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Cosmopolis: a World of Subjective Reality Essay

Cosmopolis, written in the spirit of post modernity, rejects the idea of an ordered universe with one objective reality. This novel asserts that reality is instead subjective, and as human beings while we all experience the same one world ,but we each perceive this experience differently, and therefore we all live in different worlds. In this paper using quotes from Cosmopolis, I will explain how Don DeLillo uses dialogue and the actions of characters to construct his argument for subjective reality, and how his theory of subjective reality relates to the real world.

Before I begin quoting Cosmopolis, I will briefly explain the modern definition of subjective reality. The idea of subjective reality asserts that reality and of the “truths” in the universe changes between individuals. Meaning, although there may be objective truths in the universe, each person perceives these truths and experiences them differently, and because of everyone’s own unique perspective of the world, each lives in their own world existing in an altered state of objective reality. Cosmopolis is littered with dialogue where the characters are talking about subjective reality.

You could almost randomly flip to any page in the novel and find that someone is talking about subjective reality. It was obvious to me that Don DeLillo purposefully wrote this dialogue adding an argument for the existence of subjective reality. Although one could argue I read the novel looking for people talking about subjective reality and that in reality it is all in my head, for the purposes of this paper I am going to assume Don DeLillo purposely wrote Cosmopolis as an argument for subjective reality.

One of the first lines of dialogue which I encountered that got me to thinking about subjective reality is near the very beginning of the novel when Eric is in the limo talking with Shiner. Shiner asks Eric why they were in the car instead of the office to which Eric replies, “how do you know we’re in the car instead of the office” (15). This quote is a perfect example of one of the aspects of subjective reality: that a person can never truly be sure of where they are, and that no matter where they actually are, they can choose to be somewhere else.

Eric is in a way challenging Shiner to prove both that they are in a car and that they are not in an office. However, these are impossible things to prove, because a person can chose to be wherever they want to be regardless of actual physical position. Ideal to subjective reality, Shiner doesn’t even attempt to answer Eric’s question, because he knows he can’t prove either arguments. Plus, the fact that Eric chooses to turn his limo into an office shows that even though Eric knows his car is not an office, he makes it into an office merely just by acting as if it is an office.

Like Eric, Beeno Levin is another character in Cosmopolis who understands the nature of subjective reality. As he is writing he beings to talk about what he sees in other people and what that means, saying “it is what people think they see in another person that makes his reality. If they think he walks at a slant, then he walks at a slant, uncoordinated, because this is his role in the lives around him” (57). Beeno is making two assertions on the nature of people in reality. Firstly, Beeno is asserting that no matter what a person actually does, it is what you think they do that is reality.

Meaning, in his example, whether a man walks with a slant or not, if you think he walks with a slant, then he walks with a slant. Secondly, when he says, about the man, that “this is his role in the lives around him”, he means that to him the man who walks with a slant is nothing but the man who walks with the slant. In Beeno’s life the role of the man is to do nothing but walk around with a slant. Whether the man does anything other than walking with a slant, such as being an accountant or having children, to Beeno he can never be any of those things, because he is merely the man who walks with a slant.

The man can never be anything else unless Beeno chooses to see him that way. Near the end of Beeno’s monologue he also thinks that “world is supposed to mean something that’s self-contained. But nothing is self-contained. Everything enters something else. My small days spill into light years” (60). Here he is making another assertion on the nature of reality and how it relates to the world. When he says the world is self-contained he is challenging the idea that the “truths” in the world can be separated and neatly pushed into categories.

He asserts that in reality the elements of the world cannot be separated and everything is melting into everything else. There are actually no boundaries because one can perceive the world and anything could be anything else, for example, a limo can be an office. Here in this next quote the characters actually start to directly discuss reality. At this point in the story Eric and one of his advisors, Kinski, are chatting in the limo during the protest. Kinski baits Eric, asking him what the flaw of human rationality is.

When he asks what, she answers replying that “it pretends not to see the horror and death at the end of the schemes it builds” (91). Ironically, she is asserting that human rationality isn’t even concerned with being accurate to reality. Human rationality strives to create its own deluded reality outside of what might actually be happening, such as in this example the evils of capitalism. It is deluded, ignoring the facts and believing whatever it wants to believe, such as the disparity between the rich and poor in the United States.

