How does a novelist fit into our currently polarized and divided world? Ideally, he has artistic “disinterestedness” that allows him to use his powers of observation in order to point out certain absurdities of society to the rest of us. But what happens when said novelist is silenced because some presumed majority of moralists dictate what should or shouldn’t be said and written?
This is one of the questions that Bret Easton Ellis is asking in his new book White, a series of interwoven essays on our current cultural ailments. Ellis entered the scene of American literature with his novel Less Than Zero (1985), which was published when he was only 21 years old. It was a novel of 1980s malcontents, rebels without a cause, drugs, sex, and of course, L.A., all pointing to a unique brand of American decadence.
In White, Ellis continues the tradition of rebellion but with the added wisdom of a man who is older, more mature, and who has learned a thing or two about life. He covers many subjects in the book: the oppressiveness of PC culture, homosexuality, art, social media, and today’s politics.
The digital culture that we inhabit every day (especially in social media) has changed the way we relate to one another and also the way we see ourselves. Ellis confesses to having felt angry every time he went online, and “what was worse: this anger could become addictive” in which he would be “exhausted, mute with stress.” What Ellis found quite disturbing was the idea that he couldn’t express his opinion unless he followed the dictates of the “woke” crowd. In other words, anyone who deviates from the PC moralism is to be “cancelled.” Woke culture creates existential anxiety, especially for writers, artists, and intellectuals, among others. At its center is an authoritarian obsession with control and a destruction of an individual voice. Dissent is not welcomed, and for the woke warriors, the only dissent that is real is the one they are supposedly engaging in. It is indeed a sad state of affairs, and as Ellis observes, “this is an age that judges everybody so harshly through the lens of identity politics that if you resist the threatening groupthink of ‘progressive ideology,’ which proposes universal inclusivity except for those who dare to ask any questions, you’re somehow fucked.”
What has changed? In order to get a better grasp of the situation, Ellis goes down memory lane and reflects on his boyhood and what growing up meant for his generation. It’s easy to devolve into a grumpy old man who criticizes today’s youth but that’s not the case with Ellis. He is honest (sometimes, unbearably so), doesn’t idealize his past self, and yet he treats his past and coming of age with care and even fondness.
When Ellis was growing up in the 1970s, for the most part, kids were left to their own devices, and started to experience freedom very early on. As Ellis writes:
“At five and six and seven years old, we walked to elementary school by ourselves (parents are now arrested for allowing this) and we played physical games about wars and monsters and espionage throughout the neighborhood streets and up into the canyons that bisected the hills of Sherman Oaks and Studio City and Encino.”
By today’s standards, this seems wholly foreign, but Ellis offers something far more than a mere commentary on parenting. By being left alone in this strange new thing called freedom, kids like himself were able to experience the mysteries of the world. Ellis and his friends were “raised on a diet of grit,” and although this may not have been the healthiest way to grow up, it made him somehow stronger. In many ways, truly seeing the world for what it is and perhaps even realizing that what surrounds is mostly a vale of tears is what a budding writer (or any artist for that matter) desperately needs. It is not the optimism that creates a novelist but as Ellis writes, “disappointment, disillusionment and pain made joy, happiness, awareness and success both tangible and noticeably more intense….”
Much of Ellis’ childhood can be repeatedly traced to his love of cinema. This is a pattern that is most visible in White, which is fascinating given the fact that Ellis is a novelist and not a filmmaker. But it is also not that surprising because moving images have a way of making a celluloid imprint on an artistic soul that is open to the cinematic experience. His childhood was punctuated by regular visits to the cinema to watch horror movies. He notes that what he read and saw “insisted that the world was a random and cruel place, that danger and death were everywhere, that adults could help you only so much, that there was another world—a secret one beneath the fantasy and fake safety of everyday life.” From observations like this, one can certainly see how Less Than Zero came into existence, and also how other themes in his novels emerged.
Another crucial aspect of White is the freedom with which Ellis talks about his sexuality. Today, thanks to identity politics, some people view their lives and sexuality merely as linguistic and social constructs, and ultimately, as a vehicle to score ideological points. Stories or essays from this standpoint don’t reveal anything of significance about their authors.
This is not the case with Ellis. He discloses the inner life of someone who happens to be gay, and although it is certainly not mentioned peripherally in the book, Ellis’ sexual tastes don’t take precedence over the rest of his existence. Whether he writes about the aesthetic appeal of Richard Gere’s body and presence in American Gigolo (1980) and how Gere’s acting career put him in an “erotic trance” or Tom Cruise’s “boyishness” and “ambiguous masculinity” moved him, Ellis approaches sensuality and sexuality from his own vantage point. Ellis refuses to embrace the social construction of “gay man as magical elf”—that Ellis focuses on the interiority of his own being helps the reader see him.
The politics of wokeness dictates that society view a gay man as a victim, and Ellis wholeheartedly rejects this. Turning his attention again on film, Ellis comments on Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011), in which all of gay stereotypes and clichés are destroyed. The film is “muted” and “lyrical” but what makes it superb in Ellis’ view is that the film is something “that generations of gay men had been waiting for”—a movie that is “simply about guys who find out things about each other without becoming role models for anyone or anything.” The obsession with why the collective society needs to be responsible for an existential state of an individual has taken over deeper and authentic reflections on a relationship between an individual and a group.
Ellis’ observations are powerful and insightful, and they come from someone who is, first and foremost, a novelist and who sees the world for all its beauty and ugliness. The strongest idea that emerges from his book is that we have forgotten how to separate ethics and aesthetics. Our society seems to be incapable of seeing any forms of art and basing their judgment on aesthetic merit. We dismiss art either because of an artist’s questionable personal life or because we cannot relate it to our experience. As Ellis writes:
“The idea that if you can’t identify with someone or something then it’s not worth watching or reading or listening to is now commonplace in our society . . . ou hear this increasingly as a rallying cry, and not only from millennials, yet the idea behind it serves no progressive purpose; it marginalizes not only artists, but also, ultimately, everybody on the planet. In essence, it’s fascist.”
Ellis is obviously correct. We are living in a society in which tastemakers are far more likely to offer hollow cries for justice than they are to recognize artistic endeavors.
This inability to evaluate art purely on aesthetic grounds is destroying not only the possibility of seeing art through an aesthetically disinterested lens but it also stops a creation of art. People certainly judge, but identity politics commandeer their judgments. Those of us who dissent from the cries of the woke are marginalized. Ellis understands this, and unsurprisingly, the collectivist mind insists that “Everyone has to be the same, and have the same reactions to any given work of art, or movement or idea, and if you refuse to join the chorus of approval you will be tagged a racist or a misogynist. This is what happens to a culture when it no longer cares about art.”
Like any good novelist (and in this case, essayist), Ellis doesn’t offer any prescriptive solutions to our society’s problems because art is not therapy. Art can certainly elevate us and Ellis doesn’t deny this, but that is not its purpose. As much as White is a book of brilliant cultural and social observations, more than anything, it is Ellis’ ode to the power of aesthetics. He reminds us that art can only stay alive as along as we reject the tyranny of mediocre narcissists, and ensure that individual voices are not silenced.
This was originally published with the same title in Law and Liberty on November 29, 2019.