Although Bret Easton Ellis has often been castigated by critics for his immoral characters, his novels not only have a moral framework, but arguably a Christian one. The confessional tone of his novels suggests that his characters are mere products of their surroundings, and that they are desperately seeking an escape from the excesses and problems in contemporary society. These characters do not confess to God, however, but to others like them. Their confessions therefore fail, leaving them “soul sick,” with “no redemption” and no “exit,” reaffirming the deep need for God to save us from the “inferno” we have created. Lanta Davis Reighard is Assistant Professor of English at Northwest Christian University.
Bret Easton Ellis’s morally bankrupt characters—serial killers, fashion model terrorists, snuff film watchers, rapists, and hard drug users—have made him one of the most controversial of contemporary writers. Critics often complain about Ellis’s refusal to punish or redeem most of these characters, which they see as a failure to provide a “moral framework.”1 Yet this criticism, Ellis would almost certainly argue, would be more appropriately directed at modern society itself, which Ellis mercilessly satirizes in his works. As he related in an interview, his work “is really about a culture that pisses me off, and a world that we live in that values all the wrong things.”2 What many of the critics who castigate Ellis for his lack of morality miss, then, is how Ellis’s extreme depictions of an amoral world are driven by his moral concerns and denounce the kind of lives the characters lead. Ellis’s characters are wealthy and, on the surface, have everything they want, but they are clearly not content or fulfilled. Because of this, their narratives do not merely chronicle bad people doing bad things, but depict lost souls desperately seeking meaning in a meaningless world.
As surprising as the claim may seem to some, Ellis’s novels not only have a moral framework, but possibly a Christian one as well. Henry Bean argues that Ellis’s novels “spring…from grieving outrage at our spiritual condition,”3 and Ellis’s characters often seem like pilgrims on a pilgrimage to nowhere, embarking on a religious quest even as they reject religion. This is not to say, of course, that Ellis is a Christian author,4 but that his novels, especially American Psycho, have a distinctively Christian narrative. Glamorama’s Victor even admits that he is “soul sick,”5 a diagnosis that could be applied to all of Ellis’s protagonists, and all of his novels are first-person accounts of characters who confess their thoughts and actions, and who try to find some sort of meaning, truth, and redemption.
That these characters generally fail to find the meaning, truth, or redemption they seek could be written off as nihilistic and hopeless, but as David Lyle Jeffrey and Gregory Maillet point out, sometimes this kind of nihilistic despair “provides its own self-critique; sometimes, in fact, the spiritual void they represent can seem clearly God-shaped,”6 a description which certainly pertains here. That there is a God-shaped hole in these texts fits a key feature of Ellis’s novels: Christianity has a surprisingly strong presence in his work, but its presence is often defined by its absence. In his novels, Ellis alludes to both Dante and Dostoevsky, Christian writers known particularly for their depictions of hell, the Devil, and redemption. These references suggest to the reader that what is truly at stake is the soul, and that Ellis’s driving question is to ask where, in a Godless world, redemption can be found. Both Dante’s and Dostoevsky’s works depict what life can be like without God, and though Ellis’s novels do not overtly appeal to God, they likewise depict a hell of sorts resulting from a separation from God. The opening to American Psycho, “ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE,”7 therefore rightly warns readers that, like Dante’s Inferno, there is no hope for escaping this hellish world, and Ellis’s characters loop on an endless circle reminiscent of the inferno’s circles.
This inability to find redemption is particularly evident in the use of confession in American Psycho. Patrick Bateman, the serial killer protagonist of the novel, pinpoints our Godless world as a cause for his compassionless, murderous existence: “Justice is dead. Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one really felt anymore. Reflection is useless, the world is senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive.”8 But though he concludes that all that is left is evil, Patrick spends most of the novel seeking the very things he says do not exist. In particular, he confesses as a means to reflect, to make sense of the world, to find justice, to feel grief, and so forth. Patrick continually blurts out the truth of his homicides and other “sins,” seeking justice for his acts; he even openly calls his writing a “confession.”9 But as he discovers, confession does not show him a “way out”: it brings “no catharsis,” “no deeper knowledge,” and “no new understanding”; it will have “meant nothing.”10 Nevertheless, as I will argue, though Patrick’s confession results in nothing—no redemption or exit from his life of murder—Patrick’s inability to escape stems not from the failure of confession itself, but from his inability to find a confessor in the world that has shaped him. Moreover, in depicting a Godless world—one in which confession has been divorced from the life of faith and now “mean[s] nothing”—Ellis’s narratives unexpectedly reveal a deep need for God to save us from the “inferno” we have created.
In order to show how analyzing someone like Patrick Bateman, a rich, handsome monster who cooks women’s heads and pops out homeless men’s eyeballs on his way home from dinner at a glitzy restaurant, can be the bearer of a Christian message, I will first show that Ellis’s “immoral” characters—like Patrick—are not anomalies or aberrations, but products of their society who satirically represent contemporary culture. I will then argue that when such characters try to escape their society and find meaning and redemption through confession or other traditionally Christian methods, their efforts are unsuccessful. This failure to find refuge in these Christian forms is not a testament to the futility of faith, however, but instead reveals a deep desire and need for a counter-cultural, confessing Christianity. I ultimately argue that Patrick’s attempts to confess, which he says have “meant nothing,” fail not because of the futility of confession itself, but because of modern society’s misappropriation and misuse of it.
