an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 8, September - December 2011, ISSN 1552-5112



    American Psycho, Cosmopolis and the Coiffure?


Wayne E. Arnold


 Throughout the centuries hair has been a symbol of status for wealth, class, rank, slavery, royalty, strength, manliness or femininity.  And, it still holds a place of value in our postmodern era.  Two novels that include hair as a major theme are Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) and Don Delillo’s Cosmopolis (2003).  These two authors create characters heavily involved in the Wall Street world but also swallowed up in their depthless narcissism.  In American Psycho we are introduced to twenty-eight year old Patrick Bateman, a psychopath serial killer who is also a wealthy, narcissistic Wall Street broker.  Bateman’s first person narrative is filled with the gruesome crimes he commits, but they are narrated in such a way that it is never clear if he is actually performing the murders.  He is obsessed with the material world and confines his life to eating at fancy restaurants, womanizing, purchasing name brand clothes and the most up-to-date electronics, and ensuring the preciseness of his hair.  Twenty-eight year old Eric Packer of Cosmopolis follows many of the traits of his predecessor, but, instead of aimless wandering from fashionable restaurants to name brand designer shops, Packer sets out across New York on a mini-epic journey for a haircut.  In his maximum security limousine, Packer views the world from multiple digital screens and purposefully loses his entire financial portfolio in a gamble against the Japanese yen.  Within these two novels, hair functions as the external symbol of inward turmoil.  Hair becomes a primary symbol through which these two authors create a harsh critique of the modern world of technology, consumerism, and emptiness. 

The societal function or importance of hair is not the focus in the novels; rather, it is the connecting link between the inner person (i.e. the Ego and libido) with the greater world of status and economy.   From Biblical examples of Absolom and Samson to cartoon characters such as Marge Simpson, hair is clearly a symbol of varying meaning.  In director Jeff Stilson’s documentary, Good Hair (2009), Chris Rock interviews Shelia Bridges, Time magazine’s interior designer of the year in 2001.  Bridges has been diagnosed with Alepecia which causes hair loss on both the head and body, and she believes that “The reason hair’s so important is because our self esteem is wrapped up in it.  It’s like a type of currency for us, even though those standards are completely unrealistic and unattainable…” (Good Hair). As Stilson’s documentary elucidates, Western and Eastern societies place a high cultural and monetary value on hair.  For both Patrick Bateman and Eric Packer, their lives are directed (either everyday for Bateman or a specific day for Packer) by their awareness of their hair. 

 Perhaps one of the major differences between the characters is in the structure of the novels as narratives: Packer’s journey for a haircut is linear, he moves through the course of his day, hour by hour, in a clear direction from one side of the city to the other.  He spends his day knowing of his impending financial devastation; his death impulse leads to his physical destruction by the end of the day.  Not so for Patrick Bateman.  Ellis has literally trapped Bateman in a circular world of no escape.  Chapter titles repeat themselves, and restaurant scenes, conversations, even the gruesome murders[1] are all part of Bateman’s cyclical nightmare—he cannot even break free from renting the movie, Body Double, thirty-seven times. Set in the last few years of the 1980s, American Psycho emphasizes chaos, but not just for a generation.  Set almost fifteen years later, Cosmopolis also depicts an overwhelming sense of chaos.  As Packer drives across the city, a man lights himself on fire, a mob of communist protesters set fires and attack his bullet proof limousine while the police launch counter-attacks, and his friend Nikolai Kaganovich dies and his death is announced on the digital tickers all around the world.  Chaos clearly still exists just as much in Packer’s New York world as it does in Bateman’s.  The numerous sexual encounters of both characters, including Packer’s participation in a filming of three hundred naked people covering the street, incorporate themselves into the authors’ overarching theme of protest against society.  As Ihab Hassan has noted when discussing the sexual obscenity of Henry Miller, “the conceptions of literature as game and as action merge [into a] form of metaphoric silence: literary obscenity.  […].  It is easy to understand that in a culture given to sexual repression, protest may take the form, echo the ring, of obscenity” (9-10).  Sexual mores have certainly lessened since Hassan wrote those lines; however, in these two works the levels of obscenity go beyond just graphic sex, they expose the narcissistic nature of a society that has seemingly lost its human touch—and the only way to expose this loss is through obscenity. 

The references to hair in American Psycho and Cosmopolis go far deeper than some critics have deemed worth pursuing.  Symbolically, hair goes deeper than just the surface level of appearance.  One critic has noted that the slang wording for a haircut merely “suggests that one’s investments have been rather severely trimmed by unfavorable market pressures” (Varsava 103); however, I would argue that this definition is inadequate.  In “Scissors or Sword?: The Symbolism of a Medieval Haircut,” Simon Coates reveals that even in medieval times, “[t]he relationship between long hair and high birth was an ancient one” and that “cropped hair denoted a servant or a slave” (9).  Receiving a haircut symbolically represents a drop in economic rank, but also a reduction of social status.  This metaphor, however, is not applicable to Patrick Bateman, per se.  His attention to hair and the repeated scheduling of haircuts represents a public fear of humiliation and detection of the inner imperfections of his inhumanity. 


