RAYMOND CHANDLER AND THE ART OF THE HOLLYWOOD NOVEL: INDIVIDUALISM AND POPULISM IN THE LITTLE SISTER.
The history of the Hollywood novel since the twenties reflects this difficulty. The most common method of circumvention is also the most familiar: if epistemology makes realism suspect, modernism maintains the possibility of a privileged perspective by rooting it in the contrast between the aesthetic and mass culture. The first-person narrator of Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run? (1941) is an artist, whose narrations make clear that Hollywood defiles art and the integrity of those who devote their lives to it. In Schulberg's novel, both the narrator Al Manheim and Sammy Glick are eastern writers who move to Los Angeles during the Depression. Glick's rise, contrasted with the unfortunate fates of Manheim, Sammy's ghostwriter Julian Blumberg and the lyric poet Henry Powell Turner, makes clear that talent and integrity are victimized by the film industry while deceit and ambition are rewarded.(2)
With a plot that revolves around a pet cemetery, Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One (1948) hardly shares the earnestness that characterizes What Makes Sammy Run? But its satire of Hollywood's commercialization of death still relies heavily upon a critique premised on a notion of art that is separate from commerce and historically-situated ideologies. For Waugh, Hollywood appropriates the wealth of Western culture in order to mystify its "true," economic exigencies. The Whispering Glades cemetery is "zoned" according to art and income: "The Park is zoned. Each zone has its own name and appropriate Work of Art. Zones of course vary in price and within the zones the prices vary according to their proximity to the Work of Art."(3) Dennis Barlow, the cynical poet who serves as the novel's protagonist, plagiarizes canonical poetry to seduce the crematorium cosmetician. In both novels (and dozens of their kind), even though Hollywood wins out over art, the narratives that present this "death" serve themselves to perpetuate an afterlife for this figural corpse.
But not all Hollywood novels hold to so simple a notion of either reality or art. Many of the most intriguing novels that concern themselves with the film industry investigate the theoretical basis for the very distinctions that enable both the realist and aesthetic critiques of Hollywood. Novelists who don't rely on either of these foundations ultimately offer far more revealing meditations on the subtle shifts in the ideological field precisely because they enact a theory of art that sees it as deeply, inevitably, embedded in mass culture. Hollywood novels that take mass culture on its own terms offer what Adorno calls an "immanent critique" of an ideological institution that has too often served as a straw man for writers who wish to preserve an undemocratic cultural hierarchy above all else. Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister (1949) is an underappreciated Hollywood novel that exemplifies the subgenre at its very best when it comes to the complicated relation of art to mass culture. For the most part, it has been lumped in with What Makes Sammy Run? and The Loved One. The Little Sister is generally considered one of Chandler's weaker novels because of its preoccupation with the film industry, a preoccupation that in its explicit moments is full of bile.(4) Because he gave full vent to his anger at the industry that exploited him, so the argument goes, the novel is more indictment than art. In large measure, this evaluative judgment has taken the novel's depiction of Hollywood as a simple reproduction of the common assessment found in the lesser Hollywood novels. To wit: Hollywood destroys art and integrity, replacing historical reality with so many simulations.
