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“Cosmopolis” a Novel by Don DeLillo

The story of Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo is about the final day in the life of Eric Packer, a billionaire financial trader. The story is set in 2000 on “A Day in April” as delineated before the beginning of part 1 of the story (DeLillo 3). The novel opens with Packer waking up in his posh, Manhattan penthouse and deciding to go for a haircut. He mounts on his large limousine and begins his journey towards the other side of the town to get the haircut. Technology and money combined together brings Packer up-to-date to all that is happening around the world, emphasizing on the fact that even though he was on a personal trip to get a haircut, packer was connected to the whole world: the assassination of IMF managing director in North Korea, death of a wealthy man from Russia, the probably fall in Japanese yen and weakening of their economy, meets three different women and has sex with them, gets a prostrate examination, and kills his chief of security.

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The story represents Packer as a representative of the group of capitalist oligarchs who are essentially rapacious and cavalier, demonstrating them as a strength and weakness of American political and financial hegemony. However, this is the apparent meaning of the story, with deep-seated issues of existentialism instilled in the storyline. The thematic concern of the novel is suffused with the issue of subjectivity, the amoral aspect of exuberance and enjoyment, and the philosophical issue of futurity.

The study of Packer’s character through the postmodernist lens presents the capitalist qualities of the world wherein the character adheres as well as rejects the worldly norms in order to establish his own identity and assimilate with the world. The aesthetic sense of the character as demonstrated throughout the novel presents one who is eagerly awaiting redemption. Packer is described as an emotionless capitalist oligarch who wilfully faces his actions in order to flout the ethical norms of the world. Thus, his subjectivity forces him to test the limit of his aesthetic character in face of the anarchist norms of the capitalist hegemony. Thus, packer contradicts his own world to turn around and become someone else who absolutely disregards materialistic values and social norms and searches for transcendence.

Karl Heinz Bohrer presents the “transitory nature of art” that demonstrates that the historical progression requires that the new and the old collide in “polar opposition” and the aesthetic values that are prevalent are transformed through the destruction of the “old” traditions in order to culminate the “new” expressions (Bohrer 74). He believes that the postmodern art is not “merely a technique of the avant-garde” and is one that breaks through the barriers of the older traditions on order to create new ones (Bohrer 78). Thus, the postmodern art actually emphasizes on the temporal movements that the paintings represent which exceeds the lesser concerns regarding elements and representations of the moment (Bohrer 79). Thus, Bohrer argues that the postmodernist tradition of painting represents the progression of the art towards an anarchic rule breaking to totally annihilate the traditionalist and the past ideals. Thus, the idea of destroying the tradition is to create an identity for the present (Bohrer 84). According to Terry Smith, various forms of art around the globe that assimilate together through time and space to form contemporary or postmodern art which is essentially the art of the historical present (192).

The paintings and music that is enjoyed by Packer represent this form of contemporary art that transcends the boundaries of space and time. This was the effort that packer tried to do in the novel Cosmopolis. The novel it is argues that postmodernism considers the world as a place lacking its subjective potential; consequently, it is obligatory for those who do not endorse nihilistic determination to attempt reclaiming humanity. This is possible through promoting confrontational prejudiced expression to the edge of its accessibility. This is the theme of the paper. I will argue that the irrational, eccentric, absurd actions of Packer that fill the pages of this postmodernist novel, Cosmopolis, identities the actions of the non-traditionalist hero whose goal is to break-free the traditions and bindings of the past in order to find a space and identity for himself. Thus, Packer’s aim in all the irrationalities he presents in the book is to “create meaning in the present” (Bohrer 84). Thus, in order to rectify his moral debasement, Packer had taken refuge in his aesthetic taste and collection, realigns his life to the normal new code, and coincides with the structure of the postmodernist world.

Cosmopolis and Existential identity

Narcissist attitude of Packer fills every page in Cosmopolis. Packer is egoistic and is bloats in self-proclamation. When his wife, Elisa, asked him about his nature when he was a little boy, he boastingly said, he had weighed himself on every planet on the solar system, to which the former replied “Such science and ego combined” (DeLillo 70). His egoistic nature presides over his masterful concept about the worldly life, business, and fortune making. Is ego is not confined to his office, work, or personal life but also extends to his spending of his vast fortune and as a connoisseur of culture and art. Packer enjoys music especially that of a fictional Urdu rapper called Brutha Fez, a real life French composer named Satie, who suggested that France should have its own national music, freeing it from German influence. The specific religious or idealist adherence of these artists does not hinder Packer from liking them; on the contrary, he is drawn to them because of their otherness that provides an element of exclusivity that satisfies his ego.

