So far I’ve given a brief overview of Dante’s Divine Comedy with a special emphasis on Inferno and how the Dante-Virgil-Beatrice relationship works. From this we were able to conclude that 1) American Psycho is a rewriting of Inferno, and 2) it is not just any rewriting of Inferno but one from the perspective of the damned, ie the narrator, successful 80s investment banker and serial killer Patrick Bateman. But this raises plenty of questions, like: why is Bateman damned? What did he (or does he) do wrong? More complicatedly, what do we get by retelling the Inferno from the view of someone who can never escape it when Dante’s story originally is, by nature, about the actual change Hell puts the traveler through, eventually allowing him to evade its punishments?
I’m going to answer these questions, or at least try to. To start, though, we have to step away from Dante and skip over a few hundred years and a couple city-states until we find ourselves in England with William Shakespeare. Why is Shakespeare important? Because, silly, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, and while Bret Easton Ellis has his own special rewriting of Inferno in American Psycho, it’s a very particular rewriting of the Bard’s Scottish Play.
So if you’re unfamiliar with Macbeth here’s the rundown: Macbeth and his pal Banquo are thanes to the Scottish king Duncan. They bump into three witches, who make some prophecies about Macbeth being king and Banquo being the father of kings; Banquo shrugs it off but the prophecy upsets Macbeth, who we begin to suspect is pretty insecure about things. I think — I am probably wrong because I’ve never bothered to count and haven’t even read every play, but it strikes me this way — that old Mickey-B speaks in asides more often than any other Shakespeare character. He’s constantly bopping off to mutter to himself about the witches, their prophecy, whether they were good or evil, who suspects him, who doesn’t, and on and on and on. In modern cinema this would be conveyed by having a character almost constantly being heard in voice over, stressing over whether or not everyone around him thinks he’s cool or a dweeb.
As is so aptly illustrated by the kitties above, eventually Macbeth tells his wife about the prophecy, which turns out to be something of a mistake. She goads him into murdering Duncan by essentially telling him that a Real Man would totally kill the king if it meant he could have the throne. This convinces Macbeth pretty quickly, which only further proves how weirdly neurotic this guy is. But it gets worse, of course, because soon Macbeth goes from “sort of pitiable henpecked regicide” to “completely fucking bonkers (but also still really insecure and a murderer).” The bonkers part is hinted at early on, when Macbeth prepares to enter Duncan’s bedchambers and murder him, pausing to remark to the empty air, “Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee” (II.ii, my copy of the play ludicrously doesn’t have line numbers so screw you I’m not counting these things for my citations).
Now, it’s completely possible Macbeth has decided to be extra contemplative and poetic in this momentous time prior to coldblooded murder, but the other explanation is that Macbeth is hallucinating. During the murder itself, as he tells his wife, he also thinks he hears phantom voices decrying his misdeed, in response to which she tells him to sack up goddammit. But Macbeth’s mental state only declines further; due to an unfortunate confluence of events, he decides he must also have his old friend Banquo murdered — which happens, with more or less no complication. Things get hairy, though, when the ghost of Banquo appears during a banquet, sending Macbeth into a babbling tizzy and leaving Lady Macbeth scrambling to explain to her guests what’s wrong with her husband. You see, though there are stage directions for the ghost and Macbeth is very strongly responding to it, absolutely no one else can see it, meaning that it’s entirely possible that Macbeth is imagining the whole thing.
For me, this idea that a lot of the crazy stuff happening is all in Macbeth’s head is what makes the play so damn cool, and it’s a big part of how Macbeth ties in with American Psycho. My linking of Inferno to Psycho relied a lot on narrative arc and inter-character relationships; this isn’t true for Macbeth, because the links here are not about the little clues Ellis scattered around the novel. He quotes Dante directly, but unless I missed it, he never quotes Macbeth; if you comb through Psycho looking for an analogue for the witches or Lady Macbeth you’re not going to find them. The connections between the play and the novel are much more subtle, in that there is really only one big link: a character type.
To put it quickly and simply, Pat Bateman is Macbeth. It’s so cleverly updated, I think, that it’s pretty easy to miss: one of Macbeth’s defining early characteristics is his insecurity, so Bateman constantly obsesses over what he is wearing in comparison to what everyone else is wearing, which stereo system is the best or most expensive and can he get one, and in one scene practically has a panic attack when he sees that a colleague has a more stylish business card. And just as Macbeth is prone to seeing things, so is Bateman, who imagines that Satan is speaking to him through Bono at a U2 concert, an anthropomorphic Cheerio is being interviewed on his favorite sensationalist talk show, a park bench is stalking him, and, in a scene launched into the general pop culture by the film version, an ATM wants him to feed it a stray cat.
And even though I said that the main connection is the character type, there is actually a tiny little Macbeth/Banquo parallel for Patrick and another banker at his firm, a guy named Paul Owen. Bateman mostly resents Owen, with the implicit reason being that Owen is marginally more successful — he’s handling a very high-profile account but is being stingy on the details, something that annoys the other Wall Street guys but seems to drive Bateman up the wall. So, of course, Bateman kills him, stages it to look like Owen took off for London without any advance notice, and starts mutilating prostitutes in Owen’s vacant apartment.
