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  • Avis Cardella

    Dear Mr. Jeffrey

    I’m pleased you wrote this piece. Cosmopolis is one of De Lillo’s titles that I keep coming back to. I’m perplexed that it didn’t receive more positive critique and attention. Perhaps it will be appreciated at some point in the future.

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It wouldn’t be absurd to describe Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis as the most prescient American novel of the last fifteen years. Published in 2003, it’s a slim and strangely told story about capitalism, the thirteenth book of DeLillo’s career and—so far—the only one to have been made into a film.[1] When it first appeared, critics chalked it up as a late-career curiosity or, more often, tore it apart for being pretentious and stale. In one of two acidic reviews published by the New York Times, Walter Kirn described it as “a numbing abacus calculation in prose,” while in the other Michiko Kakutani called it “a major dud” and “hopelessly clichéd.” In my own opinion, verdicts like these are a lot stupider than anything in DeLillo’s novel, but there’s no denying that Cosmopolis is an awkward book with some significant flaws. None of its characters are lifelike. The dialogue, which is heavily stylized, can be hard going at times and occasionally feels like it’s meant to be satire without actually being funny (an odd quality that comes out all the more in Cronenberg’s movie). There are a couple of embarrassing forays into rap music and nightclubbing, lead-footed jokes, unconvincing set pieces and a long-winded and very obscure final scene. Those problems don’t spoil the experience, but they do make Cosmopolis feel less substantial than, say, White Noise (1985) or Libra (1988), the heavyweight triumphs of DeLillo’s career.

For all of that, Cosmopolis is an authentically strange achievement: a mostly forgotten minor novel that’s also a suitably murky conclusion to the story DeLillo’s been telling about America for the last half-century. I’ve come to think that it is a deeply political book, one that raises a series of pertinent questions about what socially conscious writing can hope to achieve today. The most immediately interesting parts have to do with the knots Cosmopolis ties itself into around the ideas of anti-capitalism and countercultural art in an age where “there’s only one thing in the world worth pursuing professionally and intellectually … the interaction between technology and capital.” But beneath that puzzle lie some much more unsettling problems regarding what it is possible for us to think or imagine from within a society that seems almost superhumanly cruel.

The story depicts the last day in the life of Eric Packer, a 28-year-old asset-management billionaire living in New York in 2000. The plot is simple: in the morning, on a whim, Packer decides to take an eleven-block journey across Manhattan in his limo to get his hair cut at his favorite barbershop. En route he is waylaid by a series of symbolically loaded events, the most important of which is an enormous anti-capitalist riot in the middle of Times Square. After experiencing an epiphany at the sight of a protester setting himself on fire, Packer steadily loses or disposes of his assets. First he bankrupts himself; later he deliberately squanders his wife’s fortune, murders his own bodyguard and abandons his car, before finally being assassinated by a disaffected ex-employee named Richard Sheets. The atmosphere in which all of this takes place is heavy with harbingers of catastrophe. The day the young billionaire crosses town is also the occasion for a spate of violent anarchist attacks. Banks are subjected to coordinated bombings, the head of the International Monetary Fund is murdered live on the Money Channel, and revolutionary slogans are projected onto the feed of the Stock Exchange (A SPECTER IS HAUNTING THE WORLD—THE SPECTER OF CAPITALISM). New York itself, where the best apartments command nine-figure sums and long white limousines have become “the most unnoticed vehicles” on the streets, is cast in one of the archetypal roles of apocalypse mythology: the decadent city on the brink of an abyss.