Packer’s liking of otherness is explicitly evident in his choices of artwork, which are minimalist in nature, “paintings that his guests did not know how to look at”, and his preference for female partners (DeLillo 8). When he had sex with Kendra Hays, an African American woman on his security team he insisted that she wore her armoured uniform when they had sex. He thought to himself that “she was a woman of straps and belts” and “at some level she would never be naked” when he watched her taking a shower (DeLillo 114). Thus, Packer believed Hays’s her body armour and her “coral brown skin” accentuated otherness (DeLillo 111). The belief that Hays was different initiated Packer’s fetishist desire for exclusivity or otherness in all that he possessed. Hence, the act of lovemaking with Hays, doubly stimulated by the armour worn by Hays, provided Packer with two stimulations – first sexual and second egoistic desire for otherness. However, Packer’s ego is not satisfied solely in the relish of the exclusivity but in annihilation of all boundaries that separates him to the world or in other worlds, breaking down the walls that creates the otherness. Hence, Packer is satisfied not only to have sex with a woman with “coral brown skin” and a armour but also in the resistance the armour created in the process of breaking the barrier of otherness.

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Hence, his desire is to assimilate himself with the otherness. This becomes apparent when Packer seems exhilarated, and not shielding of his refined station, on finding out that the globalization protestors were reading the same poem that he reads, thus, creating a channel for assimilation between him and the world (DeLillo 97). This feeling of oneness that packer feels towards the protesting group shows that he desires to feel the oneness with others, even if it means associating himself with those who are protesting against the very order to the capitalist world that he represents. Thus, Packer’s self identity is defined through two juxtaposing aspects – first his sense of ownership that expands to the whole world breaking the brand exclusivity and second his desire to penetrate the forbidden and the exclusive world.

Packer is the postmodernist hero who lacks a sense of belonging, which he desires to build through proliferation of his worldly possessions. He lives in a cosmopolitan city but being a cosmopolitan does not make him a part of the world. He lives like an alien in his own world. Aaron Chandler points out that Packer is like a “resident alien” that the Greeks called “world-metic­” (Chandler 243). Packer’s insistent denial of the physical realities of human life demonstrates his indignation towards the corporeal world and makes him believe that he was a complete outsider. He believes chairs are “stupid and demeaning” indicating his impatience for regular, worldly thongs that have become a part of human life (DeLillo 151). Packer’s assassin, Beno Levin says that the former is impatient with regular things that other men consider essential and normal:

He is always ahead, thinking past what is new … always arguing with things that you and I consider great and trusty additions to our lives. Things wear out impatiently in his hands… He wants to be one civilization ahead of this one. (DeLillo 152)

Packer’s mind even ponders at the prevalence of time and gravity: “How things persist, the habits of gravity and time, in this new and fluid reality” (DeLillo 83). Chandler points out that packer is increasingly confronted with the “desuetude” of the world such as the “ATMs, cash registers, walkie-talkies, skyscrapers”, even the mention of which irritates Packer (243). The reason for Packer’s irritation with these worldly things even though he possesses so many that pertains to it is probably because he desires a transcend the world and its belongings. His desire, according to Chandler, is to transcend the past world and included in it are the ideals of “morality and law” (243). Packer definitely shows contempt for the inherited mores of life and the social conventions that formulate the essential character of modern man. This feeling of disgust towards the social mores and rules build up every vein in Packer’s character and hence his conviction that the mundane “traffic laws” do not apply to him (DeLillo 158). Thus, his contempt towards the social mores of life are exceedingly demonstrated through his numerous perfidies that shows his denouncing the social code of monogamy (DeLillo 25, 51, 111), his flouting of traffic rules (DeLillo 158), and the commitment of murder (DeLillo 146).

The murder committed by Packer was occurs accidently when he asks Torval, his security, to check his voice-activated weapon. The code being an exclusive password for Torval always held a charm for Packer who craved for the unachievable. As the code is a woman’s name, a piece of Torval’s personal life and space, and consequently a piece of his identity. Thus, Packer coaxed the name out of Torval just to satisfy his ego:

“You’re saying there’s a code as well.”

“A preprogrammed spoken code.” … “What is it?”…

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“Nancy Babich.”

