Serial Masculinity

Berthold Schoene

Psychopathology and Oedipal Violence in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho

Abstract This essay carries out an expressly gender-specific analysis of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, showing how the novel pathologizes modern masculinity by identifying its most characteristic traits as symptoms of a variety of psychopathologies, mental disorders and cognitive impairments. Traditional masculinity is read as a residual, ideologically motivated gender construct that – by endorsing and legitimizing the realization of certain, possibly genetic, male dispositions as a fixed set of behavioral norms and imperatives – promotes the genesis a type of male subjectivity that displays conspicuous similarities particularly to Asperger’s Syndrome and high-functioning autism. It wasn’t a dream—which is what a novel should be. —Bret Easton Ellis, Lunar Park Anchored in an expressly gender-specific analysis of American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis’s most controversial novel, the present essay will strategically seek to pathologize modern masculinity in order to highlight and problematize the violent trauma it inflicts on both men and their others.1 Whereas traditionally the masculine gender has been defined as incontestably rooted in the faculty of reason, in recent years masculinity has come to be seen increasingly as anachronistic, intolerably volatile, and in crisis. Many characteristically male traits, which used to constitute the gender’s strength and thus legitimize its hegemonic status, tend now to be recognized as symptoms of a variety of psychopathologies, mental disorders and cognitive impairments, most notably Asperger’s Syndrome or high-functioning autism. This essay will not suggest that all men are autistic2 or that there is a definitive biological link between maleness and autism,3 let alone [End Page 378] autism and violence.4 Unlike Simon Baron-Cohen, I will refrain from citing “statistical averages” in order to demonstrate that, in general, women are better at empathizing and “less autistic” than men, who are prone to emotional inarticulacy and self-withdrawal while excelling at systematizing, control, and organization (4). Neither will the essay suggest that all autistic individuals are “mad”;5 rather, its main interest lies in identifying traditional masculinity as an ideologically motivated gender construct that, by endorsing and legitimizing the realization of certain, possibly genetic, male dispositions as a fixed set of behavioral norms and imperatives, promotes a type of male subjectivity that displays conspicuous similarities to Asperger’s Syndrome and high-functioning autism. This type of male subjectivity is shown to derive from rigidly interpellative processes of male individuation and to perpetuate itself through an endless series of coercive acts of psychic self-(de)formation. Following Hans Asperger’s diagnosis of the then new mental disorder of autism in 1944, Lorna Wing describes sufferers from Asperger’s Syndrome as “socially odd [and] emotionally detached from others” as well as “markedly egocentric and highly sensitive to perceived criticism, while being oblivious of other people’s feelings.” She goes on to observe that “their speech [is] fluent but long-winded, literal and pedantic, used for monologues and not for reciprocal conversations,” and, finally, that they have “circumscribed interests in specific subjects, including collecting objects or facts connected with these interests” (“History” 12). Intriguingly, Wing’s identikit of the Asperger’s individual also perfectly adumbrates the figure of the unreconstructed, emotionally impaired male that has been haunting feminist writing since its inception. While it strikes me as politically unproductive to think of men as naturally inclined to develop autistic modes of being, it proves useful to apprehend the system of patriarchal masculinity as an ideological apparatus that, by recruiting men to identify against the feminine, molds them into emotionally and cognitively impaired monads. By thus pathologizing masculinity as an autism-inducing gender, it is possible to contest patriarchy’s prerogative on definitively opposing reason with insanity as well as validating and continually reinscribing this opposition by projecting madness invariably onto “the other.” As Joan Busfield has demonstrated, within changing cultural contexts certain forms of previously acceptable and supposedly normal behavior may gradually come to be perceived as aberrant. Citing the histories of domestic violence and child abuse as examples, Busfield argues that “the pathway [of pathologization] is from the normal to the unacceptable

but this putatively majoritarian. In our present era of mobility. In her essay on the critical controversy surrounding Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. compel it to act out its nervous fit” (29). Yet signally. a comforting etiology for his killer’s [End Page 380] illness. in “Yale Club” he is bullied. In Nerves and Narratives Peter Logan argues that “within each nervous body lies the story of the social conditions that created it. the fleeting glimpse we catch of Patrick Bateman’s parents—his mother hospitalized possibly due to some kind of neurasthenic illness and a photograph of his father suggesting that “there’s something the matter with his eyes” (366)—only hints at profound familial estrangement while foreclosing any more detailed psychological or psychoanalytic profiling. then autism provides a perfect metaphor for the masculine self pulling itself together. albeit fairly the disturbed” (57). by his peers who refer to him as “little buddy” (156). Notably also. Carla Freccero explains that what so upset Ellis’s critics was that the author had omitted to “provide a psychologized narrative of origins. caused by a massive epistemological paradigm shift. but as a case study of the predicament of a particular type of man within a specific socio-historical context. or to persist in its paralytic state of paranoid crisis and invest what remains of its power in an autistic backlash against equality and diversification. let alone . masculine —subjectivity. its prominence in both clinical research and the popular imagination has peaked. boy meets the world. Thus. . the traditional masculinity’s intrinsically autistic self has come to stand out as a deviant oddity? Since the late nineteenth century and—in a considerably accelerated manner—since the mid-1960s. autism stands in binary opposition to hysteria as the classic “female malady. which is really the world of most of us: big ideas.”6 If hysteria lends itself to identification as a feminine falling apart of the self. at the same time as hysteria began to vanish from view as a valid clinical diagnosis in the early twentieth century. has come to look like social deviance and is currently undergoing radical cultural reevaluation as a pathological affliction or compulsive disorder requiring urgent therapeutic attention. Might it therefore be legitimate to propose that as the New Woman succeeded in liberating herself from the straitjacket of hysterical femininity. we do not hear that he was a sexually abused child or that he had a domineering mother” (51). . and having created it. such a brown-nosing goody-goody [who] could barely pick up an escort girl. feminists have brought about an ever closer alignment of the feminine with mainstream culture. In