Friday, June 29, 2012

American Psycho - Or American P-Zombie?

A Review - Or More of a Rambly Kind of Reader Response that I Posted on LibraryThing

When I read this book, I felt mostly bored and annoyed. I actually had to skip two of the chapters where Pat Bateman describes music, I just could not bring myself to care. I suspect that this says more about my ability to appreciate what Ellis was writing than about the actual quality of writing itself; if you can keep interested in the book, then I salute you.

What is interesting to me about the book is something that was lost on me when I first read it, and only became notable to me years later. I highlighted it, because it seemed important, but it was only later that I realized why it was important.

"...there is an idea of Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there. It is hard for me to make sense on any given level. Myself is fabricated, an aberration. I am a noncontingent human being. My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent. My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever did exist. There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed. I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed. Yet I am blameless. Each model of human behavior must be assumed to have some validity. Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do? My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. 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 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 …. "

I think that Patrick Bateman was Ellis's idea of what a Philosophical Zombie would actually be like - or, to put it into more mystical terms - Bateman is a human being without a soul. Currently there is a debate about qualia, about whether or not "what it's like"-ness is reducible to the natural processes of our physical bodies or if we need to appeal to something non-physical to account for subjective experience. The idea, I believe first conceived by Kripke but utilized in arguments by David Chalmers, is that it is possible for a human being to exist and behave like any other human being, but completely lack subjective experience.

I take Patrick Bateman to be both a critique and a conception of P-Zombie. On the one hand, his entire existence is surface and external. He does not have an inner life, he fixates on external details like clothes, appearance, style, popularity, and cannot find any kind of personal judgments of his own. He thinks in terms of what is popular and fashionable, but does not bring any opinion of his own to the table. In this sense, he is a P-Zombie in Chalmer's conception, he behaves just like us, but he's dark inside. He is not really there.

On the other hand, he's a sadistic mass-murdering cannibal and rapist. This is not typical among me and those that I know, but your experience may vary. In this sense, I think he's a critique of Chalmer's conception, he shows that somebody with no inner subjective experience would be unable to behave like a human being. He would become cruel and bestial because he would just be reacting mechanically to stimuli: he would fall back on humanity's baser instincts of hunger, sex, and violence (read the book and ask yourself what percentage of the book is about restaurants, physical attractiveness and rape, and murder and torture. It has to be at least 85%).

I think that Bateman is meant to be an idea of a human being without a soul, but Ellis does not agree that such a person would behave like anyone else. I am ignoring for the time the critique of 1980s Yuppie culture because I am not that interested in a critique of 1980s Yuppie culture. It is this idea of a dark-inside man that I think is interesting, and it's one that makes me think I'll give this book another read sometime soon.

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