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#8 Leveraging the Void, part 1
Looking afresh at DeLillo's Cosmopolis.
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
** spoilers ahead **
“A rat became the unit of currency.” An oddball idea in 2003, amusing perhaps, for the first readers of Don DeLillo’s thirteenth novel Cosmopolis1. But in our age of currency radicalism, an era marked by the rise, fall, and possible rise again of Dogecoin, Pandacoin, Cryptokitties et al, perhaps that novel-opening quote from Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert doesn’t seem so absurd any longer. And similarly the novel in its entirety, which has been described as ‘grimly absurdist’ and ‘hopelessly nihilistic’, has arguably only become more resonant as the sometimes violent, sometimes comic absurdity particular to the late 20th and early 21st centuries has given birth to a new (dis)order—the fully-fledged clown world of what I like to call Late Liberalism. That spectacular unreason with which every thinking person has become well acquainted in the past twenty or more years is, by this point, a sort of elephant in the room (or maybe elephant in the limo) for the painfully right-thinking Late Liberal order, that order staunchly holding faith (supposedly) with Progress and Democracy.
Through the course of the novel Eric Packer, Cosmopolis’s billionaire protagonist, reveals himself to be a self-destructive and even murderous individual. Yet the absurdity, the senselessness of his behaviour, pointed to as the book’s fatal flaw by many reviewers in ‘03, is for me key to the book’s interest and relevance. As I’ll endeavour to show, by drawing on the work of Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Ballard and others, it’s the black (but not necessarily unfunny) nihilism of Cosmopolis that gives DeLillo’s turn-of-the-millennium take on the contemporary world real bite.
With Cosmopolis DeLillo continued, and deepened, his explorations of the dark modern themes he’d first broached in White Noise (1985), Libra (1988) and Mao II (1991): the role of the news media in moulding consciousness; celebrities and the troubled people who stalk them; the ferocity of the market culture; the ever-present threat of terrorist atrocities. In short, the extreme phenomena of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. A 28-year-old with a self-made personal fortune equal to the GDP of a small country: this would certainly have been considered an extreme and improbable state of affairs until fairly recently, and indeed Eric Packer seemed somewhat implausible in 2003. But that was before Mark Zuckerberg: DeLillo seemingly knew which way the wind was blowing.
As a novel about wanton violence and self-destruction as an unlikely path to transcendence, Cosmopolis can be compared to Ballard’s Crash (1973), Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) and Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996). And, going much further back in time, to the French-language grandaddies of the whole subgenre, Lautréamont’s The Songs of Maldoror (1868/69) and Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell (1873). Anyone looking for clearcut moral or political messages from these works is going to be disappointed. To call Fight Club a right-wing novel, or Cosmopolis an anti-capitalist one (as the Salon piece linked to above does), is to fail to grasp the deep ambivalence that runs through these books.
What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devalue themselves. The aim is lacking; ‘Why?’ finds no answer.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power2
The most distinctive thing about Cosmopolis, besides that unsettling ambivalence, is the way the story mostly plays out in or around Packer’s stretch limousine. Following an opening scene (absent from Cronenberg’s film) in which he greets the dawn alone in his forty-eight-room apartment, the asset manager’s automobile is introduced and henceforth serves as the spatial focus of the book’s action:
His chief of security liked the car for its anonymity.
Long white limousines had become the most unnoticed vehicles in the city. He was waiting on the sidewalk now, Torval, bald and no-necked, a man whose head seemed removable for maintenance.
"Where?" he said.
"I want a haircut."
"The president's in town."
"We don't care. We need a haircut. We need to go crosstown."
"You will hit traffic that speaks in quarter inches."
"Just so I know Which president are we talking about?"
"United States. Barriers will be set up," he said. "Entire streets deleted from the map."
"Show me my car," he told the man.
The presidential visit will bring Manhattan almost to a standstill—ostensibly in the interests of security. But looked at another way, what is about to be imposed on the centre of New York City is something like a state of festival, as attended a king’s visit in the Middle Ages. When it comes to the president’s massive motorcade (not shown by DeLillo), and his accompanying army of Secret Service agents, what matters at least as much as the security aspect is the pageantry of it all: New York, and of course the world, shall witness the performance of American power, of the United States’ global hegemony.