There seems to be some warrant for this reading of the novel. Philip Marlowe's narrative voice is more bitter, more pessimistic than in any previous novel, and his criticisms of the modern world that Los Angeles emblematizes are wholesale. "I used to like this town," Marlowe comments at one point. "A long time ago ... Real cities have something else, some individual bony structure under the muck. Los Angeles has Hollywood--and hates it."(5) But such judgments are consistently contextualized and presented as the utterances of someone having trouble finding his way, as a detective who (in the words of Slavoj Zizek) "gets mixed up in a course of events that he is unable to dominate ... [and] finds himself in a dreamlike world where it is never quite clear who is playing what game.(6) This loss of control is a symptom of a subjective reality, not the truth of an objective reality--something that has been ably theorized by Stephen Knight (among others), who sees Marlowe as a bourgeois subject who controls the world by imposing his consciousness upon it.(7)
This romantic individualism is enacted most powerfully on the level of literary form. Chandler's admission that plotting is his greatest weakness is surely relevant here, since the looseness of the plot can be traced to the narration's subservience to the consciousness of Marlowe.(8) In the absence of collective faith in the enlightenment narrative of history, the point of view of a reliable subject becomes the sole ordering principle. If this formal dimension of the text suggests Chandler's investment in the literary ideology of radical individualism, his rendering of the "reality" of a mass cultural America on the level of content suggests Chandler's equal belief in a form of populism that sees the consuming audiences as the source and final arbiter of the culture industry. This modernized populist discourse is not nearly as easy to detect as the radical individualism. It is most evident in the novel's engagement with Los Angeles as a cluster of signs. Marlowe's difficulty decoding the social reality with which he is confronted often takes the form of diatribes against the severing of sign from referent. But the disturbing vision of Los Angeles that the novel presents is the expression of the subjects and narrator who inhabit the city. The novel's rendering of a Hollywood-generated America is thus at odds with Jean Baudrillard's notorious theory of simulated reality: the simulations of self and reality with which Marlowe is faced are expressive of the subjective reality of the audiences, the masses who seek and sometimes find fulfillment in the fictional world Hollywood enacts.
I will start by giving an illustration and explanation of the individualism and populism that drive the novel. These apparently antipathetic ideologies can be seen as mutually sustaining if we think of them through the later Freud's theory of fantasy--and the contrasting pleasure and reality principles more specifically. This version of psychoanalysis pays as much attention to the preoedipal bond with the mother as it does to the oedipal competition with the father. Consequently, this later Freud allows us to understand how and why these competing ideologies are inseparable. Finally, I will trace these ideological and psychological antinomies back to the conflict between the aesthetic and ideology--between serious literature and mass culture--that has driven the subgenre from the very beginning.
Marlowe's "hailing" of the reader is established from the very beginning: "The pebbled glass door panel is lettered in flaked black paint: `Philip Marlowe ... Investigations.' It is a reasonably shabby door at the end of a reasonably shabby corridor in the sort of building that was new about the year the all-tile bathroom became the basis of civilization. The door is locked, but next to it is another door with the same legend which is not locked. Come on in--there's nobody in here but me and a big bluebottle fly."(9) An inauspicious invitation, but one that makes clear the curious form of connection that the novel offers its readers: a fellowship of those who feel disconnected from others. Not only is Marlowe all alone, but he is also not successful in any obvious, material ways. These two things will prove badges of honor, however, since they establish his resistance to the social conformity that is a large part of Chandler's explicit critique of Hollywood. One more thing worth remarking in this passage is the indirect way in which Marlowe introduces himself; we know his identity only because we have noted the sign on the door and not because he has communicated directly with us. This passive stance expresses the alienation from the larger community and the absence of any social recognition from that same community--even if the stance at the same time unites a community of readers familiar with Marlowe.
Marlowe's singularity is always something to be inferred through such indirect narrative strategies. As the plot unfolds, this becomes most obvious in the way that other characters react to Marlowe. Most of the conflicts Marlowe has with other characters are produced by a basic misrecognition. If the other characters only understood Marlowe as the reader does, if they knew that he wasn't after money and competition like everyone else, they would not be so suspicious, threatened and aggressive. This is especially true of the first half of the novel when he is just beginning to look for Orrin Quest in the seedy parts of Los Angeles. The realization of this misrecognition by the reader is a big part of the process of individuation the novel enacts; by realizing that Marlowe has been misunderstood, we come to recognize a more "authentic" Marlowe who is different from how the social world views him. In his first meeting with Orfamay Quest, his confrontation with the "manager" of the Bay City hotel where Orrin Quest had stayed, and subsequent meetings with George Hicks, the police, Mavis Weld and her agent Sherry Ballou, Marlowe is misjudged--taken for some social "type" and assumed to have the motives of such a person. The reader experiences frustration in such scenes, but also a grasp of how Marlowe fits into his social formation. Conversely, when someone acknowledges him appropriately (like Ballou finally does) the reader finds a temporary space within the narrative that gives symbolic form to the imaginary identification.