Patrick Bateman Just Wants To Be Loved

The restrictions a society places on its inhabitants are reflected in Bateman’s fears of standing outside accepted norms.  Freud posits in Civilizations and Its Discontents, that “Taboos, laws and customs impose further restrictions, which affect both men and women…the economic structure of the society also influences the amount of sexual freedom that remains. […]. Fear of a revolt by the suppressed elements drives it to stricter precautionary measures” (59-60).  In his role as a pathological killer, Patrick Bateman’s rapes, killings and cannibalism breaks many taboos and laws; however, he still remains hidden from public detection—drawing suspicion that he may not actually be committing the crimes.  The author himself has expressed uncertainty: “The weird thing is, I was never really sure whether Patrick Bateman committed the crimes or not.  Even thought he tells the reader that he has committed these brutal murders, there were so many hints that suggested he hadn’t committed them” (qtd. in Woodward 35).  Bateman’s killing sprees and personal musings on his actions are his internalized/externalized (yet hidden) revolt against society; yet, his need for sex is never truly gratified, causing it to reach a sadistic level.  Regardless of his reality, what becomes one of Bateman’s biggest fears of being detected is his externalized phallic symbol.  Charles Berg claims, in “The Unconscious Significance of Hair,” that “it is granted that hair is conspicuously a genital symbol, and that our mental attitude towards hair and our activities with it are a displaced expression of our sexual conflict (at the genital level)…” (85).  Bateman’s dread of not fitting in is exhibited through the paranoia of his hair and its perfect image controls his image in society.   

Patrick’s brief encounter with an old college girlfriend, Bethany, demonstrates his societal concern with hair and appearance.  Walking down a street in the city, Patrick randomly bumps into Bethany after a number of years, and he becomes very insecure.  During their brief discussion, something triggers the final scene of their previous relationship.  Juxtaposed between the thoughts of the past and their current conversation, Bateman realizes that his hair is becoming disfigured due to the weather.  This infuriates him; with anger, he recalls the restaurant “where Bethany, her arm in a sling, a faint bruise above her cheek, ended it all, then, just as suddenly, I’m thinking: My hair, oh god, my hair, and I can feel the drizzling ruining it” (202-03).  The jump between the past and present shifts the focus from the public embarrassment of his physically abused girlfriend dumping him, to the fear of being publically embarrassed again because of his bedrizzled hair.  Bethany once before castrated, or cut short, his sexual drive by dumping him; ironically, what is occurring here is a fear of a different form of castration: “with the tendency to shew how fine it [our hair] is, be proud of it and sue for its approval, is a fear that it should not be approved, expressed by brushing it flat, making sure that it is tidy, or removing it as a in shaving, to avoid a still more serious castration at the hands of society” (Berg 80).  This concern for his public appearance is continued when a short while later he has lunch with Bethany  Patrick is nervous and paying far too much attention to his hair, and he seems to think  that a window into his inner-self will be revealed through his hair.  Patrick’s level of paranoia and questionable sanity reaches a peak as they enter the restaurant and Patrick requests a nonsmoking section:


     I stop tapping my foot and slowly scan the restaurant, the bistro, wondering how my hair really looks, and suddenly I wish I had switched mousses because since I last saw my hair, seconds ago, it feels different, as if its shape was somehow altered on the walk from bar to table. A pang of nausea that I’m unable to stifle washes warmly over me, but since I’m really dreaming all this I’m able to ask, “So you say there’s no nonsmoking section? Is this correct?” (222).


The concern represents the fear of public castration over a poor display of hair, but also the fear that the particular mousse he has purchased is not the correct product, and that it is now “altering” his appearance as he walks across the room.  Patrick has an extensive array of cosmetics products meant to perform every act of age reduction possible.  He purchases numerous machines for exercise and essentially commodifies his body through his application of these products.  Ellis employs a bit of sly humor here by having Patrick consider that perhaps his mousse is changing his hair as he walks across the room. 

Yet, this scene also supports Theodore Adorno’s belief that American society was moving towards “an increasing reduction of human reason to purely mechanical ways of thinking, to the spiritual desert present in the mercantilism of culture in the form of cultural industry and to the ethical fault implicit in the submission of human interests to economical priorities” (da Silva and Lírio 218).  Surrounding himself with his cosmetics, clothes, electronics, and empty friends, Bateman’s thoughts exhibit no sense of depth: “The constant listing of brands, makes, and models is unmistakably evocative of catalogue-speak or a consumer guide.  Even his political comments are contradictory, nonsensical, and above all utterly trite…” (Storey 61).  The agitation over his exterior appearance, brought on by his choice of mousse, causes his mind to turn against himself and he becomes so panicked that he can barely function when they finally sit down.  What fuels Bateman’s oversensitivity to his appearance is that he cannot rationally[2] conceive of people or society judging him for who he is rather than for what he is.  For Adorno this was the primary concern with the “mercantilism of culture”: it dealt with “the uncanny functioning of human rationality, which, far from constituting a mere human tool used to achieve a control of nature, turns itself against the very nature of man” (da Silva and Lírio 218).  And in American Psycho we see Bateman’s internal self revolt and, as it inevitably must, turn to his outward rebellion against social mores. 

