[Marxism] James Meek reviews Fredric Jameson book on Philip Marlowe

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Dec 30 08:38:18 MST 2016


(A very long but deeply perceptive critique of Jameson and Marlow both.)

LRB, Vol. 39 No. 1 · 5 January 2017

Refugees from the Past
by James Meek

Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality by Fredric Jameson
Verso, 87 pp, £12.99, July, ISBN 978 1 78478 216 0

We think of immigration as a movement in space, from one country to 
another. In conventional terms, those who were born in the United States 
are American; those who were not are immigrants. They were born in 
another country, in another culture. They bring with them from their 
homeland certain habits and values, shared assumptions and common 
experiences – certain prejudices, perhaps. They face nativist hostility; 
a frequent bigotry is that they can be generalised about as if they were 
all the same. If they were born in the US to non-native parents, they 
are ‘second-generation immigrants’. They have lived an authentically 
American experience, yet they carry the memes of foreign culture learned 
on their mother’s knee, at their grandparents’ table on feast days, from 
the strange old books and ornaments brought from the old country. They 
know the words of old songs. It may even be that second-generation 
immigrants, feeling discriminated against, misunderstood and rejected by 
America, seek to immerse themselves in the culture and ideals of their 
parents’ homeland, fabricating a hybrid identity for themselves based on 
an acquired reality they have never actually lived through, debased, 
idealised and simplified from the original.

The same could be said of another set of immigrants: those who have made 
the journey through time rather than space. Just as America has never 
been ethnically more diverse, it has never been such a melting pot of 
ages. In the great cities and airports, in the suburbs and projects, 
among the young millennials who’ve never been anywhere but the present, 
you will see people in their nineties who have travelled to the second 
decade of the 21st century from a strange, faraway land, the America of 
the 1920s. Millions of Americans – some of them never having changed 
their spatial addresses – have survived a long and perhaps difficult 
journey to modern America from their birth-time in the America of the 
1930s and 1940s.

If spatial immigrants find it hard to assimilate, they feel rejected, 
whereas temporal immigrants feel usurped. For spatial immigrants, the 
old country is thousands of miles away in another place, whereas for 
temporal immigrants, the old country is right there, buried under the 
new one, and they have no way of digging it out, except through 
revolution, or the ballot box, or, if the right guy should come along, a 
revolution and an election at the same time.

The journey from the mid-20th century to now was slow, imperceptibly 
slow; there is no Ellis Island on the way from youth to old age, no Rio 
Grande. If you were born in the America of 1926, how many Americas have 
you lived in? Two? Three? In such a socially and technologically dynamic 
society as America’s, it seems inevitable that a form of passage closely 
related to the immigrant experience occurs; and that some children and 
grandchildren of temporal immigrants from the 1940s, like second and 
third-generation spatial immigrants, have an idealised, simplified 
identification with that era, acquired not at first hand, but from their 
parents and grandparents’ songs and stories of the old country, and from 
fake nostalgia, a kind of temporal patriotism, fed by cultural products 
like old movies, which we can’t help seeing as a ‘real’ portrayal of 
their time.

The six novels Raymond Chandler wrote between 1939 and 1953 featuring 
the Los Angeles private detective Philip Marlowe, and the best-known 
film adaptation of any of them, the 1946 movie of the first book, The 
Big Sleep, have helped to shape the perception of what America was like 
in the 1940s and early 1950s. The film is dark and menacing – Fredric 
Jameson writes that Humphrey Bogart, who plays Marlowe, ‘is 
distinguished from the other stars of his period in that he is able to 
show fear’ – but also glamorous, romantic and politically safe. The 
novels, still widely read yet less influential in popular culture than 
that one film, are different. In their relative unfamiliarity we may 
find it easier to distinguish the melodramatic and the exaggerated from 
glimpses of the actual era. They portray mid-century America as a place 
it seems anyone would seek to emigrate from, or hope to grow out of: 
mean, vicious, violent, corrupt, cynical, up to its eyeballs in alcohol, 
motivated by primal lusts and rigidly divided by wealth and by an ugly 
set of racial and gender codes.