DeLillo remarked in a 2003 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times that Cosmopolis is “set on the last day of an era … that interval between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of our current period of terror. It’s essentially the 1990s.” The manuscript was nearly finished when the 9/11 attacks took place, which meant that by the time the novel was published its moment had apparently already gone. All the signifiers the narrative is built around—the delirious market optimism of the Nineties, the digital boom, the newly unbridled capitalist expansionism and the mass protests against the G8 and the World Trade Organization—were supplanted in the general imagination by the twin specters of radical Islam and the War on Terror. But Cosmopolis had an uncanny afterlife. The story’s date—April 2000—is significant not only for its millenarian overtones but also because that was the year the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit its (then) all-time peak, after which it fell into a two-year slump. The main action in the background to Packer’s journey through New York is a massively leveraged bet he’s made against the Japanese yen, a gamble that ultimately sinks his own company along with the entire global economy as Cosmopolis ends. (Hence the none-too-subtle double meaning of Packer’s “getting a haircut”—business slang for accepting a loss on an investment.) In other words, the crisis the novel foretold was financial rather than terroristic. When the real crash arrived late in 2007 DeLillo’s little fable of apocalyptic banking disasters and speculative hubris suddenly felt a lot more insightful. The relic of the Nineties became an omen of the present.

The idea of temporal glitches and irregularities—of things behind, ahead or outside of time—recurs over and over again inside Cosmopolis, too. In one of the book’s recurring motifs, Packer’s hyper-attuned faculties seem to merge with the pristine technology that surrounds him, giving him disturbing glimpses of the future moments before it takes place. To the capitalist’s eyes, New York exists in a state of perpetual decay. No sooner does his gaze rest on some piece of technology—handheld phones, guns, cash registers, even the dazzling skyscrapers of the city’s post-industrial economy—than it seems to rot into obsolescence. Indeed, you can see epochs melting into one another in the structure of the story itself, which layers futuristic fantasies and pop-culture clichés over the bones of an ancient warning about idolatry and greed. Packer himself is an almost overwhelmingly symbolic figure: a cross between Steve Jobs and one of Ayn Rand’s titan capitalists, an all-purpose emblem of misbegotten utopianism, Faustian hubris and Babylonian wealth. Perhaps most conspicuously, he is also one of the latest in a long line of New York finance villains, the most famous of which belong to those late-Eighties spectacles of white-collar scandal and excess—Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities, Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. DeLillo’s billionaire is their digitally enhanced spawn: a young, handsome super-genius who “mastered the steepest matters in half an afternoon” and owns the most expensive apartment in New York, buying high-end luxuries on impulse and regularly indulging his heroic appetite for sex. (In Cronenberg’s adaptation, the role is played by Robert Pattinson, an actor who owes his fame to the Twilight vampire films—a choice that neatly emphasizes the character’s otherworldly glamour and evokes one of the oldest anti-capitalist vilifications there is: the bloodsucking parasite that takes society’s product for its own.)

Gothic metaphors for capital go back as far as Marx, and the idea of money as an agent of pollution and moral sickness is older still. (In fact, this is another interesting component of Packer’s character: the ancestral connection between finance capitalists and premodern usurers, men who were literally accused of stealing from God.[2]) Corruption—and the fear of corruption—runs all the way through Cosmopolis, along with an unshakeable current of despondency and frustration. In a 2005 interview with the French magazine Panic, DeLillo outlined part of the problem:

You know, in America and in Western Europe we live in very wealthy democracies, we can do virtually anything we want, I’m able to write whatever I want to write. But I can’t be part of this culture of simulation, in the sense of the culture’s absorbing of everything. In doing that it neutralizes anything dangerous, anything that might threaten the consumer society. In Cosmopolis [a character] says, “What a culture does is absorb and neutralize its adversaries.” If you’re a writer who, one way or another, comes to be seen as dangerous, you’ll wake up one morning and discover your face on a coffee mug or a t-shirt and you’ll have been neutralized.

What’s unsettling about the phenomenon DeLillo describes is that it doesn’t seem to depend on anybody’s intentions. It’s just how consumer culture works: an impersonal mechanism with an apparently limitless capacity to assimilate dissent, as though every effort to evade the system’s logic were somehow always and already enclosed within it. From his limo, Packer watches as anti-capitalist rioters attack banks and fight with the police in the heart of New York—another of the book’s prophetic details, this time of the Occupy protests—but still he thought “there was a shadow of a transaction between the demonstrators and the state. The protest was a form of systematic hygiene … It attested again, for the ten thousandth time, to the market culture’s innovative brilliance, its ability to shape itself to its own flexible ends, absorbing everything around it.” You don’t need a sharp eye to pick up on the autoreferential subtext here: the demonstration that Packer regards as so ineffectual is already “contained” within the novel Cosmopolis, a marketized commodity. (One character goes so far as to call the riot a “market fantasy,” which it literally is.)

