COSMOPOLIS

in search of the real

This is a little of a follow up and extension to my previous post, THE HAUNTED AGE. In that post I spoke briefly about the Don DeLillo novel, Cosmopolis, recently adapted by David Cronenberg as a film starring Robert Pattinson. I’ve read quite a few critical reviews, most recently this one from The Guardian entitled ‘Why Cosmopolis’s natural born banker does not add up’. Having studied Cosmopolis at length for my dissertation, I must feel rather protective about the novel so frequently referred to as ‘not one of DeLillo’s best’, and want to defend it against misinterpretation – particularly the idea that it is a novel/film about banking, and the character, Eric, just the banker-villain of the day.

I argue that Cosmopolis is a distorted yet penetrating reflection of the globalised world of the contemporary as a dystopia, and Eric not just a banker, but the (anti) hero and archetype of a world that’s entrenched in globalised cyber capitalism. So, in order to defend this perspective, and hopefully with the intention that anyone who should read this and then see the film might get a slightly deeper experience than just another Wall Street-esque film about a banker, I’ve decided to publish this extract from my dissertation.

Cosmopolis: self and the world

In his book, Don DeLillo: The Possibility of Fiction, Peter Boxall writes that DeLillo’s novels ‘follow a historical trajectory towards the millennium,’[1] which represents the total globalisation and ‘endedness’ of culture. The sense of lateness in DeLillo’s work is present throughout his oeuvre; in The Names, first published in 1982,the globalised, American world is already present but, with the narrative taking place in foreign territory, its power is not total. In contrast, DeLillo’s 2003 novel, Cosmopolis, takes place in the heart of the American, globalised world. It is DeLillo’s millennial novel, portraying a world in which the questions of foreignness and being-at-home addressed in The Names have become redundant. The Names was a novel whose narrative was driven along and across borderlines, but the millennial world of Cosmopolis is one in which the borderlines have collapsed; the world has become ‘self-referring’[2]. As Boxall describes it, the self-referring world is one in which in which ‘the nonexistent, the unnameable, the unthinkable, have been eradicated; in which cultural truth is disseminated by the forces of a globalised capital from which there is no escape.’[3] A world become self-referring is one that is so total that it has no outside, simultaneously rendering the concept of inside completely meaningless. With our concepts of truth and lie, fact and fiction become meaningless, it is a world where words and concepts speak only to themselves and all possibility of meaning is subsumed in pure abstract pattern. The final border crossing which was the movement from the end of the last millennium into the new one hastens in the globalised world which expires all borderlines. Capital has become the single authority and the only language it is possible to speak, the ‘single bloc from which there is “no escape” (N 297)’.[4] When the main character of Cosmopolis, Eric Packer, witnesses a riot, his chief of theory who is there with him remarks that it is not the protest against capitalism its participants think it is, since there can be no divergence; rather it “is the free market itself. These people are a fantasy generated by the market. They don’t exist outside the market. There is nowhere they can go to be on the outside. There is no outside.”[5]

In The Names, an authentic way being-in-the-world meant adopting a position on the borderline: the possibility of having an identity requires the acceptance of all that you ‘are’ – for James, the characteristics named in ‘27 Depravities’ – while understanding that this is not all that you are; that the definable and nameable is constantly being infiltrated by the unknown, meaning that we are forever in a state of becoming. The possibility of ‘becoming’ necessarily implies a progression in time, but DeLillo’s concern in The Names is more to do with spatiality than temporality. Nevertheless, The Names does draw our attention to the disparity between our normal understanding of time and time as we actually experience it, particularly when James, considering his wife and son’s prospective move to London, thinks that ‘London was a three-hour flight from Athens, roughly seven hours closer than the island was.’[6] The time-space compression this passage describes is one of the temporal distortions experienced in the globalised world and, with Cosmopolis, DeLillo is in a position to fully explore the effect of globalism on our experience of time.

If the ‘normal’ condition of time is understood to be an unknown future passing through the infinitely small borderline of the present before becoming the no-longer of the past, the globalised world demands a ‘new theory of time.’[7] It is a world which has become increasingly future oriented, since capital demands ever more efficiency through the invention of new technology and better economisation of time. Patterns of currency become analysed in more and more detail, from days at a time down to the zeptosecond, causing the present moment to appear ever smaller and time itself to be moving more quickly as the future increasingly invades the present. In Literature, Technology, and Magical Thinking, Pamela Thurschwell demonstrates how early innovation in communication technology ultimately affected its users understanding of the outside world. The act sending of letter, for example, is a relatively slow and physical process, involving many sets of translations. First is the act of translating thought into words on paper, followed by the transfer of the letter to recipient; another slow and definitely physical journey, as the material object is passed between however many sets of hands until it reaches its destination, where the third translation, the reading of the letter and appropriation of its contents. The invention of new communication technologies makes the transfer of information over a distance more immediate; the acts of translation outlined above still need to occur, but now occur at a quicker rate; while the speed of delivery of the information held in a letter is dependent on method of transportation and the efficiency of whatever system handles it, a telephone call requires only the dialling of a number and the quick process of connection for sender and recipient to be in contact, at which point, the amount of information it is possible to transfer is limited only by the speed of words and the understanding of the participants.

