An exploration into contemporary conceptions of status, consumerism, greed & excess through ‘The Beautiful & Damned’ & ‘American Psycho’ — Part 1
An exploration into contemporary conceptions of status, consumerism, greed & excess through ‘The Beautiful & Damned’ & ‘American Psycho’ — Part 1
For as long as I can remember, I have lived in relative financial comfort. However, because of this sheltered upbringing, I was largely ignorant of my own financial privilege during my younger years, which, unsurprisingly, resulted in me taking much of it for granted. It was not until my late teenage years that I could even formulate a loose understanding of the financial struggles faced by the many, as well as the substantial economic inequality omnipresent within society. This realization was likely a product of me growing up in the rapidly changing economic environment of Vietnam- as, within a relatively short amount of time, I saw what once was a relatively poor nation transition into one of the fastest developing economies on the planet. Even though this has undoubtedly brought much needed prosperity to a developing nation, it also has fundamentally shaped its social values & cultural norms- sometimes, not for the better. This is best reflected in the rise of an increasingly consumerist culture that views material success to be the be the predominant measure of self-worth. Although it is likely that such relativistic societal metrics for human value have always existed, manifested based on our external perceptions of romantic, material, or political achievement — the rise of greater materialistic tendencies within our globalized digital age has only served to generate greater advocacy for blind adherence to a status quo. This is problematic, as despite any societal metric being epistemically arbitrary & theoretically unfound, their values have been, arguably, viewed as ‘objective’ &, subsequently, integrated into the current status quo- with materialism merely being another arbitrary manifestation. It is this blind conformity that is detrimental to both our conception of who we are & our psychological health, as we have superficially surrogated our authentic selves through consumerist facades predicated on market identity & herd mentality. Although the number of understandable reasons one could give for conforming to this status quo are innumerable, they, regardless, will only serve to deprive us of our most unique asset: our individuality. This is highly problematic, as without a clear understanding of who we are and what makes us who we are, we can neither know nor effectively formulate a conception of utility that is truly reflective of our values. This ignorance, therefore, can only lead to us ascribing value to people or things that would otherwise be meaningless to us, and to dedicate our lives to pointless drudgery in a materialist rat race-only, to then reap the shallow excesses that we have sown. These problems, I believe, have already reached a boiling point, as I see ever increasing number of my peers facing personal distraught because they blindly attempt to conform to societal constructions of ‘success’, ‘popularity’ or ‘happiness’.
It is seeing this unnecessary suffering of an indoctrinated, impressionable, generation that has inspired me to not just read ‘The Beautiful & Damned’ (TBD) & ‘American Psycho’ (AP) out of rebellious spite, but to also write this very essay to dismantle the social constructions of the current status quo. These texts are both phenomenal pieces of literature that address these very relevant themes of status, consumerism, greed & excess within their respective periods through poignant criticism & satirical mockery. The first part of this essay will entail a Marxist reading of TBD, & the second will provide an analysis on the postmodern nature of social reality as depicted in AP. By incorporating these texts & philosophies into my analysis, it is my hope to not just share the value & insight that these mediums can bring to our lives, but also to encourage a re-evaluation of how we construct our respective identities & utilities.
Although slightly different from our modern conceptions of status, it has been justifiably theorized that, there has always been a conception of class imposed onto human society. This is likely a product of our evolutionary behavior and is likely to have existed as long as there have been asymmetries in the consumption & acquisition of resources. This is rationalizable, given that these asymmetries in wealth & power are inevitable in a competitive system with finite resources & limitations in information. However, because of these asymmetries, it is perceptible that, given a finite number of resources, some level of competition will always exist in the process of acquiring them. It this idea of class struggle, that is at the forefront of Marxist philosophy-which views “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, that each time ended, either in the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes”. This serves to highlight Marx’s perspective that, ultimately, because the accumulation of wealth throughout history has led to both greater social & political autonomy — major societal conflicts are often the result of the lower classes attempting to gain power & the upper classes attempting to retain it. This conflict is effectively depicted in TBD’s setting: the ‘roaring 20’s’, an economic period known for its unprecedented prosperity & material extravagance, where the central narrative revolves around the hedonistic life of socialite Anthony Patch, whose life’s success is predicated on his ability to acquire his grandfather’s inheritance to sustain his excessive lifestyle. The Marxist reading of this text is important because TBD eloquently reflects the state of capitalist society of America in the 1920’s, one of extreme disillusionment with both religion and war. This, consequently, causes it to violate the ideals of the American dream through blind cynicism, hedonistic pleasure and material excess. It is this context where these central themes can be analyzed through a philosophical framework and analogized in accordance with our own contemporary societal attitudes towards material worth.
