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Date Published: 9/25/2002
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors

Cultural Pessimism and Rock Criticism
Bret Easton Ellis' Writing (as) Hell

Mike Grimshaw

"History is sinking and only a very few seem dimly aware that things are getting bad."

American Psycho

Toward the end of last century, in a fin de siecle yet to be fully registered, catalogued and analysed, cultural pessimism ran as a discordant counter note to a carnivalistic postmodernity. Yet leading the charge was a novelist who himself seemed to embody the success mantras of late twentieth century celebrity. Young, white, privileged, privately educated, a pop culture and media darling in his early twenties, running as part of a brat pack that helped restore the novel as hip, sexually ambivalent, diving nose first into drug culture Brett Easton Ellis seemed to embody all that was deemed as 'the next big thing'. He came across as Media savvy, aloof, disdainful, troubled yet excessive, his pen on the pulse of postmodern urban youth, a cultural critic and brand name junkie-whore who sought to transcribe transgressive thrills for readers either looking to re-read their own lives or experience a hyper-real frisson . It was sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll…perhaps. Because in their curious blend of pop culture sensibility and raging moral outrage, the novels of Bret Easton Ellis are in many ways most reminiscent of the elitist societal criticism of Jose Ortega Y Gasset’s The Revolt of The Masses (1932). For in ‘the heart of darkness’ of Ellis’ vision, are to be found the echoes of the Spanish’s philosopher’s elitist disdain for mass existence and the mass man. According to Rockwell Gray, Ortega Y Gasset’s text, written from a sense of "almost visceral discomfort" is "a cry of distress and doubt".[1] Likewise Ellis’ novels are tales lamenting the triumph of mass man, those who, as Ortega states set ‘no value on themselves’, who ‘feel like everybody else’ -- yet ‘are not concerned’. Ellis writes as one who is deeply concerned with the rise of ‘mass man’, a paradoxical critic of contemporary society who yet appears to give society a vision of itself that it desires. His ‘anti-novel’ novels, with their disinterested, disaffected multiple voices and lack of narrative structure echo Ortega Y Gasset’s critique that with the rise of the masses "there are no longer protagonists; there are only chorus".

This fin de siecle chorus is late Twentieth Century commodity culture singing a bittersweet siren love song to itself. For Ellis’ novels are crammed full of lists, references and commodities that explicitly perpetuate the cultural ennui of late Twentieth Century consumption. The point made by Bataille that the object of desire is "the mirror in which we ourselves are reflected"[2] is repeated time and time again in the ethic of Ellis. We desire that which we consume -- and which in turn consumes us -- because in it we see ourselves in both actual presence and potential actuality. Yet this act of consumption masks a deadly reality, for the violence of consumption is indicative of the violence with which we interact. Consumption is communication according to Bataille; that which breaks through the separation and limits of contemporary existence.[3] This act of consumption as communicative violence reaches its apogee in American Psycho. Patrick Bateman’s obsessive chronicling of his and everyone else’s consumption is indicative of a limited existence that can only be overcome by acts of psychotic, diabolic violence that seek to reduce victims to the level of dehumanised commodities for (at one point, literal) consumption. Yet Ellis, for all his ability to act as cultural chronicler, acts primarily as dissenting voice: as the voice of Agape as opposed to Eros; as the call to fraternity away from self-love; as the one who acts as moralist in times of immorality. For as Ortega noted, the mass-man aspires "…to live without conforming to a moral code… Immoralism has become a common place, and anybody and everybody boasts of practising it".[4]

It is in the face of such 'immoralism' that Ellis writes, locating himself not as a detached observer but as a willing participant seeking a redemptive transgression where only an act of participation will free the self from terminal decline. On one level he and his characters are attempting to act heroically in the face of late twentieth century modern life. Stjepan Mestrovic has reminded us it was at the previous fin de siecle that a radically new conception of heroism emerged: that of the ordinary person surviving the ordinary life beneath the burden of civilisation and enlightenment. That is, to endure modernity is act heroically.[5] The reference is to Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life (1863) which is often credited as writing the template for modern existence. In his essay Baudelaire noted the opposition of ‘nature’ to the claims of philosophy and religion for "…no sooner do we take leave of the domain of needs and necessities to enter that of pleasures and luxury than we see that nature can counsel nothing but crime".[6]

Ellis’ characters, existing in the midst of excessive luxury, can find no recourse for existence except crime and deviance. This is expressed in acts against others and against themselves as 'immoralists' desperately seeking a form of Nietzschean happiness, freed from the morality of ‘good and evil’. So in a sense Ellis’ characters act as Nietzschean anti-saints, enduring life not to engender self-contempt in the reader but rather to inspire virtue in the face of such transgression. They are, as Nietzsche noted of saints, brutal[7]. But Ellis inverts this Nietzschean brutality into a form of Bataillean ‘funhouse mirror’ in which we recognize ourselves as distorted; seeking the true reflection as relief and confirmation of the truthfulness of ourselves.