For decades a certain kind of left-wing cultural theory has been formulating and reformulating the same impasse. Is it possible to mount any meaningful resistance to capitalism on the level of culture? Certainly in the West, after the Cold War, it has become extraordinarily difficult to believe that any amount of satire or critique could add up to systemic change. Quite the opposite: we’ve learned there’s no such thing as a work of art or philosophy that’s too dangerous to commodify. Packer’s observations about the protest in Times Square come during a break in a lengthy conversation between himself and his “chief of theory” Vija Kinski, a corporate oracle who spouts slick aphorisms about the nature of time and money while people die and buildings burn around her (a grim caricature, perhaps, of the fate of radical theory after the end of history). The subject of their conversation is whether capitalism has a limit or not. It is Kinski who says that the market is total. The protest is a symptom of the destruction capitalism leaves in its wake, an anger that can only express itself in shapes that the market has already classified and absorbed years before. The demonstrators are “quotations,” the burning man is a “quotation”: nothing they do can threaten the basic conditions of their habitat. “There is nowhere they can go to be on the outside. There is no outside.” Meanwhile, Packer watches as the anarchists flail uselessly around his car, as untouched as the system he represents.

For a long time the received wisdom about DeLillo was that he was a writer obsessed with paranoia (the critic Robert Towers once described him, wonderfully, as the “chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction”) and certainly there’s a great deal of post-Nixon fear and contempt for authority in his earlier work. But the truth is that paranoia and conspiracy theories were only ever components of a much larger concern with all of the unstable and self-defeating ways in which people try to divine order from the world. “The important thing about the paranoia in my characters is that it operates as a form of religious awe,” DeLillo observed in his interview with the Paris Review. “It’s something old, a leftover from some forgotten part of the soul.” A similar thing could be said about any one of the conspicuous displays of learning in his novels. There’s no shortage of academic catnip to do with philosophy, mathematics, consumerism, media theory, pop-culture iconography and so on. But the cleverness is almost always a channel for something more primal—dread and fascination, the sense of a structure above or below our capacities to articulate it. His writing can be off-putting in the way that less successful conceptual art can be—marked by a “fastidious vagueness,” as James Wood has put it. Yet at its best it emits an insistent, sub-rational tremor: dreamlike in the particular sense that it seems to cry out for an interpretation even if there’s no way of telling what the “real” message is or could be.

On the surface, it’s not easy to understand how this subliminal technique fits with DeLillo’s forcefully political ideas about what literature is for. “Writers must oppose systems,” he told Panic. “It’s important to write against power, corporations, the state, and the whole system of consumption and of debilitating entertainments. … Writers, by nature, must oppose things, oppose whatever power tries to impose on us.” The answer to this puzzle lies in the type of power that interests DeLillo. Politics, in his hands, is presented as a struggle for imaginative control, one in which it doesn’t take much to fall victim to malign forces. His books return over and over to figures who have the ability to shape or command the thoughts of others: fanatics, demagogues, cultists, advertisers, celebrities, crooks—and artists. In a famous scene from Mao II (1991), DeLillo’s novelist-hero speculates that writers and terrorists are engaged in a zero-sum struggle. “What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous.”[3]

Cosmopolis revisits the idea of a clandestine war for the world’s imagination, although in this case the novelist’s counterpart is a businessman rather than a terrorist. Packer is a human forecasting instrument, reading the future and shaping the lives of untold billions from his car in the middle of Manhattan. “You know things. I think this is what you do,” says his wife over breakfast. “I think you’re dedicated to knowing. I think you acquire information and turn it into something stupendous and awful. You’re a dangerous person. Do you agree? A visionary.” Like his Wall Street-era predecessors, Packer belongs to an economy in which information about commodities is more valuable than the commodities themselves. The difference is that the market he represents has ascended to an unprecedented level of speed, scope and abstraction. At the beginning of his career he made his fortune forecasting stocks, but before long “history became monotonous and slobbering, yielding to his search for something purer, for techniques of charting that predicted the movements of money itself.” Abstract knowledge is what underlies Packer’s status. And information is his object of worship—the testament to a clean and secret harmony behind the manifest world:

He looked … towards streams of numbers running in opposite directions. He understood how much it meant to him, the roll and flip of data on a screen. He studied the figural diagrams that brought organic patterns into play, birdwing and chambered shell. It was shallow thinking to maintain that numbers and charts were the cold compression of unruly human energies, every sort of yearning and midnight sweat reduced to lucid units in the financial markets. In fact data itself was soulful and glowing, a dynamic aspect of the life process. This was the eloquence of alphabets and numeric systems, now fully realized in electronic form, in the zero-oneness of the world, the digital imperative that defined every breath of the planet’s living billions. Here was the heave of the biosphere. Our bodies and oceans were here, knowable and whole.

Packer’s data is a living map of Earth: a vision of the world as a single huge organism held together by money and technology, a manmade fact so enormous it can only be represented as a cross between abstraction and mystic epiphany. In the capitalist’s exaltations, the logic of accumulation and the religious sublime dissolve into one, a fantasy of ultimate triumph over ignorance and uncertainty, and hence risk—insider information at its most cosmic. What’s a terrorist’s strength compared to all this?

What, indeed, is a writer’s? The palpable thrill that DeLillo gives off as he describes Packer’s unearthly powers is in stark contrast to the dull familiarity of Cosmopolis’s anti-capitalist tropes. In a sense that’s exactly the point: the capitalist’s way of thinking is so formidable it is hard to imagine any genuine opposition to it. Violence has always stalked DeLillo’s work, and—as critics have pointed out—it’s often implicitly presented as the only viable response to the sickness of modern society. But in Cosmopolis neither theory nor force seems like an answer to the great webs of encircling power DeLillo evokes. Even if the demonstrators were incited to kill him, thinks Packer, what difference would it make to the system? Although DeLillo spends plenty of time worrying about being complicit with the market, the deeper quandary isn’t about money or selling out. Rather, it’s a replay of another one of the fundamental problems of countercultural thought: How can the product of a society—be it a person or a piece of art—be against that society? Where does the critical distance come from? The point isn’t that these questions are new, but that it has become harder and harder to know how to answer them in a world where capitalism appears as an almost fully naturalized fact of existence, and where there may not be space for an alternative even inside our heads.

Eleven years after it was published, Cosmopolis’s barely suppressed sense of fatalism doesn’t seem unjustified. The crash it presaged happened, but the system carried on as if no thinkable alternative existed—and in a way DeLillo’s novel seems to have foreseen that, too. After he witnesses a protester immolating himself only yards from his limousine, Packer begins to go mad. Night falls. He leaves his car and continues on foot through the streets of New York until a dreamy coincidence puts him into the path of Richard Sheets, a former currency analyst in his company who has been plotting against him for months or maybe years. The two men have a lengthy back and forth about why Sheets wants to murder Packer, then the capitalist allows himself to be killed. By the time of his death most of Packer’s vampiric charisma is long gone, and the pulse of the story has vanished. In fact, the most interesting thing about Cosmopolis’s final scene is the return of that faint but distinct edge of self-criticism. Sheets, although at first he presents himself as a warrior for social justice, is quickly unmasked as a blubbering psychopath. Packer waves him away as a “cheap imitation” and a “stale fantasy.” Indeed the ending might seem to confirm the judgment of the novel’s critics. Is Cosmopolis just another lump of useless, pseudo-radical critique?

But it’s idle to describe something as a failure if we don’t have any meaningful idea of what success looks like. Part of the trouble with anti-capitalist art in general is that it is vague—it almost never seems to know what it’s asking for or even exactly what its object of attack is. “Capitalism” itself is a term that expands or contracts depending on who is using it, a signifier for a whole range of very different and not obviously compatible things, viz. a more or less narrow structure of economic organization, an impersonal global process, an ideology, a culture, modernity, the Western world, big business, a way of behaving and thinking that penetrates the most intimate aspects of everyday life and so on. In order to fight the evils of the system, you would have to know where the system ends. But where does it end? Without an answer it’s not clear what “real” political art would be—at least as far as capitalism and anti-capitalism are concerned—let alone how to make it effective.