The early 20th century setting of TBD allows Fitzgerald to effectively depict the bastardization of the concept of the American dream through dysfunctional character relationships, as post-war hedonism corrupts the virtues that make up this ideal. The original conception of this ‘dream’ is that an individual is able to live and improve themselves both spiritually & financially through hard work derived independent of social standing. Although it is now a commonplace virtue throughout the world, the American dream was, once, a unique promise to newcomers entering into the ‘new world’ that was 18th century America. Tragically, the purity of this concept would not be retained over time, as eloquently put by Maxwell Geismar “The year 1919 was a breaking point in American life. It marked the end of an epoch of social reform which had sprung from the Populist and Progressive Movement at the turn of the century. It opened a decade of social anarchy under the mark of normalcy — of pleasure seeking and private gain, of material success and trivial moral values.”. Unsurprisingly, this culture is so tightly intwined with material intoxication as an antidote for loss & despair that it subsequently eroded the foundations of older moral virtues. This is reflected in the core relationships of TBD, which is centralized around a married couple and the utter disappointment that is their decaying conjugal life. Anthony is the heir of a major family fortune, and is an individual that does not need to worry about finances. This entitlement creates a sense of security, which ironically, paralyzes his initiative to work and so he resorts to indulging in extravagant vices instead. Gloria, alternatively, does not belong to the same social background as Anthony, but yet is also a clearly materialistic individual who desires money, attention, and beauty- reflected in her desire to be a “successful sensation in the movies”. This is in stark contrast to Anthony’s grandfather, the patriarchal figure of his family, and the individual responsible for amassing his family’s fortune as a businessman on Wall Street- who stringently believed in the ideals of the American dream. It is this idealistic degradation across generation which mirrors the shift in perspective in an increasingly pessimistic & hedonistic America, and serves as a key ideological conflict within TBD. This is further accentuated in Anthony’s ideological conflict with Dick Caramel, his friend, who pursues his dreams of being an author. He claims, in response to hearing Dick’s ambitions: “On the contrary, I’d feel that it being a meaningless world, why write? The very attempt to give it purpose is purposeless.”. This quote not only encapsulates the essence of Anthony’s dismissive perspective, but also captures the spiritual depravity of a generation more obsessed with wealth than meaning. The, rather, ironic twist of this statement is that Dick grows into a successful writer, publishing 7 novels by the end of TBD, which is in stark contrast to Anthony-whose only achievement is his ability to spiral into ever greater heights of depravity. It is this personal journey that so effectively serves as a metaphorical representation of the state of the American dream, which in contrast to its past ideals- had given way to recklessness, alcoholism, & wild revelry. It is this contrasting perspective that is effectively woven into the narrative setting & structure of TBD which depicts the loss of this spiritual optimism to the corruption of self-indulgence. Through this narrative, Fitzgerald illustrates how the motivation & idea of success can be contaminated when its spiritual fulfilment is substituted by a cynical materialist pursuit of social success.
In addition to its thematically driven setting, TBD also provides a narrative that demonstrates how materialism & consumerism can drive the personal grief that causes disillusionment & unhappiness. To be more specific, the concept of ‘materialism’ & ‘consumerism’ here refers to the act of symbolizing an individual’s power, prosperity, & prestige through conspicuous consumption & material pursuit. At face level, such a concept is highly reductive in nature, as appearances alone are not entirely reflective of individual identity. Epistemically, signifying something subjective as ‘individual value’ through material good is about as baseless as valuing a dog based on the perceived quality of its collar. This is to say that this is dehumanizing, reductive, & arbitrary measure for human worth. This is dehumanizing because we cannot logically generate an adequate comparison of a sentient being’s value with that of an insentient object, as their purposes are fundamentally different. An object itself may be constructed with a purpose to be utilized as means to an end, whereas humans, as the ends in and of ourselves, are not bound to any societally constructed conception of purpose or value. It is reductive because such a measure does not account for the innumerable other values, independent of materiality, that an individual could contribute, and it is arbitrary because all societal metrics are merely ideals based on entirely subjective values.
