Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Void and the Narcissist in the Mirror: The Creation of Identity in Zelig and American Psycho

EDIT 4/12/10: Here is the final draft of my paper on identity in Zelig and American Psycho. Hurray, huzzah, enjoy.

“There will be time, there will be time / to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet; / there will be time to murder and create, / and time for all the works and days of hands / that lift and drop a question on your plate; / time for you and time for me” (Eliot, lines 26-31). One of the major struggles of modern life is the quest for a genuine self-identity. This quest is complicated by the need for the kind of socially acceptable illusory self-identification described by T.S. Eliot as “a face to meet the faces.”Although most people at least partially resolve this quest, ultimately coming to an understanding of the self and the social constructs which govern the expression of personal identity, some continue to struggle well into adulthood. These individuals can often become fixated on external influences in their understanding of self, a fixation which results in incomplete or false identities, identities wholly dependent on superficial cues for definition. They become the “face,” the mask, without any specific underlying individual identity to hang upon. This struggle for a cohesive and genuine individual identity is one of the central themes of both Woody Allen’s film, Zelig and Mary Harron’s film American Psycho. In both narratives, the protagonists, Leonard Zelig and Patrick Bateman, are men with incomplete or inauthentic personalities which they derive from observation of others. They are fractured selves, and constantly create and recreate themselves based upon external influences.

This self-conceptualization based upon the characters’ perceptions of “the other” and the illusion of “self” represents a constant re-performance of the mirror stage of development and stunts their ultimate evolution into fully integrated individual personalities. Neither man is capable of perceiving himself as a genuine and individual entity autonomous from “the other”, and so both characters constantly struggle with the concept of a genuine self. Both men settle for illusory “mirror” selves rather than acknowledging or creating a true sense of identity. The mirrored image of each man is only an illusion of a cohesive persona, and because they both remain fixated on that illusion, they are unable to evolve a sense of genuine selfhood to supplant the superficial identity which the mirror provides. These men constantly return to the mirror, the other, the “face”, in order to define themselves because they are unable to let go of their pleasing and comforting illusions.

Leonard Zelig is a chameleon, a man who takes on the identities of those surrounding him, even replicating their appearance in his own body. Zelig has seen the mirror, and that mirror is other people; that mirror is he. Leonard is incapable of perceiving only himself in the mirror, and instead fixates on reflecting the “reflections” of others. He is constantly changing, adapting to his surroundings and creating illusory selves which merely mimic the superficial identities of those around him. The man defines himself only in relation to others, and subsumes any shred of “Leonard” to the assumption of the “Selves” of others. As Richard Feldstein puts it in his essay “The Dissolution of the Self in Zelig,” “this narcissistic tendency of seeing the other as a simulacrum indissociable from the self is a malady that leads to an endless reduplification from which Zelig’s hybrid self is constituted. Consequently, Leonard discounts himself and takes the ego of the other as the locus of truth” (157). Essentially, Leonard Zelig is stuck in the mirror stage, looking to others, to external reflections of identity, to see himself. His inability to detach his understanding of himself from his conception of others results in a series of dramatic chameleon-like shifts; Leonard’s identity is superficial and transitory, shifting with every new face that crosses his mirror. Leonard’s mirror is the world, and he is too caught up in putting on camouflage personas to become a complete and individual “self”. In a way, Zelig is a void, an empty shell desperately in search of an identity, ANY identity to either fill him or at least mask his emptiness, a kind of personality vacuum. Leonard does not know himself, or is dissatisfied with the image of himself which he has seen, and so he sucks in and assimilates the external identities of others.

In contrast to Leonard Zelig, Patrick Bateman, the central figure of the film American Psycho, is an aggressive and violent pathological narcissist, rather than simply an identity vacuum. He exhibits a “grandiose sense of self importance or uniqueness and preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success and power; hypersensitivity to criticism; and a lack of empathy”, and has an all consuming need for attention and validation, success and infamy (Post 100). However, it is important to note that despite this narcissistic self-obsession, Bateman does not perceive his idol, himself, as a genuine entity, saying of himself that:

There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable... I simply am not there.

It is interesting to consider that as Patrick speaks these lines, he is facing a bathroom mirror, peeling off a cosmetic face mask. Patrick is suggesting that his entire being is a series of masks, of performances, and that he defines himself both literally and figuratively by these appearances, rather than any genuine, substantial individual conception of “self.” He is quite literally cultivating the “face to meet the faces”. Bateman casts all of his own actions and appearances as façade, as illusion, and in a way, even his narcissism can be read as an illusion, a performance rather than a reality, since Bateman himself believes there is no real Bateman over whom to obsess. Therefore, narcissistic obsession presents a strange dichotomy in Bateman, in that he is simultaneously obsessed with himself and convinced of his own non existence and irrelevance as an individual.

