American Capitalism and Conspicuous Consumpton in Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis

Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo

I’ve been meaning to get around to reading a Don DeLillo novel for some time now.  The fact that David Cronenberg (one of my favorite film directors) made a film adaptation of Cosmopolis  (a DeLillo novel) sealed the deal as to which work I would read first.  The novel is an interesting interpretation of American capitalism and Conspicuous Consumption and speaks to the desire to possess and have authority over things.  This is not all the novel is about, as many themes are woven throughout, but these themes seem to be the overwhelming focus of the work.

 

The novel follows Eric Packer, a Wall Street billionaire who invests all of his money against the rising Yen and spends a day driving about in a limousine where he hosts a number of guests.  Throughout the odyssey the novel demonstrates how we cosmopolisposterspeak, not simply through words, but through everything we do.  In describing Packer’s apartment building, for example, DeLillo writes that it is “a common place oblong whose only statement was its size”.  This is a potent line that warrants entire essays be written upon in.  The building, home to the “one percent,” has only one thing to say: it’s bigger.  Even through architecture, we speak.  We speak by selecting where we live.  It is a soulless building with nothing to contribute outside of its assertion that it is bigger, much like the inhabitants of the building.  DeLillo further develops this sentiment by stating that the building “had a kind of banality that reveals itself over time as being truly brutal”, and again, one is tempted to interpret the building as a reflection of its inhabitants.  For me, I cannot read the word banality without thinking of the classic work from Hannah Arendt: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  This same type of banality is present in the “one percent” as is evidenced by Packer throughout the novel.

 

Juliette Binoche who plays Did Fancher in David Cronenberg's film adaptation of 'Cosmopolis'.

Juliette Binoche who plays Didi Fancher in David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of ‘Cosmopolis’.

This banality is manifest in one scene where, after having fornicated with fictional art dealer Didi Fancher (played expertly by the beautiful and talented Juliette Binoche in the Cronenberg film adaptation), Packer expresses a desire to buy The Rothko Chapel, a building designed to house paintings for famed painter Mark Rothko, who created the paintings specifically for the chapel.  Fancher observes that the chapel “belongs to the world”, but Packer wants exclusive rights to it.  He wishes to usurp something meant for the masses and possess it entirely himself.  Fancher is appalled by this and tells Packer she won’t even entertain the idea of making an offer on the chapel, saying that she doesn’t “want to give [Packer] lessons in… social responsibility”.  Packer responds by suggesting his monomania would be accepted and applauded by Fancher if he were “a pigmy dictator… or a cocaine warlord”.  This in interesting in two ways:  firstly, in that it articulates how we make allowances for inappropriate social behaviour based on somebody’s cultural or ethnic background, and secondly, because it aligns the behaviour of the “one percent” with dictators and warlords.  Are the captains of capitalism really just dictators whose corruption has been legislated by a government they control?

 

 

 

Robert Pattison who plays the soulless protagonist Eric Packer in David Cronenberg's film adaptation of "Cosmopolis".

Robert Pattinson who plays the soulless protagonist Eric Packer in David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of “Cosmopolis”.

There are a number of lines in the book that call for close examination.  Whilst getting a haircut, for example, Packer gets up to leave halfway through the process.  The barber responds: “But let me do the right side at least.  So both sides are equal.”  The word selection tips off the reader.  One might imagine a barber saying that the two sides should “be even”, but DeLillo choses “equal” here.  What is the implication?  What is a haircut?  What does it mean to be equal?  Often when we speak in terms of equality, we speak of people, be it: race, ethnicity, gender, orientation or any other group.  How does that apply to a haircut?  A haircut curtails natural growth.  There is the half of the head that has been allowed to grow, whilst the other half is now shorter.  Does the process of making persons equal then suggest that their personal growth must be stunted or retarded by some outside force?  Or is the inequality the exists the result of an oppressive force enacting practices to limit the progress of other groups?  It is an interesting scene with a variety of potential implications.

 

 

Samantha Morton, who play Vija Kinsky in the film adaptation of "Cosmopolis".

Samantha Morton, who play Vija Kinsky in the film adaptation of “Cosmopolis”.

There are elements of Marxist thought, ironically enough presented by the capitalist protagonist of the novel.  Packer claims that the “urge to destroy is a creative urge”, whilst his conversational partner Vija Kinsky follows this statement by asserting that to “[d]estroy the past, [is to] make the future”.  Kinsky fittingly has a German last name, meaning she shares heritage with Karl Marx who believed that in order for the proletariat to gain equality, it must first tear down the corrupt system of capitalism.  The scene is interesting because the rioters of whom Packer is speaking are railing against Packer’s way of life.  He seems to have respect for their approach, despite the fact that he embraces the system which they are fighting against.  It is perhaps because Packer is seeking freedom from his life that he appreciates their attitude.  Perhaps that is why he willfully throws every penny he has into a losing bet and why he enters an apartment building he knows to be housing a man who wants to kill him.  He is a despot that it tired of his role but cannot relinquish it because it is not in his nature.  This is manifest in a scene with his security guard Torval.  DeLillo wirtes: “Torval was his enemy, a threat to his self-regard.  When you pay a man to keep you alive, he gains a psychic edge.”  Torval can be seen as representing the working class and how Packer’s dependence on them actually makes him weaker, a weakness that Packer cannot tolerate.