In order for a character’s personhood, their human individuality, to be 
foregrounded in these novels, they must be white and have a surname that 
is either Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, Scandinavian or Celtic: Marlowe, 
Riordan, Sternwood, Ohls, Morgan, Conquest, Potter, Petersen, Haviland. 
A small number of characters with names that are vaguely Euro-Catholic 
are grudgingly brought into individual focus: Canino, Brunette, Florian, 
Menendez, Agostino, Vannier, Palermo, Degarmo. Otherwise, a person is a 
member of another race before they are a person:

The fat greasy sensual Jew with the tall stately bored showgirl … A tall 
handsome white-haired Jew … The fine-drawn face of an intelligent Jewess 
… An old Jew in a tall black skull cap … a big burly Jew with a Hitler 
moustache … He had just grinned at me with his wise Jew face … a group 
of negroes chanted and chattered … Heads turned slowly and the eyes in 
them glistened and stared in the dead alien silence of another race … 
Hooey Phooey Sing – Long Sing Tung, that kind of place, where a 
nice-mannered Jap hisses at you … I saw a Jap gardener at work weeding a 
huge lawn. He was pulling a piece of weed out of the vast velvet expanse 
and sneering at it the way Jap gardeners do … He had a sort of dry musty 
smell, like a fairly clean Chinaman.

There aren’t female characters in Chandler so much as hair colours: 
blondes, non-blonde women young enough for Marlowe to feel obliged to 
assess their attractiveness, and beings of indeterminate hair colour, a 
sign of their transition from one of the sexually available genders – 
blonde, brunette, redhead – to a space defined as beyond gender, old 
age, like Jesse Florian in Farewell, My Lovely, who ‘had weedy hair of 
that vague colour which is neither brown nor blonde, that hasn’t enough 
life in it to be ginger, and isn’t clean enough to be grey’.

When Marlowe meets the journalist Anne Riordan, the nearest Chandler 
comes to creating a female character not entirely defined by her 
relationship to men, the first thing he says by way of conversation is 
to tell her what colour her hair is. ‘Your hair’s red,’ he says. ‘There 
are blondes and blondes and it is almost a joke word nowadays,’ Marlowe 
muses in The Long Good-Bye. ‘All blondes have their points …’ He 
enumerates a detailed taxonomy of blondes in order to point out that 
Eileen Wade, whom he’s ogling in a ritzy bar, is a hair-being of a 
higher order. ‘Her hair,’ he has already noted, ‘was the pale gold of a 
fairy princess.’ In The Big Sleep, Marlowe visits the Missing Persons 
Bureau to scope the files on a missing couple, the ex-IRA freebooter 
Rusty Regan and his lover, the wife of the racketeer Eddie Mars. In the 
course of a seven-page chapter, she is referred to as ‘blonde wife … Mrs 
Mars … wife … frau … blonde … girl … torcher … vague blonde … blonde’. 
It’s not until 140 pages later that we find out she has a name of her 
own: Mona.

The blondes, redheads and brunettes are inclined to declare their lust 
for Marlowe early. ‘My God, you big dark handsome brute! … I loathe 
masterful men.’ ‘Don’t act so hard to get. You have a lovely build, 
mister.’ ‘What makes you so wonderful? … I’d like to be kissed, damn 
you!’ But Marlowe must beware, for the desires of women are toxic and 
contaminating. In the novels, men may kill, but – meta-spoiler – in each 
book’s ultimate level of revelation, there is a woman murderer. ‘The 
imprint of her head was still in the pillow, of her small corrupt body 
still on the sheets,’ the detective rages at the reader, after a 
client’s daughter has snuck naked into his bed at home and he has sent 
her away. ‘You can have a hangover from other things than alcohol. I had 
one from women. Women made me sick.’

There is a consolation: men. Men, and the manly virtues of fighting, 
smoking, heavy drinking, never showing weakness or ‘womanly’ emotions, 
companionship, and, most importantly, the exchange of abusive zingers:

‘You can talk, cheapie. I been looking over some acts for the floor show.’

‘You could cut your throat for one.’

‘What would I do for an encore?’