A Product of Products
Ellis’s morally bankrupt characters are products of their culture. Ellis includes a telling quote from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground that clearly indicts the current cultural climate in shaping a person like Patrick. The prescript reads, “The author of these Notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, fictional. Nevertheless, such persons as the composer of these Notes not only exist in our society, but indeed must exist, considering the circumstances under which our society has been formed.”11 Patrick, and many of Ellis’s characters, may seem to be heinous, extreme aberrations, but they are instead intended to be mirrors of our society. Patrick, for instance, commits violent atrocities and writes about them in a flat, unaffected manner, a tone that echoes the way in which massive acts of violence are reported every day in the news. Less Than Zero, Lunar Park, and American Psycho all mention the brutality found in daily newspaper headlines, and even though troubling headlines are exaggerated in the following selection from American Psycho, Ellis emphasizes how regularly truly appalling events occur:
In one issue—in one issue—let’s see here…strangled models, babies thrown from tenement rooftops, kids killed in the subway, a Communist rally, Mafia boss wiped out, Nazis […], baseball players with AIDS, more Mafia shit, gridlock, the homeless, various maniacs, faggots dropping like flies in the streets, surrogate mothers, the cancellation of a soap opera, kids who broke into a zoo and tortured and burned various animals alive, more Nazis… and the joke is, the punch line is, it’s all in this city—nowhere else, just here, it sucks, whoa wait, more Nazis, gridlock, gridlock, baby-sellers, black-market babies, AIDS babies, baby junkies, building collapses on baby, maniac baby, gridlock, bridge collapses—.12
In Tim Price’s summary of the news, mundane events like traffic jams and the cancellation of a soap opera share space with murders, poverty, and terminal illnesses, blurring the line between which events really matter and which do not. People have become so numbed to violence that they can no longer distinguish between inconveniences and tragedies. Moreover, Price’s inclusion of all the “baby” problems near the end of the list signals that these problems begin at birth: there is no innocence, and everyone is affected by—and implicated in causing—corruption.
Murder, torture, and war should provoke outrage, but Ellis reveals that the frequency with which they occur has a numbing effect, so that the prevalence of violent, terrible events confuses what is “right” and what is “wrong.” In Less Than Zero, for instance, when Clay watches as Rip and his friends rape a 12-year-old girl, Clay can only feebly protest by saying, “It’s…I don’t think it’s right.”13 Rip immediately counters him with a new moral code: “What’s right? If you want something, you have the right to take it. If you want to do something, you have the right to do it.”14 Naomi Mandel points out that Clay’s meek interjection is “the only recognizable moral code in the entire novel, and a notably inarticulate one” that does nothing to contradict Rip’s view, which asserts that “power creates its own morality.”15 Morality has become one’s “right” to do something rather than doing what is “right.”
This re-envisioning of “what is right” into “one’s right” is, in Ellis’s view, an extension of consumerism. Consumerism is both symptomatic of and contributory to contemporary culture’s problematic values. Consumerism can be, for instance, a means of escape from the terrible newspaper headlines. Price immediately follows his long summation of the news with a shallow observation: “Why aren’t you wearing the worsted navy blue blazer with the gray pants?”16 As Price notes, the newspaper contains traumatic story after traumatic story in just “one day,” which can leave a person feeling helpless about practically everything but one’s appearance. Newspaper headlines are “the reasons you quit praying,”17 since nothing ever seems to improve. These feelings of anxiety and impotence cause, at least in part, Ellis’s characters to live superficially. If one cannot help fix these problems, the alternative seems to be focusing instead on lighter matters, such as the cancellation of soap operas, which blazer to wear with which pants, and which restaurant which celebrity patronizes.
A vicious cycle arises, wherein the characters turn to the superficial to escape problems, but then also cause further problems because of their superficiality. Because these shallow concerns help characters escape their anxiety about the world, they take on an increasing importance, until they become the sole means of worth and purpose for Ellis’s characters, who frequently “slide down the surface of things.”18 For example, in Less Than Zero, a young woman dreams that the entire world is melting. In order to try to save it, she changes her appearance, saying “I thought if I, like pierced my ear or something, like alter my physical image, dye my hair, the world wouldn’t melt. So I dyed my hair and this pink lasts. I like it. It lasts. I don’t think the world is gonna melt anymore.”19 This woman’s interpretation of her hair shows how surface details, which may have started as an escape, have become the highest of values. If one looks right, one lives right. Yet the irony here is that the pink dye in her hair will not last; it is temporary, as her hair will grow out and the dye will fade. Her solution is not merely shallow, but inherently fleeting.
Ellis’s characters build their lives around what is shallow and fleeting. Maintaining a “youthful surface” and keeping “everything on the surface, even with the knowledge that the surface fades and can’t be held together forever,”20 becomes the sole means toward a significant life. All of Ellis’s characters therefore find purpose for their lives in wearing the right clothes, modeling the correct haircut, living in the nicest apartment, and dating the hottest person. Eventually, the surface is all there is, and “surface, surface, surface” becomes “all that anyone found meaning in.”21
The intense focus on surface appearances causes characters both to consume and become products. With everyone’s identity reliant on making the best choices and acquiring the best goods, Patrick and his friends are hard to distinguish from one another. When Patrick asks his girlfriend, Evelyn, why she does not date Timothy Price instead of him, since Price is also rich, good-looking, and has a great body, her response is to say, “Everybody’s rich,” “good-looking,” and “has a great body now.”22 Since the standards used to determine worth are all surface-level attributes, they are upheld to perfection by nearly all of Patrick’s acquaintances. Consequently, nearly everyone is simply interchangeable, a characteristic that becomes a common theme throughout the novel: people are often mistaken for others because no one can or cares to tell anyone apart. Patrick is constantly mistaken for his coworkers or friends, and other men are constantly mistaken for Patrick. Without some avenue for identity other than the items they purchase, everyone simply looks like copies of a catalogue and copies of each other.
Because they define themselves by what they purchase, they begin to see people, too, as purchasable. One of the recurring phrases in Less Than Zero is “wonder if he’s for sale,” and Ellis’s novels answer this question with resounding affirmation. In Less Than Zero, Julian literally is for sale as a prostitute working off a drug debt. The man who pays to have sex with him tells Julian that “all that matters” is that he’s “a very beautiful boy,”23 connoting that Julian has no purpose or redeeming value other than his appearance. His worth is what someone pays for him. The other people in Julian’s life see him the same way: valuable only by some kind of exchange. Julian’s pimp, for instance, says Julian is “just like [his] own son” but refuses to find a new way for Julian to work off his debt.24 Even Clay uses Julian as a way “to see the worst,” admitting that he “really [does not] care” about Julian’s situation.25 Julian’s purpose is to produce a return—whether it is sexual, financial, or experiential (as with Clay)—and thus, even Julian’s friends do not “care” about him differently than they would care about a product: for the benefits it can provide them.26
Though Ellis uses prostitution as an overt demonstration of the commoditization of the body, he blurs the line between this socially condemned commoditization and more socially accepted commoditizations of the body—namely fashion, celebrity, and sexual promiscuity. The very premise behind celebrity, as Glamorama shows, is to “sell” and “market” oneself to the public. Since the public knows only the “surface” details—what celebrities look like, what movies they have been in, what products they endorse, who they are dating, and so on—then “all anyone is interested in is” who is sleeping with whom, who has the best body, and who is the most famous.27 Since fame relies, in part, on generating the most buzz about these surface details, celebrity is a very fickle status to sustain, and even the most famous celebrities can “disappear” within just a few years. Magazine covers and blockbuster movies will be discarded and forgotten; one celebrity is easily replaced by the next. Victor, a model, knows that he will likely be used for his body and then forgotten about. He admits that “there are a thousand guys who’ve got pouty lips and nice symmetry,” and who can supplant him once his image fades.28 Victor is right to be worried, for he is replaced, and in a much more extreme and pervasive way than he ever imagined. He is not simply replaced as a model, but is actually replaced as a person, so that someone else pretending to be him takes over his name and his entire life. Victor’s fears are therefore validated in ways he had not even imagined, and he discovers that he can be removed and replaced just as easily as a new gallon of milk replaces the old.
Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction demonstrates how easily one’s sexual partners are also replaceable. All three protagonists sleep with one person after another, caring little about who their sexual partners are, so long as they have one for the night. While the characters may not be literally paying to have sex, they use one another’s bodies in a strikingly similar way to how Julian’s client uses him: all they care about (and they barely care about this) is the other person’s beauty. Beyond sex, even the names of their sexual partners become hazy as they quickly move on to new conquests. The main characters tell their partners they are “not ever gonna know” them because “no one will ever know anyone.”29 Their use-and-throw-away approach to sex reflects their belief that the human body—which fulfills needs and can give pleasure—is no different from other products which fulfill needs and give pleasure, and is therefore just as disposable. There are three suicide attempts and several abortions mentioned in the novel, affirming the idea that life, too, can easily be disposed.
Patrick’s atrocities in American Psycho simply carry the notion that life is a commodity—and therefore disposable—to its extreme. Patrick and his friends are consummate consumers, and Patrick sees himself and his friends as an extension of consumerism. When he describes his own apartment, he mentions he has a “high-contrast highly defined model…digital TV set from Toshiba,” a “glass top coffee table with oak legs by Turchin,” several “Steuben glass animals placed strategically around expensive crystal ashtrays from Fortunoff” though he does not smoke, and a “Wurlitzer jukebox” next to a “black ebony Baldwin concert grand piano” he does not play.30 He even chronicles what brands of toothpaste and shampoo he uses; his descriptions emulate catalogues and go on for pages. Patrick views people through the same consumerist lens and uses the same catalogue-like descriptions for his friends. When he notes friends’ appearances, it is always through the brands they are wearing. For example, the first character we are introduced to, Timothy Price, is described as “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 Fratellia Rossetti.”31 By describing people in the same way as products, Patrick demonstrates that he “has internalized the consumerist logic to such an extent that he literally sees no difference between a person and an object.”32 When he grinds a victim’s body into meat patties, for instance, he reminds himself that “this thing, this girl, this meat, is nothing, is shit.”33 Patrick literally discards and throws away his victim’s body parts after he is done using them for his pleasure; their lives and their bodies are—like the myriad of brand name products he uses—disposable once he is through with them. The logical conclusion of a society that values consumerism so highly that it begins to conflate human beings with products is someone like Patrick: a man who sees people as so disposable that they can be used, killed, and discarded with ease. If the highest value is the surface—that which can be achieved by consuming the right products—then even people only have value as consumers and the consumed.
Another consequence of consumerism—of “sliding down the surface of things”—is fragmentation. With all the competing narratives about what to value and how best to dress and act, Ellis’s characters are torn in multiple directions, trying to fulfill multiple claims on their identity. This theme is especially prevalent in Glamorama, which depicts, as Sonia Baelo-Allué points out, “two types of body fragmentation—one metaphorical (in Victor’s mind), the other literal (seen in the killings)—which in Glamorama mirror each other.”34 Victor, a model whose face is continually reproduced, is enslaved to the media and his media image. He immerses himself so far into the media that he begins to believe his life is a film and his dialogue scripted. He becomes merely a character in a film someone is shooting, and he thus loses his agency, even participating in terrorist acts because someone told him he should. This metaphorical fragmentation is mirrored in his terrorist acts, where people are literally fragmented into limbs, teeth, and skulls. Both Victor and the victims of the bombing “have lost all traces of human identity or personality to become the sum of their body parts.”35 Once again, everything is reduced to the “surface,” but here, the inherent fragmentation of living on the surface is emphasized. The competing narratives from the media—which tell people what to use, wear, and think—change and conflict, and the characters who look to those narratives thus end up very lost and unsure of any kind of reality.
Consequently, differentiating between fact and fiction has become a nearly impossible task for Ellis’s characters and further challenges their ability to establish a stable identity. Victor becomes confused about whether his life is reality or a film, Patrick films his murders as a way to “know” the girls he kills, and, when he is almost caught for a murder, his narrative resembles a movie chase scene, connoting that the lens of the media becomes more real to them than their own lives. The only reality they can recognize—and the only identity they can affirm—may be one that recognizes that it is constructed. When Jamie remarks to Bobby that “no one’s being themselves, everyone’s so phony,” he simply responds, “That is being themselves.”36 Phoniness therefore becomes akin to a new reality, because copies and constructions are the only narratives they experience. Photographs can be doctored and replicated, and the same picture can be used with different headlines, creating entirely different narratives from the same image. For the celebrity, especially, one’s image is created for them, and one’s “real identity” is buried under simulacra. But the average person still models him or herself after celebrities, who are already constructions of the media: simulacra piled upon simulacra. The media prescribes which products to use, which films to see, which books to read, which world events are important, which ways to be cool, or intelligent, or attractive, creating endless narratives; all make claims about who one should be and how one should act, but none offer anything but a fragmented vacuity.