Therefore Ellis provides what Ortega Y Gasset in Man and Crisis calls ‘crisis man’, living "a vita minima – a life emptied of itself, incompetent, unstable". Crisis Man acts in two main ways -- with ‘sceptical frigidity, anguish, desperation’ or with "a sense of fury, madness, [and] an appetite for vengeance because of the emptiness of his life".[8]

These options operate as the characters in Ellis’ novels. For the main part his characters act within the first response: the disaffected Clay of Less Than Zero, the confused Paul and Lauren of The Rules of Attraction, the ‘lost’ Victor of Glamorama . Yet, always there, acting as counterpoint are those characters whose response is not passivity but violence, vengeance and anger. Those who, as Ortega Y Gasset notes, respond to the emptiness of their life with a "drive to enjoy brutally, cynically, whatever comes his way -- flesh, luxury, power".[9] Here exist the valley kids of Less Than Zero, the Bateman brothers of The Rules of Attraction and American Psycho, Alison Poole, and Bobby Hughes of Glamorama . In between are the characters of The Informers, the faceless responses of a society torn both ways.

The fiction of Bret Easton Ellis needs to be approached from two angles: through a consideration of his writings and through what he has divulged in a series of interviews. For Ellis is an elusive writer -- a blank scribe who requires the contentions of his interviews to allow a re-evaluation past the common hysteria and media trials that have been elicited by his work. It is my contention that Ellis has been writing the same novel in various forms because he is a ‘one-trick’ writer, a moralist rather than a novelist, a didactic chorus of complaint who links aphorisms with blank text, who seeks to make a point rather than tell a story. As he has commented on his oeuvre : "The concerns are the same, the themes are the same, the tonality of the writing is the same".[10] In this manner Ellis also embodies an apposite Spenglerian task, that of the ‘thinker’ as outlined in one of the core texts of Twentieth Century cultural pessimism The Decline of the West :

A thinker is a person whose part it is to symbolise time according to his vision and understanding. He has no choice; he thinks as he has to think. Truth in the long run is to him the picture of the world which was born at this birth. It is that which he does not invent but rather discovers within himself. It is himself over again; his being expressed in words; the meaning of his personality formed into a doctrine which so far as concerns his life is unalterable, because truth and his life are identical.[11]

As such a ‘thinker’ Ellis is also writing in a Spenglerian "Winter", that phase of civilisation defined as "Dawn of megalopolitan Civilisation. Extinction of spiritual creative force. Life itself becomes problematical, Ethical-practical tendencies of an irreligious and unmetaphysical cosmopolitanism."[12] This vision of decline does however deviate significantly from Ellis’ outlook. For Spengler such decline is a natural part of any civilization, a lethargic ennui that can be merely noted and mourned, never overcome. For Ellis such decline is unnatural and must be challenged on every possible occasion. It is this attitude that reforms his initial cultural pessimism into the satiric diatribe of the outraged moralist. Dick Hebidge may have famously stated that "postmodernity is modernity without the hopes and dreams which made modernity bearable"[13]; Ellis refuses to give up the hopes and dreams. He writes novels of personal and public horror that seek to expose the transgression of postmodern culture against the soul of both the individual and society. His novels are carnivals of horror. Yet in doing so he subverts the postmodern use of horror as carnivalistic and source of transcendence through the body.[14] Yes bodies are abused, bought, sold, discarded, killed and consumed. Yet such vampiric, werewolfish metamorphosis of bodily identity is not an affirmation of transgression as liberative nor of smashing taboos as freedom. For Ellis such carnivalistic excess is horrible. The society that turns life into a freakshow, a society that celebrates transgression of self and traditional codes is a society that denies humanity in the name of spectacle.