order to grasp the ambitious psychological complexity of Ellis’s novel it is important to see it not as the portrayal of an individual person in extremis. or fantasizing about such outbursts. whereas men of the traditional mold could not but experience the same paradigm shift as deeply traumatic. over the last ten years.” the soon-tobe-extinct scion of modernity in an increasingly postmodern world. or “yuppie. especially with its propensity for oppressive and violent self-assertion. suddenly confronting their habitual ways of seeing and going about everyday life as increasingly out of sync with prevalent cultural trends. finds itself at risk of rigidifying into social ineptitude and culturally debilitating impairment. derived from a wholly male-dominated tradition of philosophical thought and defined in categorical opposition to the body and hysterical femininity. Patrick is a specimen of the Young Urban Professional. autism assumed ever greater visibility and.” (387–88). Against this background it appears tempting to suggest that in our immediate present the formerly normative standard of [End Page 379] masculinity. change. This is definitely the case in American Psycho where existential insecurity and nervous agitation. modern—that is. His is “the world of Tim Price. and toward the close of the novel he is described as “such a bloody ass-kisser. Not without irony. boy gets it” (384). there are other instances in the text that allow us to interpret Patrick’s ultraviolent outbursts. however. At the beginning of the new millennium masculinity is left with two options: either to sanction and actively engineer the imminent cracking up of its own inveterate modernity and thus convivially embrace a working coalition with women and other new postmodern selves-in-transition. result in the lethal death throes of a . Indeed. androcentric world is on the wane and so is the male that inhabits and compulsively reasserts it. as acts of manly self-assertion compensating for a perceived lack in masculine stature. My choice of autism as a metaphor to capture the psychopathological aspects of masculinity is motivated by the fact that cultural-historically. guy stuff. as well as in terms of gender-specificity. and the dissolution of both physical and epistemological boundaries. such a backlash—due to its desperate hyperbolic vehemence and phobic irrationality—must effectively appear as virtually indistinguishable from a bout of systemically orchestrated hysteria.

warding off the threat of unmanly hysterical self-expenditure by investing in a desperate mental scramble for masculine self-composure. viable identity. whom we encounter in the opening scene. his name may in itself be a telling cipher: Patrick representing “patriarchy. As the novel jerks spasmodically from catastrophic instances of hysterical disintegration to increasingly vain attempts at autistic self-contraction. is not Patrick’s friend or rival. searching my pockets for Valium. the impersonation of an old order. As embodiments of Patrick’s interior dramatis personae. male hysteria used to be so indelibly inscribed in modernity’s “psychopathologies of everyday life” that it was “regarded as so normal as to be invisible” (246). and Bethany. albeit not entirely without logic.” Patrick’s precarious selfhood is driven by both hysterical and autistic impulses. Therefore. More conventional strategies of masculinist self-composure. his first girlfriend at college—there are no characters in American Psycho who are not primarily reflections or imaginary extensions of Patrick’s self. which has become exposed as “a way of overestablishing one’s uniqueness in [End Page 381] the world where one both is and is not unique. the majority of characters in American Psychohave no distinctive features. both real and imagined. This becomes particularly evident in his excessively gory killing of Paul Owen. his secretary. careening into a dementedly repetitious series of purely affective outbursts. they only look like themselves. Patrick finds himself incarcerated within the monotonous seriality of the novel. self-composure becomes ever harder to achieve and gives way to a series of frantic. conspicuously. we watch Patrick perform an impossible balancing act. murdering off the parts of himself that he loathes the most. As unstoppably his panic and “nameless dread” (115) spiral out of control. American Psycho obsesses explicitly over a variety of mental disorders ranging from multiple personality disorder to autism and schizophrenia. like Patricia— yet another girl dated by Patrick and. a leftover Halcion. hurling him into an experiential maelstrom that leaves not a single intelligible reference point intact and causes his body to erupt in a riddle of hysterical symptoms: “I don’t know where. however. By contrast. such as monologue (“muttering over and over to no one” [151]) or the assertion of social status and spending power (“I head towards the Clinique counter where with my platinum American Express card I buy six tubes of shaving cream” [179]). but the first in a long series of doppelgängers. Patrick could in fact be described as frantically. development. claustrophobically crowded mind. With only a few exceptions—as. but I’m sweaty and a pounding migraine thumps dully in my head and I’m experiencing a major-league anxiety attack. for example. finding itself at the mercy of irreconcilable tensions that unleash themselves in hyperbolic acts of violence. and all I find are three faded Nuprin in a Gucci pillbox” (148). anything. drugfuelled efforts at haphazard self-composition. but even appearances cannot save them from anonymous obliteration as they continue to confuse—and be confused with—each other. American Psychofails spectacularly to endow its hero with authority. instead of being themselves. masculinity has always displayed symptoms of hysteria. Patrick is a dangerous anachronism. Jean. Xanax. Throughout the novel. which resembles a Gothic tomb hermetically sealed off from all progress. Patrick’s posse of colleagues must be regarded as a pure fiction modeled after Patrick’s own image and representative of the various components of his ego. who “is . no identity and virtually no otherness. Albeit organized as a monologue and thus giving its protagonist absolute priority of place and exclusivity of expression. or escape by its first and final sentences: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” (3) and “This is not an exit” (399). Patrick’s autistic world of self-encapsulation is one of absolute uniformity and indifference. it loses all sense of a straight-forward trajectory. Tim Price. In “A Glimpse of a Thursday Afternoon” (148–52) or “Shopping” (176–80) Patrick’s sense of self collapses. within postmodernity. According to Juliet Mitchell. his [End Page 382] female twin by name—blur in and out of his story like overexposed emanations from the deepest recesses of his hypersensitive. the first two women we meet. when he eventually embarks on his killing spree. and. cannot reassemble his fragmented self into a coherent. despite providing momentary relief. Evelyn and Courtney. in this respect. are as identically dressed as the men and. the acculturation of the feminine has resulted in an unmasking of hysterical masculinity. a way of keeping control of others where one does and does not have such control” (Mitchell 344–45). his insufferably career-driven and professionally successful alter ego.formerly hegemonic order of gender-specific subjectivity.

