Thursday, July 21, 2011

"The Minimal Limits of Identity": Is Bret Easton Ellis Worth Reading/Watching?

Bret Easton Ellis
Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times
Numéro Cinq's recent post “IN HELL WE WILL ALL BURN BRIGHTLY : Bret Easton Ellis’s Empire vs. Post-Empire”, By Brianna Berbenuik made me a bit uncomfortable as it started a course of thinking about how writers and artists go about the buisness of critiquing their culture. Berbenuik reviews Ellis's novel Imperial Bedrooms (Pub. June 2010--funny they thought it'd make a good summer read) a sequel to his 1985 novel Less Than Zero, highlighting the books’ theme of Empire and Post-Empire. This whole concept--though I may be misreading it--started to amuse and please me. Berbenuik writes:

"Ellis places Empire America circa 1945-2005. Empire is essentially complete delusion: misguided ideas and inordinate investment in the power of celebrity; patronizing political correctness that actually covers up insidious oppression and hides truly damaging opinions. An overall denial of the ultimate frailty and delicateness of human existence. An attitude of self-righteousness and indestructibility, hiding behind politically correct outrage.”

“The Empire is collapsing."

Berbenuik writes:

"Post-Empire is a new kind of realism. Calling bullshit as it is, stripping celebrity of its bulletproof myths, candidness, breakdowns, testing “politically correct” boundaries, irony, offensiveness in the face of a reserved attitude that hides insidious cultural uptightness for the last 60 years."

the Kardashians

"You may have noticed recently the internet exploding with “socially conscious youth” calling out establishments previously thought of as benevolent and beneficial as inherently racist and oppressive horseshit. This is Post Empire. Really believing “Multiculturalism” actually means colourblindess and equality is so very Empire.”

Have I noticed an explosion of socially conscious youth? In some ways, but it seems to me Empire and P-Empire have more to do with economic frailty in America, and then I suppose, yes, the outrageous lie of the American Dream, or at least the feeling that after being liberally educated I do know that certain people (which I confess I don't put myself in this category) have no access to the American Dream. In the P-Empire, if we believe in some version of it, not that we are meant to not that we need to, but in a way don't we long to, the outrageous lies of infallibility fall away....the American Dream is a form of comic relief.

Yet daily I hear the strangest news: politicians so severely stunted by bigotry becoming front-runners for the GOP (is this P-Empire or Empire?), corporate news moguls getting publicly pied (definitely P-Empire)...I dream of seeing the day when the rich fall, the wealthy and greedy and socially cruel are sent away to a place I don't have to think about...but such things would most likely be accompanied by severe poverty and devastation, a world where basic survival returned as our most pressing need. And why am I so angry at the rich the greedy the powerful? Are you?

The more I research this book and its author the less I want to enter the dark shrouded-ness of either one.
Carolyn Kellogg at the LA Times wrote in a June 13, 2010 review of Ellis' book, going through a history of post-publishing of Less Than Zero, "Then "American Psycho" was dropped before publication by Simon & Schuster — a strong move against an established author — for its graphic, misogynistic violence. The book, released in 1991 by Vintage, was lambasted by Gloria Steinem and boycotted by other feminist leaders."

The line between promoting and condoning misogyny and critiquing it in the world of art, writing, film, is sometimes blurred.

Allison Kelly at the Observer writes of "American Psycho," "At the same time, critics rave about it, academics revel in its transgressive and postmodern qualities, and for all the angry charges of misogyny, it has prominent female defenders, including Fay Weldon, who called it "beautiful, careful, important" and (no arguing with this one) "seminal"."

Post and Non-Post Empire are sort of a pop-culturized form of Modernism and Post-Modernism and it is funny to try and point out what is what. However, Kelly insists that Ellis is going for deeper philosophical underpinnings:

 “… like it or not, the novel dabbles in philosophical waters. The thriller-style hints   and foreshadowings also form part of a metaphysical investigation. Here, as in Less Than Zero, Ellis is plumbing the depths of human nature, exposing it at its worst. His writing is existentialist to the extent that it confronts the minimal limits of identity. What does it take for a person to become subhuman, to die inside – for the self to disappear? Answering this question involves believing the evidence in front of you. A lesson to be learned equally by characters and readers (driven home by a pattern of facial references) is to take people at face value. Past actions hold the key to future behaviour: "You have a history of this, don't you?", a member of Clay's circle comments. Forget change, growth, self-reinvention: in Ellis's LA jungle the leopards never change their spots.”

What are the “minimal limits of identity”? Does a person really become “subhuman” or “die inside”? Is there a force of evil in the world or would we be crazy to even consider such a concept? I for one have been trained to view humanity through a psychological and sociological lens that has no room for “evil,” but I confess, not everything (perhaps even most of it) I learned in school, has over the course of the past decade stood up to the truth of lived experience.

American Psycho


Brianna Berbenuik said...

I was so pleased to see my post (and Ellis) inspire your post!

You make some good points - and the economic frailty is a huge thing for Empire/Post-Empire but it's a socio-political-economical level rather than pop culture, which I believe Gore Vidal goes into (although I am not entire certain as my exposure to his ideas has been filtered through Ellis.)

Ellis's books are certainly not for everyone, and are very, very disturbing but I definitely do not see gratuitous violence or misogyny or any of the other accusations against him - he plays with and exploits these things but behind them there is a reason. Of course, many MANY have been utterly outraged by Ellis - and honestly I can see why. However I enjoy almost anything that not only makes me uncomfortable but makes me think. I'm all about art forcing us to face our monsters.

I am so flattered that you wrote an entire entry somewhat in response to mine. Thank you!

Emily Arnason Casey said...

Thanks brianna, I just saw this comment today. You make a great point: "I'm all about art forcing us to face our monsters."

I think what I meant when I wrote "pop-culture" is that perhaps Ellis' work removes the abstract nature of the ideology of Post-Modern and Modernism. Perhaps his work brings alive these concepts...thus making them real to us. He's saying: here's what that really looks like. What do you think?

I must admit i am not familiar enough with his work to make a clear judgement about misogyny and I'm not sure how I feel about so-called gratuituous violence in general. I think violence against women or a targeted minority group can't just exist without reason or argument framing it--it can, but when it does I see it as supporting the systems of tyranny and opression that are currently in place.

I found your essay so smart and sassy and well written and I'm thilled it's being reprinted! I hope to read more of your work in the future. Thanks for commenting.