‘Men’ means real men, not what Marlowe refers to as ‘pansies’, who can 
be either actual homosexual men or the handsome, ineffectual, mercenary 
young fops (Jameson calls them ‘gigolos’) who prey on rich blondes and 
the subsidiary hair-types. ‘A pansy,’ observes Marlowe, as he enters 
into a long, intimate fight with the young lover of the murdered 
blackmailer Geiger in The Big Sleep, ‘has no iron in his bones, whatever 
he looks like.’ Perhaps these days we’re too ready to find homoerotic 
subtexts in what seem to us exaggerated displays of masculinity in the 
literature of the era of oppression, but what are we to make of episodes 
like the one towards the end of Farewell, My Lovely in which Marlowe, 
wandering among the sleazy nighttime entertainments of a beachfront 
resort, bumps into a big stranger, ‘Red’, who offers, for a few dollars, 
to take him somewhere he needs to go? Marlowe describes him as having 
‘eyes like a girl, a lovely girl … he had a plain farmer face, with no 
stagey kind of handsomeness.’ They journey together out into the Pacific 
to a dangerous place, an offshore casino, forming a quick and powerful 
bond. ‘He took hold of my hand. His was strong, hard, warm and slightly 
sticky. “I know you’re scared,” he whispered.’

After the first four Marlowe novels, published in quick succession (The 
Big Sleep in 1939, Farewell, My Lovely in 1940, The High Window in 1942 
and The Lady in the Lake in 1943), there was a gap of six years before 
The Little Sister appeared in 1949, reflecting Chandler’s other career 
as a screenwriter (he wrote The Blue Dahlia and shared credit for the 
adaptations of Strangers on a Train and Double Indemnity). By the time 
the last Marlowe novel of substance, The Long Good-Bye, appeared in 
1953, the implications of Freud and the Holocaust have begun to seep 
into the detective’s psyche.​* What in Farewell, My Lovely had been 
merely an ambivalent hint of sarcasm towards a cop, a hint of rebellion 
against racist norms – ‘“Well, all he did was kill a negro,” I said. “I 
guess that’s only a misdemeanour”’ – now mutates. We find Marlowe 
conversing, albeit in a master-servant way, about T.S. Eliot with a 
black college graduate. By the time we get to The Long Good-Bye, the Los 
Angeles County sheriff’s department has acquired a Hispanic captain whom 
Marlowe feels able to call ‘a cool, competent, dangerous guy’. Marlowe 
explicitly questions (to us, at least) LA’s anti-Semitic residency 
restrictions. He achieves something approximating intimacy with a woman; 
he forms a deep Platonic attachment to a man an earlier Marlowe would 
have derided as being of the pansy-gigolo type. He converses with a 
Chandlerian alter-ego, a commercially successful, alcoholic genre 
novelist, Roger Wade, who tells him: ‘The queer is the artistic arbiter 
of our age, chum.’ We approach the border between one America and 
another, as if Marlowe and his fellow Americans are about to make the 
passage through Rosa Parks, Betty Friedan and Stonewall and become 
immigrants, relieved, resentful, assimilated or otherwise, in the 
country on the other side.

*

What does Fredric Jameson make of all this? The following parenthesis, 
and no more:

(The least politically correct of all our modern writers, Chandler 
faithfully gives vent to everything racist, sexist, homophobic and 
otherwise socially resentful and reactionary in the American collective 
unconscious, enhancing these unlovely feelings – which are, however, 
almost exclusively mobilised for striking and essentially visual 
purposes, that is to say, for aesthetic rather than political ones – by 
a homosexual and male-bonding sentimentalism that is aroused by honest 
cops and gangsters with hearts of gold, but finds its most open 
expression in the plot of The Long Good-Bye.)

Jameson is interested in historical change in America, and in what 
Chandler’s novels can tell us about it. (He believes, as he explains 
elsewhere, that ‘only Marxism offers a philosophically coherent and 
ideologically compelling resolution to the dilemma of historicism.’) But 
the temporal border between the two Americas that interests Jameson 
isn’t the one marked by questions of gender, sex and race: it’s marked 
by an intensifying cycle of consumption and obsolescence, by the 
mutation of the public and private realms, and by the corruption that 
perpetuates inequality.