When they finish lunch, Bateman is able to coerce Bethany back to his apartment, turning her into his next victim.  And, while he is attacking Bethany—by beating her, nail-gunning her hands, suffocation, Macing, chewing off fingers and lips, cutting out her tongue, and eventually dismembering the body—he corrects her earlier mistake concerning the brand of his suit: “‘The suit is by Armani! Giorgio Armani.’ I pause spitefully and, leaning into her, sneer, ‘And you thought it was Henry Stuart’” (237).  Later, he sits in his apartment and recalls his need to maintain proper appearances for the world: “there was so much of Bethany's blood pooled on the floor that I could make out my reflection in it while I reached for one of my cordless phones, and I watched myself make a haircut appointment at Gio's” (242).  This display of brutality ends with Bateman viewing himself, as if in a mirror, within the reflection of his self-made demonstration.  “The spectacle subjects living human beings to its will to the extent that the economy has brought them under its sway,” hypothesizes Guy Debord, “For the spectacle is simply the economic realm developing for itself – at once a faithful mirror held up to the production of things and the distorting objectification of the producers” (16).  Bethany’s blood becomes the mirror in which Bateman tries to understand himself, but he cannot look beyond what a society of consumption producing: empty, meaningless consumers who are “hollow men.”  Patrick only exhibits a shell of a human existence on the outside: “there is an idea of a 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” (362).  And staring into the spectacle of a bloody puddle, he is reminded of the expectations of society and he calls Gio’s to schedule his haircut.

   In the numerous appointments at Gio’s, Bateman, and other characters in the novel, such as Paul Owen, are performing what Charles Berg considers a social duty: “His ego requires him to do what society expects of him.  He cuts his hair and shaves his beard, and, in spite of the attendant inconveniences, he feels better for it” (80).  However, Bateman’s satisfaction is very short lived, and while admitting at times that he realizes he has received an eye-catching haircut at Gio’s  (11), his emptiness and the empty society in which he exists cannot hold onto that fleeting sense of worth.  The recurring need for the haircut exists partly because, as with almost all humans, hair never stops growing and therefore it is constantly in a very microcosmic state of flux.  As I have emphasized previously, since hair acts as an external phallic symbol it becomes linked with sexuality through the libido, “whose symbol is hair” (Berg 81).  In the connection between hair and sexuality, there is also a link between Bateman’s preoccupation with his hair and the consumer society around him; as Foucault posits, “the deployment of sexuality is linked to the economy through numerous and subtle relays, the main one of which however, is the body—the body that produces and consumes” (Foucault, HS 106-07).  Bateman consumes and consumes: food, cosmetics, electronics, clothing, bottled water, technology—but he doesn’t produce.  In fact, the only two things that he might arguably produce is hair and sperm (for fetuses he pays to abort); the dead hair continues to grow on his head, forcing him to be ever  conscious of its refusal to fit neatly into his consumer based lifestyle. 

   Bateman has removed himself to such an extent that he can no longer become part of what Freud calls the “human community.”  His quest for significance and some form of happiness finds only meaninglessness in the death and carnage which he brings around himself.  When discussing the Pleasure Principle, Freud notes that the person who removes what is disliked from their life “will as a rule attain nothing.  Reality is too strong for him.  He becomes a madman, who for the most part finds no one to help him in carrying through his delusion” (Freud 31).  In his unhappy childhood, the wealthy family estate, Harvard education, and the little that we know of Bateman, his past is shown to only bring him to this state of emptiness and madness.  And in the downward spiral of events, we begin to see more of Bateman’s desire for human recognition creeping through his chilling world of emptiness:


The smell of meat and blood clouds up the condo until I don’t notice it anymore. And later my macabre joy sours and I'm weeping for myself, unable to find solace in any of this, crying out, sobbing “I just want to be loved,” cursing the earth and everything I have been taught: principles, distinctions, choices, morals, compromises, knowledge, unity, prayer—all of it was wrong, without any final purpose. All it came down to was: die or adapt. (332)


The fast paced nightlife of New York City, copious amounts of drugs and liquor, hard-bodies, fine restaurants—literally everything Bateman has surrounded himself with has been employed to fill his narcissistic need of attention and status.  He has everything—and nothing: “Neither drugs nor fantasies of destruction—even when the fantasies are objectified in ‘revolutionary praxis’—appease the inner hunger from which they spring.  Personal relations founded on reflected glory, on the need to admire and be admired, prove fleeting and insubstantial” (Lasch 23).  Ellis is making a very bold statement about the emptiness, which the age of industrial capitalism has created; the loss of mores and the focus on self has escalated, at least for Patrick Bateman, to the point of self destruction.

