. 21-24). “In its first decade, the AIDS epidemic disproportionately affected particular groups that often found existing cultural forms for mourning unable - or unwilling - to represent the emerging crisis” (cf. Capozzola 219). AIDS “reached global epidemic proportions by the mid-1980s”, while likeliness of an infection was higher in homosexual settings or the drug addict scene, which then caused further stigmatization of these groups (cf. 221).
Besides the ‘everything is possible’ attitude another trend, which partly correlates with the above mentioned phenomena, established itself in the 1980s: The focus on the body, in whatever shape, is a typical characteristic of the 1980s (cf. Voßmann 62/63). Different genres responded differently to this trend. From Jane Fonda’s fitness or MTV music videos to a more aesthetic and artistic view on bodies, the 1980s strongly focused on bodies and bodily representations. This upcoming trend is surely one reason why Ellis also focused on the depiction, or in his case distortion, of the body. While some argue that the distortion of bodies can be read as metaphor for a lacking or very loose (literary) structure (cf. Kremer 211), others argue that bodies symbolize the least common denominator of all human beings and thereby make the illustrated violence more connectable to the single reader. Also the idea of perfection (or being as close to the contemporary beauty ideal as possible) can be discovered in both, literary works and mass media. What most works of the 1980s have in common, from Madonna to Bret Easton Ellis, is the boarder pushing and provoking attitude, which attempts to turn taboos into topics.
4. What is violence?
The German word “Gewalt” (violence) is differently connoted and reflects, depending on the usage, different theoretical pre-assumptions as well as different schools of thought. Therefore, many scholars differentiate between three main concepts which will be briefly outlined. Firstly, the physical attack on a body or object is described by the Latin word “violentia”. Secondly, “Gewalt” is also used to refer to the power of governments, public entities and administrations. This is referred to as “potestas”. Lastly, also the sheer ability to utilize any of the above mentioned is described as “potentia”. All forms of power/violence/potential violence are mutually dependent on each other and in actual illustration often appear together (cf. Dornberg 9). However, many scholars (i.e. Popitz) agreed that negative physical influence on others (violentia) is the most direct form of the three (cf. Popitz 73). Nieraad advocates the point that this form of violence is also the most disturbing one due to its personal character. The uniting factor of all human beings, namely the body, is exposed to violence with the subsequent aim of destruction (cf. Nieraad 21). There are also other approaches to place violence in a continuum of actions. One of those is the distinction between the thought, the utterance and the action itself (cf. Corbineau-Hoffmann/Nicklas 1) but also Corbineau-Hoffmann and Nicklas acknowledge that the three dimensions of violence are tightly interwoven and interdependent.
Independently from the theoretical framework, most scholars agree, with reference to ancient Egyptian, Greek and Christian myths and stories, that violence is part of society ever since. However, what has indeed changed over the centuries is the localization and evaluation of violence in society. While some traditional schools of thought suggest that nature is a non-violent space and thereby label violence as unnatural, others assume that violence is an innate trait of human beings (cf. Corbineau-Hoffmann/Nicklas 6). The earliest theoretical discussion on violence was provided by Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan (1651) and, in the same line of thought, Charles Darwin came, yet in another discipline, to similar conclusions in his work on the Origin of Species (1859) (cf. ibid). Some of the concepts found their way into mainstream as well as scientific discussions and last until today. A prominent example, which very briefly outlines Hobbes’ and Darwin’s conception of nature and the human being, is the idea of the “homo homini lupus”, the wolf within the man, which refers to the innate aggression of human beings and the need of external control mechanisms (cf. Corbineau-Hoffmann/Nicklas 8). While there is no consensus whether violence is innate or unnatural, many scholars agree that violence, especially in art and literature, mirrors time, space and society. Two examples of such contemporary influences, which are also part of American Psycho, are violence in connection with cities and hierarchy. According to Nieraad, the increasing size of cities as well as the increasing speed of communication created, alongside with anonymity, a feeling of threat which is turned into a topic by city novels but also science-fiction (cf. 22). The second dominant contemporary influence in American Psycho is the one of hierarchy. Hierarchy, having its basis in economic, social and culture availability of resources, creates a more subtle kind of violence which nonetheless is equally frightening (cf. Nieraad 23). After having given a short review on different concepts of violence and different theoretical approaches towards violence, the next chapter will work on the classification of the different forms of violence as used in American Psycho. Even though the word “violence” is used to describe a variety of phenomena, it should be clarified that all three forms (physical/mental, structural/administrational and potential violence) are meant by this. The classification of violence will be conducted by a purpose-orientated procedure. The central question will be: Which function does violence serve in the novel?