and thereby conceals from himself. there is no ‘self’ to enclose.” Campbell writes. It is now possible to contradict Freccero’s proposition that Ellis does not provide an etiology for Patrick’s disturbed mind. . Straitjacketed by masculine norms and ideals. which Patrick can only experience as self-erosion. As Patrick puts it himself. causing him to transmogrify from “the boy next door” into “a fucking evil psychopath” (20). in the service of the modern self.” an act for which he is given “no disapproving looks” (300). In an era when masculinity’s exceptional strength and integrity can no longer be taken for granted. it seems as if only a relentless hardening of mind and body can save the hysterical male from falling apart. Ironically. Pertinently. As Philip Simpson demonstrates in his analysis of serial-killer fiction. fantasies which have no apparent reference to external reality and no ‘I’ to think them” (306). Similarly. in contemporary neo-Gothic works in which. he encapsulates. and Culture Suzanne Hatty characterizes this self as “concerned with the preservation of autonomy not only as a personal goal. thus confirming his own homicidal sanity over what Patrick presents to us as the female’s unreasonable emotional convulsions. so I do ninety abdominal crunches. plural. His constant wearing of a personal stereo seems like yet another self-containment strategy. quite typically. but also as a manifestation of the self’s allegiance to the order-imposing. Accordingly. preserves individuality and forestalls the possibility of [End Page 384] fusion with the dangerous not- . in Patrick’s view. or unknowable. “Women see aggression as temporary loss of control caused by overwhelming pressure and resulting in guilt. . seems in itself less satisfying to him than subsequently being able to slap the boy’s mother “who is in hysterics. Patrick seeks to maintain the ideal of infallible self-control that informs modernity’s construction of the masculine self. hysterical. and then run in place for twenty minutes while listening to the new Huey Lewis CD” (76). authoritative. bombarded by postmodernity’s self-splintering insecurities. except that . self-determining spirit of modernity. Patrick’s psychosis is the result of his effort to reclaim masculinity’s entitlement to determine the general order of things by serially reenacting its fortress-like resilience to what it perceives as weakness. and so does his cherished ideal of hardbodiedness cultivated through expressly mind-numbing exertions at the gym: “I worked out heavily at the gym after leaving the office today but the tension has returned. it is not his murderous escapades that constitute his madness.exactly my age” (215) and whose voice “to someone hearing it over the phone [sounds] probably identical” (218). InMasculinities. his own escalating hysteria by immersing himself in regular rituals and solid monologizing. and fragmentation. and relived. masculinist self of modernity. Selves blur. [End Page 383] a survival mechanism devised to reinscribe indisputably the sanity that masculinity has traditionally regarded as an inalienable attribute of its nature. as exhibited in chapters depicting his early-morning grooming routine or others which showcase his autistically retentive knowledge of the works of Genesis or Whitney Houston. Patrick’s nervous condition seems aptly captured by Mitchell’s definition of autism as “a state of self-enclosure. Patrick’s ultraviolent killing spree is a desperate battle for the self. Were he able to succumb to a nervous breakdown instead of feeling compelled to keep up masculine appearances at any price. whereas “men see aggression as a means of exerting control over other people when they feel the need to reclaim power and self-esteem” (viii). Violence. Violence. by “losing it” and lashing out against his others. Patrick epitomizes modernity’s residual male self that. Patrick’s aggressive response must be regarded as stereotypically gender-specific. According to Anne Campbell. and shift with aggravating fluidity” (20). a hundred and fifty push-ups. subversion. Life is lived in sensations and. for example. evades hysterical self-loss by seeking refuge in the selfcontained shell of its ego. conflate. His formerly secure first-person identity has come unstuck and succumbed to postmodernity’s third-person flux. a battle for the survival of the self-contained. perhaps. his existential terror might not necessarily translate into homicidal violence. “I’m having a difficult time containing my disordered self” (301). only to find that such self-protective autistic withdrawal from traumatic duress is impossible and that fragmentation is inevitable. Murder is Patrick’s tool to preempt madness. Patrick cannot allow himself to yield to what is different. His killing of the little boy in the zoo. “this indeterminacy of self in relation to Other and environment is a standard of earlier Gothic fiction” revisited. “individual identities reveal their fragile constitutions.

