It has been two years since the populist sentiments of the United States fomented into the Occupy Wall Street protests at Zuccotti park in New York. Despite the wide spread empathy for the movement, much of the interest has since dissipated. Even though the Occupiers effect on policy was muted and muddled, they represented a class of people that is often exploited without recourse and without voice Occupy asked for them, “Why should the weak masses tolerate the yolk that the upper class places upon them?” Far from a new question, this ideal has been common for centuries, and we can use works of art as a lens to see how thoughtful writers have interpreted the friction between the rich and everyone else. Two writers over half a century apart participated in this discussion in a unique way; by setting the story within the opulent frame of reference of the rich and using this closeness to examine the class struggle from the point of view of men who are beyond wealthy. And despite the trappings of time and delivery changing for both of these stories, they arrive at the same satirical conclusions about events like Occupy Wall Street and how the captains of industry react to them. The first story is the short story ‘A Diamond as Big as the Ritz’ written by Scott Fitzgerald in 1922. The second story, written 81 years later, is Don Delillo’s ‘Cosmopolis.’ Both writers are prolific commentators on the health of their contemporary society, but to add one more wrinkle I will be considering David Cronenberg’s version of Cosmopolis, the film released in 2012 after the events of Occupy Wall Street had occurred. The following paragraphs will analyze these two works to find which theories about the class schism they have in common, and how it might apply to events today like Occupy.
Both stories are set in the contemporary times of their creation, making use of the economic climates the writers were embroiled in. Fitzgerald grew up during the time of Teddy Roosevelt and the trust busting, the first immune reaction to a new class of rich men that arose through control of economy instead of men or politics. The Morgans and Vanderbilts of Fitzgerald’s youth remained in his head as important lessons about the nature of man and ambition. When Fitzgerald wrote the short story for submission to a periodical, the US was heading into the Roaring Twenties, a time of business and profit focused policy and increased urbanization of the United States at large. A generation before Fitzgerald, authors like Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton, and Stephen Crane were writing novels about the pitfalls of our capitalist and classist structure. Doubtlessly these influences framed Fitzgerald’s story about a pre-suburbanite who stumbles into the lives of a family so rich that the laws of men and nature bend around them, thanks to the eponomous diamond. The tale is a surprisingly imaginative description of the limits of luxury and the kind of philosophy it might inspire. Although there are serious points to be made, Fitzgerald’s tone is light and the journey somewhat fantastical. It is an excellent and quick read if you’ve never been through it before.
Cronenberg’s rendering of Delillo’s work is in contrast, grounded in modernism. The only luxurious convenience is a claustrophobic specially made limo, which conveys a similar absurdly rich man through a decidedly unluxurious approximation of New York. Don Delillo wrote Cosmopolis when he was considerably more seasoned than Fitzgerald at nearly 70, having lived through World War, the Baby boom 50’s, the counter culture 60’s and counter counter culture 80’s, the Clinton Boom and finally the Dotcom crash of 2001. As such, Cosmopolis is a considerably denser work and much more cynical.
However both stories end up having similar thoughts about the rich and the way they interact with the world. A Diamond as Big as the Ritz uses an everyman protagonist who visits the domain of the diamond monger Washington while Cosmopolis’ billionaire, named Packer, is constantly interacting with the poor(and everyone is poor by comparison) around him. Both rich men have taken great pains to insulate themselves from society. Washington guards his diamonds in an unreachable fortress hidden in the heart of the United States, patrolled by post Antebellum slaves kept in obsfucation. Packer navigates New York in a slick limo complete with bathroom and colonoscopy camera, insulated from the outside by reinforced steel, bullet proof glass, and a coterie of guards on foot around the vehicle. And both men seek this isolation because their wealth is beyond reason. Fitzgerald sketches a fantastical situation wherein the Washington’s ancestors, mildly successful plantation owners, stumbled upon an enormous diamond mine. The wealth of this mine is so great that it is of a larger magnitude than the world economy. Washington Sr. understands that the price of diamonds is related to scarcity and in a move reflective of the DeBeers cartel comes up with a scheme filled with murder and corruption to protect the secret. Fitzgerald imagined a situation where insane amounts of money were generated merely by positioning and control of information. Delillo didn’t have to worry about imagining a modern analogue to this situation because in 2000 we have something even more etherial: Wall Street. In Cosmopolis, Packer is an investor who made his fortune in less than a decade trading on commodities, derivatives, and currencies. While the Washingtons must necessarily represent a consortium of power brokers, Packer is a man who could easily exist today. This scaling is evident in the expression of their wealth; the Washingtons have every impossibly convenience (one does not have to arise from bed to take a bath) while Packer operates in a smaller more confined scale for his individual luxury who nonetheless would just as soon by a church for the painting it contains as the painting itself. Despite the fact that Cosmopolis is a more intimate portrait that is willing to reduce its protagonist’s stature constantly, both works maintain that these men are fundamentally different from the middle class psychologically and separate themselves accordingly.
Yet for their degrees of distance from common life, the billionaires in both stories are drawn to the common man. The Washingtons continually invite visitors and laborers into their fortress in order to have the trappings of a social life, even though the revealing of their secret lair is in most cases lethal. Mr. Washington fortress is filled with splendors that he hired renowned artists and engineers to build, despite the logistical difficulties of the kidnapping and murder needed to make it happen smoothly. Cronenberg’s Packer, a greasy shark of a twenty something financial genius played by Robert Pattison, is continually interested in escaping the trappings he’s built for himself and rubbing elbows. Others in Cosmopolis continually ask him why he isn’t in the office, and he also escapes the limo repeatedly. He shoots out of his limo many times to eat at greasy spoons, get vintage haircuts in bad neighborhoods, and he defies the wrangling efforts of his chief of security on numerous occasions. Several times in the film we see Packer’s new trophy wife, an artsy old money girl who is so uncomfortable with Packer that they have not consummated their marriage. Packer clearly married her in order to plug into the aristocracy but the validation he seeks from her is decidedly plebian; he constantly pesters her to have sex with him. Fitzgerald and Cronenberg both suggest worlds in which the billionaire magnates still desire validation from interaction with society, still want to have tactile contact with common life. The rich may think they have transcended the lower class but these works theorize that despite the scale of their trappings they haven’t gone far.
We’re just getting started, check back for part 2 when we dig into what Ritz and Cosmopolis say about interaction between the rich and poor.