It’s hard to pin down a ‘now’ in Jameson’s new work to contrast with a 
Chandlerian ‘then’, because Jameson’s isn’t exactly new, as he explains 
in a disarmingly candid footnote: The Detections of Totality is what he 
calls a ‘synthesis’ of three essays published in 1970, 1983 and 1993, in 
the US, France and Britain respectively (his admission to publishing a 
not thoroughly rewritten work may explain why, on the first page, he 
declares The Big Sleep Chandler’s ‘best novel’, while towards the end he 
writes that Farewell, My Lovely is ‘surely Chandler’s best book’). When 
Jameson writes about ‘a crisis in American literature at present’, it’s 
not clear which present, in the 45-year gestation of this 87-page book, 
he means. But he names the period between the world wars as the time of 
its greatness, and the period after 1945 as the era of its decline. He 
grounds the problem in socioeconomic change. The older America, he 
argues, was a patchwork of heterogeneous locales, each with rich 
internal ties and well-worn social roles; in the new America, writers 
struggle to draw material from a homogenised country, where individuals, 
families and social classes are isolated in private space, making 
choices from a standardised, corporately controlled set of 
possibilities. Chandler’s work might have been rooted in the ‘great’ era 
of literature, were it not that Los Angeles was an early adopter of the 
form the new America would take: ‘a new centreless city, in which the 
various classes have lost touch with each other because each is isolated 
in its own geographical compartment’.

Jameson’s embedding of Chandler’s Los Angeles in the Marxist narrative 
of late capitalism and commodity fetishism is persuasive and compelling. 
But it’s odd that a political reading of a novelist’s work should pass 
so lightly over such political areas of discourse as gender, race and 
sexuality when in Chandler they’re so prominent. Certainly it’s tough 
for a critic who seeks to draw a border between a former and a 
contemporary America where, in the crisis of late capitalism, things 
have got manifestly worse – as the crossing was made from Progressive 
America to Neoliberal America – to recognise at the same time that in 
terms of civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights, things have, at 
least until now, got manifestly better.

By choosing only a single axis of oppression – by passing over what he 
describes as ‘unlovely feelings’ expressed for ‘aesthetic’ purposes – 
Jameson evades readings that would incorporate, say, class and race 
together. The mainly black district of LA seen in the opening of 
Farewell, My Lovely, for instance, and the blacks-only bar where the 
giant (white) ex-con Moose Malloy breaks the neck of the (black) manager 
Montgomery, correspond economically to one of Jameson’s spaces of the 
dispossessed. The (white) policeman who’s assigned to his case, Nulty, 
is poor too – ‘poor enough to be honest’, Marlowe observes – in a mean 
little office. But by his attitude towards the murder – feeling himself 
oppressed to be told to investigate the murder of a black man – he shows 
himself aligned with the actual oppressors. Talking to Marlowe about the 
killing, he uses three different contemptuous terms to refer to blacks – 
‘shine’, ‘smoke’ and ‘dinge’. The power to name is important in 
Chandler: it confers authority. But anything that is possessed may also 
be lost. Nulty lays his power of language out boastfully (Marlowe 
confines himself to ‘negro’). The implication is that such eloquence as 
Nulty has is dependent on the preservation of the racial status quo; 
that for him to treat the races equally would be not only to deprive him 
of overt power but to impoverish his power of speech, to subtract 
permanently from that essential part of himself that consists of racism; 
that it is impossible for black people to gain dignity without their 
white oppressors losing self. It may be that those Americans who 
emigrated joyfully and hopefully from the old America of the 1940s into 
the new America of civil rights were outnumbered by those who came as 
refugees from the past. ‘When we left the old country, we were forced to 
leave everything behind. They even took our racist vocabulary.’

*

There was a strange moment, as I reread The Big Sleep, when I felt the 
familiar first-person narrative voice of Philip Marlowe suddenly 
replaced, or doubled, by Bertie Wooster. Marlowe is coming round from 
being beaten up: ‘Blood began to move around in me, like a prospective 
tenant looking over a house.’ Chandler’s and P.G. Wodehouse’s schooldays 
at Dulwich College weren’t far apart, though they never met. Chandler, 
born in Chicago in 1888, returned to the US in 1912, aged 24, eventually 
becoming a senior executive in an oil company before he was fired in 
1932 and turned, late in life, to writing for a living.

Chandler’s reacquaintance with the American language after an English 
private school education defined his style. Jameson compares him to 
Nabokov, as a writer in a borrowed tongue: ‘Language can never again be 
unself-conscious for him.’ His trademark comparisons, so often imitated 
and parodied, have kept their vividness. ‘The boy stood glaring at him 
with sharp black eyes in a face as hard and white as cold mutton fat.’ 
‘She opened her mouth wide and laughed her head off without making any 
more sound than you would make cracking a breadstick.’ They are 
developments of Chandler’s preoccupation with non-verbal expression; he 
requires of his characters a rich range of facial and bodily messages, 
like a director micro-directing actors, so that I found myself 
practising the motions described in order to visualise them. ‘He put his 
hand out palm up and cupped the fingers and rolled the thumb gently 
against the index and middle fingers.’