In the globalised world, technological innovation has accelerated to the point that whatever exists is already becoming obsolete, while, as technology becomes more immediate and accessible, it is seen less as the foreign object and part of the outside world so much as an extension of the self. This is in evidence in Cosmopolis as hand-held technology; technology you actually have to touch, to physically connect with, is fast becoming obsolete, as Eric reflects when considering his hand-held organiser, and when sitting in his car, the ‘context’ of which is ‘nearly touchless.’[8] Technology that operates with a word or a movement, or simply bodily function, as when the ‘mode control’ in Eric’s car immediately gets rid of the smell of one of his colleague’s ‘vegetarian farts’[9], makes it possible to alter the outside world with increasingly less effort until the outside world, previously the domain of the uncontrollable and unknowable, becomes an extension of the self, adaptable to our needs and desires. In return, the invention of new communications technology lessens our need for the outside world, since any space becomes adaptable to our particular needs at that time. In Cosmopolis Eric asks the question, “How do you know we’re in the car instead of the office?”[10] – and it is a question that has no answer. The word ‘office’ relates only to an idea, and that idea can be realised in the car with its many computers tracking currency, or in Eric’s apartment, which also has a space for work, or, in fact, potentially anywhere, since Eric has a hand organiser he carries with him.

The logical conclusion of the evolution of communication technology, that Cosmopolis often hints towards but never quite takes us to, recalls the thought of Mark Twain remarked on by Thurschwell; that ‘telephones, telegraphs and words are too slow for this age’[11]. When the speed of communication is accelerated to the point of immediacy, even the process of exchanging words; even language, will seem inefficient, and this will lead to ‘a collapsing of communication upon itself.’[12] The effect of this collapse is suggested in the episode of ‘the last techno rave’, where Eric comes across a theatre full of teenagers high on a dissociative drug called ‘novo’, dancing repetitively to machine-like electronic music which produces the sensation of ‘replacing your skin and brain with digital tissue.’[13] The dancers themselves, aided by their drug ‘melted into each other so they wouldn’t shrivel up as individuals.’[14] The implication of the globalised world and the collapse of communication is the absolute conflation of all borderlines so that communication is instantaneous: everything is present all of the time, when physical connection is no longer necessary and physical bodies become obstructions to communication. This points toward the telepathic omniscience and omnipresence that Pamela Thurschwell warns of when she writes, ‘if we were too telepathic, we could not survive it’.[15] To be too telepathic entails being ‘fully penetrated by or assimilated to, the other’[16]; it would be the realisation of the ‘apocalyptic end point’ with no divide between outside and inside, everything that could be already is, while everything that is already is not.

If this description makes of the globalised world a terrifying dystopia in which the individual self is eradicated and the world is simultaneously the oceanic roar of total communication and the ultimate silence of total nothingness, Eric Packer is the novel’s unlikely hero charged with the responsibility of providing the ‘possibility of a historical counterfunction, of a counternarrative that might preserve a radical revolutionary spirit,’[17] of which Boxall speaks. From the outset of the novel, Eric appears as an archetype of the globalised world; in a world where capital is the only language, Eric speaks it fluently. With his genius for recognising and applying the patterns of currency to accurately predict its future movements, the work Eric does has saturated so fully every area of his identity that he is no longer distinct from it: narcissistic, dissociated and unemotional, he appears an extension of the machinery of capital more than a human. With his art-dealer lover, Didi Fancher, he talks of acquiring the ‘Rothko chapel’ and refuses to accept it as something he cannot buy. Neither does he understand, or even really seem to notice, her position that it ought not to be something a man can buy for himself, that it is something that “belongs to the world.”[18] Similarly, although he reads poetry, his preference is for slim books and poems of only a few lines as though poetry, like art, like the shark tank in his apartment and the deactivated Russian bomber plane he keeps in a hangar in the desert, were something merely to be acquired. His disengagement extends to people, who he has trouble ‘seeing’ except through the assembling of certain ideas about them, the invention of a personality standing in for real knowledge of someone, which extends even to his wife; even to himself:

‘He began to understand that they’d invented her beauty together, conspiring to assemble a fiction that worked to their mutual manoeuvrability and delight. They’d married in the shroud of this unspoken accord. They needed the final term in the series. She was rich, he was rich; she was heir-apparent, he was self-made; she was cultured, he was ruthless; she was brittle, he was strong; she was gifted, he was brilliant; she was beautiful.[19]

In certain ways this passage resembles the ’27 Depravities’ that James Axton invents for himself, except that while James’s list betrays his dislocated self, it is at least an authentic attempt to know either himself or Kathryn, Eric’s invented personality never aspires to reality. It is self-consciously another pattern, as he admits when he realises that his wife’s beauty is just an invention needed to complete the ‘series’.

Until nearly the end of the novel Eric’s thought and behaviour does not deviate from the machinery of the system he is part of, yet from the very beginning, with his unexplainable insomnia, there is the suggestion that Eric is not entirely in tune with the world. When the scene at ‘the last techno rave’ reveals to him the destination of humanity, the boys with ‘ovoid heads’ and the girls ‘a cult of starvelings’[20], suggesting that the depreciation of the physical has begun, Eric feels, for the first time perhaps, on the outside of the world. He begins to realise that, at twenty-eight years old, the next generation is already evolving, and he is becoming obsolete. The suggestion of a discordance develops throughout Eric’s slow journey through the city, revisited as the ‘doubt’ Didi Fancher sees in him, related to her belief that there Eric has not been entirely assimilated into the system; that there is still “something in [him] that’s receptive to the mysteries.”[21] As Eric experiences coincidences and reverse déjà-vu, his theorist, Vija Kinski, hints that it is due to the weird temporality of a world in which the future has become too “insistent”, and she prophesies that “something will happen”[22] to bring time back to normal. Through repetition, this ambiguous “something” becomes the motif which draws the narrative towards the possibility of an original moment, an impossible ‘something’ existing beyond the limits of the world. The moment towards which Eric has been drawn from the outset of the novel, the ambiguous ‘something’ he is in pursuit of, which promises to happen soon, recalls that formulation of Derrida’s which posits the best definition of deconstruction as being ‘a certain experience of the impossible’[23]. The term ‘something’ as used by Derrida is interchangeable with ‘otherness’, the absolute unknown and outside of what is present without which, as in the self-referring world, presence and non-presence coincide, causing the paralysis of time and the indivisible, inescapable sameness of the world.
During the protest that interrupts his journey Eric witnesses a man setting himself on fire; an act so violent that it seems to Eric to pierce the material of the self-referring world, revealing a space in which a truly original and meaningful act is still possible. A number of critics have described Eric’s journey as a ‘suicidal’ death-drive, but I would argue that his journey is equally and irremovably as toward the possibility of being able to live in the world as to die in it. From the outset of the novel Eric is not living as or for himself, but as an extension of the world, and this is mirrored by the possibility for death when he remarks, ‘[w]hen he died he would not end. The world would end.’[24] The moment toward which these incidents are leading occurs in the hairdresser, which we learn is a place Eric came when he was young, and is filled with memories and associations for him. Here in this place of history for Eric, he talks and eats with his driver and the barber and finally sleeps; a moment that marks his final appropriation of that “something missing”. When he leaves with his hair half cut – the mark of the recurring asymmetry noted in his prostrate and in the anomalous behaviour of the Yen – he is finally in the position to be able to live as well as die as and for himself. Throughout the novel Eric has been shown to be as removed from the world as the professional tourists of The Names, except that instead of flying above it, he is removed while remaining inside it, protected by the empty space of his armoured limousine and the three bodyguards who stand between his life and the danger of the outside world. After he leaves the hairdresser, having already dispatched his bodyguards, he comes across a scene being shot for a film in which three hundred people are lying naked on the street, who appear to Eric as ‘blunt facts,’ and whose power is ‘their own’.[25] Leaving his car and his clothes behind, Eric joins them to finally come into direct contact with the earth and other people. It is a visceral moment for Eric, the language more powerfully evocative than anywhere else in the novel, when, lying down among them, ‘[h]e felt the textural variation of slubs of chewing gum compressed by decades of traffic. He smelled the ground fumes, the oil leaks and rubbery skids, summers of hot tar.’[26] In this moment the earth and the people around him come to exist as something themselves, full of history and material reality, and Eric is ready to see the world, people, his wife, as irregular, individual things themselves, not as ‘terms in a series’ or components of a system. When Eric meets his ‘credible threat’, Benno Levin, in their final showdown and the last pages of the novel, he prepares to die as a mortal man and an individual ‘self’ that cannot be ‘translated’ to the outside world: he has ‘come to know himself, untranslatably, through his pain.’[27]