Ellis has described his books as "…patch-braided satires of the culture I live in, pin-pointing the things that disgust me and make me angry and cause me a lot of anxiety and ridiculing them…"(sic).[15] It appears that what makes Ellis most angry is the passivity of those with a conscience in the world of crisis and it is Clay, the blank narrator of Ellis’s first novel, Less Than Zero who, he has stated, troubles his creator more than any other character he has written about.[16] For Clay is the passive observer, and indeed the voyeur of decline and degradation who, while pricked by the stirrings of a moral conscience, cannot break his paradoxical bored fascination with banal decadence and self-destruction.

Less Than Zero begins with the now emblematic line "People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles".[17] This aphorism is the core of Ellis’ output, this ‘failure to merge’ gaining the internal force of Forster’s "only connect" as a maxim to live life by. Ellis’ horror of his generation’s ‘failure to merge’ is also represented by references to a billboard with the troubling message "Disappear Here". Is this a warning, a command, an offer or a rhetorical statement on the lives of Clay and his friends? Does Los Angeles consume its citizens so that they disappear?[18] Does the commodified life of easy luxury cause the individual, and more importantly, the individual moral will to disappear? As Clay sinks into the totally bored yet fascinated voyeurism of watching his friend Julian treat his body as the ultimate commodity by selling it to the older man in the bedroom of the Saint Marquis he states: "I don’t close my eyes. You can disappear here without knowing it". This theme of disappearance continues throughout Ellis’ work. People go missing and are barely noticed, whether killed by vampires or serial killers. In the world of spectacle and bored disinterest such transgressive mutations are beyond society's capacity to recognize. Patrick Bateman cannot convince anyone that he is the horror that is his transgressive ontology. His is a postmodern attempt to confront the vacuity of existence. As Benko states what is new "is not that the world has little or no meaning, but that we should feel the constant need to give it meaning."[19] Bateman does it by killing. Glamorama does it by branding.

Yet even in the midst of such ontological desperation there is the continual mention that people physically disappear or, in a world of media technology, people’s identities start to disappear as a result of deliberate erasure and manipulation as in the case of Victor in Glamorama . Yet disappearance posits that these people actually appeared in the first case. Ellis seem to imply that such is the marginality of modern existence that appearance (that is existence -- to appear) in any traditional sense is highly problematic, is in fact near nigh unattainable for those of his generation. For this is a generation that not only cannot care, but does not want to care. For to care would be to open oneself up to the pain of existence.

Ellis was raised an agnostic and has stated that he doesn’t believe in God and yet his books are anything but the "rigidly nihilistic" outlook he claims to possess.[20] What he does not do is slip over into the banal superficial spirituality of his contemporary Douglas Coupland who, in Life after God, attempted to offer a spiritual panacea to that generation born in the 1960s and 1970s who came of age ‘after God’. Coupland’s plea is that his generation has, in some way, been short-changed by the irreligiousity of their baby-boomer parents who pursued a materialistic existence at the expense of true humanity:

I think there was a trade-off somewhere along the line. I think the price we paid for our golden life was an inability to fully believe in love; instead we gained an irony that scorched everything it touched. And I wonder if this irony is the price we paid for the loss of God[21].

The alternative is the nihilistic sarcasm offered by a character stating:

And its not like I’m lost or anything. We’re all too fucking middle-class to ever be lost. Lost means you had faith or something to begin with and the middle-class never really had any of that. So we can never be lost...[22]

Ellis’ version of this is far more chilling. In Less Than Zero Clay confronts Rip who has repeatedly raped a twelve year old girl drugged and tied to a bed. Clay, breaking out of his inertia, tells Rip he does not think that this is right. Rip asks "What is right?" claiming that if you want something you take it, that you have the right to take or do anything. Clay’s protest is the blandly ineffective "But you don’t need anything. You have everything." Rip disagrees because "I don’t have anything to lose". Later, in American Psycho Clay’s passivity and Rip’s nihilism coalesce in Patrick Bateman’s statement on the (then coming) fin de siecle :

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. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in…this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged...[23]

The contrast is Coupland’s concluding plea that he needs God because he is "sick and can no longer make it alone…as I seem beyond being able to love". The counter that is offered by Ellis are characters who do not seek God but rather cannot even remember whether or not they once belonged:

"Are you a Catholic?" I asked him.
We walked a little while before he finally answered. “I don’t remember."[24]

For Ellis, being able to love is a secondary issue and in a 'hardbody' world love is a sign of weakness anyway. Lust, the taking and giving of a body and a self to be consumed for pleasure, the commodification of sexuality into an exchange of gratification and debasement is all we can seem to hope for. Alienated from each other we are now alienated from ourselves as well. For love can only occur when people are aware of what it is to be human. So in Ellis’ world, Coupland’s cry is that of someone who, in a sense, already has it all. Perhaps it is also evidence of a naivety that fails to truly understand the apocalyptic nature of contemporary existence. For as we learn in Glamorama "the zeitgeist’s in limbo".

