The Victorians had prized religion and morality and an ethic of self-denial, thrift and industry. They also restrained sexuality. The Moderns rejected all of this as bourgeois, repressive and philistine. They wanted to live their lives in the moment and devoted to the religion of art and experience.
If you lived a bourgeois life like George Babbitt in Zenith, Ohio, you weren’t really alive. You were in a sense already dead for not being an aesthete who lives life like a tourist sampling an endless buffet of experiences. This is how the homosexual Henry James saw it:
“It was indeed. Even as William James was only beginning to put into words the scientific version of the stream-of-consciousness, his younger brother had embodied it in a novel. Not Proust, not Joyce, but Henry James deserves credit for this extraordinary innovation in literature. …
Like a radical empiricist, she wanted to cultivate her faculties and inhabit a world of pure experience. Yet she found that her most decent yearnings brought her to the edge of unspeakable deceit. She used her free will and found that her intentions went awry. The world was one of confusion, of flux – of modernity …
The quest for pure experience, for the perfectly free imagination, became obsessive for James as he grew older and increasingly realized that some options in life were no longer possible for him …
“Conscious of what he had missed all his life, and what he seemed doomed to miss yet again, Howells laid his hand on Sturges’ shoulder and said something like this: “Oh, you are young, you are young – be glad of it: be glad of it and live. Live all you can: it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t matter much what you do – but live. This place makes it all come over to me. I see it now. I haven’t done so – and now I’m old. It’s too late. It has gone past me – I’ve lost it. You have time. You are young. Live!” James admitted to amplifying and improving the words a bit – the journal was his, after all – but the core of meaning was obvious. If you have a consciousness, cultivate it. Take chances. Your will is freer when you are young. Make your own universe. Don’t let institutions hold you back. Think of the possibilities, of the results!
The idea was so adapted to James’ sensibility that the seed began to sprout as soon as planted. He began with “the figure of an elderly man who hasn’t ‘lived’, hasn’t at all, in the sense of sensations, passions, impulses, pleasures – and to whom, in the presence of some great human spectacle, some great organization for the Immediate, the Agreeable, for curiosity, and experiment and perception, for Enjoyment, in a word, becomes, sur la fin, or toward it, sorrowfully aware.”
In the 1920s, it was rebellious to reject the culture of George Babbitt and the Saturday Evening Post in favor of embracing a Modernist bohemian lifestyle. As Malcolm Cowley came to realize in hindsight, the Greenwich Village Idea wasn’t really opposed to capitalism.
The following excerpt comes from Malcolm Cowley’s memoir Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s:
“All these, from the standpoint of the business-Christian ethic represented by the Saturday Evening Post, were corrupt ideas. This older ethic is familiar to most people, but one feature of it has not been sufficiently emphasized. Substantially, it was a production ethic. The great virtues it taught were industry, foresight, thrift and personal initiative. The workman should be industrious in order to produce more for his employer; he should look ahead to the future; he should save money in order to become a capitalist himself; then he should exercise personal initiative and found new factories where other workmen would toil industriously, and save, and become capitalists in their turn.
During the process many people would suffer privations: most workers would live meagerly and wrack their bodies with labor; even the employers would deny themselves luxuries that they could easily purchase, choosing instead to put the money back into their business; but after all, their bodies were not to be pampered; they were temporary dwelling places, and we should be rewarded in Heaven for our self-denial. On earth, our duty was to accumulate more wealth and produce more goods, the ultimate use of which was no subject for worry. They would somehow be absorbed, by new markets opened in the West, or overseas in new countries, or by the increased purchasing power of workmen who had saved and bettered their position.
That was the ethic of a young capitalism, and it worked admirably, so long as the territory and population of the country were expanding faster than its industrial plant. But after the war the situation changed. Our industries had grown enormously to satisfy a demand that suddenly ceased. To keep the factory wheels turning, a new domestic market had to be created. There must be a new ethic that encouraged people to buy, a consumption ethic.
It happened that many of the Greenwich Village ideas proved useful in the altered situation. Thus, self-expression and paganism encouraged a demand for all sorts of products – modern furniture, beach pajamas, cosmetics, colored bathrooms with toilet paper to match. Living for the moment meant buying an automobile, radio, or house, using it now and paying for it tomorrow. Female equality was capable of doubling the consumption of products – cigarettes, for example – that had formerly been used by men alone. Even changing place would help to stimulate business in the country from which the artist was being expatriated. The exiles of art were also trade missionaries: involuntarily they increased the foreign demand for fountain pens, silk stockings, grapefruit and portable typewriters. They drew after them an invading army of tourists, thus swelling the profits of steamship lines and travel agencies. Everything fitted into the business picture.”
The Modernist aesthetic of the Greenwich Village bohemians was embraced and mainstreamed by capitalists in the 1920s who used it to create a consumer culture driven by the cultivation of artificial needs through advertising. Capitalism could create the products that catered to a million different lifestyles and fads which everyone who lived in their lives in the moment had to have to construct their self.