From a certain angle, DeLillo’s story might look like a cynical parody of protest art, or else some oblique argument to the effect that authentic anti-capitalism is impossible. But I don’t think either of those ideas quite captures it. It would be better to say that Cosmopolis is using anti-capitalism to ask a question: What’s it like to live in a society where we can’t imagine any convincing alternative? DeLillo has said he doesn’t think his books could have been written in the world that existed before the JFK assassination, and the reasons he gives are bound up with his idea that the event injected a fatal dose of incoherence into American life. In The Word, the Image, and the Gun, a documentary DeLillo made in 1991 with the BBC, he explained:

When Kennedy was shot something changed forever in America, something opened up a sense of randomness, deep ambiguity, we lost the narrative thread. … The assassination left an emptiness that left everything plausible, made us susceptible to the most incredible ideas and fantasies. We couldn’t seem to find out what happened even on the most basic level: how many gunmen, how many shots, how many wounds on the President’s body. There was no coherent reality we analyze and study. So we became a little paranoid. We developed a sense of the secret manipulation of history. You know: there’s something they aren’t telling us.

“An emptiness that left everything plausible.” In The Names (1982), one character describes America as “the world’s living myth”—by which he means that the USA is the organizing principle of modern history, the master narrative around which the rest of the world has to arrange itself. Yet the central irony of DeLillo’s work is that this era of unprecedented hegemony coincided with a deep sense of plotlessness and disintegrity, a hole in the nation’s heart that needed to be perpetually compensated for.

Cosmopolis, set just after the end of the American Century, is partially about the death of that old “living myth” way of thinking (or rather its subversion by new, supranational forces of commerce). But it’s also another episode in DeLillo’s long rumination on the secret or missing structure of American life, reformulated for an era when society’s organizing code feels less like it’s concealed within some government vault and more as if it’s wired into the occult rhythms of commerce. Just before the riot engulfs Packer’s car, Kinski makes a cryptic analogy between art and money. “Money has lost its narrative quality the way painting did once upon a time,” she says. “Money is talking to itself.” One way to understand the remark is as an oblique reference to modernism, the period where art first became “difficult,” where its meaning and purpose—and so also its methods and effects—no longer seemed to make sense in the old way.[4] Insofar as the complexities of contemporary finance make it a challenge to figure out what has happened in the world market and how, money might be said to have become “difficult” too. Bleeding-edge capitalism, as somebody once remarked, resembles nothing so much as a new form of abstruse conceptual art, the rarefied dominion of an insular cosmopolitan elite whose activities appear—but only appear—to have no roots in the everyday world.

But however Kinski’s remark is meant to be understood, one of its implications is clear: if money has no narrative quality, then a society built around moneymaking has no story either. That sounds enigmatic, but I take it that DeLillo is trying to say something about the idea of legitimacy. After all, what is it for a society to have a narrative? In the most basic sense, it means it has an explanation for itself, some shared account of what makes it the way it is. In which case, to say that a society lacks a narrative is a way of saying that it’s senseless, that it can’t be explained in terms of what’s good for the people who populate it (the only real justification a social order can have). Even Packer is a victim. When we first meet him, the billionaire is roaming around his apartment before dawn, sleepless and upset about his inability to chart the yen. “There is an order at some deep level,” he says to Kinski, explaining the problem. “A pattern that wants to be seen.” But the riddle refuses to be solved, and Packer’s crisis metastasizes until he’s lost his grip on the world completely. (“Do you get the feeling sometimes,” asks one of his associates early in the day, “that you don’t know what’s going on?”—the question recurs in various forms throughout the book.) There’s plenty of evidence in Cosmopolis to suggest we’re supposed to see Packer as a kind of artist in meltdown, someone whose desire for beauty and precision has been poisoned by doubts and self-disgust. He’s consumed with uncertainty about his work, obsesses over the question of whether his creations are true to the world and despises the thought of being unoriginal. But he can’t think of any effective way to proceed—a dilemma that aptly, if unfortunately, reflects that of the novel he belongs to.