He shot the man…. He fired once and the man went down, all authority drained out of him. He looked foolish and confused.” (DeLillo 146)

This irrational action of packer confirms his status as an existential absurdist hero like Meursault of Camus. Packer is arrogant. He killed a man just because he believed that Torval was “his enemy” and “a threat to his self-regard” (DeLillo 147). E argued with this conscience that “when you pay a man to keep you alive, he gains a psychic edge” and creates a “credible threat” to his life (DeLillo 147). Thus, the readers could easily imagine Packer’s stream of consciousness that was screaming at the appalling world that he was right in doing whatever he had done for, Like Meursault, he loo was “always right” (Camus 121). Packer becomes the anti-hero who asserts his violent ambivalence over the world in order to assert his individual freedom and break through the social barriers of justice. The paradoxical situation packer finds himself – his ample of worldly possessions and his intrinsic disconnection between with the world – marks him as an existentialist anti-hero.

Cosmopolis and contemporary art

Packer’s obsession with minimalist artwork and technology shows his inclination towards the creations that too denounce the worldly norms. Ian Davidson studies Cosmopolis to understand Packer’s obsession with his car and his need for customization (470). Davidson argues that the car in which Packer travels is actually a symbol of freedom for humans as it an invention that advanced the capitalistic world but in the novel it is also a cage that imprisons the protagonist (Davidson 470). Thus, Davidson argues that the car is a symbol in the novel that does not move through space but through time. The car is used as a symbol of journey of Packer towards his death. In similar fashion, it can be argued that the paintings and the other artworks described in the novel as possession of the protagonist ate symbols and shows the existentialist nature of the hero.

Cosmopolis presents nihilistic reflections about the objective realities of modern and capitalist life and subjective realities and symbols represent the American and postmodern culture. Marc Schuster in his study of Cosmopolis and Baudrillard’s postmodern theory (Schuster 181). In his article, Schuster describes Packer’s subjectivity of the rise and fall of the currencies:

… the ebb and flow of world currencies, the computer-generated images that haunt the billionaire throughout the novel suggests that the “reality” in which he lives amounts to what Baudrillard refers to as a third-order simulacrum, or a model based upon other models rather than upon reality. (Schuster 181)

The distorted reality of Packer and the theory of simulacrum by Braudillard are further analysed by Schuster. He describes the existence of the postmodern hyper-reality as a symbolic representation of the signs “from the referential as well as from all metalanguage” in order to create a new form of “metalanguage” through the process of “duplicating itself as its own critique” (Schuster 181). Thus, Packer occupies a space of hyperreality in Cosmopolis and thus, his character becomes a repetition of the cyclical order of the modern system. Thus, the novel and the characters in it represent a sore in the cyclical symbol of time and are incapable of participating in the system but have the power to destabilize the stability of the system. Thus, the conditions of hyperreality are recognized in both the works of Baudrillard and DeLillo but the authors significantly differ in their presentation of subjectivity and its potential. For Baudrillard the postmodernist landscape is one that is subjected to the repressive environment while for DeLillo the hyperreality creates a problem for man. For this reason, Packer’s subjectivity is accentuated by his hyperreality and his readiness to step out of the limitations of his physical limitations.

Packer is in constant conflict with the hyperreality and his movement is constantly constrained by it. Thus, the episode where Packer looks at his wristwatch is transcended through time to look into the future presents a hyperrealistic moment when Packer breaks through the normal barriers of time: “The digital displays in packer’s limousine and, later, the displays of his digital wristwatch allow him, mysteriously, to see seconds into the future (Chandler 255). In the beginning of the novel, these temporal disturbances create minor problems in Packer’s perception as observed when he was watching himself in the “oval screen below the spycam” and was “running his thumb along his chinline”, packer realized that he had “just placed his thumb on his chinline a second or two after he’d seen it on-scree” (DeLillo 22). However, the realization of the lapse in time and space become more acute as the novel progresses and later he asks the passenger in his limousine, Michael Chin, “Then why am I seeing things that haven’t happened yet” (DeLillo 22). Just before the incident with the spy camera and the screen takes place, Chin was Packer’s financial advisor, counselled him to disinvest in the bet favouring a fall of Japanese yen. Packer initially suspected of a security breech and wondered at how the security technology operated. He struggles to rationalize how he could have prevented the breech if he knew how the spy camera worked: “He knew the spy camera operated in real time… How could he see himself if his eyes were closed? There wasn’t time to analyze” (DeLillo 52).