 

 

Paul Giamatti stars as Benno Levin in the film adaptation of 'Cosmopolis'.

Paul Giamatti stars as Benno Levin in the film adaptation of ‘Cosmopolis’.

When confronted with his antagonist, Benno Levin admits that Packer “wanted [him] to be a helpless robot solider, but all [he] could be was helpless.”  This is another significant line that speaks to social structure.  Many view the ruling class as trying to keep the working class in perpetual servitude, but in doing so, the working class must be stunted.  This stunting process makes them less autonomous and, in turn, more dependent.  In making the working class dependent, the ruling class increases their own responsibility, to the point of overextending their reach and seeing the system cave in on itself.  Levin, therefore, is emblematic of how the current system not only fails to serve the masses in general, but will also eventually lead to the fall of the “one percent”.   The exploitative relationship between the two sides is exemplified in another line that reads as if it were a rhetorical question borrowed from a slightly more cynical re-imagining of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind‘. Packer asks: “How many times do two people have to fuck before one of them deserves to die?”  The question presupposes that the sex act is one that is in some way deserving of death.  Is it because it exploits a person?  One person is using another for their own gratification.  Is this exploitation? Even if both participants are willing?  Is one getting more out of the act than the other?  It is an interesting question that speaks to the exploitative relationships that exist in our day-to-day lives, not just in terms of sexual relationships, but in all relationships and perhaps working relationships most of all.

 

 

 

Jija Kinsky (played by Samantha Morton) has some of the most interesting lines in the novel.

Vija Kinsky (played by Samantha Morton) has some of the most interesting lines in the novel.

Though the natural world seems entirely absent from the novel, there are some potential ecocritical readings.  There is a scene where Kinsky is discussing the price of Packer’s penthouse.  She asks what he bought with the one hundred and four million dollars that he paid for his penthouse and notes that, among other things, it was not the “incomparable views”.  One is reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay ‘Nature’ where he writes that “Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape.”  Henry David Thoreau speaks to this as well when he tells the story of the farm he sold back to the previous owner, explaining that he “retained the landscape, and [has] since annually carried off what it yielded without a wheelbarrow.”  In both instances, the men write about the view of the landscape and how it cannot be owned.  DeLillo seems to express the same idea.  The view or landscape does not belong to anybody.  Despite Packer’s attempt to possess such things (like trying to buy The Rothko Chapel), these things cannot be owned.  Kinsky seems to be a mouthpiece for the ecocritical view.  When speaking to Packer about the economic world which Packer is vainly attempting to domesticate, Kinsky states that the system “wants you to believe there are foreseeable trends and forces.  When in fact it’s all random phenomena… in the end you’re dealing with a system that’s out of control.”  This seems to be an echo of the sentiments expressed by ecocritic Neil Evernden.  In his work: The Social Creation of Nature, Evernden suggests something which he refers to as the ‘divine chaos’ (a term borrowed from another ecocritic), when describing the natural world where no absolute maxim exists.  Packer is a man attempting to tame the natural world around him, but fails to do so.  It is a theme which runs throughout the novel (he has his limousine corked so as to reduce the noise of the outside world, but the attempt fails miserably).  The chaos cannot be tamed, however. Packer’s eventual downfall is not the result of the chaos, but rather the result of his attempt to control the chaos.

 

Cosmopolis is a great work. It is a meditative piece that serves as a criticism of capitalism and the era of Conspicuous Consumption.  The author is not so bold or arrogant as to assume he knows the answers to the questions he poses. He rejects the monologic approach in favour of a didactic dialogue where questions are asked and encouraged, but none are answered.  It is up to the reader to consider the issues and reach the conclusion determined by their conscience and reasoning faculties. There is something wrong with capitalism, but DeLillo is encouraging a discussion rather than dictating a solution.

 

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Words I thought I’d look up:

 

Atavistic:  The tendency to revert back to ancestral type.

Anabolism: Building up of muscle tissue.

Monomania: mental illness, especially when limited in expression to one idea or area of thought, or excessive concentration on a single object or idea

Quotidian: occurring every day or belonging to each day.

Gynecoid:  An ideal shape of a slightly round oval.

Animus:1. Basic attitude or governing spirit : disposition, intention. 2. A usually prejudiced and often spiteful or malevolent ill will. 3. An inner masculine part of the female personality in the analytic psychology of C. G. Jung — compare anima

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. I have been blogging on the novel and film ‘Cosmopolis’ since Jan. 2011, starting with the casting announcement of Robert Pattinson in the lead role. I really like your well researched and contemplated review, and look forward to setting aside more time for it. Might I post a portion at my site so others can discover– with the link back to the full review here? If you’re interested, my blog site presents many reviews of the film, and critical acclaim it and the lead received. Also, there’s an original series I wrote on Don DeLillo. @cosmopolis_blog . [If you are interested in Cronenberg, he’s shooting a new film in July with Pattinson again, and there’s a link to my blog for that at the above url as well.]

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