   A scene in the novel which has perhaps not garnered enough critical attention is the two-page chapter entitled, “Sandstone.”  In this minute section we get one of the very brief glimpses into Patrick Bateman’s family life.  Sometime during the month of April, Bateman visits his mother’s nursing home.  The conversation is sparse but the psychological implications all reveal some aspect of Bateman: his narcissism, his hair infatuation, the brutal murders, and the materiality of his life.  An extended look at the passage is necessary to see how Ellis orchestrates and combines all the elements of Patrick’s empty life.  “Sandstone” begins in this fashion:


My mother and I are sitting in her private room at Sandstone, where she is now a permanent resident. Heavily sedated, she has her sunglasses on and keeps touching her hair and I keep looking at my hands, pretty sure that they're shaking. She tries to smile when she asks what I want for Christmas. I’m not surprised at how much effort it takes to raise my head and look at her. […].  It’s nearing the middle of April.

     “Nothing,” I say, smiling reassuringly.

     There’s a pause. I break it by asking, “What do you want?”

     She says nothing for a long time and I look back at my hands, at dried blood, probably from a girl named Suki, beneath the thumbnail. My mother licks her lips tiredly and says, “I don’t know. I just want to have a nice Christmas.”

I don’t say anything. I’ve spent the last hour studying my hair in the mirror I’ve insisted the hospital keep in my mother's room.

     “You look unhappy,” she says suddenly.

     “I’m not,” I tell her with a brief sigh.

     “You look unhappy,” she says, more quietly this time. She touches her hair, stark blinding white, again.

     “Well, you do too,” I say slowly, hoping that she won’t say anything else. (351)


 Bateman is overly concerned with the image he presents to his mother.  The mirror which he places on the premises allows him to feed his narcissistic tendencies.  There is a correlation between Bateman’s hair and his unspoken sense of wanting to appease his mother: “Beneath the manifest adult behavior of suing for social approval of the hair, we can discern the little Oedipus suing for his mother’s permission, approval of love of his phallic sexuality” (Berg 83).  Bateman attempts to prove himself to his mother through his well groomed hair.  And, perhaps suspicious of this, his mother continuously touches her own hair in order to ensure it equals her son’s attention.

   The Oedipal drive fueling Bateman’s extensive attention to his hair reflects both his fear of rejection from his mother but also shows a desire for acceptance from the one person in the world he should find reception.  When discussing the complicated intricacies of the complex Oedipal drive, Erich Fromm notes:


This ‘incestuous’ striving, in the pre-genital sense, is one of the most fundamental passions in men or women, comprising the human being’s desire for protection, the satisfaction of his narcissism; his craving to be freed from the risks of responsibility, of freedom, of awareness; his longing for unconditional love, which is offered without any expectation of his loving response. (97)


Nowhere, however, does Patrick find this acceptance.  His mother is too sedated to even realize that April, ironically “the cruelest month,” is a bit early to be taking requests for Christmas gifts.  Bateman finds none of the elements which Fromm suggests should exist between a mother/son relationship.  Instead, his attention is drawn to the blood under his fingertips finding its way there due to his pursuits to find meaning elsewhere in his life.  Neither his mother, nor his father, have any influence, nor did they likely ever take an interest at an earlier stage. 

Jules Henry claims, in Culture Against Man, that “the collapse of parental authority reflects the collapse of ‘ancient impulse controls’” (qtd. in Lasch 177); Henry also believes that due to this collapse, the “society in which Super Ego values (the values of self-restraint) were ascendant” have begun shifting towards a society in which “the values of the Id (the values of self-indulgence)” have begun to take priority (Henry 127).  Ellis takes this to an extreme in the both Bateman’s physical acquisitions but also his indulgence in blood-lust. 

The functioning of the Bateman family clearly plays into Patrick’s current plight in life.  “American family life is shaped in large part by the industrial system” observes Jules Henry; furthermore, “[t]he economic system generates competition; it is within the family that parents and children must try—and often fail—to live a life without competition” (128).  The Bateman’s are the epitome of a family of competition—a family of economics.  Patrick and his brother Sean compete to outdo each other in status and when Sean reserves a dinner for the two of them at the coveted restaurant, Dorsia, Patrick admits to the reader: “My mind is a mess. I don't know what to think or how to feel” (216).  Their animosity and mutual dislike of each other (and perhaps their unhappy childhood) can be summed up by a photo near his mother’s bed: there sat a “photograph of Sean and me when we were both teenagers, wearing tuxedos, neither one of us smiling” (352).  When his mother requests his Christmas wish, Patrick replies in the negative with his reassuring smile, while shortly after he notes his gifts: “She sits on her bed in a nightgown from Bergdorf's and slippers by Norma Kamali that I bought her for Christmas last year;” and later, “She pauses again, straightens her sunglasses, black Ray-Bans I bought her from Bloomingdale’s that cost two hundred dollars” (351, 352).  And finally, Patrick’s father owns a brokerage firm, but Patrick works for P & P, a competing firm.  Christopher Lasch cites the work of Arnold Rogow who argues that “the decline of parental discipline, the ‘socialization’ of many parental functions, and the ‘self-centered, impulse-dominated, detached, confused’ actions of American parents give rise to characteristics that ‘can have seriously pathological outcomes, when present in extreme form’” (qtd. in Lasch 178).  To tie in with a previous point, Foucault points out that the formulation of the Oedipal complex occurred about the same time that legal parental controls were weakening (HS 130).  While I would argue that American Psycho is primarily a diatribe against 1980’s society and culture, this dense little chapter lays heavy implications on the destruction of the family entity and the failure of Patrick’s parents to prohibit the encroachment of consumerism and materialism, which led to Patrick’s incessant narcissism displaying itself publically in the intimate touches to his hair.