. and. Violence as a modern strategy guarantees both individual and social control. such a process of individuation did occur in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In fact.” Patrick observes at one point in the novel. which in The Flight to Objectivity. her collection of essays on Cartesianism and culture. and reasserting.self. According to Freudian theorizing. it ought to be regarded as generative of a life-long oedipal dynamic propagating a masculinity that is intrinsically serial. symbolically. our true psychological birth comes when we begin to experience our separateness from the mother. rage and anguished feelings of weakness that ‘well up’ as stressful situations in later life are encountered” (19). Led by the question of “why are some young men so angry? [And] why does this anger translate into lethal violence” (2). the realization of the fragile and capricious nature of life is likely to be deeply disturbing. the boy undergoes a highly conflicted process before he becomes the active. imagistically. heterosexual male that society wants him to be” (Bristow 72). (59) . One is not born but becomes a man and. Riddled with feelings of inadequacy. meaning that the inception of the masculine not only always coincides with. Male violence finds its roots in masculinity’s inherent anxiety over its precarious artifice and the unremitting revocability of this artifice. and pervasive anxiety” (12–13). in its many forms. Similarly. Oedipal boys must radically cut themselves off from the feminine. when we begin toindividuate from her. Even after renouncing his female origin. according to Liam Hudson and Bernadette Jacot. “men constitute between 80 and 90 per cent of all known offenders” (33) and as a result “the well-documented ‘fear of crime’ is. inferring that “violence. as well as themselves. As individuals. as a human being. the art. “Nearby a mother breast-feeds her baby. . Effectively. the Oedipus complex does not simply affect the development of individual masculinities within patriarchy. perhaps. Patrick’s serial killing derives from a phobic psycho-territorialism directed against anybody and anything that. it is ingrained within the genesis of modern culture as a whole. But why are men so much more susceptible than women to becoming perpetrators of violence? According to Richard Collier. which is accomplished through repression and results in neurotic self-division. masculinity depends on an ongoing serial process of testing. the world of the Renaissance and Middle Ages was a mother-world. and the greater that gulf . Or at least. they must split the world. an experience of loss and separation. Bordo designates pertinently as “a drama of parturition” (62). to achieve masculine status the boy must detach himself from his mother and counteridentify with the father. while maintaining and perpetuating hierarchy and inequality” (10). Hatty connects “violence to notions of the self. literature. relatedness. insecurity. finding himself traumatically cut off from all infantile comforts not only considerably augments his feelings of insecurity but also heightens his propensity for horrific violence. Substituting “world” for “mother” (and . masculine. the greater the imaginative gulf separating him from his sources of primitive comfort. . is installed within the machinery of the modern self” (206). . “the more ‘male’ the male. Arguing that “for the modern self. Bordo posits. but in fact demands. he remains prone to subconscious yearning for the uncomplicated [End Page 385] union he experienced in the embrace of the maternal body. Frances Tustin suggests that the injurious severity of the child/mother separation has a direct impact on “the degree of panic. rather. According to Susan Bordo and Jane Flax. into a heroic manly “me” on the one hand and a despicable effeminate “not-me” on the other. In my view it is absolutely crucial not to misconstrue the Oedipus complex as a one-off event normally overcome in late infancy. in effect. in her writing on childhood autism. “undoubtedly. the greater his underlying insecurity is bound to be” (49). a fear of men” (2). To win recognition as a man. in his view. and philosophy of the era tell such a story. In light of Hatty’s analysis. In Patrick’s case. proving. and dependency” (33). Hatty provides us with a diagnosis of Patrick’s postmodern condition—his terror. hysteria. boundaries. rather. experientially). the boy can never be sure that he has accomplished the set target of being “man enough” because. “which awakens something awful in me” (297). engendering feelings of fearfulness. and homicidal violence. “belongs to the dangerous territory beyond the confines of normalized masculine subjectivity” (18).

