The savage ethics of "American Psycho"

What Bret Easton Ellis’s novel teaches us about capitalism

Credit: Michael Byers

John Paul Rollert

In-House Ethicist

John Paul Rollert | Nov 08, 2016

Sections Economics

Collections Ethics

As trigger warnings go, it’s hard to imagine what more an author might do than title his book American Psycho. And yet the advance notice didn’t prevent the controversy surrounding Bret Easton Ellis’s infamous novel from blossoming into full-blown outrage when it was published in the spring of 1991. The previous fall, Simon & Schuster told the hotshot author he could keep his $300,000 advance for a book they absolutely refused to publish. By the time the novel finally arrived in bookstores after Vintage Books, a division of Random House, brazenly purchased the rights, bootleg copies of the manuscript had been floating around for months, filling the news with snippets of the sadistic behavior of the book’s protagonist (and said psycho), Patrick Bateman. 

The publication of the novel did not initially prove sweet vindication for Ellis. As a literary offering, American Psycho found few defenders—most notably Norman Mailer, a man who had made a fine career courting controversy—but Roger Rosenblatt of the New York Times spoke for most critics when he called the book “the most loathsome offering of the season.” As a cultural referendum, the decision was even more decisive. The National Organization for Women threatened a boycott of Random House, at least one executive at Vintage Books received death threats, and Germany banned the work outright. Ellis himself became the most divisive figure in the literary world this side of Salman Rushdie. 

Time has proven a better friend to the book. Twenty-five years after it was first published, American Psycho is now a canonical work of social satire, widely regarded by gender theorists and feminist critics alike as a scabrous assessment of modern masculinity run amok. It has sold over 1 million copies, been successfully adapted for the big screen and Broadway (as a musical, no less), and, in an achievement shared by only a handful of American authors, bequeathed a character of such salience that he has been thoroughly appropriated by popular culture. As Ellis told Rolling Stone in 2011, “I cannot tell you how many times young men have come up to me and showed me on their phones pictures of them dressed as Patrick Bateman for Halloween.” One wonders if the same may be said for Huck Finn and Captain Ahab.

American Psycho also remains, to my mind, the single most damning critique of the cultural consequences of contemporary capitalism. By drawing a parallel between the ritualistic displays of domination on Wall Street and the predations of an actual psychopath, Ellis not only shows how soft sadism shades into truly violent behavior, he suggests that the peculiar customs of the commercial elite can blind us to the difference.

Ellis didn’t set out to write a satirical cri de coeur. By 1987, the 23-year-old author had already published two novels about the carnal recreations of spoiled college students, and in search of a third storyline with something of an adult setting, he found himself drawn to the gold-plated phantasmagoria of the go-go 1980s financial sector. Initially, Ellis said in a recent interview, he envisioned “a much more earnest and straightforward novel, akin to what the movie Wall Street became with the Bud Fox character being seduced by Gordon Gekko.” His time among the legion of young bankers who arrived in lower Manhattan each fall changed this ambition. “[T]he longer I hung out with these guys that I was researching to write the book,” he said, “the more the aspect of the serial killer came into view. I don’t know why; I just suddenly thought, ‘Oh, my God. He’s going to be a serial killer.’”

He, of course, is Patrick Bateman, “Mr. Wall Street” as one character dubs him, though on the surface he doesn’t seem any different from the other bankers around him. In fact, throughout the novel it’s a running joke that all of the 20-something professionals so closely adhere to the same lifestyle aesthetic that they are constantly mistaken for one another. “[H]e looks nothing like the other men in the room,” Bateman sniffs early on in the book, noting an artist who has invaded a social gathering. “[H]is hair isn’t slicked back, no suspenders, no horn-rimmed glasses, the clothes black and ill-fitting, no urge to light and suck on a cigar, probably unable to secure a table at Camols, his net worth a pittance.”

What is striking about the young men of Ellis’s world is less that they are superficial, per se, than that they are strictly conformist in their superficiality. 

The pathological obsessiveness of Bateman and his ilk with a gilded persona (and, given their affinity for tanning beds, a bronzed bottom) reaffirms Ellis’s stated aim of describing “a society in which the surface became the thing only.” And yet, the author goes above and beyond a satire of simple narcissism or even consumerism in the extreme by the straitjacketed quality of the young men’s commercial proclivities. They all favor the same high-end designer labels (“Price is wearing a six-button wool and silk suit by Ermenegildo Zegna, a cotton shirt with French cuffs by Ike Behar, a Ralph Lauren silk tie and leather wing tips by Fratelli Rossetti”); they all frequent the same carousel of culinary hot spots (Pastels, Thaidialano, Crayons, Bellini); and they all crave the newest high-tech toys (“You’ve got to have the Infinity IRS V speakers”). This in addition to the fact that they all attended the same schools, sleep with the same women, and share more or less the same profession.