This identification requires that Marlowe's individuality be defined in opposition to everyone else. No character other than Marlowe is invested with any complexity; all are exactly as they appear on the outside. They are so many "others" that serve much like "evil" does within Nietzsche's genealogy of morality--as the threat that enables the discovery of the "good" self through a pure process of negation. The construction of this Other also serves the same purpose that morality does for Nietzsche: it authorizes a quietist acceptance of social disempowerment and makes resistance immoral (for Nietzsche) or poor taste (for Chandler).(10) The choice of career-private eye--suggests just this refusal of the public power of Hollywood's elite, whose wealth and power are taken as evidence of their poor taste: the architecture, clothing, affectations are all comic reproductions of European culture. Marlowe's subjectivity thus rests on the distinction between public and private domains. The public domain is the domain of social identities that are recognizable because they reproduce subject positions that already have social currency; the latter is a domain of social identities that cede power and recognition but take solace in their contrast to the public domain.
The public/private distinction carries a considerable ideological burden in the novel, signifying the distinction between inauthentic and authentic subjectivity. Consider this passage right after Marlowe encounters Steelgrave (Weepy Moyer) outside of Mavis Weld's apartment:
I drove east on Sunset but I didn't go home. At La Brea I turned north and swung over to Highland, out over Cahuenga Pass and down on to Ventura Boulevard, past Studio City and Sherman Oaks and Encino. There was nothing lonely about the trip. There never is on that road. Fast boys in stripped-down Fords shot in and out of the traffic streams, missing fenders by a sixteenth of an inch, but somehow always missing them. Tired men in dusty coupes and sedans winced and tightened their grip on the wheel and ploughed on north and west toward home and dinner, an evening with the sports page, the blatting of the radio, the whining of their spoiled children and the gabble of their silly wives. (P. 79)
The loneliness to which Marlowe so often confesses in the novel is not to be taken literally. If he is lonely, it isn't for want of company; it is for want of company that cannot be dismissed so summarily. Rhetorically, this passage is representative of the narration in general. The concrete detail that begins the passage provides the impression of realist discourse, maintaining the specificity of place and experience and providing a transparent window onto the city. But the denotative voice falls silent when the narrator begins expressing the feelings that this external reality connotes. "There never is on that road" indicates feelings that precede this moment and ultimately structure his way of seeing it this time around. With the emotions of a subjective narrator as the filter, the subjects who inhabit this city are now conceived of in general, figural terms that erase any meaningful difference between them. They become so many identical types who don't warrant the specificity that the literalness of street names do. But since the key transition in the passage is the self-conscious admission of alienation, then the meanings imposed on the city are more expressive than referential.
The individuality here expressed depends upon a simplified public world. The world of public types who accept their standardization throws into relief the private, alienated world of those like Marlowe. This world is recognized through romantic intuition: "All I know is that something isn't what it seems and the old tired but always reliable hunch tells me that if the hand is played the way it is dealt the wrong person is going to lose the pot" (p. 81). Even so, Marlowe questions his occupation and his identity, wondering if"I'm an ectoplasm with a private license." But characteristically, this moment of identity crisis is chalked up to the social world he inhabits: "Maybe we all get like this in the cold half-lit world where always the wrong thing happens and never the right." His crisis of identity is a crisis only of social identity; the self that has "hunches" has no need or inclination to question its origins.