The reader might well take Eric’s strange question (‘Which president?’) for a joke—DeLillo playing on the idea of the super-rich as aloof and nomadic, living itinerant lives of indulgent self-absorption. But a few pages on Packer once again ‘forgets’ about the president, and the reader may begin to suspect something more is going on:
“Report from the complex. There’s a credible threat. Not to be dismissed. This means a ride crosstown.”
”We’ve had numerous threats. All credible. I’m still standing here.”
”Not a threat to your safety. To his.”
”Who the fuck is his?”
In chapter two it’s made clear Packer has ‘issues’ with President Midwood (it’s curious how, for a 2020s reader, his very name is suggestive of mediocrity), and the way he’s been ‘forgeting’ him now strongly suggests a neurotic need to dismiss the man’s importance:
He'd talked to him several times. He'd waited in the yellow reception room in the west wing. He'd advised him on matters of some importance and had to stand where someone asked him to stand while someone else took pictures. He hated Midwood for being omnipresent, as he himself used to be. He hated him for being the object of a credible threat to his safety. And he hated and mocked him for his gynecoid upper body with its swag of dangling mammaries under the sheer white shirt. He looked vengefully at the screen, thinking the image did the president every justice. He was the undead. He lived in a state of occult repose, waiting to be reanimated.
One prince envious of the greater power wielded by another. This apparently gratuitous envy and hatred provides our first real glimpse of Packer’s darkness.
The full depth of that darkness will later be revealed to shocking effect, but throughout the novel’s first part (of two) the mood is fairly light, not infrequently comic. The comedy mainly lies in the contrast between Packer’s utterly quotidian purpose in riding across town (getting a haircut) and the not-insignificant logistical effort involved in making sure he achieves it in comfort and safety, untroubled by all ‘credible threats’.
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Examine these similar actions as we will, we shall find them resulting solely from the spirit of the Perverse. We perpetrate them because we feel that we should not. Beyond or behind this there is no intelligible principle; and we might, indeed, deem this perverseness a direct instigation of the Arch-Fiend, were it not occasionally known to operate in furtherance of good.
Edgar Allen Poe, The Imp of the Perverse3
For me the scenes inside Packer’s stretch, as the ‘prousted’4 limo moves at an “inchworm creep” through clogged, at times riotous Manhattan streets, give Cosmopolis a memorably off-kilter poetics of space5. The car’s interior is spacious enough for it to feel like a room. Packer has a series of meetings in there, mostly with his senior employees: he resembles nothing so much as a latter-day Renaissance prince consulting with his council of advisors. These audiences include a perverse almost-sexual encounter with Jane Melman, his chief of finance, during a prostate examination on a foldable examining table. Packer's 'room', then, has many uses, some of which actually benefit from the laboured rate of movement imposed by the presence in the city of that hated rival prince, the president. As to what type of room it is, at the mundane level it’s simply an office. But at a more symbolic level, it's a throne room (Cronenberg’s film conveys this well). Packer is able to fully administer his financial empire from the comfort of his luxuriously upholstered leather seat thanks to a plethora of ergonomic interfaces and gizmos (including a discreet toilet, leading him to wonder what happens to the waste—“tanked up somewhere”? Or maybe “dumped directly in the street, violating a hundred statutes”?).
This innovative spatial poetic that Cosmopolis achieves seems to say something about how, in the 21st century, the technocratic Late Liberal order has scrambled our everyday experience of space and distance. We might ask whether there’s anything positive to be said for this scrambling. Does it represent a new frontier, the Virtual as a latter-day New World? Or is it merely a continuation of the violent uprooting that’s been a feature of modernity for well over a century if not two? Naturally, it could be both, if we want it to be. But of course many if not most of those conscious of this modern uprooting prefer to view it unambigously, as wholly bad, or even wholly good. For Dostoevsky, for instance, it was this severing from roots that gave rise to the modern void, for him an entirely negative phenomenon. In the following extract from an 1870 letter the great Russian novelist addresses the subject of the nihilists in his country, a violent group (in 1881 they would assassinate Tsar Alexander II) that sought the complete destruction of the status quo:
Nihilism isn’t even worth talking about. Wait until the upper layer, which has cut itself loose from the Russian soil, rots through and through. And you know, it seems to me sometimes that many of those young scoundrels, those decaying youths, eventually will become real, solid pochvenniki, true Russians deeply attached to their native soil. As to the rest, let them rot away. They will be struck dumb by paralysis. Ah, but what a lot of scoundrels they still are!6
Like many conservative commentators of the time, Dostoevsky drew (in this later letter to a different correspondant) a connection between nihilism and the Jews:
Incidentally, when will they finally realize how much the Y*ds (by my own observation) and perhaps the Poles are behind this nihilist business… Odessa, the city of the Y*ds, is the center of our militant socialism... the Y*d has everything to gain from every cataclysm and coup d’état, because it is he himself, status in statu, who constitutes his own community, which is unshakable and only gains from anything that serves to undermine non-Y*d society.7
I wouldn’t normally censor that word, but bearing in mind the current Kanye West-triggered brouhaha, and with a view to staying out of trouble, on this occasion I’ve spared the gentle reader its full horror.