Fitzgerald recognizes this- and consistently criticizes conspicuous consumption in TBD. Throughout this novel, the characters are so caught up displaying their wealth, power, & class that they forget to formulate any form of intrinsic value to their lives, which spirals them into nihilistic moral decay. This is in accordance with Marxist thought, which suggests that “By possessing the property of buying everything, by possessing the property of appropriating all objects, money is thus the object of eminent possession. The universality of its property is the omnipotence of its being. It is therefore regarded as an omnipotent being. Money is the procurer between man’s need and the object, between his life and his means of life. But that which mediates my life for me, also mediates the existence of other people for me. For me it is the other person”. This suggests that money itself is a double-edged sword which can be just as constructive as destructive depending on how it is utilized, which in accordance with Marx’s perception of a commodity being “an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind”. Therefore, when individuals are treated as mere means to an end, they lose their subject position and effectively become commodified. This, inevitably, shapes the values of their social relationships to become predicated on exchange value, which is portrayed in TBD through Anthony’s relationship with both Gloria & his grandfather. These are both transactional relationships where, ironically, these conventionally ‘close’ relationships would, arguably, not exist in TBD if it were not for materialistic ends. Anthony’s relationship with Gloria is characterized by the degradation of the ideals of marriage, as they both do their utmost to bastardize it. Her life goal is to marry into aristocracy, and views it as a “live, lovely, glamorous performance” where she can live ‘happily’ with wealth, prestige, & fame, and Anthony only falls for her because he “cherished all beauty and all illusion”- or simply put, the idea of who Gloria is to his societal worth. Whereas Anthony’s relationship with his grandfather is characterized by an obsession with the idea that some level of greatness awaits him once he achieves his inheritance. Accordingly, his only moments of anxiety throughout the story are when his inheritance is at risk, as his only concern is, simply, to stay in favour with his grandfather to achieve this — effectively, treating him as a means to an end. This exploitative relationship occurs due to Anthony’s obsession wanting to retain his perceived socialite status through his family’s aristocratic image, despite being little more than an indulgent entitled brat who is too lazy to work. This pursuant goal of acquiring money through inheritance dehumanizes him, making him “hope to find his grandfather dead”- as it would be the most expedient solution to achieve his financial ends.
As these ethically devoid thoughts plague him, Anthony often indulges in binges of consumerist behaviour such as attending fancy cafes, upper-class theatres, and purchasing expensive cars as an escapist indulgence to avoid facing the realities his own vacuous existence. It is this privileged lifestyle that disconnects him from not just his familial relationships, but his understanding of society as a whole, as he does not understand “why people think that every young man ought to go down-town and work ten hours a day for the best twenty years of his life at dull, unimaginative work, certainly not altruistic work”. This sentiment reflects Anthony’s failure to understand the struggles of the many who must toil to achieve financial independence, as his privilege desensitizes him to their suffering. This is reflective of the values of the ‘Leisure Class’ that Anthony belonged to at the time that viewed “wealth acquired passively by transmission from ancestors or other antecedents presently becomes even more honorific than wealth acquired by the possessor’s own effort”, according to Thorstein Veblen’s theory of the leisure class. It is this very privilege that, very ironically, entraps Anthony into indulgence. As opposed to actualizing his financial freedom in more productive means, he becomes a victim of his very circumstances- too proud & entitled to dedicate himself to a normal job as well as too shallow & vacuous to make anything out of his writing. When his grandfather disinherits him because of his destructive behaviour, his marriage deteriorates into despair as he & Gloria cannot comprehend how to live with less money- and instead of planning for their future, they instead double down on their indulgences. When confronted with this reality, Gloria exclaims “I don’t care about the truth. I want to be happy’”, which captures the shallowness of her character- as she would rather indulge in her delusions than confront the reality of her economic circumstances. It is this irony of this ‘ivory tower’ entrapment, which Fitzgerald serves to show the trappings of the pursuit of materialism- as, although someone ‘powerful’ by conventional societal metrics, Anthony & Gloria are nothing more than victims of privilege entrapped in a cycle of hedonistic nihilism as a result of his desire to appeal to the status quo. Eventually, when they do successfully sue for the inheritance, they are both too shattered & disoriented to be able to enjoy the money that they have acquired- as it had cost them their humanity.