Despite such explicit expressions of doubt about the coherence of his subjectivity, Marlowe's subject position remains inviolable. When he visits Dr. Lagardie, Marlowe witnesses the finish of funeral services across the street from the doctor's office:
The amateur pallbearers carried the coffin out the side door and professionals eased the weight from them and slid it into the back of the hearse as smoothly as if it had no more weight than a pan of butter rolls. Flowers began to grow into a mound over it. The glass doors were closed and motors started all over the block. A few moments later nothing was left but one sedan across the way and the boss mortician sniffing a tree-rose on his way back to count the take. With a beaming smile he faded into his neat colonial doorway and the world was still and empty again. (P. 138)
At such moments, Chandler advertises the novel's ethical perspective. Once again, Marlowe demonstrates his eye for detail, but (as before) the detail contains a damning criticism of the private (the intentions of the mortician) based upon one visible detail in the public (the role played by the mortician). Marlowe sees a discrepancy between the mortician's expression of solemnity and his profit motive. Marlowe's personal integrity is measured by the absence of a contrast between the private and the public: he only expresses what he feels. For this reason, he is different and less effectual given the demands of participation. Here, as in the opening tableaux, any evidence of success is a measure of a lack of individuality. This does not mean, of course, that failure is always a signifier for authenticity. Failure that comes from trying to succeed is very different from failure that has been chosen, as Marlowe has chosen his failure.
Despite this insistence on the private (and therefore authentic) self and individualized perspective of Marlowe, Little Sister cannot be read as a wholesale dismissal of a Hollywood--dominated American culture. Despite its criticisms of Hollywood, the novel does not see mass culture as a top-down, simulated reality that is imposed on the national population. Rather, Hollywood is the institution that gives faithful expression to an intractable, if regrettable, human nature. On a number of occasions, Marlowe speaks of the transformation of self that Hollywood can enact:
Wonderful what Hollywood will do to a nobody. It will make a radiant glamour queen out of a drab little wench who ought to be ironing a truck driver's shirts, a he-man hero with shining eyes and brilliant smile reeking of sexual charm out of some overgrown kid who was meant to go to work with a lunchbox. Out of a Texas car hop with the literacy of a character in a comic strip it will make an international courtesan, married six times to six millionaires and so blase and decadent at the end of it that her idea of a thrill is to seduce a furniture mover in a sweaty undershirt. And by remote control it might even take a small-town prig like Orrin Quest and make an ice-pick murderer out of him in a matter of months, elevating his simple meanness into the classic sadism of the multiple killer. (P. 158)
In each case, the sarcastic "wonderful" is attached to stories that fit the classic American narrative of reinvention, stories that Marlowe sees as a violation of what should be. The glamour queen "ought" to be doing something less elevated; the he-man hero was "meant" to be living a socially inferior, unremarkable life. In both cases, Hollywood is suspect because it seems to violate a social order that Marlowe sees as more legitimate, more meritocratic. It is also no accident that, in each case, the prejudice is either class-based or cosmopolitan; those who remained in their working class places and on the farm a generation earlier are now in a position to acquire more social power than those, like Marlowe, who are intellectually and morally superior.
Chandler's contempt for the working class and rural America is not unlike that of H. L. Mencken, who had been so influential in shaping the attitude of U.S. writers and intellectuals.(11) Hollywood doesn't erase the divide between the haves and the have-nots any more than it erases the divide between cosmopolitans and hicks. It elevates those with neither economic nor cultural capital because mass culture is the world of and for the "people." The first, prominent example of Hollywood's transformative power is Orrin Quest, whose character traits that were evident in his humble class origins are entirely consistent with his actions in Hollywood. Despite the fact that we barely encounter him within the diegesis of the novel, Orrin Quest is the catalyst of the entire plot. The only difference in his identity is that the stage is larger and the expressions of these traits are so much grander. His decision to blackmail his sister is presented as a faithful manifestation of his identity that cuts across the cultural divide that separates his rural life in Manhattan, Kansas and his urban life in Los Angeles.
