Monday, August 4, 2014

Philip Marlowe, My Hero

To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion all in one. —Willard Spiegelman

A book should be an ice-axe to break the frozen sea within us. —Franz Kafka

I love those existential tough guys, those hardboiled noir guys who “test high on insubordination,” which is what Philip Marlowe says about himself to General Sternwood in the first chapter of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.

Existential tough guys form a motley club that includes, at least according to my lights, such divers characters as Dr Rieux in The Plague, Ahab in Moby Dick, McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Cool Hand Luke. They all see through shams like God, Country, Love and Honor, right to the diseased soul (metaphorical, this ‘soul,’ as I am sure they don’t believe in the immortal kind) of mankind. They see life as absurd, but try to live meaningfully anyway, knowing it is an effort doomed to failure—Sysyphus rolling that big rock, Ahab going up against that big old whale, McMurphy against the Big Nurse, all of us up against the Big Sleep.

Seeing through, seeing clearly, even if it means having to glimpse that diseased soul, is what a private eye needs to do. The Private Eye is what the private citizen needs, in fact, because if that private citizen can see clearly at all, he or she sees that all the cops don’t see well, and most of them are on the take. For a price, Marlowe metes out a kind of rough justice, no matter what the cost is to himself. And therein lies his great rebellion, his insubordination—he adheres to a Code of Honor in a world that has no honor. He walks down Mean Streets, but is a man who himself is not mean, and even though no man can make a difference, he insists on acting like a man who can.

General Sternwood meets Marlowe in his hothouse at novel’s opening, and remarks, about his own orchids, “They are nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of the prostitute.” Perhaps Marlowe likes the General because he too is a man with no illusions, a man who might nevertheless try to impose a kind of rough justice on an unjust universe, at least in his small corner of it.

Marlowe is a man who plays chess, and who tells us “this isn’t a game for knights”, meaning his profession, and maybe life itself. He is fascinated by the picture of the chivalrous knight at the General’s mansion but laments, upon seeing it for a second time, that the knight “still wasn’t getting anywhere untying the naked damsel from the tree.” Marlowe knows that knights don’t untie the knots that hold maidens to trees, that they make no difference, have no meaning, in an absurd universe. Yet we know Marlowe will continue to try to untie knots even after the novel’s end. He sees life clearly, and he doesn’t like what he sees, and rolls the rock up the mountain anyway.
This clarity is a curse, but an odd blessing in his “game.” Only with an unblinking gaze can Marlowe see clearly enough to outsmart the grifters and the grafters, the con artists and the film-flam men, the beautiful but evil dames, the good men who nevertheless always have the capacity to do bad. And the clarity of his vision is mirrored by the clarity of his thought and language.

At first, Marlowe wonders if the General does see as clearly as Marlowe himself does: “The Sternwoods, having moved up the hill, could no longer smell the stale sump water or the oil [upon which they made their millions] but they could still look out their front window and see what had made them rich. If they wanted to. I don’t suppose they wanted to.” Marlowe comes to learn just how unflinching the General’s gaze is.

Chandler’s use of language, or Marlowe’s, is unadorned, is without any kind of rhetorical flourish, except perhaps when he is being a wiseacre (but that is just a tactic)—when he talks to the reader, it is with nothing that comes trippingly, or trope-ingly, off the tongue. There is even a dearth of adverbs and adjectives, or metaphors, as if metaphors are too rhetorical in themselves, too capable of misleading by their subtle implication that one thing is not only like another, but that one thing is or can be another, when of course it cannot. No, Marlowe is completely a simile man, and they are all of the concrete type. Sensory images, no abstraction, just the physical and human landscape of rotting and rotten Los Angeles.

And what brilliant similes they are. Referring to the moribund General’s barren head, he says, “a few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.” Or this, when the sun comes out for one of the few times in the novel, “The sunshine was as empty as a headwaiter’s smile.” And finally, (although I certainly could go on, as one brilliant simile pops up every two or three pages), in reference to a killer’s falsely soothing voice, “the purring voice was now as false as an usherette’s eyelashes and as slippery as a watermelon seed.”

These are brilliant, and quite deceptive in their simplicity. It is easier to lampoon them than it is to actually write a good one. You are more likely to come up with something like “the sun rose in the east like an orange fur ball a cat had puked up onto a blue carpet.” Similes easy to lampoon, hard to write well. As to the charge that Marlowe is not intelligent enough to express himself differently, that Chandler wrote pulps for the under-educated working class because he didn’t have the vocabulary and depth to do otherwise, consider that Chandler was a brilliant student in the English private school system (which they, with characteristic perverseness, call “public”) and that Marlowe slips in the words proscribe, rictus and benison during the novel.

Marlowe’s language is often funny also, however dark it may be, as if he is as determined to laugh at life as he is to defy its absurdity. Get a load of these—“He hardly weighed as much as a butcher’s thumb,” or “The muzzle of the luger looked like the mouth of the Second Street tunnel.” Great stuff.

Marlowe’s truncated muscular prose focuses on the physical details to life because he knows that these things are all there is. No abstractions, no love, honor and duty, no officers and gentlemen, nothing. And yet the General is perhaps a gentleman (and officer) anyway—something which Marlowe tells us is out of style, but the dying man is from another time and place, both out of style too. Marlowe develops affection for the old man. In the end, the sleuth’s words tell a true but incomplete story to the hoary old buzzard, shielding the General from the truth about Rusty Regan’s death, that he was killed by the General’s daughter, Carmen. The gumshoe uses language to bully and deceive those who would bully and deceive him, but not with the General. With him he’s straight, up until the point where he decides not to tell him about Carmen. And that is a lie of omission, one borne of compassion and not deceit.

Carmen, by the way, is a deceitful, deceit-filled slut, and Marlowe turns her advances away. The other women in the book are not much better than she is (Chandler has oft-times been charged with misogyny for creating such consistently negative female characters). He keeps the other women in the book at a distance too, although he uses his own appeal to extract information from them. Marlowe feels that most men and women are cursed with a need for each other that causes them to copulate, but that their animal selves—the female spider biting the male spider’s head off, the lioness mating with the Lion after he has eaten her cubs—make it an even chance that the encounter is going to leave one partner or the other dead, and it is the coy patter the sexes employ, the language of seduction, a kind of deception , which leads to all that damn trouble in the first place.

Marlowe gives it to the reader straight, or as straight as words will allow, with his lean and spare language. If he was a philosopher, and perhaps he is, at least of a sort, he might point out that there are religious types who believe that we’ve lost God’s original language, the only language that truly names things, that represents reality and experience rightly. Yes, he might have pointed out that we only understand things in terms of other things, that it is impossible to understand things truly in themselves, and that even words are only defined in terms of other words, the dictionary a funhouse where all the mirrors just reflect the other mirrors. With his streamlined narration, Marlowe is trying to make up for that.

His last conversation is with Vivian Regan, the only woman in the story who is not corrupt and debauched, evil and/or crazy. He tells her the story straight (like he drinks his whiskey), just like he tells the reader. But they don’t ride off into the sunset. He doesn’t take the $15,000 she offers him to keep quiet about Carmen, but we know he will keep Vivian’s secret.

Michael Welch


  1. Thank you. First thing in my morning, I get to read about Marlowe! If it weren't for Chandler, I wouldn't have fallen so hard for the 1940s.

  2. Thanks for coming back, Mike. (Should we call you that?) I love Chandler too. All that wit imbedded in all that grime. Not many could pull that off. Our mutual buddy Knightly--I have seen him do that.