If you watch a few minutes of footage from one of Andy Warhol’s Factory parties, you will be reminded that a superficial bent hardly requires a stunning lack of imagination. To that end, what is striking about the young men of Ellis’s world is less that they are superficial, per se, than that they are strictly conformist in their superficiality. A walking reference book for the finer points of tasteful excess, Bateman himself is constantly being canvassed about fashionable behavior, everything from the titivations of tieholders (“Choose a simple gold bar or a small clip and place it at the lower end of the tie at a downward forty-five-degree angle”) to the scruples of sparkling water (“But only buy naturally sparkling water” because “that means the carbon dioxide content is in the water at its source”).

In Class, Paul Fussell’s gimlet-eyed de gustibus published a few years before American Psycho, the curmudgeonly social critic said that such painstaking attention to the punctilios of appearance was a telltale sign of an excessive concern about “status slippage.” The “perfect shirt collar, the too neatly tied necktie knot, the anxious overattention to dry cleaning,” Fussell wrote, “all betray the wimp.” No doubt, among the bankers in Ellis’s book, there is certainly the talcum whiff of wimpiness. All of them are eternally worried that their failure to precisely observe some cultural practice will see them regarded with the same scornful glances they casually inflict on others, and insofar as their understanding of status is inseparable from a stale assessment of youthful beauty (“‘Was I really not that tan at Harvard?’ I ask mock-worriedly, but worriedly”), the young men surely make for a fey portrait of fragile masculinity. 

And yet, “status slippage” alone doesn’t explain the incessant one-upmanship that spurs the consumerism of Patrick Bateman and his band of brothers (and sparks so much of the novel’s humor). A century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber contended that, whereas the engine of the Protestant ethic had once kept the wheels of capitalism turning (think God helps those who help themselves as the lynchpin of a complex social theory), that force had ebbed over the course of the 19th century. What replaced it? “In the field of [capitalism’s] highest development,” Weber wrote, “in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport.”

The iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen had reached something of a similar conclusion not long before Weber. For him, however, rather than replacing a divine injunction, the sporting quality of contemporary capitalism had more to do with a vacuum left by a world that was no longer characterized by the barbaric practices of pillage and plunder. When those undertakings gave way to the hustle and bustle of business, he said, the predatory instinct was turned into pecuniary drive. 

Veblen described this transformation in his foremost book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. “Gradually, as industrial activity further displaces predatory activity in the community’s everyday life,” he said, “accumulated property more and more replaces trophies of predatory exploit as the conventional exponent of prepotence and success.” For Veblen, even if the trophies themselves changed over time, in their social significance, they were no less essential to the quainter precincts of Palo Alto than they once had been in the fashionable farmsteads of a Viking village.

To demonstrate your superiority was the motivating force of modern capitalism, and the opportunities that provided for it might be sportive in nature or something more ominous.

Accordingly, throughout the book, Veblen conjures the constellation of contemporary practices, which, like a peacock’s plumage, signal unmistakably an individual’s financial fitness. Importantly for him, the semaphore of elite social standing was not merely a by-product of commercial accomplishment, it was the very aim of such striving. The claim to dominance in the modern world did not reside in having money, but in making that fact widely known by means of (Veblen’s most abiding expression) conspicuous consumption. 

Nevertheless, such command was not established simply by the ability to consume, but to consume nicely. The wealthy man, Veblen notes, assisted by an education in refinement and the opportunity for leisure, “becomes a connoisseur,” exercising his purchasing potential with an exhaustive knowledge “in creditable viands of various degrees of merit, in manly beverages and trinkets, in seemly apparel and architecture, in weapons, games, dancers, and narcotics”—a list, like so many of those in Ellis’s book, that brings to mind the late French philosopher Henri Bergson’s quip that the only cure for vanity is laughter.

Less laughable, no doubt, is the green-eyed monster that inflames the acquisitive instinct even when it is placated by garish excess. Jealousy is the consequence of domination as well as the spur to its achievement. For Veblen most certainly, and for Weber in his own way, to demonstrate your superiority was the motivating force of modern capitalism, and the opportunities that provided for it might be sportive in nature or something more ominous. 