Nietzsche, a keen reader of Dostoevsky, and who in recent times has been painted as a writer who condemned antisemitism, articulated another side of nihilism, what might be termed its mysterious, seductive side:
Nihilism stands at the door (Der Nihilismus steht vor der Thür).. whence comes to us this uncanniest of all guests (woher kommt uns dieser unheimlichste aller Gäste?)?8
In the forthcoming installments of this essay (there’ll be four in all) I’ll explore this uncanny, seductive side of nihilism, especially as it pertains to Eric Packer’s strange actions in Cosmopolis’s second part.
In the first part at least, DeLillo gives little indication of any nihilistic impulses on Packer’s part. He conducts himself like the driven, hard-working capitalist you would assume him to be. Thanks to a Protestant work ethic (but sans the Protestantism, or indeed any conventional religious belief), he has grafted his way to all these marvels of luxury technology: the two personal elevators, one regular speed and one slow, the former playing rapper Brutha Fez, the latter Satie; the soundproof limosine that functions as a rolling workplace, a base of operations and a meditative retreat all rolled into one; his Chief of Security’s Czech-made voice-activated handgun. As for one of his more old-fashioned pieces of property, his actual New York City office, the reader is left with the impression it’s redundant, and Eric need never go there:
He shifted position in his chair and watched the surveillance camera adjust. His image used to be accessible nearly all the time, videostreamed worldwide from the car, the plane, the office and selected sites in his apartment. But there were security issues to address and now the camera operated on a closed circuit. A nurse and two armed guards were on constant watch at three monitors in a windowless room at the office. The word office was outdated now. It had zero saturation.
In an age when remote work is rapidly ascendent (at least in some sectors), these words written twenty years ago have a highly prophetic ring. Indeed the novel is thoroughly preoccupied with the future and with things becoming obsolete (at least in Packer’s eyes): the word ‘office’, cash money, Marxism.
DeLillo has been noted for his prophetic gifts at least once before: when his breakout novel White Noise was published in January 1985, a key plot point was the occurance of an ‘airborne toxic event’, remarkably similar in many respects to the real-life Bhopal disaster of a month earlier, in which thousands of people had been killed by the accidental release of methyl isocyanate gas from a chemical plant in India.
Reality is often pregnant with utterly unexpected possibilities. A powerful spiritual dimension can be found in one’s life through the exercise of the imagination.
J. G. Ballard9
Packer’s profession places him at the leading edge of what Jean Baudrillard called ‘the Global’10, the accelerating homogenisation and consolidation of the cultures of the world. While many things obsess Eric, first among them are the unceasing flows of international capital, vast sums moving at the speed of light: the roaring engine of the Global. Throughout the single day that Cosmopolis spans (shades of Ulysses) Packer’s engaged in betting against the yen, risking vast sums, leveraging himself to the hilt. If the yen takes a tumble, as he hopes it shall, he’ll win big. Furthermore, Packer has a theory about the markets that recalls an idea explored in Darren Aronofsky’s debut feature π (1998): he believes there’s a key to market patterns to be found in the natural world:
He knew there was something no one had detected, a pattern latent in nature itself..
“There’s an order at some deep level,” he said, “A pattern that wants to be seen.”
Secure in his stretch, plotting his next move in the markets, Packer is often immersed in deeply abstract contemplations (mercifully DeLillo largely spares us the details). In Cosmopolis’s first part, then, Packer seems almost like the model of a modern, rational individual, albeit one with his own singular ideas about how certain things work.