Much the same can be said of Orrin's sister, Leila, who becomes the starlet Mavis Weld. Despite a name change that bespeaks reinvention, Leila/ Mavis is presented as a continuous character. Peter Wolfe sees Mavis as an allegorical figure, whose characterization suggests the extent to which Hollywood alienates subjects from themselves. "The screen star who projects a romantic image rather than her real identity is estranged from herself," he writes. "Hollywood markets shadows, not the substance."(12) And yet, what little we know about her life in Kansas suggests that she was as alienated there as she professes to be in Los Angeles. The "real identity" to which Wolfe alludes doesn't seem any more likely within a small town and family that was repressive and hypocritical. Similarly, upon meeting Orfamay (the "little sister" of the novel's title), Marlowe comments, "She had about the most meaningless set of gestures I had ever laid eyes on" (p. 11). Orfamay, who has only come to Hollywood to make sure she gets some of the blackmail money, is a subject who lacks any correspondence between external and internal realities. In this, she is no different from her sister or any of the film industry denizens depicted in the novel. And yet, the novel is finally far more kind to Mavis than to Orfamay. She is capable of both love that overrides self-interest in her relationship with Steelgrave and of noble motives in her willingness to take responsibility when her sister murders Steelgrave. The same cannot be said about Orfamay.
Viewing Hollywood as a manifestation of democracy helps explain why the novel seems less a critique of the culture industry than of the audiences that summoned it into existence. It is not surprising that the only character in Little Sister who makes the parallel between Hollywood and human psychology is Sherry Ballou, Mavis Weld's agent and a powerful man in the Hollywood community. Ballou answers Marlowe's rhetorical question about why people pay blackmailers while negotiating with Marlowe, explaining how spectatorship works:
"The fear of today always overrides the fear of tomorrow. It's a basic fact of the dramatic emotions that the part is greater than the whole. If you see a glamour star on the screen in a position of greater danger, you fear for her with one part of your mind, the emotional part. Notwithstanding that your reasoning mind knows that she is the star of the picture and nothing bad is going to happen to her. If suspense and menace didn't defeat reason, there would be very little drama." (P. 115)
Marlowe doesn't contradict Ballou. Despite his external attitude, it is evident that Marlowe is impressed by Ballou and respects his power and judgment. Ballou's explanation of blackmail is also important since it suggests the extent to which apparently disparate social practices like blackmail and movies adhere to a basic fact of human psychology that has no history: an emotional, imaginary investment in cultural practices (like film or blackmail) that proves more affective, more urgent, than any intellectual engagement. Ballou uses the word "drama" for these practices, suggesting that social participation and spectatorship follow the same psychic logic. This conflation is intriguing: it implies that both subjective processes are based upon an exploitation that takes advantage of essential psychological traits. It is thus unjust and deserved.
In order to grasp the unification of individualism and populism that Little Sister imagines, we need to look closely at the novel's depiction of the police, who are always central to the ideology of detective fiction. When Marlowe is brought in by French and Beifus after Steelgrave is murdered, French delivers a speech that figures the police as the antithesis of the new mass cultural subject:
We go up dark stairways to get a gun punk with a skinful of hop and sometimes we don't get all the way up, and our wives wait dinner that night and all the other nights. We don't come home any more. And nights we do come home, we come home so goddamn tired we can't eat or sleep or even read the lies the papers print about us. So we lie awake in the dark in a cheap house on a cheap street and listen to the drunks down the block having fun. (P. 212)
The police are emblematic of a cultural milieu governed more by repressive power than ideological power, more by "character" than "personality," in Warren Susman's famous distinction.(13) They are indispensable to the novel since they incarnate the negation of both of the investments we've been studying. French and Beifus are completely indistinguishable. As Wolfe points out, the two major scenes in which they appear find them acting in entirely inconsistent ways: they are the stereotypical good cop/bad cop except that their roles are reversed, underscoring their lack of individuality.(14) They also prove incapable of exercising the control over the social world they inhabit that is enabled by Marlowe's narration. But Beifus and French, who both express contempt for the citizenry they protect, are obviously at odds with the people that populism champions and their world is most definitely not an outgrowth of their fantasies. The reference to dreary marriages suggests how much "being a cop" militates against an immersion of self in any unity.