The Digital World of Eric Packer

Setting off on his journey through New York City, Eric Packer knows that the process of making his way across town will be delayed by the unexpected presence of the President in the city.  As the limousine works its way across the city, Packer eventually finds his alter-ego, Benno Levin, who has placed a death threat on Packer’s life.  As Russell Scott Valentino notes, on his journey Packer is “gradually clearing the way for this clash with himself by removing subsequent layers of his persona—his money, parts of his clothing, his wife’s money, his company, his limousine” (153).  Valentino also mentions the three bodyguards around Packer, but he fails to reference the cutting of Packer’s hair.  I would argue that there is more to this scene than just the allusion to the “haircutting” he is going to receive from the stock market.  As Packer travels towards the barbershop, rather than to his office where he could better circumvent a financial calamity, Packer informs Shiner, his chief of technology, why he is in the car, and not at the office:


   “We're in the car because I need a haircut.”

   “Have the barber go to the office. Get your haircut there. Or have the barber come to the car. Get your haircut and go to the office."

   “A haircut has what. Associations. Calendar on the wall. Mirrors everywhere. There's no barber chair here. Nothing swivels but the spycam.” (15)


Shiner does not see the need for barbershop associations because he is more interested in the time Packer is wasting to fulfill what seems to be a whimsical desire.  Packer, on the other hand, needs to escape from the digital image of the spycam and see himself in a real-time mirror.  The barbershop mirror can provide Packer the relief from the monitors constantly bombarding him.  

   The slow drive across the city allows Packer to observe some of the chaos that his financial maneuvers have created.  Just off Broadway, Packer and Kinski, his “chief of theory” (77), step out of the limousine to observe the marketplace panic unfolding on the digital screens:


Beneath the data strips, or tickers, there were fixed digits marking the time in the major cities of the world. He knew what she was thinking. Never mind the speed that makes it hard to follow what passes before the eye. The speed is the point. Never mind the urgent and endless replenishment, the way data dissolves at one end of the series just as it takes shape at the other. This is the point, the thrust, the future. We are not witnessing the flow of information so much as pure spectacle, or information made sacred, ritually unreadable. (80)


The speed of the information becomes obliviated in the spectacle of the dissolving and renewing digital information of a digital economy:  “The world the spectacle holds up to view is at once here and elsewhere; it is the world of the commodity ruling over all lived experience.  The commodity world is thus shown as it really is, for its logic is one with men’s estrangement from one another and from the sum total of what they produce” (Debord 26).  On this day, Packer has become the producer of the spectacle and he looks at the digital ticker and witnesses what he has created.  When they return, “The car moved forward, clearing one stream of southbound traffic but stopping short of the next, suspended in the compressed space where Seventh Avenue and Broadway begin to intersect” (86).  Here, Delillo employs the pace of the car and its micro-movements to apply the theory of Space-Time compression: the rapidity of time, as seen on the ticker, now diminishes the space and distance of Packer’s journey.  Delillo purposefully places Packer in the slow moving car in order to demonstrate the inversion of the popular Franklin metaphor, “time is money.”  On the grand scale of things, the compressed space between Seventh and Broadway is miniscule to the overall trip Packer takes to the barbershop; likewise, the trip across downtown New York is diminutive to the rapid distance news travels due to the removal of spatial barriers through the advancements of technology.  And in a world where, in Derridean thought: “Money makes time,” as Kinski states, “It used to be the other way around.  Clock time accelerated the rise of capitalism.  People stopped thinking about eternity.  They began to concentrate on hours, measurable hours, man-hours, using labor more efficiently” (79). 

Inching his way across New York, Packer demonstrates how not to use time efficiently; in his desire for a haircut, Packer disregards the theories which have helped make his financial empire.  Even though Packer is removed from his office, he is still technologically capable of directing the purchasing and selling of shares.  He is even able to meet with his top advisors as he creeps along the city.  Since Packer’s office will not allow the haircut that will precipitate his transformation, he proceeds toward the barbershop with its mirrors and smells in order to connect the haircut with that physical, as well as psychological transformation.  The mirrors are important for two reasons: first, they feed his vanity, and in the novel, “Every page of Cosmopolis attests to Packer’s mammoth narcissism” (Chandler 242); second, the mirrors allow him to visualize change.  Packer exists in a world in which he has lost all connection with meaning and value.  This day dawns[3] and, through the rising yen, Packer begins to see that he is at the breaking point.  In his actions through the course of the day, Packer’s narcissism reappears through his gamble with the yen but it is also shown in his efforts to go beyond himself—to expand and give meaning to the image of Eric Packer, or at least make it impossible to return to the man of the day before. 

