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Visions of violence: Christianity and anti-humanism in Patricia Highsmith's Ripliad.

Abstract: Though it may seem godlessly immoral, the celebration of violence in Patricia Highsmith's Ripliad is rooted in a Calvinistic sense of sin and the vision of human freedom Highsmith discovered in Christian writers. Throughout the five novels composing her Ripliad, Tom Ripley ironically embodies the talents of Christ's primary antagonist--the Father of Lies--as Highsmith's embittered censure against the disappearance of evil as a meaningful psychological category in postwar culture.


On June 29, 1950, having finished the novel Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith privately recorded her gratitude to God for having completed it: "Glory be to God, I have finished another book today. In God is all my strength and my inspiration. In God and Jesus's name is all my courage and fortitude" (Schenkar 272). The happy piety of the statement is surprising for one whose novels, according to one critic, "generally conclude that life is little more than an absurdity and a cheat." (1) Tom Ripley, her most celebrated creation as well as her favorite character, is a guiltless murderer--infamous for his inhuman lack of empathy, and void of anything like religious affections. Yet Highsmith's religious devotion, ardent as a college student and eventually attenuated in later years, thrived in the late forties and early fifties as she worked on Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. As both her notes and journals attest, these formative years included fervent Bible reading and theological reflection. Were such convictions simply eviscerated from the world she imagines in her fiction?

More than Christian piety, Highsmith's Ripley novels celebrate the drive toward deception and creative destruction hallowed by the midcentury anti-humanism of Tom Ripleys adopted home--France. As crime novels that eschew the generic expectations of convicting proof or the psychology of guilt, they embody the deep suspicion of objective truth and morality that characterize anti-humanist philosophies. (2) A similar suspicion, however, animates Highsmith's conviction that all existence, including Christian belief, is absurd and requires a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. However amoral or godless its imaginary world may be, the Ripliad's vision of violence first took root in formative emotional and intellectual experiences of Christianity. Highsmith first encountered the Calvinistic view of sin and human freedom so dismally rendered in her fiction from the grandmother she idealized and the Christian existentialist writers she read, such as Kierkegaard. (3) These formative experiences stayed with her, though the critical literature has yet to trace their influence. Late twentieth-century American fiction has been characterized by its attention to religious belief and practices in recent work by John McClure and Amy Hungerford, but Highsmith's curious place in these emerging trends has yet to receive critical attention. (4) This is, no doubt, because of the extent to which her famous Ripley novels so thoroughly renounce any conception of transcendence. Yet the philosopher Charles Taylor is right to assert the importance of understanding the cultural alliances between anti-humanism and Christianity in order to fully grapple with the place of religion in contemporary culture. For Taylor, the surprising amalgamation of passionate Christian conviction and anti-humanist nihilism exhibited by a writer like Highsmith suggests an as-yet untheorized affinity between two otherwise opposed cultural systems. (5)

The surprising confluence of Christianity and anti-humanism in Highsmith's work is strongest in her representation of evil. Tom Ripley represents the evil Highsmith believed all too actual but vanishing from the moral imagination of modern secular societies. The growing prominence of social and biological explanations of what the theologians and philosophers called evil--as evinced in the postwar popularity of sociology and psychoanalysis--lacked persuasive power for her. (6) Though she was dissatisfied with materialist accounts of human psychology, ascribing evil to the work of fallen angels increasingly struck Highsmith as an equally gullible superstition. In her journals and in her fiction, evil is an unassailable force churning up the maelstrom of human life from its darkest interior. Her Ripley novels do not so much illuminate that darkness as, to use Miltons phrase, make darkness visible. Frustrated with the diabolical caricatures of popular religion as well as pseudo-scientific explanations, Ripleys values deride what Highsmith perceived to be the unfounded hopes of secular modernity's rational morality. To retain Charles Taylors terms, her Christianity and her anti-humanism merged in their rejection of Enlightenment morals. (7) Two iconic pillars of the Enlightenments rational morality, individual identity and sentimental ethics, are iconoclastically toppled in her prose. Throughout the five novels composing her Ripliad, Tom Ripley ironically embodies the talents of Christs primary antagonist--the Father of Lies--as Highsmith's embittered censure against the quickening disappearance of evil as a meaningful psychological category in postwar culture.