Ellis depicts this fragmented vacuity by filling his novels with signifiers (words and images) that lack the signifieds (what they represent). Michael P. Clark argues that in American Psycho, Ellis explores the limits of ethical rhetoric, which has become “impossible in a world lacking any transcendent standard or shared set of values.”37 The descriptions of violence, for instance, demonstrate the lack of any signifieds. As Clark points out, “words and images denoting fear, violence, suffering, and judgment are literally mobile, disconnected from any context, referent, or speaking subject that would lend them substance and immediacy.”38 Patrick writes, for example, “I AM BACK” on Paul Owen’s apartment wall and says that he made a drawing underneath it that “looks like this,” but then the space below it is blank.39 This means that in Ellis, Clark argues, “words have been stripped of their referential and expressive functions,” meaning the characters cannot form a “stable speaking subject” and a “coherent identity” requisite for having “meaningful relationships with others.”40 While Clark only discusses American Psycho, his analysis of the lack of signifieds applies to most of Ellis’s novels. In Glamorama, Ellis lists celebrity name after celebrity name, suggesting that what matters is just their names, not who they are or what they have done. He told an interviewer that the names act as “currency” for the characters, and he hopes that, eventually, when all these celebrities are forgotten, then “the names will function as just that—just clumps of names.”41 By listing people just as he lists products, Ellis suggests that people, too, are reduced solely to the signifiers, emptied of their status as human beings with a purpose other than acting as a surface-level identifier. The surface, which can be replicated, replaced, and consumed, is all that is left. Referents, and any sense of “the real” or the “truth” connected to the referent, are lost.
Ellis’s characters are, therefore, admittedly lost, empty, and amoral, but what is most troubling about all of Ellis’s novels is that these characters are not, no matter how extreme they seem, anomalies or aberrations; instead, they perfectly conform to—and have been created by—their culture. Recognizing that Patrick is not simply a “psycho,” but also a product of his culture, is fundamental in order to understand the novel properly —especially in its refusal to redeem or punish its serial killer narrator. Ignoring the societal critique by focusing too much on the “psycho” part of the novel’s title limits the depth and brilliance of the novel’s implications. As Daniel Cojocaru notes, if Patrick “simply suffers from a very severe psychotic disorder, it would absolve society from responsibility for the making of him.”42 Reading the novel without considering Patrick a “product” of a “society of crass materialism,” Cojocaru continues, misses “the most poignant and disturbing irony in the novel”: our society not only creates him, “but is with eyes open encouraging him to continue his elimination of replaceable, hollow human beings.”43 All of Ellis’s novels, and American Psycho especially, are therefore sharp satirical critiques of what Ellis views to be contemporary culture’s problematic values and the people they produce.
This Is Not an Exit: Escaping the Inferno
While some critics have complained about Patrick’s lack of redemption or punishment, it is important to note that he, and many of Ellis’s other characters, seek redemption, and even punishment. Though they are entrenched in their society and contribute to many of its problems, there are moments where they are clearly searching desperately for a way out. This is particularly evident in Patrick Bateman’s turn to confession.
American Psycho’s homicidal narrator gradually reveals that his actions are a reaction to how he views the world around him; in a twisted manner, Patrick actually battles the culture that has shaped him. While his violent acts result from seeing people as objects to be used and consumed, his murders also react against the consumerism that defines his life. Patrick grows increasingly irritated with people so absorbed in themselves that they neither notice nor care about anything around them. One of the other prescripts in the beginning of the book says, “And as things fell apart, nobody paid much attention,”44 and people’s lack of attention—of caring—even in the face of extreme evil is central to the novel. Patrick finds this to be true, noting how “no one pays attention, they don’t even pretend to not pay attention.”45
His violent murders become his way of trying to shatter the consumerist façade that surrounds him.46 He despises the shallow conversations everyone has (though he participates in them), and he wants his acquaintances to recognize something real. He considers, for example, cutting his own wrist and spurting blood at a friend who is describing his vacation just to see if “he would still continue to talk.”47 Patrick searches for something beyond the surface of things: he desires real emotion, real relationships, doing things that matter. After another mind-numbing day, he admits that he is “longing for something deeper, something undefined,”48 which prompts him to kill a dog and a man in Central Park to try to appease that need. No matter how extreme his actions, however, these bursts of violence do not provide him with a newfound sense of meaning to his life; nothing really changes, and he is dismayed to find that no matter how heinous his acts, people remain shallowly unaffected. He starts to fantasize about killing someone in front of his friends or girlfriend just to see if it would momentarily shake them from their self-involvement, and he becomes increasingly careless with his murders: killing homeless men on a public street, slitting the throat of a young boy at the zoo in the middle of the day, and revisiting the apartment of a murdered coworker.
Patrick even starts to desire being discovered for his crimes. He openly confesses his murders to both friends and strangers. He admits he is an “evil psychopath,” tells a girl he would like to “stab [her] to death” and “play with [her] blood,” declares to another that he would like to “cut her arms off,” discloses to Evelyn that her neighbor’s head is in his freezer and that he would like to shoot her mother with a shotgun, interjects “I’m utterly insane and I like to dissect girls” while talking to a co-worker, and even coos “I’m a total psychopath, I like to kill people,” to a baby.49 But no matter how explicit his confession, no one reacts to him. His conversation with Evelyn particularly reveals Patrick’s genuine desire to disclose—and have someone else recognize—the truth about himself. After a long, strange rant about killing two children, he asks her, “Is any of this registering with you or would I get more of a response from, oh, an ice bucket?” He notes that he has said all of this while staring straight at her, “enunciating precisely,” “trying to explain” himself, and when she opens her mouth to talk, he “finally expects her to acknowledge [his] character.” 50 He gets excited at this prospect, but he is disheartened when she merely says, “Is that… Ivana Trump?” Immediately his “adrenaline rush turned sour,” and he put his head in his hands, disappointed that even a confession of murder could not get through to her.51
His most desperate attempt to confess occurs after the police chase him for murdering a saxophonist on the street. He flees to his work building and leaves a message for his lawyer, Harold Carnes. He says that he has finally decided to “make public what had been a private dementia,” and he leaves a message admitting every murder that he has committed, concluding with an admission that he is “a pretty sick guy.”52 But when Patrick runs into Carnes, Carnes mistakes him for another person and congratulates him on the hilarious prank message he left, telling him it was amusing but not believable, since Patrick is such a “brown-nosing goody goody” that picturing him chopping up a coworker was too far to stretch the joke.53 Patrick insists that it is all true, trying one more time to get through to someone. He says, “You don’t seem to understand. You’re not really comprehending any of this. I killed him. I did it, Carnes… That whole message I left on your machine was true.”54 Patrick actually pleas with Carnes to acknowledge his deeds, to uphold some sort of justice in a world Patrick has given up on, but Carnes refuses to believe him. Patrick’s vehement confession fails to get through, and he is left feeling “drained” and “wondering why” purging his conscience in this confession “doesn’t feel like a blessing.”55
Even Patrick’s own writing of the book as a confession fails. As he reflects on what he has become, he decides that he only holds on “to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed.”56 He writes,
Even after admitting this—and I have, countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed—and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing.57
This nothingness is reinforced by the very last lines of the novel, “THIS IS NOT AN EXIT,”58 signaling that though the novel is ending, it does not mean that any change has come for Patrick. He exits just as much—if not more—of an “American psycho” than he was at the beginning of his confession.