In one of the many scenes where Packer leaves the creeping limousine, he enters a hotel to continue an affair with his body guard, Kendra.  Before leaving her, Packer inquires about the stun gun his security provides her; wanting to experience something outside of his digital world of money, he tells her, “Stun me. I mean it. Draw the gun and shoot. I want you to do it, Kendra. Show me what it feels like. I'm looking for more. Show me something I don't know. Stun me to my DNA. Come on, do it. Click the switch. Aim and fire. I want all the volts the weapon holds. Do it” (114-15).  Immediately after, the narrative jumps and Packer is in his car “borrowing yen and watching his fund’s numbers ink into the mist on several screens;” the stun gun, which briefly “deprived him of his faculties of reason” has now allowed him to process and grasp “well enough to understand what was happening” (115).  He continues to wastefully invest the money of “many key institutions” to the point “that the whole system was in danger,” during which time “[h]e smoked and watched, feeling strong, proud, stupid and superior” (116).  As Niall Ferguson has noted, “Every day, men and women subordinate their economic self-interest to some other motive, be it the urge to play, to idle, to copulate or to wreck” (qtd. in Varsava 81).  The stun gun cleared Packer’s mind for a quarter of an hour as he writhed on the floor; after which, he willingly manipulates his digital currency bringing disruption to his entire portfolio and the market.  There is a correlation between the physicality of the stun gun and the intangibility of the screens in front of him.  Packer has lost, or may never have had, the connection with the figures with which he gambles.  As Foucault elucidates in The Order of Things, “Wealth is wealth because we estimate it,” and “it becomes wealth because it is a sign” (176, 177).  Since Packer has nothing meaningful to link to the sign, it is worthless to him—he cannot see the value of the sign. Throwing away his wealth—and that of his wife and the clients depending upon him—brings only conflicting feelings. 

The lost connection with meaning can be seen in Packer’s evident dislike for his body guard, Torval.  Although Torval is intent on protecting Packer from a recent death threat, Torval is inhuman in Packer’s eyes: “bald and no-necked, a man whose head seemed removable for maintenance” (11).  As the trek across the city becomes more dangerous and disrupted, Torval’s presence increasingly aggravates Packer: “He found that Torval's burly presence was a provocation. He was knotted and sloped. He had the body of a heavy lifter, appearing to stand and squat simultaneously. His bearing was one of blunt persuasion, with the earnest alertness that thickset men bring to a task.  These were hostile incitements” (20).  As with all the humans in Packer’s life, Torval has become devoid of any value.  He is incapable of seeing Torval as a fellow human being; he also has difficulty regarding himself as human, but rather sees himself as a ghost on a screen, predictably moving and seeing his future movements arrayed on the monitors. 

Torval’s close proximity to Packer makes him a threat to his self identity and one that must be eliminated.  Packer’s quest for a haircut is also a quest for change.  And, following his own reasoning that “The logical extension of business is murder” (113); Packer, having exhausted his finances, moves onto the next step.  Failing to find newness or change through the stun gun, he asks for Torval’s company-provided gun and then intentionally fires and kills him: “He shot the man. A small white terror of disbelief flickered in Torval's eye. He fired once and the man went down. All authority drained out of him. He looked foolish and confused. […]. He had mass but no flow. This was clear as he lay there dying. He had discipline and a sense of pace, okay, but no true fluency of movement” (146).  Torval is a barrier to Packer in his quest; by shooting him, Packer removes an obstacle but also seals the envelop of his downward direction: “Torval was his enemy, a threat to his self-regard.  When you pay a man to keep you alive, he gains a psychic edge.  It was a function of the credible threat and the loss of his company and personal fortune that Erica could express himself this way.  Torval’s passing cleared the night for deeper confrontation” (147-48).  Packer is not weighed down by a conscious guilt; in his mind, the removal of Torval was a removal of an impediment.  As Herbert Marcuse notes in One Dimensional Man, “[c]onscience is absolved by reification, by the general necessity of things” (79).  Freed from his financial constraints, Packer has removed yet another barrier.  Both the stun gun and Torval’s death “clears” Packer’s path and he returns to the limousine which is ready to transport him to the barbershop. 

   Late at night, Packer finally arrives at the barbershop of his old neighborhood.  The actions which Packer has taken through the course of the day all come into focus if viewed as, what Freud calls man’s internal death drive.  “As the source of negativity and destructiveness” the death drive “performs its dark task in two ways. It can be turned outwards, externalized as sadistic aggression, or it can be masochistically internalized, as aggression directed towards the ego” (Carel 3).  The death drive has led Packer to the barbershop to symbolically castrate himself through the process of hair cutting, because, “[t]hrough narcissistic mechanisms the phallus has now become the self (hair) and it is this which we are destroying (death-impulse) with our cuttings and shavings” (Berg 81-82).  Packer is struggling against his death-impulse, or death drive.  His actions (i.e. the stun gun, losing the money, now the haircutting) all point toward a subconscious desire for death: “DeLillo codes Packer’s trek, both financially and personally, as suicidal from the start” (Chandler 253).  And through the scenes, we can see this idea of the death drive played out in the “[r]epetition of painful situations, self-destructiveness, death wishes and self-inflicted suffering [which] are all expressions of the internally directed death drive” (Carel 4). 