The novels are hurried forward through complex and sometimes nonsensical 
plots in terse sentences, short chapters, rapid changes of scene and 
sections of mutually abusive dialogue lit up by Chandler’s distinctive 
marque of slang. Chandler once mocked Eugene O’Neill for using the 
expression ‘the big sleep’ in The Iceman Cometh as if it were a real 
gangster term: Chandler had made it up. Jameson quotes Chandler on his 
approach: ‘I’ve found that there are only two kinds that are any good,’ 
Chandler wrote. ‘Slang that has established itself in the language, and 
slang that you make up yourself.’ Much of the dialogue, Jameson argues, 
is made up of clichés and stereotyped patterns, but it is energised by 
tension between wary strangers, kept apart by the atomisation of life in 
the new America:

The various solitudes never really merge into a collective experience, 
there is always distance between them. Each dingy office is separated 
from the next; each room in the rooming house from the one next to it; 
each dwelling from the pavement beyond it … the most characteristic 
leitmotif of Chandler’s books is the figure standing, looking out of one 
world, peering vaguely or attentively across into another … this figure 
on the doorstep represents Suspicion, and suspicion is everywhere in 
this world.

Between the dialogue, the action, the fierce eye and ear of Chandler 
fastening on each cadence and fingernail and accessory of his 
characters, there are moments of intense experience of place that are 
both sensual and precise. Chandler has a genius for the rare and obscure 
prose skill of putting exactly the right number of atmospheric elements 
in place to enable the reader both to grasp a topography and feel a mood:

We drove away from Las Olindas through a series of little dank beach 
towns with shack-like houses built down on the sand close to the rumble 
of the surf and larger houses built back on the slopes behind. A yellow 
window shone here and there, but most of the houses were dark. A smell 
of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog. The tyres sang on the 
moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet emptiness.

For Jameson, the novels, beyond their form as plots and stories, are a 
set of spaces – a constellation of discrete, isolated workplaces and 
dwellings he calls the ‘offices’ of the poor, the wealthy and the 
police. Their co-ordinates in the socioeconomic universe are expressed 
by the degree of luxury and decay in the objects they contain, the only 
lines linking them drawn by Marlowe the detective – a pattern reflecting 
the disaggregation of families and individuals in a society defined by 
consumption. The reader’s sense of ‘totality’ in Chandler, the work’s 
sense of completeness and closure, is given by the contrast between the 
diffused inequality of Los Angeles portrayed in Marlowe’s ‘cognitive 
map’ and nature as a whole, in the form of rain, the lonely canyons that 
pierce and surround the city, the desert and, in particular, the great 
ocean, travelled over at the end of Farewell, My Lovely. Nature stands 
as surrogate for the counterpart of history, the non-space that is 
death. In Chandler, without death, Jameson says, society has no 
resonance, and no ground.

Jameson points out that the canonical Marlowe novels share a single 
master narrative. It is based on deception, like a shell game, in which 
the reader is made to watch a place where they think the heart of the 
story is, when it is, in fact, elsewhere. The reader follows the 
detective on a series of murder mysteries, only to find out, in the end, 
that the book wasn’t really about solving murders at all, but about the 
resolution of a search for a missing person whose fate, apparently 
determined at the outset, turns out to be radically otherwise. He who 
was thought to be alive turns out to have been long since dead; he who 
was thought to be dead turns out to be alive; she who was thought to be 
one person turns out to be another. These final revelations by Marlowe 
don’t efface the detective’s earlier, more banal murder mystery-solving 
– in these final revelations, a murder is always involved – but instead 
transform the reader’s perspective on the nature of violent death in 
general:

One character has simply been transformed into another; a name, a label, 
has wavered and then gone to fix itself to someone else … the attribute 
of being a murderer can no longer function as a symbol of pure evil when 
murder itself has lost its symbolic qualities … in Chandler the other 
random violence of the secondary plot has intervened to contaminate the 
central murder. And by the time we reach its explanation, we have come 
to feel all violence in the same light.

