Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

American Frankenstein: Modernity's Monstrous Progeny

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

American Frankenstein: Modernity's Monstrous Progeny

Article excerpt

Milton's Eve in Paradise Lost and Shelley's monster in Frankenstein provide the comparative intertext for a constructivist analysis of a key scene in Mary Harron's film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's novel American Psycho, in which Patrick Bateman emerges as an avatar of the "monstrous" postmodern masculine subject.

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Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth.--Jean
Baudrillard, America

To represent a monster is to tame him.--Sabine Melchior-Bonnet, The
Mirror: A History

As an early nineteenth-century text, Frankenstein is a book whose fascination for students of Western culture arguably has only increased within the context of a perceived shift to a postmodern cultural dominant. As a seminal rewriting of the Prometheus myth, and one of the first science fiction novels, Frankenstein articulates the modern monster myth--one of the foundational narratives for later modernity, particularly in popular cultural terms (Alkon 1). This approach to Shelley's novel invites a comparative analysis of Mary Harron's 2000 film of American Psycho as a particularly revealing version of what I am calling here the postmodern monster myth, in which the main character's "monstrousness" hinges on his masculine selfhood. The modern subject, characterized by the meaningful distinction between a metaphysical interiority and all-too-physical body, gives way before this postmodern subject in which these boundaries have collapsed, producing a vacuity behind the mask of self-representation. At issue, ultimately, is the relation between Patrick Bateman's "identity" as a hypermasculine serial killer and monstrous consumer, and his identity in terms of a unique and authentic interiority.

As a focus of analysis, I have chosen one specific scene in Mary Harron and Guinivere Turner's film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's 1991 novel, in comparison to equivalent "primal" moments in Milton's Paradise Lost and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. This comparison occurs within a theoretical framework suggested by feminist and post-colonialist comparisons of Frankenstein and Paradise Lost, alongside more recent thinking about what Sean Nixon calls new "visual codings" of masculinity and male beauty (Hall 294; see also Bordo). That the reader may question the relevance or value of placing such a film alongside these canonical literary texts only magnifies the significance of these emergent social-cultural codes and consequent practices of looking. The general argument here is that if the hegemonic visuality of contemporary culture, and the nature and place of the subject within it, are to be understood, then this kind of comparative analysis across genre, medium, discourse, and historical period becomes unavoidable.

In Daniel Cottom's view, the "parable" of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is this: "in seeking to represent himself, man makes himself a monster" (60). The crisis dramatized by American Psycho--both film and novel--is first of all epistemological, a crisis of the subject that in each text transforms into an ontological crisis. The analogous argument has been made for Frankenstein, in which conceptual and ontological fragmentation combine into a breakdown in representation: "the physical monstrosity of Frankenstein's creature is related to problems in the representation of man as a species, a social figure, an individual, a creature of reason, and a being in the contexts of science and political economy. [...] It is as if Victor [Frankenstein] sees in his creation the breakdown of the concept of man into an irreconcilable diversity of individuals or of qualities within individuals--a breakdown that leaves representation as a groundless, disordered, monstrous affair (61).

What Mary Harron's film manifests even more clearly than the novel is that Patrick Bateman's epistemological and ontological crises are ultimately reducible to the question of representation. In the first place, the flashpoint in the reception of both novel and film has been the representation of violence. …

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