Searching for a Confessor
Patrick confesses only to others like him—to his society—suggesting that the primary reason Patrick’s confession fails is his choice of confessors. If everyone is like him—and has made him—who, in other words, can rescue him?
Not everyone confesses in the traditional Catholic sense of confessing to a priest in a booth, but the act of confessing—whether it is on social media, talk shows, podcasts, therapy, and so on—is more prominent than ever. Confession is the act of self-revelation made public, and, at its core, is intrinsically concerned with questions of identity, in that one searches for the truth about oneself and then discloses that truth in order to be affirmed and understood (for example, a therapist’s diagnosis is, in part, a validation that one’s feelings and behaviors are understandable and have a “purpose”). While Patrick, and several of Ellis’s characters, confess and confess, their confessions go nowhere, and they are often more fragmented and empty after confessing than before. It is my contention that their failure to confess reveals that confession, divorced from its practice in the Christian Church and appropriated instead by popular society, cannot affirm and unify one’s identity, but instead fractures it.
Confession is two-fold in the Christian faith. One confesses, along with the other members of the body of Christ, one’s faith in the truth of the Gospel, a confession that is not singular but ongoing. It also includes a sacrifice of self—picking up one’s own cross—in order to submit to the truth of Christ’s cross. This confession is intended to act as a living witness to the goodness of God, and as a testament to understanding the world and all that is in it as meaningful only when it finds its end in God. The second aspect of confession, searching for the truth of one’s self by confessing one’s sins, is perhaps the more well-known aspect of Christian confession, but it is intrinsically related to the first part. Sin is separation from God, so to confess sin, one must first confess a faith which professes that we are intended to be in relationship to God. Confession should then become, as Adrienne von Speyr succinctly states, “much less a turning away from sin than a turning to God.”59
Ellis’s characters’ primary struggles—a loss of meaning and direction, a difficulty in discerning truth, fragmented identities—are inherent concerns of Christian confession. Christian confession directly counters these issues by asserting that everything can only find meaning with ultimate reference to God, that the truth in the Gospel is the truth for all people in all times, and that identity can only be fully formed when reconciled with God. In Augustine’s Confessions, for instance, Augustine describes many of his struggles similarly to how Patrick describes his. Augustine’s written confession demonstrates his belief that when we are separated from God, we are not wholly ourselves and become self-destructive. Augustine admits that when he sins and is separated from God, the “fountain of life,” he also separates from himself.60 He says he became “at odds with [him]self” and was “fragmenting [him]self,” a “disintegration” he found was “occurring without [his] consent.”61 The more he separated himself from God, the more he discovered he was separated from himself, so that he no longer even had control over himself or recognized his actions and thoughts as his own, a description remarkably similar to Patrick’s descriptions of his dissociated, fragmented self. Augustine turns to confession in order to “give a coherent account of [his] disintegrated self” because he knows that when he “turned away from” God, he “went to pieces.”62 Von Speyr affirms this description, stating that sin can cause a person to feel “broken into a thousand pieces, incurably fragmented.”63 But, as von Speyr argues, “confession is there so that a person may collect [one]self,” that we may “glue our fragments back together.”64 Consequently, in Christian confession, one renounces the fragmented self of sin as a way to become one’s true, whole self in Christ.
Michel Foucault, who undertook a genealogical history of confession, explores the differences between Christian confession and the modern appropriation of confession. In several of Foucault’s later essays, particularly “About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self,” “Omnes et Singulatim: Towards a Criticism of ‘Political Reason,’” and “Technologies of the Self,” he points out that Christian confession, whether dramatic or verbal, is always tied to a renunciation of self; in Christian confession, the “revelation of truth about oneself cannot be dissociated from the obligation to renounce oneself. We have to sacrifice the self in order to discover the truth about ourself, and we have to discover the truth about ourself in order to sacrifice ourself.”65 Truth about the self and sacrifice of the self are intrinsically connected in Christian confession and are fundamental to the formation of a Christian conception of identity.
Foucault argues that when the modern age divorced confession from its practice within the Christian Church and revised it for its own means, these revisions created negative consequences in the formation of the self. He says that after the 18th century, confessional techniques were “reinserted in a different context … in order to use them without renunciation of the self but to constitute, positively, a new self.”66 To use confession “without renouncing oneself constitutes a decisive break” for Foucault, since it makes people “amenable to social control and dependent upon it.”67 In Glamorama, for instance, Victor’s “identity” is wrapped up into being a model and celebrity, so he continually “confesses” in interviews and provides images of himself to magazines as a means of being accepted and validated. However, as Victor finds out later, the media can spin these confessions and images into whatever they want; they create identities for him, controlling his public image, and, eventually, his entire identity, since Victor becomes, by the end of the novel, only an object to be controlled.68
The formation of identity is the goal of both Christian and modern confession, but the methods and outcomes are markedly different. In Christian confession, the self is renounced so that one may regain one’s sense of subjectivity—as a being created to be in a relationship with God. To confess one’s sins, then, is a means toward freedom. In contrast, modern forms of confession are structured so that one examines and confesses one’s conscience not to deny the world, but to cohere with it, much like Victor seeks fame in exchange for his confessions.