Late Liberalism's economic infrastructure is of course provided by advanced capitalism, which in the 21st century is increasingly marked by abstraction. It's an economic order that gives every appearance of pursuing its own liberation (perhaps ultimately even from human beings), by means of a flight from materiality. Arguably the beginning of this flight can be dated to the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of monetary management in 1971, triggered by the United States terminating the convertibility of the dollar to gold11. The dollar thus became a free-floating currency not backed by a commodity—a fiat currency. Many other fixed currencies were forced to follow suit shortly thereafter, and by the early 1980s floating currencies were in use by all industrialised nations. A linked development is the financialisation of the global economy from 1980 onwards: increasing debt-to-equity ratios (greater reliance on leverage, that is, funding ventures with borrowed money) and financial services becoming ever-more important to the global economic order12. Financialisation was helped along by sweeping deregulation of financial markets enacted by neoliberal governments. In Britain, for instance, Margaret Thatcher’s government instigated, in 1986, what became known as ‘The Big Bang’. This ‘liberation’ of the City of London and Canary Wharf enabled London to become, by the early 2000s, arguably the world’s most important financial centre13.
Critics have long argued that capitalism in the neoliberal era, financialised capitalism, is a mere ponzi scheme resting ultimately on nothing, with money being created out of thin air. Of course, these voices have only become more insistent since the financial collapse of 2008. Since then, governments have frequently had recourse to bouts of ‘quantitive easing’ (printing money), a practice in direct contradiction to what the monetarist architects of neoliberalism, men like Milton Friedman, insisted upon14. Is financialisation, capitalism’s flight from materiality, a nihilistic trend? For me it clearly is. This doesn't mean, though, that it's doomed to collapse.
As for Eric Packer, needless to say he doesn’t see any negatives in all this. On the contrary, capitalism becoming ever-more ‘virtual’ only excites him. He is egged on in this by Vija Kinski, his chief of theory:
“You know what anarchists have always believed."
"Tell me," she said.
"The urge to destroy is a creative urge."
"This is also the hallmark of capitalist thought. Enforced destruction. Old industries have to be harshly eliminated. New markets have to be forcibly claimed. Old markets have to be re-exploited. Destroy the past, make the future.”
When the subject of an assassinated rival comes up, Kinski speaks of Packer’s character in a way that anticipates the dark turn the novel will take in its second half:
“Your genius and your animus have always been fully linked," she said. "Your mind thrives on ill will toward others. So does your body, I think. Bad blood makes for long life. He was a rival in some sense, yes? He was physically strong perhaps. He had a large personality. Filthy rich, this chap. Women in his soup. Reasons enough to feel a sneaky sort of euphoria when the man dies horribly. There are always, always reasons. Don't examine the matter," she said. "He died so you can live.”
According to historian and political scientist Brooks Adams (1848-1927), it is the imagination that has to die so that capital can live. He believed that this had happened to the ancient world, and that it was happening again to the modern one:
In proportion as movement accelerates societies consolidate, and as societies consolidate they pass through a profound intellectual change. Energy ceases to find vent through the imagination and takes the form of capital; hence as civilizations advance, the imaginative temperament tends to disappear, while the economic instinct is fostered and thus substantially new varieties of men come to possess the world.15
Packer, of course, is of one of the new varieties of men who have come to possess the world in the current century. These are men—and women—who can indeed live rootless lives of extreme indulgence and total self-absorption if they so desire, without any real concern for the lives of others whatsoever (no noblesse oblige to worry about). In the forthcoming second, third and fourth parts of this essay I’ll examine more closely what the lives of others mean (if anything) to DeLillo’s antihero.
Note that this piece concerns itself with the novel, leaving discussion of Cronenberg’s 2011 adaptation for another post.
Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Will to Power.
“I had the car prousted."
"The way they build a stretch is this. They take a vehicle's base unit and cut it in half with a huge throbbing buzz-saw device. Then they add a segment to lengthen the chassis by ten, eleven, twelve feet. Whatever desired dimension. Twenty-two feet if you like. While they were doing this to my car, I sent word that they had to proust it, cork-line it against street noise.”
See Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space, Presses Universitaires de France, 1958, English translation 1964.
Letter to Russian poet Apollon Maykov, 25 March–6 April 1870.
Letter to writer and journalist V.F. Putsykovich, 29 August 1878.
Autumn 1885—autumn 1886 notebook.
The Independent, 11-10-2001.
Adams, Brooks, The Law of Civilization and Decay: An Essay on History, The Macmillan Company, 1895.