Much like Zelig, Bateman creates his false selves based upon external influences, constructing temporary identities supported and inspired by his own perception of the “other”. However, unlike Zelig, Bateman appears from the first to be completely aware of this. It is immensely ironic that, as he discusses his own lack of a genuine identity, Bateman literally enacts Jacques Lacan’s “mirror stage” of development, a theoretical stage during which, according to J. Laplanche, upon observing themselves in a mirror for the first time, a child “sees an invented image and falsely takes this reflection as the first illustration of a unified concept” (qtd. in Feldstein 155). As he describes his own lack of genuine identity, Bateman is actively “inventing” a cohesive image of himself through the mirror, fully acknowledging his own awareness of the falseness of this self-identity. Bateman creates himself as the ideal (or at least, what he perceives as the ideal, which ideal is ironically the theoretical product of the mirror stage): the perfect rat in the race for yuppie success, meticulously maintaining his appearance and ferociously competing with the other rats in business suits for the prestige of being the best and brightest, the holder of the most tasteful business card, the name on the reservation at the best restaurant, and the beau of the most attractive woman. This creation and acquisitiveness is informed by Bateman’s perception of those around him and his observation of yuppie culture, rather than any genuine desire on his part for the things themselves. Further, Bateman does not believe in the individual, and so he is constantly assembling the “face” to mask his own identity void, and in classic narcissistic fashion, he conflates his own lack of genuine identity with the same lack in others, seeing others “as extensions of the self, who are there only to supply admiration and gratification” (Post 103). This refusal to acknowledge others as beings separate from himself allows him to murder without any compunction, as he doesn’t see others as any more “real” than he. At one point, Patrick even goes so far as to take on the identity of one of his victims, Paul Allen. Patrick himself is all façade, and he believes others to be equally illusory and empty, so assuming the murdered man’s identity is no different than putting on any of the other “faces” Bateman has created for himself. No one is real to Bateman, including himself, and so he sees no compelling reason, even self-preservation, to curb his murderous inclinations.

Ultimately, neither Zelig nor Bateman has a clear and real idea of self, and so both become nothing more than a collection of social masks. Neither man completes the mirror stage of their development, and so neither has a conception of the self as a complete and individual entity, truly independent of others. However, this unachieved realization of identity is itself based upon an illusion, the appearance of the self in the mirror, rather than a genuine complex self-conceptualization. In a way, it could be argued that no one truly overcomes this problematic oasis view of identity: in some small way, most people remain concerned with appearances and social convention to the detriment of genuine self-expression and identification. The true self remains an unachieved, and unachievable, ideal. It is all too easy for those already struggling to find a genuine individual identity to simply acquire a mask of social acceptability to conceal their own emptiness, as Leonard Zelig and Patrick Bateman do. When the self is utterly subsumed to these external social cues, void personalities, like Zelig and Bateman, become the blank slate upon which more acceptable “faces” are hung. Granted, both of these men take on these masks for arguably very different reasons, but it is worthwhile to note that both take on these illusory identities as a means of protecting and concealing themselves. Neither man can comfortably confront their genuine self within the confines of society, and so Zelig buries his true self, while Bateman denies his own genuine existence altogether, becoming nothing beyond or beneath the many masks he creates for himself.

Works Cited

American Psycho. Dir. Mary Harron. Perf. Christian Bale. Lions Gate, 2000. DVD.

Eliot, T.S. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter. Vol. D. Boston: Wadsworth, 2006. 1583-6. Print. 5 vols.

Feldstein, Richard. “The Dissolution of the Self in Zelig”. Literature and Film Quarterly 13.3 (1985):155-60. Print.

Post, Jerrold M. “Current Concepts of the Narcissistic Personality: Implications for Political Psychology.” Political Psychology 14.1 (Mar. 1993): 99-121. JSTOR. Web. 23 Mar. 2010.

Zelig. Dir. Woody Allen. Perf. Woody Allen, Mia Farrow. MGM, 1983. DVD.


  1. Yeah, I was right. The bad guy in Blue-Eyed Devil is a pathological narcissist. Yay me for being able to think of an example. :)

  2. excellent. I'm so proud my little essay-vamp cleared that up for you. :)