and the body than he can no longer bear to be perceived as passively suffering his separation. (2) In American Psycho Bethany—who Patrick describes as “a girl I dated at Harvard and who I was subsequently dumped by” (211)—is such a woman who deserves punishment. Arguing that. however. Flax reminds us that western philosophy is primarily a reflection of “the experience and actions of male human beings who were created in and through patriarchal social relations” (247). in order to keep up masculine appearances. Sometimes. In terms of their lack of autonomy vis-à-vis the omnipotent control of the superego. Within the male imaginary. Put differently. and existential exposure is revealed to be entirely fictitious. both epistemologically and ontologically. no longer continuous with a universe which has now become decisively ‘other’ [End Page 386] to [him]” (Bordo 70) as the fact that. she also laughs at Patrick’s upside-down Onica painting and. her role as embodiment [of inferiority and abjection] is protected from injury by doing injury to her body. Kramer defines masculinity as resting on an adamant disavowal of its own feminine subjection to an internalized authority.” As Kramer explains.Bordo views the Cartesian cogito as an oedipal gesture of defiance against man’s dependence on the female. Tragically. however.7 In agreement with Bordo. every male must extricate himself from the female. Trauma occurs whenever masculinity’s exemption from lack. As Kramer points out. Consequently. lest his masculinity fail to attain patriarchal approval and remain culturally unintelligible. from then on. “the wish to be cared for and totally fused with another person and the dangers which this wish poses to the distinctness of self” (245). Man has to show himself to be in command. all formations and positions of the subject are structurally feminine. systemic dependence. body of “the other. man began to apprehend himself “as a decisively separate entity. [End Page 387] a woman may be judged to deserve punishment whenever she steps beyond her paradigmatic position. however. thus supporting Lawrence Kramer’s proposition in After the Lovedeaththat “the forms of selfhood mandated as normal in modern western culture both promote and rationalize violence against women” (1). however. which sits at the heart of masculinity’s cultural hegemony. or feminized. panic-induced reinscription of his masculinity’s indisputable hegemony on the female. man was bound to be and remain so. that is. no sooner has he successfully asserted his independence over woman. Due to its fictitiousness and profound contestability. either by purposely—and seemingly painlessly—reenacting the original traumatic incision or by preempting whatever moment of separation might be likely to occur in the future. by producing a platinum American Express card identical to his. not so much the cultural-historical circumstance that. encapsulating a view of the universe and conceptualization of human subjectivity that is oedipally biased and hence of necessity warped. requires serial reenactment in order to sustain itself. As Flax points out. Of particular interest in the present context. she may seem to do one of these things merely by being alive. this masculinist appropriation of the oedipal crisis. there is no difference between men and women. it always has to look as if it were the male cutting the umbilical cord rather than having the traumatic incision performed on him. she repudiates woman’s supporting role in patriarchal . Not only was it she who ended their relationship. the Oedipus complex undergoes a phantasmatic shift from a moment of passively endured infantile trauma to a moment of emancipatory violence inflicted on both the burgeoning self and the maternal body. in the Renaissance. sexual violence must be understood as a man’s ostentatious. A woman may come to deserve such punishment either by affirming whatever features of femininity are stigmatized in her particular milieu or by unmasking the condition of stigma-free masculinity there as an illusion. is not so much the Cartesian split per se as its absolutist nature. “the reward for maintaining this repression is the fiction of unambivalent selfpossession: the fiction of holding the absolutely masculine subject-position that in truth no-one can hold” (6). this imperative male pretence at absolute autonomy remains ambivalently transfused by latently misogynous desire and disgust. Within modernity. only men have managed to disavow their powerlessness by projecting it onto women and successfully repressing all knowledge of this projection. the world. a masculinist declaration of independence that “is at the same time compensation for a profound loss” (106). within modernity.

However. on another woman’s body” (96). . want . Although serial killing is often sexually motivated. that of intended. in” (237). most graphically fantasizes about it. Compelled by modernity’s oedipal fantasy. but as “abnormally normal” (9) or “hyperconformist” (163). whom he sees as “embarked upon a quest . of infantile fantasies” (Seltzer 140). What does matter is that he does what he does and dreams what he dreams because. “succeeds at the matricide that eluded his mythic forefather. . but also reassert his masculinity as essentially intact. demented with fury. misery. a lethal.8 the original blueprint for Ellis’s Patrick Bateman. finally dissolving her body parts in acid or resorting to cannibalism. reflecting “the theme of man’s transcendence. it can be seen as a vehicle of epistemological hygiene and psychic cleansing or. and this is why at the close ofAmerican Psycho it does not really matter if Patrick has only dreamt about murder. as he confesses to Bethany. erases from view another significant issue in the play. he embarks on a search for Jocasta. . only to displace his unappeased aggressive impulses by . the maternal body from which masculinity seeks definitive physical and epistemic detachment. . he is not immediately compelled to exert punishment on himself in an act of spectacular self-castration. and death it effects. “I . . sexual murder begins to look like “nothing but a psychotic literalization . When his morally unacceptable behavior is revealed to Oedipus. In addition. . and dismembering her. But crucially Patrick gets it wrong. . “grossly sensual” and “ritualized” (Simpson 17) manifestation of instance after instance of culturally propagated sexism. torturing. . no matter how much female submission. that is. the mere suggestion that there might be a link between the catastrophic encounter of killer and victim and the erotic union of two lovers must appear perverse. by a conscious act of will. . Correspondingly. rather. belittling him by voicing concern for his mental health. in another place. quite simply. and for this he tortures her to death or. serial killers assert themselves as men by serially reenacting their original separation from the female and. Serial killing is a typically male violence directed against anybody perceived as a threat to modernity’s myth of masculine autonomy. The oedipal myth of masculine power will never conclusively crystallize into fact. to bring about the desired effect. at least. killing young women who threaten to be not only rivals but moreover repetitions of Mother” (21). . apparently to avenge himself on her for what he has done. of self-recovery —recovery of a lost metaphysical certitude” (16). “the only difference between the normal subject (the psychic killer) and the pathological one (the psycho killer) is the passage from fantasy to act” (146). fit . the struggle to free oneself. in her poignant rereading of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex Elisabeth Bronfen finds that Freud’s psychoanalytic appropriation of the Oedipus myth. in this respect. As Kramer puts it. [End Page 388] “the material” in Cameron and Frazer’s statement is of course quite literally the mater-ial. as “a fitting metaphor for the modern man philosophically in extremis” (12). he must entirely annihilate the other by taunting. . Bethany commits the crime of recognizing Patrick’s hysterical agitation. the mental disposition of serial killers must not be regarded as monstrously deviant. by focusing exclusively on patricide and motherson incest. “sexual violence always ‘comes short’ of its goal. Harking back to Flax and Bordo’s interventions. quite as if matricide might not only absolve him of his shame and momentary impotence. As Seltzer insists. from the material constraints which normally determine human destiny” (168). yet thwarted matricide. and continues to get it wrong. it is feasible to detect some pertinent correspondences between the act of killing and sexual intercourse: . . Philip Simpson describes the serial killer. . his wife-mother. to . It should by now be clear why critics writing about serial-killer fiction and criminologists profiling reallife serial murderers eventually always return to modern masculinity’s peculiar Cartesian’s repression of his own implenitude. In light of this psychological dynamic. reinscribes the castration it spectacularly denies. In a subsequent analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho Bronfen concludes that the central character of Norman Bates. requires its own repetition at another time. as indicated by Catherine Waldby’s theorizing of[End Page 389] sexual pleasure. . At this stage Patrick’s panic and rage have already spiraled out of control to such an extent that a mere killing can no longer assuage his need for self-repossession. while in The Lust to Kill Deborah Cameron and Elizabeth Frazer propose that in our culture murder has become “a metaphor for freedom” (177). or how spectacularly the original umbilical incision—now carried out by the male himself—is reenacted. as a result. then.