Jameson is a difficult writer. His style is modular rather than linear. 
He can be stirring or profound or both without necessarily being lucid, 
and create exquisite stanchions of lucidity that seem to forever await 
the crossbeams that would tie them together. He introduces a rush of 
20th-century critical concepts – Algirdas Greimas’s semiotic square, 
György Lukács’s idea of ‘totality’ – without either offering the 
non-specialist a consensual approximation of what they are, or where, at 
this point in a long career (he is 82), in a field rife with narrowly 
fought disagreements and refinements of earlier opinions, he has set his 
own definition. With his title Jameson projects himself, the critic, 
into Chandler’s fiction, hinting at a sleuth-like quest for an object, 
Totality. The interest of Chandler-plus-Jameson is the chance to follow 
the real Jameson’s detections in Chandler’s fictional world, but at the 
same time to make the journey in the opposite direction, to allow at 
least the possibility that the lack of anything resembling a fictional 
Jameson in Chandler’s Los Angeles suggests a rewriting of The Detections 
of Totality itself.

*

As a private detective, it’s Philip Marlowe’s job to find things out: to 
gain knowledge. But his relationship to knowledge is of a particular 
kind. He’s 33 when The Big Sleep opens. He has no family. He was born in 
Santa Rosa, where perhaps he went to school, and he went to college. He 
is, in the classification of modern demographers, a ‘white, 
college-educated male’. Yet he acts as a stereotypical resentful, 
conservative, tough-guy autodidact, wanting to show he knows the nap of 
culture country, quick to make categorical cultural judgments, and quick 
to mock erudition or anyone else’s intellectualism as pretentious and 
effeminate.

He knows Eliot, Pepys, Austen. He quotes Richard III. He rates Flaubert 
(‘His stuff is good’); Hemingway, not so much:

‘Who is this Hemingway person at all?’

‘A guy that keeps saying the same thing over and over until you begin to 
believe it must be good.’

He knows his grammar:

The voice grew icicles. ‘I should not have called you, if it were not.’

A Harvard boy. Nice use of the subjunctive mood.

He doesn’t like abstract art:

I lit a Camel, blew smoke through my nose and looked at a piece of black 
shiny metal on a stand. It showed a full, smooth curve with a shallow 
fold in it and two protuberances on the curve. I stared at it. Marriott 
saw me staring at it.

‘An interesting bit,’ he said negligently, ‘I picked it up just the 
other day. Asta Dial’s Spirit of Dawn.’

‘I thought it was Klopstein’s Two Warts on a Fanny,’ I said.

He thinks women whose hair has a low melanin content risk becoming 
unattractive to men if they read challenging texts:

There is the pale, pale blonde with anaemia of some non-fatal but 
incurable type. She is very languid and very shadowy and she speaks 
softly out of nowhere and you can’t lay a finger on her because in the 
first place you don’t want to and in the second place she is reading The 
Waste Land or Dante in the original, or Kafka or Kierkegaard or studying 
Provençal.

He doesn’t like Soviet orchestral music:

At three a.m. I was walking the floor and listening to Khachaturian 
working in a tractor factory. He called it a violin concerto. I called 
it a loose fan belt and the hell with it.

This is only the beginning of Marlowe’s knowledge. He possesses a 
fantastical power to name the things of the world – an astonishing 
vocabulary of plants, fashion and interior design. Sherlock Holmes’s 
knowledge of the smallest distinctions of the surface world is 
explicitly won by study and neo-academic forms of research, yet to 
Marlowe it comes unmediated, unexplained, as if from within. ‘A rather 
too emphatic trace of chypre hung in the air,’ he notes. He detects the 
scent of eucalyptus trees and wild sage. He names wild irises, white and 
purple lupin, bugle flowers, columbine, pennyroyal, desert paint brush, 
begonias, acacia, winter sweet peas, poinsettia. In one short passage in 
The Big Sleep he identifies juniper logs in a fireplace, walnut in the 
wainscoting, and a dozen kinds of hardwood in the parquetry, ‘from Burma 
teak through half a dozen shades of oak and ruddy wood that looked like 
mahogany, and fading out to the hard pale wild lilac of the California 
hills’. In The High Window, while hiding behind a curtain, overhearing a 
powerful hoodlum and his wife discussing how to make the death of the 
man she has murdered, and whose corpse is in front of them, look like 
suicide, Marlowe manages to note that she ‘wears pale green gabardine 
slacks, a fawn-coloured leisure jacket with stitching on it, a scarlet 
turban with a gold snake in it’. He also speaks Spanish.