Tired from his nights of insomnia, the two voices of the men lull Packer to sleep: “In time the voices became a single vowel sound [like a sacred Aum] and this would be the medium of his escape, a breathy passage out of the long pall of wakefulness that had marked so many nights. He began to fade, to drop away, and felt a question trembling in the dark somewhere. What can be simpler than falling asleep?”  Upon awakening, Packer “opened his eyes and saw himself in the mirror, the room massing around him. He lingered on the image. […]. There was the foaming head of hair, wild and snarled, impressive in a way, and he nodded at himself, taking it all in, full face, remembering who he was” (165).  While looking at this reflection, he begins to remember himself; at the same time, Anthony begins to tell the story of Packer’s first haircut as a child: “He wouldn’t sit in the car seat. His father tried to jam him in there. He’s going no no no no. So I put him right where he’s sitting now. His father pinned him down” (165-66).  Perhaps Packer’s mind is makes a connection between his youth and the reason he has wound up in this chair on this night.

  There seems to be a direct correlation between Anthony’s story and Patrick’s reaction to his own presence in the chair.  According to Berg, haircutting can be decoded “as the original parental castration, now taken up with diligent and repetitive insistence by the super-ego (the parent successor); or we may choose to delve to a level deeper than that of the Oedipus Complex and detect here the death impulse barely disguised as aggression and repetition,” and this also can be seen as a “destructive aggression against the narcissism of the whole self” (81).  Packer stares at himself in the mirror during the haircut, and as he watches Anthony trim away the hair, he perhaps feels this as a castration.  He may see himself changing from the Packer who has made his fortune on the stock market, to a Packer that has allowed himself to be robbed of his identity.  Jane Melman, chief of finance for Packer, had told him earlier that day that even in the worst of markets he has “outperformed it, consistently, and you've never been influenced by the sweep of the crowd. This is one of your gifts” (53).[4]  Packer has always been able to make a Bull market for his investors and himself, even when there was a Bear market.  If Packer sees himself as the maker of the Bull market, a castration would forever prevent him from returning to his previous status in the financial world.  According to Lacan, “castration undoes the certainty and given character of visual space” (Adams 111).  Therefore, in the process of receiving the haircut, Packer’s vision of himself becomes threatened: “After a while he threw off the cape. He couldn't sit here anymore. He burst from the chair, knocking back the drink in a whiskey swig” (169).  Anthony’s retelling of Packer’s first haircut initiates a series of thoughts in Packer, causing him to jump out of the chair without a complete haircut, and, since his father is no longer there to hold him down, he can escape—into the night to find Benno Levin.

Packer eventually finds his way through the night and comes face to face with his alter-ego, a Jewish[5] man named Benno Levin.  He appears as a forty-one year old squatter, with a “high forehead” and “scarified hair, hanging in unwashed strips, thin and limp” (188); he is determined to kill Packer because, as he says, “You have everything to live and die for. I have nothing and neither” (194).  Packer has alienated himself from the rest of the world, trying “to attain mastery over ideas and people” (52), and when confronted by Benno he refuses to see himself in his “other” but instead views Benno as a stranger.  Everything in Packer’s eyes has a dollar value associated with it; Benno just falls into the category of a previous employee who failed to fulfill his potential.  What ultimately occurs is that Packer cannot realize his true other:


The distancing from one’s body and wishes towards ‘an other’ are compulsively imposed by financial interests. When the real dimension of one’s body becomes visible, it is disregarded as if it were the body of a stranger. The body then becomes something alien, something to be transformed through plastic surgery, liposuction, tattooing, piercing, burning, cutting, scarification, etc. When the body finally comes back to the subject, it comes as a property. But if a body can be thought of and handled in terms of the property model, it is already tragically incompatible with any kind of intimacy. (da Silva and Lírio 221)[6]


When Levin tells Packer his real name, Richard Sheets, Packer’s response is simply: “Means nothing to me.” And then, “He said these words into the face of Richard Sheets. Means nothing to me. He felt a trace of the old stale pleasure, dropping an offhand remark that makes a person feel worthless. So small and forgettable a thing that spins such disturbance” (192).  If Packer treated all people as if they were meaningless, it is understandable that when faced with his double, he would treat Benno with the same disregard. 