at least momentarily. and nowhere does this become more evident than in Ellis’s portrayal of Patrick Bateman. the repeated intercourse of hysteria can be likened to suicide attempts. And yet. which in the case of sexual murder is substituted by the killer’s purely egocentric perpetration of the victim’s death. . . the phallicized ego. Ultimately. The most shocking aspect of American Psycho is the superlative. It cannot exuberantly discard and shatter itself into sexuality and so can have contact with sexuality only as the shattering discard of the other” (20). What is so shocking about Ellis’s novel is not so much Patrick’s attempt to inhabit the ultimate subject position of Death. . as Thomas observes. . this hyperbolic violence only enhances the realism of Ellis’s novel: all serial killing. Mutually fulfilling sex is irreconcilable. demonstrates a brinkmanship in which the person is driven to the edge of orgasm but never feels safe enough to allow his body to vanish. I do not mean that the ego in love relations is destroyed in an absolute sense. “the problem is not that sexuality is contaminated by power but that the hyperbolic self. simply because these impulses. still remain within the realm of the relatable. Because they “possess the capacity to draw [him] closer to the outer boundaries of masculine subjectivity. Absolute loss cannot be experienced. made to bear the mark of the other upon the self. are blamed and punished by extinction for thus undermining the killer’s self-control. to modern masculinity since. As Calvin Thomas explains in Male Matters. masterful. These momentary suspensions. more or less by . entirely redundant vehemence of Patrick’s violence. Significantly. the killer must perceive orgasm as a profoundly anxiety-inducing castrating experience. the compulsive sexuality of hysteria . As a result. or whoever else serves as his object of desire. work towards a more profound kind of ego destruction. orgasm invariably equals an unmanly dissipation of the self. lost in the “little death” of orgasm. The giving up of the body in orgasm is too close [End Page 390] . . and may even entice [him] over the edge into the abyss of the irreal” (Hatty 19). (266) Waldby problematizes the erotic pleasure of mutual orgasmic self-destruction. According to Juliet Mitchell. Arguably. depriving him of his masculine autonomy by maneuvering him into too close a proximity with the female and thus threatening to cause an insufferable erasure of the oedipal-Cartesian split. pornography never shows men as having “pleasures that fall outside the margins of control. women. contrarily. they are presented as having power” (20). from a strictly modern point of view. the sex killer’s orgasm most typically takes the form of an ultraviolent matricidal “black-out” (Seltzer 139). as a gateway to potential orgasmic self-dissolution promising to suspend. Rather each lover is refigured by the other. albeit psychotic. But all such transformation involves the breaking down of resistance. cannot experience sexuality as anything but power. his traumatic separation from the maternal body. Where else. . if not in mainstream pornography. The endless seductions. does male sexuality receive its most typical and stereotyped representation? And. although its possibility is always played with. its boundless and unremitting atrocity.Erotic pleasure arguably requires a kind of momentary annihilation or suspension of what normally counts as “identity. . [Instead] the torturer tests out the annihilating pain on the body of the other.” the conscious. according to Seltzer. (211) The serial killer’s lethal frigidity is a typical symptom of modern male sexuality taken to its psychopathological extreme. . the compulsive seriality of sexual murder identifies the killer also as a hysteric. of violence to an existing order of the ego. . rather. even anathema. however. to death and annihilation. . The killer is irresistibly fascinated by sex not only as an opportunity to reinvest himself with a powerfully destructive sense of self but also. self-identical self. or his warped interpretation of the Cartesian cogito as “‘I kill therefore I am’” (Seltzer 234). when linked together in the context of a particular relationship. Sexual desire per se is experienced as an emasculating weakness only to be indulged if its postcoital upshot is the ego-bolstering assertion of masculine authority. men are not represented as having sex at all.