Sometimes there is information even Marlowe can’t get from interviewing 
people or from within himself, but he’s never obliged to consult an 
expert. If he can’t find what he needs in the Hollywood Public Library 
he accesses a network of contacts who can pull up a deed or a case file 
for him. Implicitly, this is in return for past favours, but such 
favours have left no trace on Marlowe of supplication or persuasion or 
dependence. These easy-peasy data-gathering forays are like the popular 
modern fantasy of the internet as an enchanted knowledge machine which, 
if you know the magic words, will yield the answer to any question.

At the end of each novel, all knowledge has drained out of the landscape 
and into Marlowe. The occasional journalist knows nothing compared to 
him, and there are no teachers, no professors, no poets, no critics, no 
politicians, no intellectuals, no priests, no thoughtful well-read 
friends, only the silent, absent grandmasters whose past games the 
solitary detective replays on his chessboard. There is a hint that were 
an academic to appear, he would not be well received. ‘Everybody’s done 
something to be sorry for,’ a woman journalist who briefly appears in 
The Lady in the Lake tells Marlowe. ‘Take me. I was married once – to a 
professor of classical languages at Redlands University.’

The nearest thing in Chandler to a manifestation of learned knowledge 
and the agents of the theoretical is the ‘law’, a vast, amorphous 
network of police and sheriff’s officers and district attorneys and 
forensics men, mainly corrupt but with random patches of honesty, 
shading on one side into the judicial and incarceration system and Death 
Row – although we never see a courtroom or meet a judge or a lawyer, 
apart from the DA – and on the other side into organised crime, the 
mobsters whose own enforcement operations may be sanctioned by crooked 
cops. This law is lightly tied to its ideal, written form. ‘Like a lot 
of people that read a law book,’ says a cop of Marlowe when he tries to 
stand on his rights, ‘he thinks the law is in it.’

Jameson could enter the text under any circumstances, but as it is, the 
knowledge imbalance between the solitary free agent Marlowe, who knows 
all that is worth knowing, and the deintellectualised remainder of Los 
Angeles, creates a space of utter freedom for the critic to deploy his 
semiotic tools. (Oddly, Jameson doesn’t mention the only challenger to 
Marlowe’s monopoly on knowledge, the writer Roger Wade, whose work, 
naturally, Marlowe describes as ‘tripe’.)

To read Chandler-with-Jameson might be a hybrid literary encounter, with 
the critic entering Chandler and rewriting the fictional Marlowe into 
his political scheme, and Marlowe entering Jameson’s book and endowing 
him, the critic, with a kind of fictional aura, as a character missing 
from his world. But it doesn’t seem to me that Marlowe can get in. I’m 
not sure whether Marx foretold a type like Marlowe, but as we meet him 
he is already packing up to be forced to cross the 1960s into the 
future, with his few possessions and his personality, isolated, filled 
with suppressed rage and violence, proud, intensely, self-consciously 
masculine and white, a drinker, hardworking, a lover of wisecracks, 
convinced of his own basic virtue and his sense of right and wrong, 
angry with women and the rich, disdainful of the poor, believing power 
to be corrupt, sure that he already knows everything worth knowing and 
that if he doesn’t, it is to be found with a swift bout of 
internet-style searching. There is space for Jameson in Marlowe’s world, 
but not for Marlowe in Jameson’s. In The Detections of Totality, Jameson 
is busy communicating with a host of others like him, out of sight, some 
dead, some alive – Greimas, Lukács, Heidegger, Hegel, Goffman, 
MacCannell, Jakobson, Bloch, Hebel, Barthes – even though Jameson is 
master of language enough, and great enough of intellect, to have long 
since assimilated these conversations to his own discourse, and to have 
addressed Marlowe one to one. To Marlowe it is reminiscent of the 
untrustworthy, sprawling empire of ‘experts’ and their codes that make 
up the Law. He turns away. He buys a pint of whisky. He gets in a fight. 
He goes home to the chessboard and broods over his next move.
-- 
Support Louis Proyect biography project
https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/publish-the-biography-of-socialist-louis-proyect#/



More information about the Marxism mailing list