The characterization of Beifus and French is revealing because it suggests by negation what the novel affirms. The conflict between the novel's form and content (individualism and populism, simply labelled) can be read as the psychological basis for the new libidinal economy of a Hollywood-led mass culture. Mass culture operates according to a "fantasy" that simultaneously connects and separates. One expresses one's individuality in the public sphere of the consumer marketplace. In terms of radical individualism, leisure pursuits become the expression of one's "authenticity," a social signifier for one's distinct subjectivity. In its attachment to recognizable conventions, such leisure-based autonomy owes much to the late Freud's notion of the reality principle according to which individuation is a compromise based on the acceptance of the social necessity of autonomous subjectivity. Freud argues that the reality principle grows out of "the ego's instincts of self-preservation," instincts that accept alienation and unpleasure in the hopes of finding connection and pleasure in the long term. "This principle demands and carries into effect the postponement of satisfaction, the abandonment of a number of possibilities of gaining satisfaction."(15) In terms of populism, mass culture articulates a democratic ideology that is premised on immersion in a collectivity that endows the participant with the fantasy of social power by association. I would argue that this theorization of the populism of the culture industry is indebted to Freud's pleasure principle that argues that subjects experience a release from alienation and agitation (what Freud calls "excitation") through a fantasy of the loss of self in a greater unity. "The pleasure principle long persists (after being replaced by the reality principle) as the method of working employed by the sexual instincts, which are so hard to educate. Our recognition of that fact is one of our strongest reasons for believing in the existence of death instincts."(16)
The best way to illustrate the interplay between the pleasure and reality principles is by using Freud's famous anecdote about the fort/da game. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud tells of witnessing a game his grandson would play every time his mother went away. Freud's grandson had a wooden reel with a piece of string tied to it that he would throw away, calling "fort" (gone); then he would pull the wooden reel back to himself, calling "da" (here). Freud says that the child repeated the game endlessly and theorizes that the action manifests a "will to mastery" within which the wooden reel is a figure for the mother. Freud suggests that the child's actions combine the demands of both the pleasure and reality principles because the game at once insists on individuation without pleasure in casting the beloved mother away as proof of one's chosen autonomy and enacts the pleasure of the mother's return and reunification with the gameplayer/son. The throwing away of the loved object, for Freud, "is influenced by a wish that dominates them [children] the whole time--the wish to be grown-up and to be able to do what grown-up people do"--or the reality principle. At the same time, Freud admits that "there is no doubt that the greater pleasure was attached to the second act"--or the pleasure principle that repeats the experience of reunification with the mother.(17)
Marlowe treats Hollywood as Freud's grandson treats his mother. His explicit contempt for Hollywood and self-imposed alienation is an attempt at the "will to mastery" the child exhibits by throwing away the reel. This symptom of the reality principle is the most obvious feature of Little Sister in particular and Chandler's fiction in general--the hardboiled persona that insists on separation. "There are days like that," Marlowe comments after yet another encounter with a corrupt, slow-witted adversary. "Everybody you meet is a dope. You begin to look at yourself in the glass and wonder" (p. 47). There is no risk in confusing "everybody" and "you"; they are at odds, regardless of who is the "dope" and who isn't. And the admission at the end is ultimately disingenuous since the incident that precedes this comment (with a hotel detective named Flack, whose incompetence is made clear) demonstrates Marlowe's easy ability to outsmart the idiots of the world and bend them to his will as he goes about his business (the same is true of his dealings with the police). Like the child's wish for the return of the beloved object, Marlowe's wish is not easy to notice. But it is evident in his dealings with Mavis Weld. Much of his work through the first half of Little Sister is simply to get somebody, Mavis Weld or her studio head Ballou, to hire him so that he can justify his ethical mission and fantasy of saving them, of working with them against the hostile, outside world. The lengths to which Marlowe must go in order to gain the sanction of a client that authorizes him to perform his role in the story are almost ridiculous. If nothing else, they contradict the common sense about the hardboiled detective as autonomous. "Well, what is my business? Do I know? Did I ever know? Let's not get into that. You're not human tonight, Marlowe. Maybe I never was or ever will be. Maybe I'm an ectoplasm with a private license" (p. 81). In light of his attachment to Mavis, the most striking thing in this quote is how much he wants to be an ectoplasm whose "private" identity is secondary. To not be human in terms of the pleasure principle is to somehow remain outside the demands of social subjectivity (the reality principle). To say that one remains an ectoplasm is a way to express the pleasure principle's eschewal of discrete subjectivities in favor of immersion in some larger identity. Hollywood is this larger identity, Mavis Weld is its figure--and the "people" to whom she belongs is its source.