Although Kinski, in this context, is only commenting on humans as a whole, this idea can be applied to human rationality on an individual basis. An individual may delude themselves in the same way, for example Eric continues to lose money on the Yen even though all evidence is telling him he should cut his losses and pull out. He is deluded in ignoring the facts, rejecting what he sees, and formulating his own new reality where he doesn’t pull out and makes a lot of money off the Yen. Some of my favorite moments in Cosmopolis are during the last scene when Beeno shoots Eric.

The two of them seem to understand each other, and even hold some of the same beliefs, such as the subjective nature of reality. At one point, Beeno is convinced that his penis is shrinking and receding into his body, while Eric tries to convince him that is not true. Beeno says, “whether I imagine a thing or not, it’s real to me” (192). Eric asks been to prove it is true by showing him, and Beeno refuses saying, “I don’t have to look. There are folk beliefs. There are epidemics that happen. Men in the thousands, in real fear and pain” (192). Beeno is asserting something new this time.

He has already asserted that a person can look at something, such as the man with the slant, and see anything they want to see (a man walking with a slant), whether that is actually what they are looking at. But now, he is asserting a man can look at nothing and see something that isn’t even visibly there. This is even further into subjective reality, it is one thing to say something can be something that is not, but it is entirely different to say that nothing can be something. Beeno even tries to support his belief that his sex organ is receding into his body with two different arguments.

The first is that other men have experienced it, and therefore it is a real thing. The second one is that thousands of other men also fear it, and that it is a “real” fear. This argument is based on the idea that the very fear itself of something happening is just as real as if it were actually happening. This is another element of subjective reality. Beeno fears that something is happening to his body, even though he knows he can’t see it, but this very fear itself makes it real to him whether or not it is actually happening.

During the climax of the novel, Eric begins to belittle Beeno by telling him that he doesn’t even have a good, admirable reason to kill him, that Beeno is just another whack job killing someone just because; “No. Your crime had no conscience. You haven’t been driven to do it by some oppressive social force. How I hate to be reasonable. You’re not against the rich. Nobody’s against the rich. Everybody’s ten seconds from being rich. Or so everybody thought . No. Your crime is in your head” (196). Here Eric is trying to tear down Beeno’s righteous justification for killing Eric.

Eric is saying that Beeno isn’t killing Eric for the greater good of society, getting rid of a bad power-driven rich person, Beeno is just killing Eric just because. Eric asserts Beeno’s own motives are all in his head, that Beeno is deluded and doesn’t actually know why he is killing Eric, he is just doing it. This is a very odd turn. At the beginning of this novel Eric has been a perfect spokesperson for subjective reality, but here he seems to be playing devil’s advocate by trying to tear down Beeno’s arguments.

I wondered why Eric would make such a sudden change, but after finishing the book I believe it is clear Eric isn’t actually trying to tear down subjective reality, he is just saying whatever he can to buy time and possibly not die. One of my good friends from primary school used to say that when he died the world would end. His names is Martin, and he is a genius. I am not a genius, but I enjoyed a lot of philosophical conversations with Martin nevertheless. I was really surprised when I came across exactly the same thing in this novel.

It is right at the beginning when Eric first gets up and is getting ready to leave. He is lamenting his insomnia and thinks “when he died he would not end, the world would end” (6). I believe this quote embodies the spirit of subjective reality. If reality exists on an individual basis, and is only inside the mind of every person, then logically it would follow that when that person dies their reality, their world would end too. Possibly the most perfect aspect of this novel is the way Don DeLillo parallels this quote with the structure of the story.

When Eric is about to be shot, it is obvious that he is going to die, however the novel ends with just his thoughts right before Beeno kills him. Nothing follows, that is the end of the story. How perfect that the novel ends with the very last thought of Eric! It makes absolute sense that the novel would end when Eric dies, because as already stated he wouldn’t end when he died, the world would end. Postmodernism encourages experiment in literature, and Don DeLillo takes full advantage of this.

As an American I was always taught there were rules and truths that ruled the Universe. That reality was always objective and one merely has to interpret it correctly. Objective reality is the idea crucial to the success of religious and political systems. Every religion claims to be the one true religion, and without the claim of objective reality these religions would fail. This is also very much true in political, ethnocentricity being a perfect example of the effects of people believing there is an objective reality to the universe.

In conclusion, Don DeLillo argues for the existence of subjective reality in his novel Cosmopolis. He utilizes the dialogue and the actions of the main characters to debate this idea and highlight crucial elements of the theory. In this paper I have analyzed several quotations from different scenes in the novel, explaining how each quotation represents an aspect of subjective reality. Subjective reality may have sounded like a crazy idea in the past, but now as we live in post modernity, subjective reality is quickly gaining acceptance.


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