Journalist Michael Lewis described the latter possibility in his memoir, Liar’s Poker, when he introduced his readers to the trading floor of Salomon Brothers, where he worked as a fresh-faced kid from Princeton in the mid-1980s. The “chosen home of the firm’s most ambitious people,” the trading floor was “governed” by a simple belief: “Eat or be eaten.” As such, it was a work environment with “no rules governing the pursuit of profit and glory,” one in which savage expressions, which always accompany even the most staid visions of social Darwinism, were wholeheartedly welcome. To be on the losing side of some transaction, Lewis soon learned, was to have your “face ripped off”; to get the better end of some deal, especially a big one, was to “blow up” a customer.

Released just two years before American Psycho, Liar’s Poker reads something like a sly sociological study to Ellis’s social satire, and it substantiates the psychological predicates of the latter’s character study: captive ambition (“I narrowly escaped imprisonment myself”), overwhelming cupidity (“I was largely unaware how heavily influenced I was by the money belief until it had vanished”), and crippling jealousy (“‘You don’t get rich in this business,’ said Alexander when I complained privately to him [about the size of my bonus]. ‘You only attain new levels of relative poverty’”). In the voice of Patrick Bateman, Ellis’s diagnosis is far more succinct: “There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, disgust.”

Applied to any actual person, such a judgment would be highly simplistic, but Ellis is a novelist, and he freely typifies in service of his creative
aims. In their gourmandizing, determined drug use, sartorial self-indulgence, addiction to high-tech knickknacks and “for-men” frippery, and in all their libidinal excess, to say nothing of their scorn for penury and perceived weaknesses (a favorite game involves dangling a dollar bill before a homeless person before gleefully snatching it back), the satellite characters of Ellis’s novel seem merely the mundane fulfillment of Weber’s prophecy, that modern capitalism would nurture a generation of “sensualists without heart.”

Patrick Bateman, of course, is a breed apart from his fellow bankers, but (and this is the novel’s most haunting suggestion) only by evolutionary degrees. When the mayhem begins, it is presented as nothing more than another instance of sybaritic excess. “I feel heady, ravenous, pumped up,” Bateman says after slicing up a homeless man. “As if I’d just worked out and endorphins are flooding my nervous system, or just embraced that first line of cocaine, inhaled the first puff of a fine cigar, sipped that first glass of Cristal.” Ultimately, the act of murder is merely an exercise in the most self-indulgent display of all, savage dominance, and if it steadily becomes more elaborate and ornate (which it notoriously does), that is because, like ambition, the thrill lies not in the act itself but in the knowledge that it doesn’t suffer by comparison.

It needn’t be said that physical violence occupies a separate moral plane from the mischief of Liar’s Poker. Having your “face ripped off” and having your face ripped off are certainly not identical. Still, the celebration of unabashed sadism in service of superiority and personal success, a spirit that contemporary capitalism seems to tolerate and even abet, is what unites the two books, and one might be forgiven for wondering the degree to which it has contaminated the broader culture. In The Big Short, Lewis says that, while he had always viewed Liar’s Poker as a cautionary tale, not long after it was published he began receiving fan mail from college boys who had read the book as “a how-to manual,” and between them and the aforementioned Halloween revelers, one suspects more than a little overlap. 

If the first wave of readers missed the moral conundrums of American Psycho, it may be because, like Lewis’s pen pals, they mistook a catalogue of outrage, excruciating in detail and description, for an endorsement of carnal extravagance. If so, it is a tribute to the salacious subtlety of Ellis’s novel, which, like Liar’s Poker or, for that matter The Great Gatsby, blinds more than a few readers by its meretricious glint.

Such subtlety, substantial not stylistic, is a hallmark of exceptional imaginative literature, which so often contributes to ethics by making everyday discernments seem slightly more ambiguous. The enduring significance of American Psycho is not that it demonstrates the obvious, namely that between the casual cruelty of the Salomon trading floor and the extravagant barbarity of Patrick Bateman there is a point at which the sadism stops being funny. (This should be clear, and clearly felt, to anyone who is not an actual psycho.) The achievement is simpler and more straightforward, and ultimately sharp as a stiletto. To ask, as a matter of moral reckoning: Between the two, what’s the difference? 

John Paul Rollert is an adjunct assistant professor of behavioral science at Chicago Booth.