This conflict can be detected in Chandler's depiction of the intersubjective relations of the novel. In Little Sister, love and desire are related in a way that had never been imagined by modern U.S. writers. While most of the "serious" writers of his generation were condemning the detachment of sexual desire from romantic love, Chandler gives us a social world in which those subjects who act on and speak about sex the most are actually motivated by a love exceeding all calculation that is reminiscent of the pleasure principle. Conversely, those characters who bemoan Hollywood's conflation of love and desire are actually motivated by competitive individualism that derives from the reality principle. Marlowe himself is caught up in the intersubjective network of Hollywood. He doesn't take sex and desire very seriously but he does have his own fantasies that attach themselves to characters who inhabit spaces and have identities even before he meets them. I am referring, of course, to his relationship with Mavis Weld, who figures narratively as an absence that nonetheless structures Marlowe's actions and the story's development--a space that demands Marlowe's affective orientation. Orfamay, the little sister of the title, claims to come to Hollywood entirely out of familial love for her brother; she also claims to disapprove of any explicit flirtation and manifestation of sexual desire. Both claims are demystified by Marlowe, who figures out that she is really looking for her brother because she thinks he has made off with blackmail money that he was supposed to share. And her prudish attitude toward sex disappears when Marlowe kisses her. Love of any sort is not a part of her characterization, only competition and hypocrisy. By contrast, Marlowe, Mavis, Delores Gonzalez and her jilted husband Dr. Lagardie are all characters whose motivations can't be chalked up to the influence of the reality principle. Marlowe's desire to get Mavis out of trouble is driven by a muted fantasy of love and an image of her as selfless and noble as he is (the primary narcissism Freud says is a part of the pleasure principle). Mavis's relationship with Steelgrave is something that endangers her career and her public image. Delores kills Orfamay and Mavis's brother Quest because he is blackmailing Steelgraveand then she kills Steelgrave because she cannot bear to lose him to another woman, Mavis. And finally Lagardie kills Delores for a similar reason; he left his comfortable practice in Cleveland to follow her to Los Angeles and gets mixed up in illegal activities solely out of his doomed, dogged pursuit of his wife.
Love and death thus go hand in hand. In Little Sister, murder functions very differently than it does in the detective genre generally. In most detective fiction, murder is the traumatic shock, an event that cannot be integrated into symbolic reality because it interrupts the normal causal chain of events. The detective's role is precisely to resymbolize the traumatic shock and thus to reestablish "normal" reality. In The Little Sister, Marlowe has neither the wherewithal nor the belief to play this role. Consequently, murder is nothing terrible or terribly shocking. It is accepted as an ordinary part of day-to-day reality. The reason that murder in Little Sister doesn't challenge commonsense reality is because the novel is imbued with a new common sense that is largely the product of mass culture. This common sense appears to reject all ideology, but retains an acceptance of a theory of the subject premised on fantasy, love and irrational desire. Everyone is capable of murder in Chandler's literary imagination. Indeed, just about everyone commits a murder. The only difference is between those who murder for selfish gain and those who murder for love.
