Materialism and Meaning
May 7, 2018
Don Delillo’s novel Cosmopolis, chronicles the financial and social down spiral of Eric Packer’s life as he embarks on what should be a simple journey through New York City to the barbershop. Eric Packer, a financial tycoon of sorts, is the head of Packer Capital and the protagonist of the novel. His character embodies that of the typical social elite we are so familiar with such as Donald Trump or Martin Shkreli. Here we see a man who is smart, calculated, narcissistic, materially driven, and self-destructive. His exorbitant wealth is only overshadowed by his pleasure seeking personality and his fear of uncertainty. These seem to be his biggest motivators as he grapples with the direction of his life and the empty relationships propped up by status. For so long he has operated within the cycle of capitalism, one could say he even personifies it, but it is only once he is external to it that he realizes the shell of a life that he lives. In this essay I seek to analyze Eric Packer’s consumer culture as it relates to the search for the ‘Good Life’ while drawing on some of the readings from the course. In addition to that, I will also look to discuss the empty social relations he has within the fast lane to show they are just a pattern of Eric’s reliance on external assistance to satisfy certain ends.
The pursuit of the Good life by todays standards is not pursuing a good life at all. This would seem to be characteristic of Eric Packer’s life, but it is slightly unusual because we are seeing the aftermath of what is supposedly already considered to be the Good Life. One is more accustomed to seeing the failure of an individual in the pursuit of such a life, not after one has achieved what modern society deems is the Good life. In the beginning, the novel details that Eric Packer, who has made a fortune based on his skill as a trader of stocks and currencies, appears to be baffled by the aberration of the ever-rising yen. Meanwhile, he wakes up on this morning in April and decides that his main desire in addition to his work is simply to get a haircut.
For Eric, the accumulation of wealth and expensive items has dominated much of his life. In typical New York City social elite fashion, he lives a life of excess and opulence. This behavior and lifestyle could not be more evident than when he is discussing Rothko paintings with his art dealer, Didi Fancher in the following: ‘“How many paintings in his chapel?” “I don’t know. Fourteen, fifteen.” “If they sell me the chapel, ill keep it intact. Tell them”…”But people need to see it.” Let them buy it. Let them out bid me” “Forgive the pissy way I say this. But the Rothko Chapel belongs to the world.” “It’s Mine if I buy it”’ (DeLillo 28). Here we see one of the many instances where Eric completely disregards cost and spends his money to either deprive people from having something or to just spend money for moneys sake. We also see this when he discusses the price of his penthouse apartment with Vija and when he buys as much Yen as possible. Vija asserts that spending money is itself a privilege, saying of Eric’s apartment, “What did you buy for your one hundred and four million dollars?…You paid the money for the number itself. One hundred and four million. That is what you bought. And it is worth it. The number justifies itself” (78). This idea creates a totalizing, reverential view of money, sanctifying the idea of money as an end in itself. With regards to the problem of the yen, Vija appears to view Eric’s decision regarding the problem more as a matter of identity than one of business
These acts are all desperate attempts to feel something deeper and more profound then what his life of wealth and privilege has afforded him. After investing as much money as possible in yen, the sheer weight and sprawling nature of Eric’s company’s stock portfolio was now threatening to crush the entire trading system. This idea, along with the effects of the stun gun he experiences with his head of security, make Eric feel delirious with a newfound sense of freedom. It is not until he ruins his fortune and there is a credible threat to his life that he understands the freedom from the good life. We see this when Eric says, “It makes me feel free in a way I’ve never known” (DeLillo 122). His detachment from his wealth and security allows him to experience his human base nature that has been overshadowed by the pursuit of money and status.
While meaning can be significant, at what point do things begin to shift from meaningful pursuits to mere things that dominate our lives? Tim Kasser addressed what happens to the quality of our lives when today’s society values materialism. His study arrived at the conclusion that, “The more materialistic values are at the center of our lives, the more our quality of life is diminished” (Kasser 14). This has certainly not dissuaded the modern culture capitalistic materialism and a lifestyle of excess. Cosmopolis is hinting at the fact that this misplaced notion of a link between materialism, money, and happiness is only furthered by the consumer culture we live in. Eric Packer finds this out the hard way. Everything he bought to fill his life and feel pleasure only diminished or reduced his life to what he owns. Whether in a society of individuals glued to their phone screens or a capitalistic culture obsessed with the accumulation of things to elevate their social status, we have successfully perpetuated a cycle of over consumption. This point is emphasized by Halton’s The Great Brain-Suck when he says, “the vast technical culture and wealth of America have not led the way towards the good life, but instead towards the goods life” (Halton, Brain-suck 13). Both Halton and DeLillo seem to suggest that our cultures obsession with material objects has caused us to lose focus on the human experience. A human experience that Eric Packer desperately seeks, whether through pain or passion.
Despite our attachment to material possessions, we cannot allow them to dictate or control our lives. We have a responsibility to not indulge ourselves at the expense of the environment and to not lose site of our true priorities.
The relationships shown throughout Cosmopolis are surprisingly empty and always appear to be serving some greater need of Eric. The fact that many of his encounters take place in his limo reveal a great deal about social relations in the fast lane. Most of the relations we see serve only to satisfy his obsession with the uncertainty of the Yen or to satisfy his pleasure seeking tendencies. Eric is moving a million miles an hour with how many interactions he has from his apartment to the barbershop. He is operating between the present and the future, much like the instant flow of financial information that he capitalized on in the past to build his fortune. A great example of his fast lane behavior is when he is receiving a prostate exam by Dr. Ingram in the limo while simultaneously climaxing while speaking to Jane about the Yen and her looks. The novel presents the stimulation of words and ideas as its own form of excitement and arousal. Eric’s encounter with Jane is similar to his encounter with Didi in that both encounters demonstrate a mixing of business and pleasure. The fact that these sexual events are both coupled with matters of business and money allow the narrative to also establish a connection between pleasure and work within the outlooks of these characters. Even though Eric could likely have retired at the age of 28 and lived comfortably for the rest of his life, he chooses to continue his work for stimulation and fulfillment in the fast lane. Erics limo is the only thing moving slow in his life, ironically the result of funerals and a massive protest against capitalism and economic exploitation.