Ellis’s latest novel, Glamorama, is a hallucinogenic sprawl through a fin de siecle world that has failed to learn the lessons of American Psycho . If the culture of consumption was the fifth horseman of the apocalypse then in Glamorama the apocalypse has, to all intents and purposes occurred -- and no one noticed. The novel begins with two epigrams, one by Krishna, "There was not a time when you or I nor these things did not exist" and one by Hitler, "You make a mistake if you see what we do as merely political". Ellis has stated that these mimic "what the book was about", that they point to a book that is both "light" and "dark". As such they act as a key for the reader, "a signifier for people when they enter the book to know what they are getting into. A way to guide them through the text".[25]

Glamorama is a novel obsessed with the ambiguity of existence. Nothing is what it seems, reality is fluid, life and identity are unstable. Whether it is the mantra that "out is in" and "in is out", or "no trend is the new trend", or that "Paul Verhoeven said God is bisexual…" nothing just ' is' anymore. It is a body-fascist world where "the better you look, the more you see" [26], a world where a dinner party of models is filmed "…since we’re all basically advertising ourselves and in the end we’re all linked because we "get it" ".[27] A world where reality can be digitally, cinematically, ontologically altered at whim, a world where “better” and “worse” are claimed not to matter anymore because no one cares about those meanings. Rather, we adapt to change in a world without truth. Yet the only way out seems to be a retreat into the New Age banalities of the celebrity Guru as exemplified by Deepak Chopra who tells Victor, (echoing the classic hard rock song by Blue Oyster Cult) "Don’t fear the reaper". Victor’s reply of ontological gnosis is to mutter to himself "I am the fucking reaper, Deepak".

Victor’s self-knowledge reveals him to be the every man of fin de siecle celebrity culture in the same way that Patrick Bateman was for status obsessed '80s yuppie culture. Victor is the slacker incarnation of Bateman, someone who with his obsession with celebrity culture wrecks destruction in a similar fashion. If Bateman exemplified a world of hostile takeovers and asset stripping, of a Protestant work ethic subverted into the business of violence, then Victor exemplifies a culture so consumed by superficiality that it creates a spiritual death. What has occurred is that the obsessions of Bateman’s yuppie aesthetic have now become the staples of mainstream culture and entertainment, what Steve Redhead terms the millennial blues. This is the condition of recognizing not only do we live in a hyper-real world but the real to which it refers is itself only the media culture[28] -- to all intents and purposes a post-hyper-real which references " a reality that has already been mediated and digested; a veritable 'post (realist) realism'"[29].Ellis asks if we can escape from such hyper-accentuated decline, in a land, a culture that Baudrillard has described as an immoral dystopia, yet a dystopia that exists as both ending and new beginning.[30]

Such a dystopia is presented as paradoxically both inevitable yet also existential, what Baudrillard terms the 'achieved utopia' that is "confronted with the problem of its duration and permanence."[31] It is a dialectical society that Ellis writes into being, his novels positing various forms of antithetical dystopia to the American dream. In writing of dystopia perhaps, he seems to be saying, we can be outraged to synthesize a more realistic utopia. The danger always with such dialectical appropriations is that the implied synthesis often is remade more in line with the antithesis than original thesis, a synthesis that is 'more focussed on and based on destructiveness than creativity'.[32]

The problem is that such a synthesis will be existential at heart. What Ellis warns us is that decline is resultant upon our decisions. We choose the antithesis. We desire it. We create our own destruction. The inevitability of decline is the inevitability of our choices in a superficial, amoral world. So at the close of Glamorama (in a nod to eternal recurrence) we get a flashback to a younger Victor having to decide if he will embrace the ethos of 'Glamorama':

At first I was confused by what passed for love in this world: people were discarded because they were too old or too fat or too poor or they had too much hair or not enough, they were wrinkled, they had no muscles, no definition, no tone, they weren’t hip, they weren’t remotely famous. This was how you chose loves. This was what decided friends. And I had to accept this if I wanted to get anywhere.[33]