Søren Kierkegaard further distinguishes Christian self-renunciation from what he calls “merely human self-denial,” the kind of denial modern confession necessitates. Human self-denial only denies the self, but Christian self-renunciation denies the self and the world. Human self-denial denies the self with the expectation that the world will reward, accept, or at least understand the denial. Christian self-renunciation, on the other hand, is a dual renunciation, where one renounces the self in such a way that she also renounces the world, causing the world to reject and cast her out. Yet Kierkegaard argues that it is only Christian self-renunciation that is an act of freedom.69 Christian confession restores the relationship between the confessor and God, so that the confessor may again have agency in the relationship. Modern confession, on the other hand, makes a confessor an object instead of restoring his or her agency: one’s confessions become a tactic of power by becoming an object of study. Medicine, psychiatry, disciplinary structures, modern technology, and so forth all study confessions as data to help enforce rules, structures, and mechanisms of punishments or to use in marketing. Foucault suggests that modern confession is used primarily for surveillance—both external and internal.70 For both the Greeks, whom Foucault admires, and Christians, one examines oneself in comparison to an external truth or discipline, while modern confession requires constant self-examination and truth-telling by the confessor without any external standard outside of the power structures of society; consequently, the first two modes of confession are active while modern confession is passive and receptive.71 The goal of modern confession is therefore not renunciation but normalization. People confess the truth about themselves—confess their identities—in order to be labeled, categorized, and possibly “fixed” to meet society’s standards. Someone like Patrick, who is already defined by labels and categorized into the “proper” group, and who is the picture of success by many of society’s standards, already perfectly adheres to the world, so confessing only gives him more of what he already knows.
Two of the modern means of confession are implemented in the mental health sciences (particularly psychology and psychiatry) and the justice system, both of which, in Ellis’s works, fail to fulfill their expected roles. Clay, in Less Than Zero, visits a psychiatrist on a regular basis, and while the psychiatrist bestows good advice by encouraging Clay to be less “passive” and “more active” in his life,72 when Clay actually shows emotion (a rare event) and cries in front of the psychiatrist at a later session, the psychiatrist tells Clay he should not be “so mundane” in wanting to talk about himself.73 The psychiatrist is also an opportunist who tries to use Clay’s family connections in the movie business to get him into Hollywood. Ellis especially criticizes society’s over-reliance on psychiatric drugs, particularly Xanax and other mood-altering prescriptions. In American Psycho, Patrick continually pops Xanax, as do several characters in Ellis’s novels. In Lunar Park, Ellis relates how Bret’s young, adopted daughter takes her vitamins the same way his wife takes her psychiatric pills; repeatedly chronicles Bret’s own over-reliance on Xanax and Klonopin, which he uses to deaden his emotions whenever he feels anxiety; and notes how the majority of children are medicated for anxiety, attention problems, and depression, turning them into emotion-less, blank robots. He calls his children “non-responsive,” “amnesiac,” unable to “read facial expressions,” and “unable to put thoughts” into “actions.”74 Ellis therefore not only critiques psychiatry as an insufficient means to helping his characters with their problems, but he also makes it a contributor to their problems.
Criminal justice, on the other hand, is depicted as simply impotent in Ellis’s works. Patrick continually confesses to his crimes outright, kills people in public places, and brings his bloodied sheets into the dry-cleaners in the middle of the day, but he is never seriously questioned nor arrested. When he is nearly caught and leaves the confession of all his deeds on his lawyer’s voice message, everything, again, comes to naught. Confessing both to psychiatrists and to the criminal justice system cannot bring the kind of redemption or change Patrick wants because they “serve and protect”—rather than provide an escape from—his society.
Patrick is Foucault’s “confessing animal,”75 one who confesses constantly even as he fails to find any coherent truth or sense of identity. He continually searches for and tells the truth about himself, but he receives nothing back for his efforts. Modern confession promises that one will be rewarded—that there will be at least some sort of new understanding, cleansing, or justice—if one confesses, yet Patrick, who already follows all the social rules and is a success by most societal standards, just receives more of what has turned him into the vacuous serial killer he is. There is no underlying substance behind Patrick’s identity outside of his society, and he therefore feels he is merely a “fabrication” created out of the products he uses and the media he watches.76 Patrick already has sacrificed himself to the society around him, and it has subsequently stripped him of any real identity and defined him—along with everyone else—as a product and as a consumer. What remains “is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction,” but “no real me, only an entity, something illusory.”77 Patrick confesses to his society—to the same people who have shaped him into the homicidal killer he has become; consequently, Patrick’s society cannot act as his confessor or grant him redemption because it is what has helped form him. It is no wonder, then, that his confessions go unheeded, and that he can find no “exit” from his issues.
Without the turn away from sin and toward God, modern confession becomes a means of control rather than freedom, and a negation of the self rather than a formation of the self. The more Patrick confesses, the less human and free he feels:
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.78
He later concludes that he is “simply not there.”79 Patrick becomes the signified without the signifier: an empty shell only identifiable by a name, with no concrete existence or point of reference. He tries to confess in order to find the truth, but he only discovers empty truth claims, all of which further fracture him rather than guide him to the unity and healing he seeks. All his confessions lead only to that “one single bleak truth,” which is that “nothing is redeemed,”80 but this “bleak” truth is in fact a profound truth for professing Christians. Christians, too, confess that if God is dead, “nothing is redeemed,” for they confess that redemption is only possible through the grace of the Redeemer. Likewise, as Patrick’s narrative attests, when confession—a path toward redemption—is fractured from its referent as a practice within the Christian Church, it, too, can become only an empty shell, a signified without the signifier, and a practice which fractures rather than unifies.81
While modern attempts to appropriate confession for secular use may fail in Ellis, he also indicts Christian attempts to appropriate aspects of contemporary society. While Christianity was originally understood as offering a countercultural narrative, today—perhaps in a misguided attempt to stay culturally relevant—many representations of it seem to emulate and propagate the consumerist mindset of modern society. Ellis’s work clearly condemns the vacuous promises and meaninglessness of contemporary culture, and in his texts, his characters search for a spiritual answer to some of their questions. Yet when they try to turn to faith, they see more of the same. For instance, in Less Than Zero, Clay considers a sort of conversion as he watches a religious program on television. He sees a “neon-lit Christ” and a pastor who asserts that this will “be a night of Deliverance” if only the viewer will say, “Jesus, ‘Forgive me of my sins.’”82 But, after seemingly following the formula, Clay “wait[s] for something to happen” for an hour, but “nothing does,” so he gets up and does some cocaine.83 Clay’s encounter with a televangelist demonstrates that Christianity, too, can become something to be consumed; one can simply order repentance and redemption just as easily as a product advertised in an infomercial. Additionally, in Clay’s other account of the televangelist program, Christianity becomes something that not just is consumed, but consumes. The preacher yells, “Let God use you. God wants to use you. Lie back and let him use you, use you. Lie back…Use you, use you.”84 A God that can be “ordered” and then will use its believers is not an escape or change from the blank culture in which the characters live. Clay’s “conversion” is the nearest any of Ellis’s characters come to a real consideration of faith, and he clearly walks away unchanged. In depicting Christianity as just another empty promise shilled in the marketplace, Ellis makes a powerful indictment here against short-sighted attempts to drive up interest in the faith, attempts which only serve to make Christianity increasingly ill-equipped to confront the kinds of problems raised by Ellis and others like him.