By examining TBD through this Marxist lens, we can see the corruption that the pursuit of materialism can have on our humanity- and how predicating our happiness on reaching a destination can cause us to undermine the virtues that make reaching it intrinsically valuable. I think that these are topics that are highly relevant to modern society, as it gives insight to the fallibility of our human condition by highlighting how susceptible we are to dehumanize people to achieve our own ends. Because a large portion of our lives are dedicated to being productive within our respective economic systems, a large portion of us do not/ cannot afford to think about our own purpose & values in life, or the implications that our very own perceptions or actions could have on our condition. In an attempt to deal with this lack of meaning, we seek instant gratification through consumption & indulgence through vices that appeal to our most base instincts. Much like Anthony & Gloria, we want to feel ‘important’ & ‘loved’ as we chase things that boost our status; we want to be ‘comfortable’ & ‘free’ as we chase down things that adds to our income. Yet, it is this lack of a subject position, that us to feel empty due to the perceived worthlessness of our identities in the face of a system that only values us for our labour contribution. Although Marx would place blame on this ‘oppressive’ system for dehumanizing us by appealing to our greed, this is rather unreasonable- as placing blame on a system that only serves to reflect individual choices, just because one is dissatisfied with the outcome, is analogous to blaming gravity for causing a plane crash. This is because although the system only appeals to our base desires, ultimately, it is us who have agency over our choices, and we only have ourselves to blame for its outcome. After all, it is we who are mindless consumers, we who attribute undeserved social credit to those who do not deserve it, and it is we who indulge this insatiable greed. It should be clearly noted that, in reality, not all individual decisions will generate the same utilitarian weight- as the distribution of wealth is highly concentrated among the top percentile of individuals. Yet, if it is real organic societal change that we desire, then changing ourselves is only the first in a journey of a thousand steps. Although Marx would suggest a radical overhaul of the current economic system as a solution to our blind consumerism, theoretically, providing us with the material security required to pursue our ends free of material stress… Unfortunately, this is both economically infeasible & morally regressive. By his suggestion of the imposition of an ‘objective’ conception of economic value into a system that is, in reality, entirely subjective- this will achieve little more than to create inefficiencies within this system, which will rather only create arbitrary barriers to creation & drive-up prices, subsequently, leading to supply shortages. Additionally, any forced regulatory impositions would only serve to remove the agency for us to attribute our own conceptions of value in the name of a subjective ‘greater good’. Therefore, ironically, it is these very ideas that force individuals to adhere to or accept a conception of objective economic value that are especially morally devoid, as for any action to have any moral value, as stated by Kant, we ourselves must treat people as ends in and of themselves and not just mere means to be tread on in the pursuit of our own subjective conceptions of utility. Furthermore, I would argue that the fallibility of humanity to corruption is so exploitable that no matter the political or economic ‘isms’ we may choose to pursue, corruption, inequality, and dehumanization will always occur so long as we do not use our better judgement to transcend our baser instincts. The current system, for all of its flaws, is by far the most effective system we’ve ever had to create wealth & to lift billions out of poverty. This is only possible due to its economic efficiency, predicated on the fact that it decentralizes economic decision making to the individual, allowing for optimal capital allocation. However, so long as we reap the benefits of this system, we must always bear in mind our own humanity, and the values that make us who we are. It is important that we realize that we are not defined by the prestige of our jobs, the size of bank accounts, or the brand of the clothes we wear- but rather, how we choose to value ourselves. It is our freedom to think that should give us insight to our internal humanity & pave a roadmap to our own ideas of self-improvement. The path to this self-actualization is long & complicated as it requires an epistemological re-examination of the values that make us who we are- but yet, it can be both incredibly freeing & rewarding because, as eloquently stated by, (one of my favourites) Ralph Waldo Emerson: “There is nothing at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind”.
P.s — If you’ve read up to this point in its entirety, thank you for reading Part 1! You’ve probably made my day, and are verifiably super awesome. I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading it, and that it gave you something insightful to think about. Also, please do read & support Part 2 when it comes out as it will build upon the fundamental concepts explored in this essay.