Yet perhaps Ellis is doing nothing more than simply rewriting the traditional highbrow critique of the masses. John Carey has noted the prejudices of the literary intelligensia, stating "…to highbrows, looking across the gulf, it seemed that the masses were not simply degraded and threatening but also not fully alive. A common allegation is that they lack souls…".[34] Therefore we get Ellis’ description of Clay and Victor as "zombies"[35], the impersonal evilness of Patrick Bateman,[36] the continued presence of vampires, and characters and cultures blatantly, celebriously, exhaustively, superficial, commodified and soulless. No one, it seems, can really escape; rather this is the terminal identity of a mass culture in decline.

Yet there is one thing that sets Ellis apart from his predecessors -- he does not distance himself from that which he critiques. He is speaking from within, not above mass culture. He writes as one who has been created and celebrated by that which both destroys yet invigorates him, a society that provides both his ontology and his state of sinful fallenness. He is the puritan moralist who, in confronting society, is first and foremost confronting himself, stating "As a writer, I seem to respond to flaws in my generation that I see to be widespread and I react to them as a novelist".[37] And the fatal flaw is that his generation has been raised on mass culture to a degree where all is open to consumption, where life gets edited and rearranged according to the conventions of MTV, where style triumphs over substance. Ellis has described his generation (born in the 1960s) as the first "to have really grown up in the shadow of the video revolution."[38] A situation Stjepan Mestrovic has described as " endless stream of images that distorts violence, sexual licence, and the ethic of anomie into ‘fun’ themes, mixed with rock & roll".[39] So while "rock and roll" becomes Sean Bateman’s epigrammatic response to life in The Rules of Attraction, it has to be read on a deeper level as that which now provides the ontology for the dislocated.

This reaches its most absurd in American Psycho where Patrick Bateman displays his total dislocation by celebrating three of the most banal and mainstream popular music acts of the 1980s: Genesis, Huey Lewis and the News and Whitney Houston. His celebrations of these performers’ oeuvre is a deliberative swipe at those pop culture critics who claim to find a serious purpose, even a workable ontology, in popular music. Yet in his work Ellis is exhibiting the same concerns that those very critics attempt to present -- a critique of ‘the age’ from within. Writing in Artforum in 1985 Greil Marcus linked Less Than Zero into the Manson family ethos, yet without the apocalyptic ethic. For if the Manson carnage was supposed to have occurred out of apocalyptic readings of the ‘classic rock’ Helter Skelter by the Beatles off ‘The White Album’ (1968), then Ellis’ post-Manson dysfunctional family tend to be operating to ephemeral ‘pop music’, or the nihilistic self-hatred of non-politicized American punk. These later styles operate as an ever present soundtrack to dysfunctional lives but do not operate in a ‘meaningful’ way: "…in Less Than Zero pop music is just weather --everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it".[40] In fact the only person in the novel who does anything about pop music is the televangelist who smashes records claiming they will harm the young who are the future of the country.

Yet if Ellis’ riffing on the current state of society has any resonance outside the world of ‘blank fiction’[41] (that catchall phrase for ‘young’ writers confrontational in their subject matter and presentation) it is in the world of rock journalism. The phrase ‘blank fiction’ is taken to echo the ethos of New York punk nihilism as exemplified by the seminal punk anthem "blank generation" by Richard Hell and the Voidoids[42]. Hell’s 1977 song has as its chorus the claim:

I belong to the blank generation
And I can take it or leave it each time
Well, I belong to the ____ generation
But I can take it or leave it each time

Hell has claimed that the emptiness of the blank space of the _____ is to give the latitude of not caring, of giving as much latitude as possible to those trying to analyse just what was meant by "blank".[43] In a sense this is what has occurred in the novels of Bret Easton Ellis, the blankness opens up a world of competing opportunities: a generation that is post punk, that even takes its nihilism second hand, commodified through MTV. George Stade has described the characters of The Informers as "…above all, they know their rock-and-roll, sounds of the silence within them".[44] Yet this is only partly true, for it is only really the post-Manson valley kids of LA in Less Than Zero and The Informers who ‘know their rock and roll’. For on the whole, Ellis’ consumers know the sight but not the sound of their rock and roll; music has become a MTV image to be consumed, not a sound to be listened to. Patrick Bateman exhibits the corruption of taste by commercial consumption most blatantly in his naïve critiques of his favourite popular acts. By Glamorama music has receded to a cinematic or catwalk soundtrack, there only to serve the commodified image.