“We lead more interesting lives than we think,” thinks one of the conspirators in Libra. “We are characters in plots, without the compression and numinous sheen. Our lives, examined carefully in all their affinities and links, abound with suggestive meaning, with themes and involute turnings we have not allowed ourselves to see completely.” It is impossible to read DeLillo’s work for long without picking up on the sense of yearning for a providential structure, as well as the awful feeling of separation from any such unifying plot. It’s probably no accident that out of the whole range of emotions the one he describes most powerfully is grief (“chaos and divergences,” as he once described it, “foes of God”) or that he should be so enchanted by the idea of interpretation, since each represents a type of human response to disorder. The same inclination underlies much of what’s playful in his work. Murray, the university professor who acts as a kind of built-in theorist and critic in White Noise, loves nothing better than to extol the endless lure of explanation and analysis:

Everything is concealed in symbolism, hidden by veils of mystery and layers of cultural material. But it is psychic data, absolutely. … It is just a question of deciphering, rearranging, peeling off the layers of unspeakability. Not that we would want to, not that any useful purpose would be served.

That last sentence is important—and it’s this tantalizing and self-censuring quality that sometimes makes DeLillo’s writing feel like a bleak joke at the expense of the type of person who is attracted to it, a lure that pulls you in but never takes you anywhere. Cosmopolis is exemplary in this respect. On the one hand, the sheer allegorical density of the book is extraordinary: the text is so full of teasing symbolism, suggestive patterns, cunning literary references and allusions to theory that once you start trying to add it all up it quickly becomes overwhelming.[5] Yet it fits with the generally demoralized tenor of the novel that what all of this incredible allusiveness seems to convey in the end is something closer to frustration or inarticulacy, an infectious unease that makes it difficult to be either satisfied by DeLillo’s book or indifferent towards it.

The philosopher Georg Lukács once said that there was something nightmarish in the experience of an intellectual with no vision of the future. Underneath all of its obstructions and code, DeLillo’s writing seems to express the same thought. The future is a kind of narrative category, after all: the projected goal that gives the present its sense of order and purpose. It’s something we suffer without. For an individual, the inability to imagine life improving, or changing in any way other than badly, is a kind of death sentence. On the collective level, too, a society without any aspirations toward a better shared existence is condemned to the unchallenged perpetuation of injustice and misery, the ineradicable underside of all human history to date (and a horror that weighs “like a nightmare” on the living, as Marx so famously put it). DeLillo’s entire project has been based on a sense of disorientation that’s fundamentally political—the loss of a collective narrative, the transformation of a once-shared experience of America into something enigmatic and foreign. Part of Lukács’s point was that a society can’t suffer something like that without the damage making itself felt in everyday life, through all the sensations that DeLillo has spent his career so expertly evoking: confusion, anomie, anxiety, isolation, fear.

The obvious question is then: What would it be to overcome that? The most electrifying moments in Cosmopolis are gestures in the direction of an immense world order beyond the limits of ordinary perception. Packer’s enchanted map of Earth is one; another arrives as he and Kinski stare up at a massive electronic display of market information, “three tiers of data running concurrently and swiftly about a hundred feet above the street,” a glittering maze “of numbers and symbols, the fractions, decimals, stylized dollar signs, the streaming release of words … [not a] flow of information so much as pure spectacle, or information made sacred, ritually unreadable.” The imagery is marvelous and alienating, a premonition of a vast globalized unity that we are all now part of, but one that seems to be hopelessly hidden from sight—and a repository for all of the book’s stillborn political dreams. “I understand none of it,” is the mantra Kinski repeats whenever she is brought face to face with the miracles of capitalist technology, and the point is perhaps that it’s laughable to imagine that our minds could ever acquire purchase on something as supernaturally complex as our own society. There are moments in the book where we catch sight of the less fortunate world beyond the borders of New York, places where the free market has visited little except destruction and chaos. But it seems telling that these images never advance beyond the edges of the plot. They belong to our story and they don’t—symbols for the parts of the system we can’t countenance or even fully register.