The interplay between the pleasure and reality principles generates ambivalence--an apt word for the narrator's reaction to Hollywood. The highly ambiguous ending of the novel leaves this ambivalence unresolved because it can never be resolved.(18) Why indeed doesn't Marlowe intervene when he sees Lagardie going up to Dolores' room to murder her? He admits that he doesn't know: "Perhaps I had a hunch what he would do and deliberately let him do it. Sometimes when I'm low I try to reason it out. But it gets too complicated" (p. 250). That Marlowe doesn't understand his true motives only underscores how unreliable he is as a narrator, how much he too is determined by the ego's on-going juggling act between these twin principles--between the impulse toward individuation and the latent craving for the immersion of self in another. But this juggling act is something that the subject must perform. This necessity is the cause of the Hollywood that the narrator so detests. It is also the cause of the Hollywood to which the author assents.
The Little Sister exemplifies an entirely new approach to the relation between serious literature and the entertainment industry. By the time that Chandler wrote the novel in 1949, art could no longer imagine itself as independent of ideology; nor could it imagine that they have different "referents." The Little Sister makes clear the extent to which modernist fiction is deeply imbricated in the very ideologies of mass culture that realism sought to distance. It does so by two means: its ready employment of Freud's theory at its most basic, and through its alignment of form and content with a literary ideology (Emersonian individualism) and a mass cultural ideology (populism) respectively. As Althusser put it, historically compelling art "bathes" in the very ideologies it criticizes. This "bathing" is most evident in literature that maintains an ambivalent relation to Hollywood (and dominant ideologies) because it reveals so much about the psychological basis for the very conflict between art and ideology. This psychological conflict demands both equally and makes them unimaginable without one another. On the level of psychology, this takes the form of the preoedipal drama versus the oedipal drama, the mother versus the father; on the level of ideology, this takes the form of individualism versus populism; on the level of theory, this takes the form of literature versus mass culture. None of these three ways of imagining this conflict is most foundational.
These conflicts are not a sign of a deficiency in The Little Sister. They are rather what makes the novel worthy of attention for a materialist criticism. To resolve any of the conflicts by resorting to some master code is to explain away the conflicts that make the Hollywood novel what it is. The new aesthetic exemplified so baldly in the Hollywood novel actually depends upon such vital conflicts without seeking to pretend that any resolution-imaginary or real--exists.
COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY
(1) Harry Leon Wilson, Merton of the Movies (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1922).
(2) Budd Schulberg, What Makes Sammy Run? (New York: Random House, 1941).
(3) Evelyn Waugh, The Loved One (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1948), p. 67.
(4) See (among others) Jerry Speir's Raymond Chandler (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1981) and Peter Wolfe's Something More than Night (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green Popular Press, 1985).
(5) This essay uses the Vintage Books edition: Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister (New York: Random House, 1988), p. 1. Hereafter cited parenthetically.
(6) See Zizek's wonderful Looking Awry (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), p. 112.
(7) See chapter five of Knight's Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction (Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 135-68.
(8) Consider, for example, this quote from Knight: "The affective force of the typical Chandler structure is to retain the action and its interpretation in the hero's consciousness and to make it eventually come clear to him without his cumulative effort but through the actions of characters and his own catalytic presence: his personal value, not his active detection, is the structural focus" (p. 156).
(9) Chandler, p. 3. I'm using the notion of "hailing" as Louis Althusser does in his seminal essay, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," Lenin and Philosophy, trans. Ben Brewster (Boston: Monthly Review Press, 1970), pp. 127-86.
(10) Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Francis Golffing (New York: Doubleday Books, 1956), p. 10.
(11) See chapter three of my book, Structures of the Jazz Age: Mass Culture, Progressive Education and Racial Disclosures in American Modernism (New York: Verso Books, 1998), which considers Mencken's version of intellectual ideology in some detail.
(12) Wolfe, p. 189.
(13) Warren Susman, Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (New York: Pantheon, 1984), especially the chapter on "Personality in the Making of U.S. Culture."
(14) Wolfe, p. 212.
(15) Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans, and ed. James Strachey (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co., 1989), p. 7.
(16) Freud, p. 67.
(17) Freud, p. 15.
(18) In his later writings, Freud generally sees no possibility of a resolution of this conflict.
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2001|
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