The point at which the novel leaves us is Eric’s suspension between life and death. From its outset, Cosmopolis has been structured on the weird temporality it seeks to describe. Almost to the moment Eric arrives at the hairdresser the pace of the narrative has mirrored the car’s incremental progress through the city; as one reviewer puts it, ‘[s]ex happens, death happens, yet nothing moves forward.’[28] As Eric leaves the hairdresser, the narrative then picks up and rushes towards its end, suggesting the way DeLillo uses narrative to mirror the temporality of the world. Before Eric reaches the hairdresser the world is in a state of paralysis, then, at the hairdresser, when something happens to Eric which changes the world, the time of both narrative and world rushes on as if to catch up with itself. In the paradox this temporal warp creates, in the world as in the narrative, Eric is already dead. He has been dead since the beginning of the novel when he emerged from sleepless night already sensing the end as he determines to go to the hairdresser – not just any hairdresser, but a particular one, which is for Eric a shelter from the world. He is dead midway through the novel in the ‘Confessions of Benno Levin’, and he is already dead in the last paragraphs of the novel when he sees in the screen on his watch his body being taken to the morgue. In the final pages of the novel we see how the consequences of Eric’s actions have already spread throughout the world, imploding the capital market and promising to restore the natural order of time. Eric, meanwhile, becomes the perpetual Sisyphean condemned man, authentically living and always authentically dying.


[1] Boxall (2007), p. 5

[2] See Boxall (2007), p 5: ‘self-referring’ is one of DeLillo’s terms, seen across his oeuvre, for example in The Names, also in Libra and White Noise

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis (C) (2003), p. 90

[6] N, p. 98

[7] C, p 86

[8] Ibid., p. 13

[9] Ibid., p. 37

[10] Ibid., p.15

[11] Cited in Thurschwell (2001), p. 22

[12] Ibid.

[13] C, p. 126

[14] Ibid., p. 127

[15] Pamela Thurschwell, ‘Forecasting Falls: Icarus from Freud to Auden to 9/11’,  in OLR (Dec. 2008 30/2) p. 213

[16] Ibid.

[17] Boxall (2007), p. 5

[18] C, p. 28

[19] Ibid., p. 72

[20] Ibid., p. 126

[21] Ibid., p. 30

[22] Ibid., p. 79

[23] Cited in Nicholas Royle, Jacques Derrida (2003), p. 55

[24] C, p. 6

[25] Ibid., p. 173

[26] Ibid., p. 174

[27] Ibid., p. 207

[28] Blake Morrison, ‘Future Tense’ in The Guardian, Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/may/17/fiction.dondelillo

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12 thoughts on “COSMOPOLIS

      1. Just reading Sven Lindqvist’s ‘Exterminate all the Brutes’ in ‘Saharan Journey.’ It contains a fantastic analysis of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and its connection to a Conrad story, ‘An Outpost of Progress’ submitted in 1896 to a magazine called Cosmopolis. I wonder if there is any connection to DeLillo’s choice of title.

  1. Thank you for sharing this portion of your dissertation. I am only educated in the organic sciences so please forgive the inability to elaborate.
    Eric is a genius, instinctual & young child who failed to remain connected to the collective, cut out of the herd young, by those who abuse genius. He hit the end game of his extremely narrow path…. Lacking internal knowledge, courage to change & real connection to others he can love, respect & trust, he dies.

    1. That’s an interesting viewpoint and one I’d entirely failed to consider. I must be too entrenched in the philosophical and deconstructive aspect of literature! Of course there are many ways to read a book, of which mine is only one. Thanks very much for your comment, Diana.

  2. Further to the comments above, thanks for linking to this. I appreciate people who take the time to provide a closer reading

  3. Well done! I generally do not need validation of my take on things, especially books, but it is nice to see someone seeing what I see in this wonderful work. This is my favourite DeLillo novel so far, and to my understanding, you’ve ‘got it’ far more so than the Guardian, than Cronenberg. I am noting this spot to read it again. Thanks for taking the time!

  4. Cronenberg humanizes to the Derrida’s specter, the final emphasis on the Life or Death of Eric Packer is searching the forgiveness for the rich man who is fallen in disgrace. But if the rich man had enough power then he could have saved the Life of many minuscule human beings who keep the System working…

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