Nicholas A. Prescott
Allow me, good sirs and madams, to take a step back from racial themes and the like and talk about an all American classic: American Psycho (the movie). If you’ve never seen it, stop reading, go watch it. I’ll wait.
Oh! You’re back. Quite a wild ride, huh? Well since, my dear reader, I know you cling to my every word and listen to all my commands like the wage slave monkey you are, I know that you’re very familiar with the film. In the event you’re a dirty nonconformist, I’ll post relevant scenes for you to watch as you go… heathen.
Before we get to the film, though, let’s think back to the good old days of Emerson and “Self-Reliance.” To recap for you:
Nonconformity (through conformity).
Work for your stay.
You control your destiny.
Be great and stand out.
While that is an extremely simplified version of things, it’s concise enough for what we need. Strap in ladies and gents, we’re going on a trip into insanity and unreliability.
American Psycho is a story of a Patrick Bateman, a handsome, successful, self-made (kind of, we’ll get there), office executive by day turned serial killer by night. In the movie, he’s played by Christian Bale. Christian, friggen, Bale.
So, where in American Psycho is Emerson?
Well, Bateman struggles throughout the film to stand out against all his very similar counterparts. Emerson clearly states “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist” (Emerson, “Self-Reliance”). In the following scene, Bateman struggles against his colleagues to see who has the best, newest, and whitest (shh I said no racial undertones) business card. Watch and take note.
Ironically, Bateman and his coworkers all have the same or relatively the same business card. It drives Bateman nearly insane in the scene. To Emerson’s beliefs, I suppose we need to get into the discussion of if intent on self-reliance and nonconformity matters if the product is, in fact, extremely conformist. What do I mean by that? Well, all of the characters in the scene are trying to be their own person and have a different, better business card. They all believe they are being non-conforming but are really all the same. If you look at the film as a whole, you can see that they’re all, more or less, the same person. They all look extremely similar, dress the same, have the same job, do the same things. Except for Bateman’s dirty secret.
As I said, and as you can see in the film, Bateman stands out because he is actually a brutal murderer. He dreams of dissecting people, kills a homeless man for being useless, and brutally murders his colleague. To that extent, Bateman certainly embodies the idea of standing out amongst the crowd. Although, in the above gif, you can see how extremely similar Bateman (the one with the axe) is to Paul, his pal.
Well, what else then? Bateman and his colleagues, at the very least, embody what I call Emerson’s proto-American Dream. They’re all self-made men. They worked themselves up to their positions and are all relatively successful. They controlled their own destiny and got after themselves and scored a juicy, juicy “mergers and acquisitions” position. Whatever the heck that means.
Although, I suppose it’s important to note that Bateman comes from a wealthy family and was sent to a good school and started off well in the world and is… white… Wait! I said I wasn’t going to go into race.
Now, allow me to get a bit meta.
Emerson counters his own argument many times in “Self-Reliance.” In this way, as the writer of the essay, he is sort of an unreliable source, much like Patrick Bateman. The film feeds you just enough to get the idea but leaves some confusing things out to muddy up the story. Because all the characters are pretty much interchangeable, this causes several problems within the film around mixing people up for others, so it’s not even really clear if Bateman is the one doing the killing. The narrator is so unreliable and the character is so interchangeable with the surrounding ones, the story could be about any of them and we wouldn’t really know the difference.
Although that last point is a bit more abstract, I think it’s an interesting idea to think about. Why? Because I typically think of unreliable narrators as exclusive to fiction. In reality, though, Emerson is the definition of the unreliable writer of “Self-Reliance.” While “Self-Reliance” is an essay and American Psycho is a novel-turned-movie, I think an important lesson to learn is that the writer, while they may sound smart and well spoken in Emerson’s case, can be totally contradictory and give shaky ideas.
I also think that if Emerson could come back to life and read this and see how his magnum opus was being compared to the actions of Patrick Bateman, he would fall right back into the coffin he rose from, convulsing from a stroke.