I. Ripley's Believe It or Not!

More than murder, Tom enjoys reading. What he reads--or attempts to read, as in the case of Henry James' The Ambassadors in the series' first novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley--operate as thematic indicators in the Ripley novels. (8) Two particular books standout in Tom's affections: his "well-worn" copy of Auden's poems and Richard Ellman's biography of Oscar Wilde. As slight as they are, the two allusions indirectly intimate the Kierkegaardian logic behind Ripley's deeds and offer a means to piece together the contradiction between Highsmith's early faith and her favorite character. When Tom reads Richard Ellmann's biography of Oscar Wilde in Ripley Under Water, he identifies Wilde with Christ. For Tom, something "about Oscar's life, reading it, was a like a purge, man's fate encapsulated" (206). Wilde's "story reminded Tom of that of Christ": both Christ and Wilde "had been misunderstood by contemporaries, both had suffered from an envy deeply buried in the breasts of those who wished them dead, and who mocked them while they were alive." (9) Tom is vicariously indulging in a characteristic bit of self-pity here, inflecting his own experiences with a typicality validated by Wilde. What the association discloses, however, is his vision of Christ as the criminal society must crucify. The moral rebellion of such a criminal epitomizes the logic of Highsmith's crime writing. According to her how-to book, Plotting and Suspense Writing: "Criminals are dramatically interesting, because for a time at least they are active, free in spirit, and they do not knuckle down to anyone" (Plotting 55). For Tom, Christ is criminalized for the free-spiritedness of his moral rebellion.

The moment invokes a Christ curiously similar to Milton's courageous rebel, Satan. Both rebel in the name of free will--Christ to embody its radical responsibility, Satan to experiment with its consequences. It is an ambiguity infusing Highsmith's approach to fiction. In a biography of Highsmith Joan Schenkar has noted that Highsmith's religious heritage "was responsible for her lifelong preoccupation with Jesus Christ and, to a large extent, for the Big Chill at the center of her work: the one she defined so aptly as 'the presence of the absence of guilt'" (30). (10) This inversion, that something is palpably intangible, suitably describes Tom's relation to the Jesus Christ of Highsmith's criminal fascination. This momentary association only emphasizes the chasm between Tom and Christ. Tom is no sacrificial Christ-figure; he obviously lacks Christ's passive suffering. If Tom, like Christ, has a high view of human freedom and individual responsibility, and even feels misunderstood by society in terms reminiscent of Christ's crucifixion, it is only to maximize the brazenness of Tom's evil.

Highsmith agreed with Soren Kierkegaard's view that humanity's relation to God is one of guilt, that Christ and the devil necessarily approach points of indiscernibility, and that only an ironic, indirect representation can be a faithful witness to the true Christ of the gospels. Intellectually enthralled to the point of writing her novel A Game for the Living as an explicit Kierkegaardian parable, Highsmith simply refers to Kierkegaard in her notes and journals as "the master" (Wilson 158). (11) From his work Highsmith adopts the idea that redemption is not the burden of Christian fiction. The freedom of choice promised by Christ offers little evidence of its salvation--to overcompensate for that restraint would be unfaithful. Such a radical faith resonated with Highsmith, whose faith found little verification of Christ's redemption in the modern world. The very point of faith, for her, is that it is not demonstrable, that it requires the leap of faith. The "presence of the absence of guilt" describes a world in which the loss of guilt is a cause for anxiety, where the promise of Christ is genuinely hopeful. According to this logic, portraying the violent, fallen world as such is more faithful than cheapening redemption with dubious literary proofs or inspirational symbols.

Such tropes of indirect representation considerably altered the work of the poet who helped popularize Kierkegaard among American writers, W. H. Auden. The reference to Auden's poems that Highsmith slips into The Boy Who Followed Ripley subtly mirrors her reticence to imagine redemption. Tom's "well-worn" copy of Audens Selected Poems would have contained Auden's well-known poem contending for the intentional omission of redemption in Christian poetry, "Friday's Child." According to Auden, poets "dare not say" anything about whether or not Christ was resurrected. "He told us we were free to choose," the poem begins, continuing on that he "meant exactly what he said;" proofs "are returned/ Unopened to the sender" and as to our basic sense impressions, we "have no means of learning what / Is really going on." For Auden--via Kierkegaard--God and human understanding are incommensurable. (12) A Christian's art should not attempt to prove the truth of Christianity for the simple reason that Christianity itself does not offer its own proofs--to provide them is to assert evidence Christ declined. (13) Highsmith's crime novels deliberately make convicting proofs impossible. Proof misleadingly circumnavigates the necessary leap of faith. Instead the honest writer's task is portraying the world's unmitigated violence, irreparable brokenness, and preponderant lies.

Highsmith's Ripliad is the devastating tale of such a world; like the epic on which it puns, it offers no viable remedy to its violence and dishonesty. (14) Ripleys is not a world that is getting any better; in the novels modernity's rationalizations only exacerbate the symptoms of evil. The police and the banks are two rationalizing institutions whose ineptitude Tom delights in betraying; the radical force of his violence exaggerates their feckless bureaucratic regimes. Unlike the security such secular institutions insure, fraud is the obverse of faith--what makes faith necessary. Rationality assumes that a is always a and b, b; it assumes the transparency of representational logic. It is on precisely this assumption that the bureaucracies of secularization function. But what if a is only pretending to be a?