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This episode demonstrates an erotic arousal for Packer as he closes his eyes, while interacting with another of his advisors, Jane Melman, who too had entered the limousine to advise him to stop hedging against yen. The assertion that Packer makes about there being no “time to analyze” the “independent image” that though the image creates certain confusion in his present thought process, but he remains incapable to analyse the whole situation and deduce the reason for its inception. The physical reality of Packer to desire sexual pleasure takes antecedence over his though process and incapacitates him to rationally scrutinize the reason for the presence of the “independent image”. Thus, the reality of the physical desire takes primacy over the hyperreality of the screen creating ambiguous discrepancy in Packer’s present and the surreal. This breaks the “close system of signs” from spreading the fantastic simulacrum. When the screen and the surreal image created in Packer’s mind the sense of assuredness, the “independent image” broke the felt imagination, thus, baring the future to the disorientation of time that Packer eventually experiences. Thus, DeLillo’s narrative exposes the present to the surreal future through the usage of the aesthetics that is accelerated by usage of modern technology. Therefore, DeLillo’s use of the “independent image” as a landscape of the surreal presents a ground for humanity.

Max Nänny studied the presence of temporal ideas, such as visuals, symmetries and patterns in the work of Ernst Hemmingway (66). The use of art as a means of showing symmetry in the work of literature accentuates Hemmingway’s design to have greater symmetry in his narrative. From this, it can be deduced that art described in literature has a function to accentuate the thematic idea of the text: “all stylistic and compositional devices, consciously perceived or unperceived, that all forms of textual order, overt or covert, have some kind of impact on the reader” (Nänny 82). The presence of the paintings in the atrium that “requires pious silence” demonstrates the sanctity of art and aesthetics to Packer. Packer’s forty-eight roomed penthouse has numerous paintings mostly those that his “guests did not know how to look” (DeLillo 9). The paintings were specimen of modern art that are described as “unknowable to many, knife-applied slabs of mucoid color” (9). Packer’s desire to possess things that others did not understand added an element of exclusivity to his possessions, of which he was proud. However, the danger that he felt for these paintings was that they were “old” and the danger was in their “not being new” (9).

The prevalence of the connection of his paintings with that of his character is apparent. The paintings were modern paintings with asymmetrical geometric designs and splattered arrays of colour that made anybody wonder at its theme. This inability to read it made it even more sacred for Packer as he always prided himself in possessing things that are not commonplace. That is why when he is told about the Rothko paintings to be auctioned by Didi Fancher, he immediately said that he would like to buy the whole church, she said that she does not believe the he could be as “crude as” he “sounds”, to which he replied: “You’d accept the way I think and act if I came from another culture… But there has to be separation. If they look and smell like you it gets confusing” (DeLillo 32).

The quotation confronts the innate dilemma that packer faces – to be the other or to assimilate. He loves the idea of being a different person with exclusive taste and possession. His ego is satisfied every time he can grasp on something that is only his and has certain element of differentiation from the others. However, he also is plagued with the desire to come together, and mingle with the world. Thus, when he speaks rudely and arrogantly to buy the whole church and not just a single painting it is the billionaire Packer who speaks to satisfy his ego of being the rich and powerful other. However, when Fancher accuses him of being impolite and rude, he says that she would have loved him had be been someone from the exotic orient or a dictator from an African country. However, because he looks and smells like her, it is difficult for her to accept his otherness.

In the novel, Packer continually asserts that the ability of language and art is deplorably limited to keep pace with the fast moving global market and the innovations in technology. Jerry Varsava points out the feeling Packer possess towards paintings and their depleted value in the contemporary world. He points out that to Packer art is not about aesthetic display of personal culture but a “vulgar display of tasteful display” (DeLillo 77). According to Varsava, the argument is like Veblen’s effect wherein a consumer judges the value of the product by its price; higher the price, higher is the perceived value of the product (98). The whole sense of aesthetics in the modern world is crunched down to numbers: “Consumption is about numbers, staggering numbers that take on abstract aesthetic value in direct proportion to their size” (Varsava 99). The large apartment in which Packer lives cost one hundred and four million dollars which too is therefore, reduced to a number: “The number justifies itself” (DeLillo 78). Thus, in this modern capitalist world, Packer’s aesthetics is reduced to money, loosing its innate aesthetic value. Thus, money becomes the absolute measure of expression, be it for cars, music, or art. The reduction of art to monetary terms shows Packer’s disrespect for traditional reverence for artistic creations. Thus, he collects art as he collects money, with little cadence towards its intrinsic value.