Yet it would be wrong to say that everything feels finished once Cosmopolis ends. Despite its resolutely grim conclusion, some spectral sense of possibility remains—the feeling that perhaps, even so, all of this has just been the prelude for something larger and new. Whatever else, the novel is a testament to the strength of DeLillo’s vision: the world he has been imagining for so long really does seem to have folded out into reality. Dissolving national identities, missing narratives, complicity, powerlessness—aren’t they just facts of globalized life? The intimation that we are all part of a single huge, unseen story has also come closer and closer to lived experience, and our most urgent collective problems (the looming ecological catastrophe, for example) reflect it. But it still feels like more than we can imagine. What would it be to tell such a story—to assimilate its mind-breaking scale, the networks of superhuman technology and the anonymous billions who populate it? For whom could it be anything more than an abstraction? Cosmopolis falls apart before it comes close to answering those questions. But the questions are real. The world demands a response. The riddle is how to become the type of creatures who can give it.

*This is an essay featured in Issue 9 of The Point. To read the entire issue in print, subscribe here.

Photo credit: Danilo Santinell, “Self-Portrait”

    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. An adaptation directed by David Cronenberg was released in 2012.
  2. Jacques Le Goff’s superb little book La Bourse et la Vie (1986) has a good account of this. Essentially, the usurer’s crime was that he made money from the passage of time, but time belongs only to the Lord. There is a truly enormous amount of history tied up with the question of how such a cardinal sin eventually became the animating logic of our entire economy.
  3. DeLillo expands on this thought elsewhere, describing Beckett and Kafka as writers whose “inner world … eventually folded into the three-dimensional world we were all living in.” For all of his talk about novelists as the opponents of oppressive systems of manipulation, what’s striking about this image of successful writing is how conspiratorial it is, if not also a little creepy. The author, alone in a room, exerts his secret power over how the world sees and thinks—a kind of hidden overlord or controller.
  4. It was also, to extrapolate a little, the birth of the idea that artistic success could be morally or politically problematic—that in obeying institutionalized norms for what counts as “good art” you might inadvertently feed into a mendacious or oppressive social system. Cosmopolis doesn’t make a huge fuss over the point, but the fact that Packer is shown contemplating a bid for the Rothko Chapel—so that he can install the whole thing into his luxury apartment—says plenty about how threatening the modernist project looks today, at least to rich people.
  5. To give just one example, the title—from the Greek kosmopolis, “world-city”—is conceivably a reference to Saskia Sassen’s The Global City (1991), a pioneering study of the rising importance of major metropolitan hubs (such as New York) in the worldwide economy. It could also very easily be taken as a nod to Plato’s Republic, the ur-text of Western political theory and the original instance of the city employed as a metaphor for psychic health. Put the two sources together and you get a nice line about how Packer’s downfall might symbolize the compromised integrity of the prevailing world order and the inner discord it breeds in its citizens. And this is only to scratch the surface. Even if you were to filter out everything other than political philosophy, you could still find connections—overt or subliminal—made to the writings of Aristotle, Hegel, Adam Smith, Marx, Walter Benjamin, the Frankfurt School, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Guy Debord, Fredric Jameson, Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Francis Fukuyama, and no doubt many others. If you were so inclined you might also tease out the links that DeLillo seems to set up between abstract art and suicide, or explore Packer’s repressed homoeroticism, or the numerous references to the Icarus myth and the allegedly poisonous nature of technocratic utopianism; the list goes on. Cosmopolis seems to secrete meanings at a rate that outstrips the mind’s capacity to organize them.
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  • Avis Cardella

    Dear Mr. Jeffrey

    I’m pleased you wrote this piece. Cosmopolis is one of De Lillo’s titles that I keep coming back to. I’m perplexed that it didn’t receive more positive critique and attention. Perhaps it will be appreciated at some point in the future.

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