Yet if we are to fully understand Ellis and his blankness -- and fully understand its fatal flaw then, ironically, we have to turn to a classic piece of rock journalism. For rock criticism is the template for Ellis’ style, his moralistic outrage, his writing of characters who seem too blank to be really alive and yet we are expected to take their thoughts, words and actions as being worthy of notice. What Ellis has done is taken the ethic of the great rock critics out of the world of music journalism and transported it into the realm of the novel, ending up with a hybrid form. Greil Marcus’ presentation in The Dustbin of History of the issues lying behind the rock critic’s task could easily have come out of a critique of Ellis’ intent:

The worry that our sense of history, as it takes place in everyday culture, is cramped, impoverished, and debilitating; that the commonplace assumption that history exists only in the past is a mystification powerfully resistant to any critical investigations that might reveal this assumption to be a fraud, or a jail. The suspicion is that we are living out history, making and unmaking it --forgetting it, denying it -- all of the time, in far more ways than we have really learned.[45]

In a strange twist, it was while searching for references to Richard Hell’s song that I stumbled across the piece of writing that, if it hasn’t acted as the template for Ellis’ oeuvre is then disturbingly prescient. Entitled "Richard Hell: Death Means Never Having To Say You’re Incomplete" it is written by the great ‘gonzo’ rock critic Lester Bangs[46] and was originally published in Gig magazine (1978).[47]

Bangs' article begins, as do Ellis’ novels with a collection of epigrams,[48] mixing high and low culture, in effect acting as the work in outline. The beginning of the article could almost be lifted straight from one of Ellis’ novels, mixing self-confession, sex and the privileging of mass media as both the new location for truth and the drugs of modern existence. This opening paragraph concludes in what could be a précis of mock-Ellis:

In the time of hedonist fascism nobody dares scream or judge what is so pathetically suspended in mid-air, which is life itself --nobody till now, that is. Meaning that if you’re not mad you’re crazy -- we are being eaten body and soul and no one is fighting. In fact practically no one sees it, but if you listen to the poets you will hear, and vomit up your rage. Richard Hell is one of the poets.[49]

Ellis mixes the nihilistic programme of Hell[50] with the ‘ultimate rejection’ of that programme as expressed by Bangs the cultural critic. Bangs refers to an interview Hell gave to Legs McNeil in Punk magazine in early 1976 where Hell references Nietzsche on the collapse of emotions. Bangs' response is, in many ways, the template for Ellis’ oeuvre:

…I was interested, because it seemed to me then, as it does now, that the only questions worth asking today are whether humans are going to have any emotions tomorrow, and what the quality of life will be if the answer is no.[51]

All of Ellis’ work could be seen as playing out this particular question, yet nowhere have I ever been able to find reference to any influence of Bangs upon the young Ellis, who would have been 17 when this article first appeared. Yet the similarities are remarkable. In Hell we get the template for all the nihilistic, disaffected antiheroes,[52] in Bangs we get the riffing style, the epigrams, the high-low culture mix, the central question and ultimately, the rejection of that which is used to serve as critique on contemporary existence. For Bangs’ rejection of Hell’s ethic, even as he remains a solid fan of his work, echoes Ellis’ love-hate relationship with that he writes about. While Bangs can rise above Hell’s narcissistic nihilism and offer a claim for the transcendence of life and art, Ellis can only obliquely do so. In considering Ellis in light of this article by Bangs it becomes clear that Ellis is torn between Hell and Bangs. He has the analytical outrage of Hell, his critique of the narcissistic nihilism of his age -- yet, as Bangs states of Hell, "…he doesn’t transcend his self-hate". For Ellis thinks like Hell but attempts to write like Bangs, yet without Bangs' fundamental, thoughtful, perceptive joy in the transcendence of art and existence. As Bangs writes of Hell:

Look, I started out this thing saying how much I respected this guy’s mind and perceptions. I still do, in a curious way-its just that he paints half the picture of total reality with consummate brilliance, and the other half is Crayola slashes across a field of silly putty and Green Slime. In other words, he’s got a great grasp of the problems of being alive in the seventies, but his solutions suck.[53]

And therein lies the fundamental issue concerning Ellis. Like Hell he can locate the problems of existence, but unlike Bangs he cannot offer an alternative -- yet he still imitates the man who, in a strange twist, offered the best critique of his work before it was even written. Ellis’ novels therefore exist as forms of moral outrage, dated, in a sense, before they are even published. So it appears that Ellis remains trapped as a chronicler of his own imagined past; aware 'that history is sinking' yet unable to offer any alternative – the Richard Hell of his own blank generation, who apes the style, but lacks the belief of Lester Bangs.