within the psyche of the killer: “a dog. Patrick may in fact only be fantasizing about being a serial killer. It’s just that . . “you reek of . exceeding the end of ending life” (45). and the only difference between us and Patrick is that he has indulged them” (727). according to Ellis. His first victim. . . simultaneously. On the death of one of his later victims Patrick reflects that “though it does sporadically [End Page 391] penetrate how unacceptable some of what I’m doing actually is. . and Patrick’s worldview proves yet again perfectly analogous to that of the modern self to whom the world is either abject other or mere autistic selfextension. Pertinently translated by Thomas as “the excrementalization of alterity” (65). in which he . only obliquely affecting the lives of others. . is nothing. Ruth Helyer too suggests that the serial killer’s psychopathological urges may in fact be “lying dormant in all of us. in my view. within modernity. Unhelpfully. Seltzer also quotes a psychiatric consultant on the case of Jeffrey Dahmer as having commented: “Dress him in a suit and he looks like ten other men” (128). too. .definition. is to ask something about men—or more precisely. Abjection is most commonly understood to constitute an interior dynamic. If so. a beggar. Patrick will not rest until he has reduced them to a pulp of nothingness. . is killed because. exceeding its function or purpose—or. a characterization not very far removed from Patrick’s technique of trying to understand his victims by “filming their deaths” (304). . it appears crucial we heed Collier’s criminological assessment of “the loner” Thomas Hamilton. and a colleague— all of them are him. some women. For Patrick. a homeless tramp. The British serial killer Dennis Nilsen attracted a (rather facile) diagnosis of False Self Syndrome (Hatty 199). while psychiatric testimony at the trial of the Tasmanian spree killer Martin Bryant suggested he suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome (Hatty 44). at least. characterizing his experience of personal relations as resembling “an alien life form acquiring appropriate behaviors through mimicry and artifice” (Seltzer 163). shit” (130) and “I’m sorry. I just remind myself that this thing. is it usually men who are driven to kill women. A report based on interviews with Ted Bundy also hints at some kind of autistic disorder. is shit” (345). a gay man. who in early 1996 shot sixteen primary schoolchildren and their teacher in the Scottish town of Dunblane. Throughout the novel abjection looms large as a motive behind Patrick’s killing agenda. this girl. (30–31) The etiology of both supposedly normal and psychopathological male violence—if it is at all possible to make such a distinction—springs from what. and this is where it becomes significant that. Many personality profiles of real-life serial killers and perpetrators of so-called spree killings characterize them as suffering from [End Page 392] mental disorders identifying them as hyperbolic representatives of what commonly passes for entirely normal in men. so Patrick tells him. Freccero and Helyer fail to address urgent questions concerning the role of sex and death in the masculine imaginary. Freccero portrays the killer as a sadist who “both projects his ego onto the external world and. I don’t have anything in common with you” (131). some prostitutes. all of them are us. displays such “a tendency toward ‘over-kill’ . . is commonly deemed a healthy oedipal process of both specifically masculine individuation and the development of human selfhood in general. It is only within postmodernity that masculinity has become visible as a problematic gender prone to exerting a pathologically deformative impact on the male psyche. Freccero subsumes not only the victims. Echoing Freccero. rather. by eschewing an analysis of American Psycho’s expressly gender-specific violence. his victims are subjected to a process of utterly annihilative abjection. Resulting in a curiously sympathetic reading of Patrick’s condition. Reminiscent of the anonymous uniformity of Patrick’s appearance. but all of us. and only very rarely that women kill men? Why are there no female sadistic sex-killers and why are there so many men of this type? What is the connection between murder and the erotic? What is the difference between “normal” men and killers? To ask these questions . the external world becomes nothing but his ego” (53). this meat. As a result. it evidently no longer suffices to ascertain the position and status of his others as mere objects to his superior self. abjection describes “the mode by which others become shit” (64). . I don’t know. a child. then the offensive smell emanating from his others is actually the putrid odor of his own self-loathing. By thus ignoring the gender specificity of serial killing. questions tackled by Ellis’s novel and succinctly summarized by Cameron and Frazer: Why . about the construction of masculine sexuality in our culture. and we are him” (54).

As a result. cognition and mental disposition are more than purely neurophysiological phenomena. of both women and men. or “nature. expressly no-exit. Bronfen identifies the navel—or “omphalos. who argues that. can only fully be grasped in relation to a culture’s understanding of what exactly constitutes a healthy mind [End Page 393] and normal man or woman. my argument opens itself up to accusations of essentialism. and the accumulation of Bateman’s successful. As a fixed set of normative imperatives. deprivation. but the loss of the maternal body at birth as symbolized by the umbilical incision. because of developmental asymmetries resulting from female-dominated infant care. marking the inherent fallibility. narrows his vision. It is therefore necessary to explain that. that any association of gender and cognitive style is a reactionary mythology with no explanatory value. fiercely clenched-up self-encapsulation and whether Ellis makes any apparent effort at signposting such a curative or redemptive trajectory. The premise of my position is supportively elucidated by Bordo. but as man” (104). while girls do not.inducing task of asserting and identifying itself over and against the feminine. many women may be coming to think more and more ‘like men. in which she tackles what is without doubt traditional psychoanalysis’s most troublesome axiomatic—that is. rather than biology. ‘pervert’ or personification of ‘evil’. . the chief focus has been on masculinity as it has traditionally been conceived and constructed as a gender rather than biological maleness “in the raw. unnoticed. . fallibility. and barely containable hysterical paranoia.” Originating in imperative processes of individuation and hence ineluctably reflecting the gender conventions of a given culture. and ultimately deeply unsatisfying torture-murders that do not teach him—or the rest of us—anything” (52). on the one