In a reaction against his death drive, Packer attempts to shoot Benno with the last round in a gun given to him by the barber.  Instead, he ironically shoots his own hand: “He looked at Benno and squeezed the trigger. He realized the gun had one round left just about the time it fired, the briefest instant before, way too late to matter. The shot blew a hole in the middle of his hand” (197).  Packer’s last gunshot creates a Hasma of his own hand, a superstitious symbol intended to ward off the evil eye.  And, if Benno is Packer’s alter-ego, then the image he had seen of himself in the barbershop mirror is his own emptiness staring back at him.  Packer knows that there is no escape for him, just as Benno says that he must shoot Packer because “there’s no life for me unless I do this” (201).  After Packer is shot, he “imagined his wife, his widow, shaving her head, perhaps, in response to his death” (208), and he realizes that this is the inevitable end of his death impulse, and that “[m]aybe he didn’t want that life after all, starting over broke” (209).  For Packer, even as he is bleeding out his life, he can only think that he has become a valueless object and in his last moments his thoughts are on the posthumous events that may surround his burial.


In Conclusion: It Was All Just To Keep the Game Going

   What happens to Eric Packer that he is able to leave the barber shop with an incomplete haircut? An action, needless to say, that Patrick Bateman would never conceive of doing.  It is possible that sitting in the barbershop chair, looking into the mirror, Packer comes to a realization, or awakening, and instead of continuing to feed into his death drive he must assert himself and go face the “credible threat” on his life.  This threat turns out to be brought on by his financial isolations—through accumulation of meaningless amounts of money—and he is unable to remain in touch with the signs that signify value to human existence.  He exists in a world of digital finances, and when Benno Levin kills him and searches the body, he finds Packer lacking anything of value: “After I turned him [Packer] over I went through his pockets and found nothing. One of his pockets was torn. He had a crusty purple wound on his head, not that I am interested in description. I am interested in money. I was looking for money. He had one half a haircut but not the other…” (DeLillo 57).  Packer’s haircut would certainly garner a harsh reaction from Bateman, and he would likely note that it is “A haircut that’s bad because it’s cheap” (Ellis 20).  In the world of digital money in which Packer lives, there is very little likelihood that Benno would find tangible money on his persons. 

   Patrick Bateman does not have the luxury of death.  As the oft quoted last line of the novel states: “This is not an exit” (384); Bateman is trapped in his world of insanity and materialism.  Only once does he truly come close to having his world overturned by an external force.  Riding one day in a taxi, the driver recognizes Bateman as the man who attacked a fellow taxi driver the year before.  Taking him out to an abandoned pier, the driver robs Bateman at gun point.  After this event, Bateman makes his way back into the city:

While walking back to the highway I stop, choke back a sob, my throat tightens. “I just want to…” Facing the skyline, through all the baby talk, I murmur, “keep the game going.” As I stand, frozen in position, an old woman emerges behind a Threepenny Opera poster at a deserted bus stop and she’s homeless and begging, hobbling over, her face covered with sores that look like bugs, holding out a shaking red hand. “Oh will you please go away?” I sigh. She tells me to get a haircut. (379)

Both Packer and Bateman come to their end, or near end, at gunpoint and both are robbed by someone they don’t know, but who knows them.  The significance of this demonstrates how far removed both characters are from the world around them.  Their only remote connection is through their ever growing hair, and whether they meet or fail to meet the expectations of their surrounding world.  Packer’s partial haircut and Bateman’s unmanaged hair becomes signifiers of the disorder of their inner life.  This disorder results from the emptiness with which they have surrounded themselves in the meaninglessness of a postmodern society of consumerism and narcissism.  The castration fear relating to haircutting influences both men.  For Bateman, if his hair is not absolutely perfect he fears castration from his social world which is desperately needed to feed his narcissism.  Packer’s fear of castration results from the possibility of being removed forever from the financial world.  In each case, hair symbolizes the confinements of American culture and society which heavily influences the actions of both men.



an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 8, September - December 2011, ISSN 1552-5112


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[1] As one critic has noted, that for all its gratuitous violence and hatred against females, “American Psycho is an important work of literature and deserves both critical recognition and the understand that it is not another tiresome serial killer novel, but a perceptive and telling statement of a generation and mentality of America’s history that favoured chaos more than it did order” (Szumskyj 6). 

[2] At a later point, when his secretary Jean returns from a dinner date with Patrick he observes her “searching for a rational analysis of who I am, which is, of course, an impossibility: there… is… no… key” (253; ellipses in original). 

[3] Derrida emphasizes that money is time, gained or lost; building on this theory, the novel enacts what Jean Baudrillard calls the virtual economy: “Money is now the only genuine artificial satellite.  A pure artifact, it enjoys a truly astral mobility; and it is instantaneously convertible.  Money has now found its proper place, a place far more wondrous than the stock exchange: the orbit in which it rises and sets like some artificial sun” (33).  The tangible sun rises as the digital sun—constituting Packer’s money—sets. 

[4] Strangely enough, when Melman tells this to Packer he is not looking or listening to her because he “was looking past her to a figure at the cash machine outside the Israeli bank on the northeast corner, a slight man mumbling in his teeth” (53); the man, we come to find out, is Packer’s alter-ego, Benno Levin. 

[5] While it is never made clear that Benno is indeed a Jewish person, his presence in front of the Israeli Bank machine and certainly his name, “Levin”, suggests a Old Testament association lending itself strongly to his enthnoreligious origins.

[6] Both the “scarified hair” on Benno’s head and Packer’s half-cut hair give a sort of credence to this quote.