A detective shows up for a chapter or so to investigate Owen’s disappearance, and for a moment it seems like Bateman will be caught. But, no, that doesn’t happen — because even though Bateman completely made up the story about Owen going to London, it holds water. Other people claim to have seen him there, to have had lunch with him. This is made entirely questionable because a recurring situation in the novel is Bateman and/or his friends trying to remember the name of someone they’ve seen in a club or, even more frequently, Bateman calling guys he meets by the wrong name only to find out later they are someone else, or Bateman himself being mistaken for another person. There’s a lot of stuff there about how disconnected these guys are from each other and from their own identities, but in more practical terms it means that someone in London from the New York circle could have easily mistaken someone else for Owen.
Except it gets trickier. A dozen or so chapters after Bateman defaces Owen’s apartment, he drops by again — only the entire place is clean, spotless, and a real estate agent is showing a young couple around. Bateman is shocked and tries to figure out what happened to all the viscera he left behind, asking the agent how long the apartment has been for rent and who lived there last, but she seems oddly guarded. Patrick notices the place smells especially clean, as if a lot of disinfectant or deodorizer has been used recently to get rid of a stench. There are then two possibilities for what’s happened: the agent is complicit in a conspiracy to cover up the murders in the apartment, which were never reported, or Bateman has imagined the whole thing, even the excess of deodorizer. The strange looks the agent gives him could either be hints that she knows that he knows she knows — or they could be because some random guy just barged in on her appointment and started asking questions. Is Owen alive or dead? It doesn’t matter, really, because either way, like the ghost of Banquo only Macbeth can see, Owen’s status is something that only Bateman has cause to doubt, and it threatens to overturn his entire life.
And this is where Ellis turns the volume way, way up on my favorite part of Macbeth: not only are the floating daggers and phantom voices and ghosts possible hallucinations, the murders themselves are also of questionable authenticity. We can’t trust a thing Bateman says, and as he comes to realize, he can’t trust himself. Both Macbeth and Bateman suffer from this same self-doubt — they’re both neurotic as hell, after all — and though Macbeth and everyone around him eventually knows and understands what he has done, for Patrick this never happens. No one ever catches him, no one ever even comes close to suspecting him, and to top it all off, maybe he’s actually never done anything to make himself suspect. Say what you want about Macbeth, he at least managed to kill a king, but for all we know Bateman is simply a delusional psychotic, a man who can only assert himself — murderously or otherwise — in daydreams and fantasies.
The end result for both characters, though, is pretty similar. When Macbeth sees where his choices have gotten him — his wife has committed suicide and he’s facing an insurgency of other thanes who think that king-and-Banquo-killing are not proper traits for a ruler to have — he has this famous, nihilistic little ditty:
- To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
- Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
- To the last syllable of recorded time;
- And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
- The way to dusty death. 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,
- Signifying nothing. (V.v)
This is the point where Macbeth basically loses it. He decides that nothing means anything — not even his choices, whether he chooses to murder people or not, because no matter what you do life is going to be a bitch and then you are going to die. I’ll say it again: it’s nihilism, a complete and utter lack of faith in anything.
Here’s what Pat Bateman has to say on the subject:
…where there was nature and earth, life and water, I saw a desert landscape that was unending, resembling some sort of crater, so devoid of reason and light and spirit that the mind could not grasp it on any sort of conscious level and if you came close the mind would reel backward, unable to take it in. It was a vision so real and clear and vital to me that in its purity it was almost abstract. This is what I could understand, this was how I lived my life, what I constructed my movement around, how I dealt with the tangible. This was the geography around which my reality revolved: it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one’s taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, of receiving another person’s love or kindness. Nothing was affirmative, the term “generosity of spirit” applied to nothing, was a cliché, was some kind of bad joke. Sex is mathematics. Individuality is no longer an issue. What does intelligence signify? Define reason. Desire — meaningless. Intellect is not a cure. 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. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in… this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged… (p. 375)
Wow, okay, so a lot less pithy than Shakespeare, but it’s much the same sentiment. It’s still similar in tone and tenor to Macbeth’s little outburst. This is something a guy today — or a guy in 1980s Manhattan — would actually say, this is how he would articulate a revelation of nihilism. This is the modern description of despair.
And despair brings us back, believe it or not, to Dante.