In Bret Easton Ellis’s book American Psycho, conventional bourgeois morality has disappeared somewhere between the 1920s and 1980s and has been replaced by sociopaths mouthing politically correct platitudes no one really believes in. The postmodern self of Patrick Bateman who works on Wall Street in the 1980s is constructed of nothing but masks, images and brands which ultimately signify nothing. The nihilist Bateman who travels through life consuming sex, drugs and endless products is dead inside.
“Patrick Bateman, the psychopathically unreliable narrator of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, exists in the banal hollow of popular culture, specifically the height of the Reagan-era, Wall Street, me generation in which everything revolved around money and image; as such, Bateman is an idea and an image, but empty and void of deep identity. As a walking billboard for elite, conspicuous consumption and high-end product placement, he lacks inner resources and glosses over an emotionally sterile existence. An argument with his fiancée poses the same degree of bemused consternation for him as an appliance problem; both throw him into the void, an oblivion of psychic numbness that is just barely covered over by his mundane, albeit hyperconsciously, image-ridden, world. Bateman takes into his being nothing but ritualistic workouts (a thousand crunches per day), status symbol goods (only the coolest, highest-priced clothing, cosmetics, and furniture), endless pop culture images (trash talk show tv, synth pop music, pornographic videotapes), exclusive parties (with nameless, exchangeable, and disposable friends at only the best clubs and restaurants of the minute); such routines are far from nourishing. He has so filled himself up with hype, pomp, pretense that his identity is nothing more than an advertisement, an illusion, a mask under which no human character dwells. While John Berryman’s Henry may well be ironic, Bateman cannot fathom irony because he has no layers, no sense of depth. He cannot differentiate between products and people, consumption and affect: he’s flat, superficial, and ultimately in-fathomable. His character is a mask covering a void; his identity is an aberrational reaction to the abyss of being that founds his existence.
Patrick Bateman is a product of postmodern popular culture. Modernist culture, due to the rise of Freud and Marx, was fixated on the psychic economy of neurosis and of alienation from society, family, and oneself due to the rising bout between a conservative Victorian past and an ever-accelerating industrial future. Modernist narration exemplifies the neurotic; it feels a lack and a lie and speeds toward filling it by unmasking illusions: Quentin Compson obsesses over Caddy, his father, and time; Jay Gatsby dreams the impossible return to the green light of Daisy; Nick Adams, disillusioned by the birth of war, attempts to return to the Big Two-Hearted River; Mrs. Ramsey seeks her dark wedge. Postmodernist culture, habituated to the velocity of life, takes emptiness as its foundation and its origin, and is thereby driven by and to images of hyperreality in an exponentially mediated existence. Below the mask is simply another mask, another media. Depth is an image, an image of an illusion. …
We know his and his click’s name-brand attire, as Bateman is compelled to size up the person with a classification of all of their clothing. We even know the business card hierarchy due to a pissing contest which Bateman loses: Bateman’s bone (pun surely intended) with Silian Rail is beaten by Van Patten’s eggshell with Romalian type is annihilated by Price’s pale nimbus white with raised lettering (44). We know his musical taste: he’s completely absorbed by the canned artifice of eighties pop, the vapid Huey Lewis and the News being the ultimate image, U2 and Bono (pre-Popmart) live in concert are Bateman’s arch-enemies, for they bring authentic sociopolitical critique into Bateman’s blind identification with synthesized and smaltzy vacuity. We know his dining habits, or more precisely the Zagat guide’s rating system: Harry’s, Pastels, Fluties, Barcadia, Texarkana, Deck Chairs . . . the list goes on and on . . . until it reaches Bateman’s nemesis, the ever-elusive Dorsia. We know his drugs: Valium, Halcion, Xanax, Ecstasy, speed, cocaine. We know his viewing habits: daily he records and reviews (for himself as much as for us) the topics of the Jerry Springer-esque Patty Winters Show, positions of countless pornographic movies such as Inside Lydia’s Ass, and minute trivia garnered from books about serial killers.
Bateman’s world, our world, is an incessant, ritualistic wading through, often with the aid of mood-altering-if not stabilizing-drugs, of a tidal wave of brand name advertisements and pornography, which are much the same thing, images of sex that ultimately become images of death as they assault the reader, if not the narrator who is incapable of authentic self-consciousness, as they bombard the reader ad nauseum such that the real recedes under the deluge of ever-competing, ever-shifting, proper names repeated into infinity. Brands become the trope desperately imitated, books and movies the method meticulously mimicked. The symbolic world Patrick Bateman inhabits is a depthless realm of masks, of images and brand names whose cache and status inevitably change, revealing no stable core at best or no substance at all: “This is my reality. Everything outside of this is like some movie I once saw” (345). Consequently, Bateman is plunged into and forged by a sea of signifiers ultimately signifying nothing. He is mere body image. His psyche is a void because his environment is an abyss, and the inner world, if one can call it that, which he recreates in his narration is just as depleted:
There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being-flesh, blood, skin, hair-but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning. (282)