5. Forms of violence in American Psycho
a. Purification and Sacrifice
American Psycho features plenty coincidences in which people of lower social standing are threatened, humiliated, and killed. Most often Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of the novel, decides to use violence against homeless people and prostitutes. In fact, the only time Bateman actively uses violence against somebody from his own social background is the killing of a potential competitor, namely Paul Owen. Besides that incident (and a variety of flashbacks) violence is solely used against the poor. But what is the overarching framework for Bateman’s murders? On which basis does he choose his victims? Who does he sacrifice his victims to? Moser provides an answer to this question by connecting the inner and outer actions of Bateman. He suggests that Patrick Bateman tries to conduct a form of spiritual and physical purification (cf. Moser 116). The cleaning of the city goes along with the cleaning of his soul. This idea is tightly linked to the cannibalistic momentum of the book which symbolizes both, the wish for purification as well as the need for the purification (cf. ibid). The committed crimes were motivated by the wish of cleaning himself mentally and his city physically while simultaneously causing further need for purification. The protagonist finds himself in a vicious circle, which may be the reason why Ellis decided to integrate the theme of hell into his book at the beginning as well as the ending. Bateman’s wish for purification is symbolized by numerous references and stylistic devices. One of the countless examples for the protagonist’s wish of purity is Bateman’s apartment which features furniture, chimneys, floors and carpets. All those objects are white, the color historically, figuratively and literally standing for purity (cf. Moser 116). While lifestyle choices and environment hint at Bateman’s desire for purity, Bret Easton Ellis also found a way to hint at Bateman’s wish to (literally) clean his body. The novel describes in great detail how and with which soaps, perfumes and lotions Bateman cleans himself. This much space being dedicated to the process of cleaning illustrates that purification in all its facets is one central aspect of the novel. Ellis gently plays with the binary of the outside and inside, both amplifying and reflecting on each other. While the aspect of outside and inside also gains importance in regard to another function of violence, namely the overcoming of superficiality, (self-) cleanse is also closely related to a strongly economically motivated momentum, which is not necessarily criticized, yet depicted in great accuracy and conducted to the fullest by Bret Easton Ellis. The binary of outside and inside can be completed by adding two other dimensions, namely dirty/clean and poor/rich. Arguably, more binaries can be found in the novel; however those are the ones which are discussed most frequently in the novel itself. While Bateman represents the white, rich upper class yuppie of the mid to late 1980s, he tries to purify his environment just as he purified his apartment and himself, at least from the outside. He does so by murdering homeless people, prostitutes and homosexuals. Moser suggests that the elimination of those, in Bateman’s world view, dirty elements of society is an allusion to economic procedure and represents the commercialization of the world and stands for the ultimate form of gentrification, which hits the economical weakest parts of society the hardest (cf. Moser 116/117). The massive influence of economic behaviors on the protagonist’s mindset is arguably the most recurrent theme of the novel. Brands, as well as visiting trendy restaurants, nightclubs, events, play a crucial role in Bateman’s life. Goods and services are never measured by their actual utility or usefulness but only in relation to others (and their opinion). One of the most impressive occurrences of this behavior is the comparison of business cards. Bateman compares his card to the ones of his peers. While being confident with his card at the beginning, his opinion changes within minutes after his peers expressed their praise for another card (cf. Ellis 68-70).
This being said, it can be argued that Bateman’s killings of homosexuals, homeless, and prostitutes are meant to be sacrifices to the capitalistic system itself, which percolated his thinking and mindset. Due to the given that laissez-faire economics, the core of Ronald Reagan’s economic politics, usually work based on the principle of survival of the fittest, it can also be stated that Bateman’s sacrifices are not solely made to the economic system but also to social hierarchy which finds its theoretical groundwork in Darwinism.
However, it is suggested that capitalistic consumption (and cannibalism as the ultimate manifestation of such) comes up short to trigger the catharsis the protagonist is hoping for (cf. Moser 115). Bateman has to face that there is no deeper meaning in his life and his attempt to clean himself and his environment has not altered anything (cf. ibid). This hopelessness is hinted at multiple times in the novel, most impressively illustrated by two intertextual references at two central points of the book: The beginning and the ending. The first sentence of the novel says “[a]bandon all hope ye who enter here” (Ellis 13). This phrase is a reference to Dante Alighieri’s story Inferno, in which the protagonist of the story, Vergil, finds the sentence at hell’s gate (cf. Alt 80). This momentum of hell as the final stage of hopelessness is being underlined by the last sentence of the novel “[t]his is not an exit”, originally used by Jean-Paul Sartre in his play Huis Clos (1944) , in which Sartre imagines what hell looks like. Those two references to hell, at the beginning and the ending of the novel, are hinting at the protagonist’s essential problem: There is no such thing as an alternate or a better reality (cf. Alt 81). All efforts of Patrick Bateman come up short in solving his and the world’s problems and the reader is left behind with the notion that there is no such thing as a solution to heal the ill world portrayed in American Psycho. The only remaining option seems to be disintegration or dissolving (cf. Alt 81). This lack of alternatives will be taken up in a later chapter.
1 Children of divorce are mentioned in American Psycho and used as an apology/explanation for bad behavior, in this case showing up too late (cf. Ellis 301).
2 American Psycho was advertised as “a black comedy, a disturbing portrait of a psychopath, a subtle send-up of blatant behavior of the eighties – and a grotesque nightmare of lust and insanity“ (cf. Hoban 35)