The God-shaped hole in Ellis’s works is thus not one any religious faith or any kind of confession can fulfill; it shows, rather, the need for a confessing, counter-cultural faith. His characters’ failure to find healing or redemption in their attempts to confess is itself a kind of confession: a confession that admits we are damned to repeat our own destructive behaviors; that we must hopelessly wander around this inferno we have made for ourselves; that we cannot find an “exit” and save ourselves; and, consequently, that what can save the world must only be something outside of the world. Their confessions therefore reveal the need for Christianity itself to restore its confessional nature. Confession is a reminder of where and for what one stands. Without it, the Church, like the individual sinner, can become more and more fragmented and split away from its true identity. The televangelist Clay encounters confesses his faith, but he confesses a faith that is easy and purchasable; it can be consumed and is consuming. If Christianity becomes indecipherable from the predominant cultural narrative, it loses its foundational identity, which is to confess that there is an alternative story, one of “Good News” that promises something different, and one which could be the “exit” Patrick searches for.
Confession is primarily centered upon restoration and reconciliation, and consequently, it is fundamental to helping the Christian Church restore its role as a counter-cultural faith. Both parts of Christian confession—confessing one’s beliefs and confessing one’s sins—offer alternative narratives to the moral depravity, consumerism, and identity fragmentation in Ellis’s novels. By confessing faith with a creed, for instance, Christians counter several cultural norms simply by stating what they believe. As Luke Timothy Johnson outlines,
In a world that celebrates individuality, [those who recite a creed] are actually doing something together. In an age that avoids commitment, they pledge themselves to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, they use words written by others long ago. In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, they claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, they accept, preserve, and continue tradition.85
Just in this one act of professing to a rule of faith, Christians combat many of the problems Patrick and Ellis’s other characters struggle with: a sense of isolated individualism, relativism, an inability to discern truth, and consumerism. Instead, they confess to a truth shaped, practiced, and professed by a community of believers and submit to having their identity formed, affirmed, and molded by that same confession and community. This kind of confession tells the story of redemption. Likewise, the other mode of confession—confession of sin—is needed to restore a believer to that story of redemption. Sin is primarily defined as a “rupture of communion” with God while confession “turns us to God, to restore us to God’s grace” and to invite us to “an intimate friendship” with God.86 Confession is thus the “medicine” which reconciles a believer with God. As Thomas Aquinas explains, “In the life of the body a man is sometimes sick, and unless he takes medicine, he will die. Even so in the spiritual life a man is sick on account of sin. For that reason he needs medicine so that he might be restored to health”: confession.87 Sin is a kind of disease and decay, and in the Middle Ages, was often compared to physical diseases that resulted in loss of limbs or other body parts, a reflection of the fragmentation that Augustine and von Speyr argue sin causes. Patrick says he is a “pretty sick guy,” and Victor admits even more openly that he is “soul sick,” and as I have argued, it is their culture which makes them sick, causing both external and internal fragmentation. The healing and reconciling medicine of confession may be, then, the escape from their culture and the pathway to redemption that they so desperately seek.
Patrick comments late in the book that he “feels as if he’s moving toward as well as away from something.”88 Because he is exercising the form of confession, he is moving toward a kind of faith, yet because he cannot find a confessor and because confession has become disconnected from its religious roots, he is also moving away from it. The reader, I would argue, goes through something similar. As we read the novel and witness horrific murder after horrific murder, we are constantly moving away from any semblance of a meaningful, sacred world. However, our desire to escape from Patrick’s world and to find some kind of alternative to both shallow materialism and pervasive evil also moves us toward a desire for the transcendent, for something to redeem us and restore values and good, for a Being that can actually accept our confessions. Fittingly then, the last words of the novel, “This is not an exit,” only serve to make the reader even more desperate to find one.89
Cite this article
- Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, “‘Psycho’: Whither Death without Life?,” The New York Times, March 11, 1991, C18. See also Carla Freccero, “Historical Violence, Censorship, and the Serial Killer: The Case of American Psycho,” Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism 27.2 (1997): 44-58. Freccero believes that most of the negative reaction to Ellis’s work—like Lehmann-Haupt’s—is because of its failure to provide a moral framework.
- Interview with Richard Wang.
- Henry Bean, “Slayground: American Psycho,” Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1991, http://articles.latimes.com/1991-03-17/books/bk-622_1_bret-easton-ellis.
- When asked if he believed in God in an interview for Rolling Stone, Ellis responded: “Are you asking me if I was raised in a religious family or if I go to church? I was raised an agnostic . . . But no, I don’t believe in God. That’s such a strange thing to admit in an interview.” Cited in Robert Love, “Psycho Analysis,” Rolling Stone, April 4, 1991, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/psycho-analysis-19910404.
- Bret Easton Ellis, Glamorama (NY: Vintage, 2000), 202.
- David L. Jeffrey and Gregory Maillet, Christianity and Literature: Philosophical Foundations and Critical Practice (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 271.
- Ellis, American Psycho (NY: Vintage, 1991), 3.
- Ibid., 371.
- Ibid., 377.
- Ellis, American Psycho, 1.
- Ibid., 4. In Less Than Zero, Clay begins collecting newspaper clippings of horrific events, and in Lunar Park, Bret frequently worries about what he will read in the newspapers, which he says “kept stroking…fear,” causing widespread “anxiety” and “madness” as everyone becomes “preoccupied with [the] horror” they bear witness to daily. Bret Easton Ellis, Lunar Park (NY: Knopf, 2005), 55.
- Ellis, Less Than Zero (NY: Vintage, 1998), 189.
- Naomi Mandel, Bret Easton Ellis: American Psycho, Glamorama, Lunar Park (NY: Continuum, 2011), 6.