[1] Gray, Rockwell, The Imperative of Modernity: An Intellectual Biography of Jose Ortega y Gasset, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989, pgs. 194, 195.

[2] Stoekel, Alan, ed. On Bataille, Yale French Studies Number 78, Yale, 1990, p.100

[3] “If I thus consume immoderately, reveal to my fellow beings that which I am intimately: Consumption is the way in which separate beings communicate. Everything shows through, everything is open and infinite between those who consume intensely. But nothing counts then; violence is released and it breaks forth without limits, as the heat increases.” George Bataille, The Accursed Share (pp.58-59); source Norman O. Brown, Apocalypse and/or metamorphosis Berkeley: University of California Press,1991, pgs.192-193.

[4] Gasset, Jose Ortega Y, The Revolt of The Masses, auth. trans., London: George Allen & Unwin, 1932, p.201.

[5] Mestrovic, Stjepan, The Coming Fin De Siecle: An application of Durkheim's Sociology to Modernity and Postmodernism, London: Routledge, 1991, p.4.

[6] Baudelaire, Charles, The Painter of Modern Life and other essays, trans. and ed. Jonathan Mayne, London: Phaidon, 1964/1995, p.32.

[7] On the critique of saints . To have a virtue, must one really wish to have it in its most brutal form -- as the Christian saints wished -- and needed it? They could endure life only by thinking that the sight of their virtue would engender self-contempt in anyone who saw them. But a virtue with that effect I call brutal. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York: Vintage, 1974, Book Three, 150.

[8] Gasset, Jose Ortega Y, Man and Crisis, trans. Mildred Adams, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1959, p.88.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Jaime Clark, "An interview with Bret Easton Ellis" part two

[11] Spengler, Oswald, The Decline of the West, auth. trans. C.F. Atkinson, 2nd.ed. vol.1., London: George Allen & Unwin,c.1926, p.xiii.

[12] Ibid., Table One (end papers, vol.1).

[13] Hebidge, Dick, "postmodernism and the 'other side'" in D. Morely and K-H Chen eds. Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, London: Routledge, 1996, p.187.

[14] see Linda Bradley, Film, Horror and the Body Fantastic, Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1995, pgs.3-10.

[15] Casey McKinney, " A rather aoelin, probably should have been edited better conversation with Bret Easton Ellis", Mall Punk

[16] Mark Amerika & Alexander Laurence, "Interview with Bret Easton Ellis", The Write Stuff 1994

[17] This aphorism is subverted in Ellis’ subsequent novel, The Rules of Attraction when Clay, now a decidedly minor character, states: “People are afraid to walk across campus after midnight. Someone on acid whispers this to me, in my ear, one Sunday dawn after I have been up on crystal meth most of the week, crying, and I know it is true”. p.182.

[18] Less Than Zero concludes with an apocalyptic vision of the inhabitants of Los Angeles being driven mad by the city, of parents feasting on their children; images that remain Clay’s single point of reference. pgs. 207-208.

[19] Georges Benko, "Introduction; Modernity, Postmodernity and the Social Sciences" in G. Benko & U. Strohmayer eds. Space and Social Theory: Interpreting Modernity and Postmodernity, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998, p.25.

[20] Robert Love, “Rolling Stone Interview”, Rolling Stone no.61 April 4 1991 in Contemporary Literary Criticism vol.71,1992,pgs.166-167.

[21] Coupland, Douglas, Life after God, New York: Pocket Books, 1994, p.273.

[22] Ibid., p.305.

[23] Ellis, Bret Easton, American Psycho, New York: Vintage, 1991, p.373.

[24] Ellis, Bret Easton, The Rules of Attraction, London: Picador, 1988, p.78.

[25] McKinney interview.

[26] Ellis, Bret Easton, Glamorama, London: Picador, 1998, p. 81. See also where Victor, in discussion with Lauren states “Like in this world…my mind matters more than my abs. Oh boy, raise your hand if you believe that…” p.110.