Packer’s love for asymmetry in the world establishes his taste in art and his weird collection that his guests do not understand. The aesthetic interaction between the financial market and the natural world explicitly delineates the stress of the technological rationality that makes him incapable to differentiate the symmetrical from the asymmetrical characters inherent in nature. Therefore, this fundamental aspect defines modernity and its interaction with its interaction with aesthetics. The repetitive recurrence of the asymmetrical prostate of Packer and his fear of being incapacitated due to it shows why DeLillo’s narrator explains the issue about Packer:

… there was something about the idea of asymmetry. It was intriguing in the world outside the body, a counterforce to balance and calm, the riddling little twist, subatomic that made creation happen…. But when he removed the word from its cosmological register and applied it to the body of a male mammal … he began to feel pale and spooked. … Α fear of, a distance from. (DeLillo 25)

Packer, therefore, excels in an asymmetrical world, which accentuates his desire to be the anarchist in he traditional world. His ideology is found in sync with the asymmetry that the paintings and the other artistic expressions present in the novel. Packer’s anarchist attitude is demonstrated through a series of confrontations such as the argument with his wife, the murder of his bodyguard, and later with his murderer. The asymmetry in nature assumes a strong theme in the novel as it is in most postmodern artistic expressions. Packer’s murderer, Richard Sheets act as a foil over the existence of the former. Hence, Sheet may be identified as a recreation of Packer’s pathogenic self, an otherness that remained bottled-up like an alter ego. Smith argues that the desire of Sheet to kill Packer is an action that he commits like a nihilist who rejects present day consciousness to dominate his future actions (197). The idea that Sheet could be Packer’s alter ego is demonstrated when the former says: “I have become an enigma to myself… And herein lies my sickness” (DeLillo 189). The perpetrator identifies with his target and the otherness of the two characters combine as a symbol of complementarity of surreal experience.

In Cosmopolis, the idea of both the protagonist (acting as an anti hero, Packer) and his murderer (Sheet), act on the intention to create something new from the static. Richard Sheet believes that his act of killing Packer will “make history and change everything that came before” (DeLillo 199). Thus, he acts like a nihilist, not unlike Packer himself, who feels that a violent action is required to change the future without objectifying the present situation. Sheet is the representative character in the novel who acts as the mirror image of Packer; they harbour the same anti-establishment sentiments but they belong to different classes, different societies (Featherstone 5). Postmodern philosophy caters to the complexities of aesthetic symbol that changes the fundamentals of the situation. However, DeLillo’s narrative attacks the nihilistic attitude of the modern age. The solution that he proposes through his novel is creation of aesthetically pure act that culminates the freedom from the dictate of the surreal text. The postmodern element in DeLillo’s Cosmopolis is its lack of subjectivity thus, subjecting its characters to nihilistic determinations to attempt to reclaim humanity. Their effort is therefore to efface their present to create a new future.

Works Cited

Bohrer, Karl H. Suddenness: On the Moment of Aesthetic Appearance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949. Print.

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Matthew Ward. New York: Vintage, 1988. Print.

Chandler, Aaron. “”An Unsettling, Alternative Self”: Benno Levin, Emmanuel Levinas, and Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 50.3 (2009): 241-260. Print.

Davidson, Ian. “Automobility, materiality and Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis.” Cultural Geographies 19.4 (2012): 469–482. Print.

DeLillo, Don. Cosmopolis. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003. Print.

Featherstone, Mike. “Cosmopolis An Introduction.” Theory, Culture & Society 19.1 (2002): 1-16. Print.

Nänny, Max. “Formal Allusions to Visual Ideas and Visual Art in Hemingway’s Work.” European Journal of English Studies 4.1 (2000): 66-82. Print.

Schuster, Marc. Don DeLillo, Jean Baudrillard, and the Consumer Conundrum. New York: Cambria Press, 2008. Print.

Smith, Terry. “Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity: Reflections on Method, Review of Reviews (Part 1): Contest of the Faculties; or, Comedy of the Disciplines,.” Discipline 3 (2013): 191-200. Print.

Varsava, Jerry A. “The “Saturated Self”: Don DeLillo on the Problem of Rogue Capitalism.” Contemporary Literature XLVI.1 (2005): 78-107. Print.

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