- Ellis, American Psycho, 4.
- Ellis, Lunar Park, 57.
- Ellis, Glamorama.
- [Ellis, Less Than Zero, 103.
- Ellis, Imperial Bedrooms (NY: Knopf, 2010), 52.
- Ellis, American Psycho, 375.
- Ibid., 23, italics in text.
- Ellis, Less Than Zero, 175.
- Ibid., 171.
- Ibid., 172.
- Julian’s fate is revealed in Imperial Bedrooms: he is literally thrown away, as his body is found in a dumpster.
- Ellis, Glamorama, 99.
- Ibid., 90.
- Ellis, The Rules of Attraction (NY: Vintage, 1998), 252, italics in text. The King James Bible used “knew” to connote sexual relationships between a man and his wife, a full “knowing” of the other person. In Rules, the characters have sex but never “know” the other person at all.
- Ellis, American Psycho, 25.
- Ibid., 5.
- Sonia Baelo-Allué, Bret Easton Ellis’s Controversial Fiction: Writing between High and Low Culture (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011), 110.
- Ellis, American Psycho, 345.
- Baelo-Allué, Ellis’s Controversial Fiction, 164.
- Ellis, Glamorama.
- Michael P. Clark, “Violence, Ethics, and the Rhetoric of Decorum in American Psycho,” in Bret Easton Ellis: American Psycho, Glamorama, Lunar Park, ed. Naomi Mandel (NY: Continuum, 2011), 22.
- Ibid., 24.
- Ellis, American Psycho, 306.
- Clark, “Violence, Ethics, and the Rhetoric of Decorum in American Psycho,” 26–27.
- Cited in “Portrait of the Artist as a Serial Satirist,” Interview with Harvey Blume, The Atlantic Online, February 10th, 1999, www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/bookauth/ba990210.htm.
- Daniel Cojocaru, “Confessions of an American Psycho: James Hogg’s and Bret Easton Ellis’s Anti-Heroes’ Journey from Vulnerability to Violence,” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture 15 (2008): 194.
- Ellis, American Psycho, 1.
- Ibid., 150.
- Even Patrick’s most extreme violent acts, however, eventually become just another shallow triviality, as banal to him as a clothing catalogue. For further analysis on Patrick’s use of violence as an attempt to traverse his culture, see Alex Blazer, “Chasms of Reality, Aberrations of Identity: Defining the Postmodern through Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho,” Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 1.2 (2002); Martin Weinreich, “‘Into the Void’: The Hyperrealism of Simulation in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho,” Amerikastudien/American Studies 49.1 (2004): 65-78; and Cojocaru, “Confessions of an American Psycho.”
- Ellis, American Psycho, 140.
- Ibid., 163.
- Ibid., 20, 59, 80, 118, 124, 216, 221.
- Ibid., 121.
- Ibid., 352.
- Ibid., 387.
- Ibid., 388, italics in text.
- Ibid. Some critics argue that the other characters ignore Patrick’s confessions because the murders are all hallucinations. See, for instance, Jaap Kooijman and Tarja Laine, “American Psycho: A Double Portrait of Serial Yuppie Patrick Bateman,” Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities 22.3 (2003): 46-56. Whether or not the murders are real does not deter, however, from the fact that Patrick genuinely seeks a way out and that his society provides no escape for him. He feels trapped and unable really to communicate with anyone—everyone is too self- absorbed to pay attention.
- Ibid., 377.
- Ibid., 399, caps in text.
- Adrienne von Speyr, Confession (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984), 60.
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2001), 87.
- Ibid., 202.
- Ibid., 62.
- Von Speyr, Confession, 157.
- Michel Foucault, “About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self: Two Lectures at Dartmouth,” trans. Mark Blasius, Political Theory 21.2 (May 1, 1993): 221.
- Michel Foucault, “Technologies of the Self,” Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, eds. Luther H. Martin and others (University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 49.
- Ibid; Foucault, “About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self,” 200.
- Ellis admits that he struggled with this problem himself after the rapid success of Less Than Zero: “[Y]our identity—your real identity—is being consumed by this new narrative, this collective narrative, that’s taking place with the public as well as the press. The real you is dying and this thing that’s created is now going to be representative of you.” Interview with Jesse Pearson, Vice Magazine, May 2011, www.vice.com/read/bret-easton-ellis-426-v17n5.
- Søren Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard’s Writings, XVI: Works of Love, trans. Howard and Edna Hong (Princeton University Press, 2013), 120, 193–194.
- Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1990), 44.
- Foucault does not necessarily encourage the Christian form of confession either. His ideal is the Hellenic dictate to “take care of your self” rather than to “know yourself.”
- Ellis, Less Than Zero, 109.
- Ibid., 122–123.
- Ellis, Lunar Park, 166.
- Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 59.
- Ellis, American Psycho, 337. The episodes of Patrick’s favorite television show, The Patty Winters Show, echo the shallowness, absurdity, and violence of his culture, including, for instance, episodes dedicated to UFO’s that kill, the possibility of nuclear war (they conclude it will probably happen next month), toddler-murderers, Nazis, dwarf tossing, concentration camp survivors, salad bars, and whether Patrick Swayze has become cynical or not.
- Ibid., 282.
- Ibid., 376–377.
- This separation of the religious signified from the signifier can also be seen in Ellis’s depiction of Christmas, which in his works is not a holiday celebrating Christ’s birth, but acts instead as a kind of symbol for a spiritual void. In American Psycho, Patrick wants to escape from the Christmas festivities and tries to get Evelyn to leave with him. She protests, telling him “It’s Christmas,” to which he responds, “You keep saying that as if it means something” (193). His brash, brief rebuke holds a deeply religious sentiment, one which professes that, if one does not believe Christmas is a celebration of Christ’s birth, the holiday becomes vacuous.
- Ellis, Less Than Zero, 140.
- Ibid., 78.
- Luke Timothy Johnson, “The Countercultural Creed,” Christianity Today, October 1, 2003, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/octoberweb-only/10-20-31.0.html.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 1440 and 1468.
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, trans. J. F. Anderson (Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1975), 4.73.
- Ellis, American Psycho, 380.
- A heartfelt thank you to Vince Reighard and Luke Ferretter for their feedback on earlier drafts of this article.