[27] Ibid., p.273.

[28] Redhead, Steve, Post-Fandom and the Millennial Blues: The Transformation of Soccer Culture, London: Routledge, 1997, p103

[29] Ibid., p4.

[30] Baudrillard's statement on New York succinctly summarizes Ellis' aesthetic: "It is a world completely rotten with wealth, power, senility, indifference, puritanism and mental hygiene, poverty and waste, technological futility and aimless violence, and yet I cannot help but feel it has about it something of the dawning of the universe." Jean Baudrillard, America, trans. C. Turner, London; Verso, 1988/1993 (orig.1986), p.23.

[31] Ibid., p.77.

[32] This point arises in a brief article from 1966 discussing some of the implications of Altizer's 'death of God' theology: Ellis W. Hollon, jr. "Beware the Antithesis!" The Christian Century March 9 1966, p. 304. Hollon was Professor of Philosophy at Middle Tennessee State University and was providing a philosophical critique of what he discerned to be dialectical underpinnings in the thought of Thomas Altizer who achieved considerable notoriety in the 1960s in raising issues of Christian atheism.

[33] Ellis, Glamorama, p.480.

[34] Carey, John, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice amongst the Literary Intelligensia 1880-1939 London: Faber & Faber 1992, p.10.

[35] See Amerika and Laurence interview where Ellis calls Clay “… a zombie surfer dude…” and Jaime Clarke interview where Ellis states “…Victor Ward is a fashion zombie.”

[36] Bateman recognises his “total depersonalization”, blankly stating “I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with, with only a dim corner of my mind operating” American Psycho, p.282.

[37] Bret Easton Ellis, "The Chat Transcript",

[38] Bret Easton Ellis in Contemporary Literary Criticism Yearbook 1985, Vol. 39, ed. Sharon K. Hall, p.55.

[39] Mestrovic, p.7.

[40] Marcus, Greil, "Speaker to Speaker", Artforum International, September 1985, p.12.

[41] See Elizabeth Young and Graham Caveny, Shopping in Space, New York: Grove Press with Serpent's Tail,1992; James Annesley, Blank Fictions, London: Pluto Press, 1988; and Kathryn Hume, American Dream, American Nightmare, Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000, for discussions on the varieties and ethos of ‘blank fiction’.

[42] Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Blank Generation, Sire 6037,1977.
Hell is commonly regarded as the originator of the Malcolm McLaren constructed Sex Pistols/punk ethos. McLaren had briefly been manager of The New York Dolls in the early 1970s and is up front about his appropriation of not only Hell’s ‘distressed’ look but also his song “blank generation”.
As McLaren states “Richard Hell was a definite, 100 per cent inspiration, and, in fact, I remember telling the Sex Pistols, “Write a song like “Blank Generation” but write your own bloody version” and their own version was “Pretty Vacant”… These are the things I brought back [to England]: the image of this distressed, strange thing called Richard Hell. And this phrase, “the punk generation.” Source: Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me: The uncensored oral history of Punk, New York: Grove Press,1996, p.199.

[43] Ibid.,p.282.

[44] Stade, George, "Hopping, Popping and Copping", New York Times Book Review vol.99, 18 September 1994,p.14.

[45] Marcus, Greil, The Dustbin of History, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995, p.3.

[46] Lester Bangs (b.1948; d.1982) author, musician and editor of Creem magazine.

[47] Lester Bangs, "Richard Hell: Death means never having to say you're incomplete" in Greil Marcus ed. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, New York: Vintage, 1987, pgs.260-268.

[48] Bangs quotes Richard Hell, Celine and Huysmans, p.260.

[49] Ibid.,p.261.

[50] Bangs reports Hell as stating “…the thing is that people don’t have to try not to feel anything anymore; they just can’t …” p.261.

[51] Ibid., p.262.

[52] Bangs mentions that Hell’s favourite books are Lautreamont’s Maldoror “which Richard used to read regularly during a period when he thought he was a vampire” and Huysman’s Against Nature, from which Bangs quotes for his epigram. The issue of vampires is interesting for in Ellis’ work, vampires, or a vampiric threat, are always one of the minor themes.

[53] Ibid., p267.

Mike Grimshaw teaches Religious Studies at University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. He is currently working on two projects: "The Incarnation in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" and "Modernist Architecture and the Death of God."

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