hand. although “in our time. anatomy. Pertinently. implenitude” (17). For the sexual division of labor within the family in the modern era has indeed fairly consistently reproduced significant cognitive and emotional differences along sexual lines. masculinity as we know it proves capable of inculcating in men a latent propensity for a variety of violent psychopathological behaviors. the clinical emergence or disappearance of apparent or alleged deviations from cognitive and mental standards. serially—asserting himself over and against the other. Bronfen reconceives subjectivity as predicated not on the loss of the phallus. . its biologistic distinction between a masculine and a feminine subject of castration— Elisabeth Bronfen attempts to release psychoanalysis from its central fixation on the Oedipus complex. which is now recognized as constituting a natural and culturally acceptable part of its own . Intriguingly.’” the conclusion is not . . when these are threatened. . . on the other. behaviors that are more often than not the corollary of an impossibly pent-up mixture of fearful autistic self-encapsulation.demands we see Hamilton primarily “not as a ‘monster’. sets his sights. such as hysteria and autism.” as she terms it—as the primary site of loss. and fires” (29). in Male Matters Thomas describes masculinity’s assumption of the ultimate subject position of “being-death” in quasi-autistic terms as the formation of “a sort of fortified and spotless bunker from which the masculine subject . Ellis provides us with a case study of postmodern male hysteria.” (113) Bret Easton Ellis is far too subtle and ambitious a writer to be cultivating a pose of fashionable postmodern pointlessness as implied by Freccero’s suggestion that in American Psycho “there is no truth to be found beneath appearances. Likewise. In conclusion it seems necessary to speculate whether there might be any conceivable way out of Patrick’s lethal. throughout the present analysis. drives. Due to its emphasis on the gender-specificity of sexual violence in connection with expressly masculine psychopathologies. Bronfen’s psychoanalytic model establishes a fundamental existential equality between the sexes by effectively “returning to the masculine subject those aspects of human existence that culture has projected [End Page 394] onto femininity—lack. [B]oys have tended to grow up learning to experience the world like Cartesians. masculinity is afforded exemption from its highly anxiety. and serving as a reminder of the mortality and powerlessness. intricately recording his protagonist’s increasing nervous implosion as he wards off imminent self-disintegration by violently pulling himself together and repeatedly—that is. in The Knotted Subject. The traumatic origin of human subjectivity is thus revealed to be non-gender-specific. . Instead of the phallus. polices the boundaries and frontiers of his own masculinity and.

as originally specified by Lorna Wing in her 1981 essay. when confronted with Jean’s love for him— which he feels might “rearrange my life in a significant way”—Patrick is shown to catch a glimpse of what strikes him as “a new and unfamiliar land—the dreaded uncertainty of a totally different world” (378). He is the author of Writing Men (2000). Instead of suffering crisis after crisis and feeling compelled to forge an alliance with violence and death.schoene@mmu. having reached his nadir after being assaulted by a taxi driver who calls him “a yuppie scumbag” (394). 3.” In people diagnosed with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome—milder cognitive impairments which do not entirely incapacitate the sufferer. let alone with the promise of a new omphalic order of gender. masculinity is free to embrace the knowledge of its own mortality and thereby enter into a coalition with the rest of humankind. the majority of criticism on American Psycho as a cultural phenomenon is in fact dedicated to Mary Harron’s cinematic rendition of the novel (2000). despite the autistic self-encapsulation of its narrative and the novel’s adamant denial of progress. co-editor of Posting the Male (2003).ac. Footnotes 1. the statistic distribution most widely accepted is 4:1. that the havoc raging inside him is gradually subsiding” (365). 5. His current work in progress includes an essay on gay men and romance and a study on the cosmopolitan novel. And yet. its others.” while in a newspaper article in The Observer in 2002 Robin McKie and Karen Gold propose excessive testosterone levels as a possible catalyst of the disorder. The only other enquiry into Ellis’s representation of masculinity and its socio-political implications is by Mark Storey (2005). more appropriately postmodern start: “Disintegration. 6.disposition. In American Psycho. “at first distantly and then with greater clarity. but as simply a different mode of perception. however. Patrick realizes. and Tantam 569). Grounds. the only available study into violent behavior and Asperger’s Syndrome suggests that such a link may in fact be far more prevalent than hitherto recognized or acknowledged (Mawson. In Autism or the Crisis of Meaning Alexander Durig convincingly argues for the acknowledgement of autism not as a mental disorder or psychiatric condition. 4.” we hear him mutter to himself at the very end of the novel. Patrick knows that escape into omphalic bliss is not an option. with things being as they are. but. describes autism as a manifestation of what he designates as “the extreme male brain. but make them appear profoundly self-absorbed and behaviorally odd—this ratio increases to 10:1 (BaronCohen 137). With Patrick appearing to emerge from his autistic shell.” However. Autistic disorders afflict more males than females. Provocatively. and has recently edited The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Literature (2007). “Sex Ratios in Early Childhood Autism and [End Page 395] Related Conditions. this is the only genuine intersubjective encounter in the novel and. . Both Mitzi Waltz and Polly Morice have discussed the increasing metaphorical currency of autism. This is not to suggest that Ellis’s novel concludes on a positive note. it releases in Patrick a momentary acceptance of his essential implenitude: “There is nothing of value I can offer her. American Psycho clearly appears to know where it is headed. as Jean kisses him. enabled by Jean’s self-effacing embrace. Simon Baron-Cohen. sometime very soon. [Jean] too will be locked in the rhythm of my insanity” (378). Berthold Schoene Berthold Schoene <b. “I’m taking it in my stride” (395–96). Patrick resolves to make a new. Notably. almost as if. who used to be but are no longer. Director of the British Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge. 2. as “one> is Director of the English Research Institute at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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