Despair, by definition, is a state of losing hope or hopelessness. And remember those words over the gate to Hell, those words Bateman reads in graffiti in the very first line of Psycho: ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE. In Dante the inscription is meant to be read only by the damned themselves — they have nothing to hope for, obviously, because they’re already in a situation where there’s no recourse. Dante-the-Character is simply a special case, a living man traveling through Hell; he’s not meant to lose hope but regain it. And when you think about it, that’s a pretty strange thing to happen, especially when he sees the following things going down in Hell:
1) Dudes running around in circles for all eternity, being chased and stung by giant hellwasps, the stings on their back blistering and producing pus which runs to the floor on which they are running
2) Dudes encased in eternal flames
3) Dudes being bitten and transformed and burnt up by a never-ending series of snake bites from the pit of serpents in which they are rolling around for all eternity
4) Dudes turned into trees and torn apart eternally by bird women
5) Dudes submerged in lakes of fire or boiling shit, as the case may be
And that’s just some of the punishments — Hell is a big, violent place. And that’s another way Ellis rewrites Inferno: the violence of Hell’s punishments is turned into the graphic violence of Pat Bateman’s murders (or murderous fantasies, as the case may be). This was, as you probably know, the most controversial element of the novel, and yeah, it would probably make any reader laugh queasily when Patrick decides he is going to eat a woman he’s killed but, since he’s lived a privileged life and doesn’t know how to cook, he instead eats a bit of her raw and weeps at the absurdity of it. But come on, Dante is just as bad — I mean, rivers of boiling shit and running around on a mixture of your own blood and pus? Jeez.
But there’s a snag. In Inferno all of the punishments are justly deserved and justly dispensed according to God’s love and infinite wisdom (or that’s the way things are set up in the moral universe of the poem). In American Psycho many of the people Patrick kills are just as shallow and pettily cruel as he is, but Patrick is not an omniscient and loving God, he’s just some yuppie asshole, and some of his victims are actually innocents (even children).
This is crux of what Bateman is and what he has done: in his rant about the meaninglessness of existence, of how horrible society is, he almost sounds like he’s a guy who wanted to hope in the opposite direction but never quite grasped it. And true, earlier in the novel he gets a little offended when his friends make anti-Semitic remarks, but otherwise he takes just as much delight in teasing bums as they do. But maybe that’s because of Patrick’s neuroses — he doesn’t have to work, for instance, but he says he does because he wants to “fit in.” He wants to be what everyone else is, he wants to make sure he is in good standing, he is attracted to a society that he on some level knows is despicable. And since he knows it’s despicable, what does he do?
He murders people, or thinks about it. And he constantly talks about it in conversations, slipping Ted Bundy trivia into debates on fashion, he calls his lawyer and confesses his real-or-imagined murders, everything. Bateman, in fact, wants to be caught. He wants to shatter the smug, superficial complacency of everyone around him, and apparently the only way he can think to do it is by being a psychopathic killer. And it doesn’t work, nothing changes, nothing happens, he’s never caught, and he loses hope — what little he had. But is murder the best way to change the world?
My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world now. In fact I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But 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 of 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… (p.377)
No. And Bateman, deep down, perhaps never believed otherwise, as he tells us earlier: “it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one’s taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, of receiving another person’s love or kindness.”
So the final despair is actually the endpoint of a much larger and more encompassing despair that Patrick’s been dealing with for a while. He began with the assumption that the world was stupid and depraved, and he tried to change it by being very obviously stupid and depraved himself. When it didn’t work he despaired in his despair.
In the seventh and eighth cantos of Inferno, Dante and Virgil come to the fifth circle of Hell, which is a rancid swamp surrounding the River Styx. This is where the wrathful and sullen are punished — the wrathful run through the swamp, rolling around in the muck, clawing and tearing and biting at one another. The sullen reside below the swamp itself, lying beneath the muck and visible only because their breathing causes bubbles to float to the surface, saying over and over again:
‘Sullen were we in the air made sweet by the Sun;
in the glory of his shining our hearts poured
a bitter smoke. Sullen were we begun;
Sullen we lie forever in this ditch.’
This litany they gargle in their throats
as if they sang, but lacked the words and pitch.
So what are the sullen guilty of? Of seeing the world, made for them and made beautiful by God, and saying, “Ugh, so what?” Their punishment is to stay forever in one place, drowned, because they felt it was useless to act or care about anything in life. They had no hope for anything — they despaired. And so it is interesting to note that Patrick Bateman, regardless of what he has done, belongs there in the fifth circle of Hell: he is in pain and wants others to feel it, so he is wrathful, but if he never manages to actually go through with his desires, if he only fantasizes but maintains his hopelessness, then he is one of the sullen.
We have the THIS IS NOT AN EXIT episode because Patrick’s done his best to avoid every saving grace afforded him: he let his Virgil sleep with his girlfriend, he killed and dismembered his Beatrice. He never believed he could do otherwise; Bateman’s despair is what damns him. Macbeth at least gets to die fighting but Patrick is condemned, like the damned in Dante’s Hell, to live on in his sullen (perhaps murderous) stasis.
That does it for this installment. I have to give props here to The Acquaintance Who Says Bret Ellis Is the Best Novelist for mentioning the probable Macbeth connection offhandedly once, since I obviously followed through on it for a lot of helpful stuff.
Next time: I’ll explain how there is, in fact, room for hope and redemption in the world of American Psycho, and how we see it play out. There will also, I think, be a short wrap-up where I explain why this book isn’t simply a great novel, but a great horror novel, and that should be it for this series. See you then.