Tom's greatest talent is his capacity for fraud and his sly subterfuges secure his eventual success in The Talented Mr. Ripley. The art of lying becomes Tom's preoccupation throughout the novels, but in the first he realizes that it is his best means of getting past unloved isolation to a triumphant ease. Through elaborate lies Ripley escapes poverty and ascends to a level of luxury Highsmith delights in describing. Even the novel's first sentence conveys Tom's fear of being found out. He thinks he is being pursued for tax fraud, inaugurating a series of evasions: "There was no doubt the man was after him" (Talented 9). The man is not from the police, as Tom suspects, but an acquaintances father who asks Tom to retrieve his son from Italy. An orphan without a job, Tom takes up the offer of an all-expense paid trip to Europe. He comes to tears as he imagines his change of fortune and the life he will now lead. After befriending the son, Dickie Greenleaf, they eventually have a falling out and Tom takes his first opportunity to murder Dickie and adopt his identity. He manages to fool the authorities to the extent that when the novel closes he is again Tom Ripley, but now with Dickies inheritance. The novel cultivates this talent to the point of changing Tom from a weak, self-pitying orphan to a strong, courageous, and guiltless murderer.

The target of all this deceit, however, is never the plausibility of Christian truth. To call murder a sin raises few eyebrows, but to say the same of self-realization puzzles secular assumptions about the nature of sin. Highsmith's egregious outlier needles at the sins hiding within the boundaries of ostensibly secular categories. The self as a source of individual identity is a secular, not Christian, category; in Christianity the self is the old, sinful person one must leave behind to become more like Christ. Much of the novel is given over to describing Toms careful assumption of Dickie's persona in order to allegorize the paucity of individualist conceptions of the impermeable, original, and fully realized self. (15) From John Lockes theory of consent to Martha Nussbaum's individual separateness, modern individualism assumes the individual's intrinsic value as such. (16) But Highsmith assumed the individual's value came from his relation to God--in which, in Kierkegaard's phrase, one is "always in the wrong." Tom presents an ironic version of this in his manifestly "wrong" relation to himself. For instance, Tom's self-hatred is mollified in the precise quality of his impersonation of Dickie. Highsmith gives his act a confident thoroughness:
   It gave his existence a peculiar, delicious atmosphere of purity,
   like that, Tom thought, which a fine actor probably feels when he
   plays an important role on a stage with the conviction that the
   role he is playing could not be played better by anyone else. He
   was himself and yet not himself. He felt blameless and free,
   despite the fact that he consciously controlled every move he made.
   But he no longer felt tired after several hours of it, as he had at
   first. He had no need to relax when he was alone. Now, from the
   moment when he got out of bed and went to brush his teeth, he was
   Dickie, brushing his teeth with his right elbow jutted out, Dickie
   rotating the eggshell on his spoon for the last bite. Dickie
   invariably putting back the first tie he pulled off the rack and
   selecting a second. He had even produced a painting in Dickies
   manner. (132)

Tom does not merely perform the role of Dickie, he perfects the act till it is natural. He is careful to learn Italian not only as well as Dickie could speak it, but he is even wary of learning it too well: "Dickie had never used the subjunctive as often as it should be used in Italian. Tom studiously kept himself from learning the proper uses of the subjunctive" (Talented 131). Doing so excites him with the unexpected comfort of becoming someone else. He loses himself in becoming Dickie. To be "himself and yet not himself" is a state that Tom enjoys, that he experiences as "blameless and free." Tom's need to become other selves conflates the devil's form-changing theatrics with Christ's teaching that one must die to the self. (17) Tom's tireless practice parodies the spiritual discipline necessary to die to self and become Christ-like. To lose oneself in playing a role, for Highsmith's Ripley, is a means of moral formation for dealing with what another character calls the "real horror" of the self (Under Ground 148). The individual does not mark off a special form of uniqueness but an instantiation of universal despair. Tom underscores the possibility of Christian redemption indirectly here: murder is a sin, but sin is necessary for salvation.

The sequel to The Talented Mr. Ripley replicates and intensifies how such "blameless and free" performing counters the modern precedence and psychological viability of original self-expression. Tom's attempt to escape himself is folded into the larger art of forgery; there is no genuine, original painting in Ripley Under Ground even as there is no individual, genuine self in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Tom is married to a French heiress, Heloise, and owns a fine home, Belle Ombre, in a small village outside of Paris. With Dickie's inheritance and Heloise's money, he has no profession. He does, however, take a ten percent cut from a lucrative forgery business he helped devise for friends at a London gallery. Highsmith's interest in the infamous Dutch forger of Vermeers, Han van Meergeren, is dramatized in the novel as a broadside against the value of artistic originality. The British painter Derwatt disappeared in the Greek islands and his friends, the gallery owners, Tom, and an exceptional painter named Bernard Tuffs, invent the lie that Derwatt now lives in rural Mexico as an adamant recluse. Trouble comes when an American art collector suspects Bernard's forgeries. Tom attempts to tidy up the problem by impersonating Derwatt, but the American continues his suspicious inquiries and Tom ends up murdering him in Belle Ombre's wine cellar.

Tom repeats another's style and innovates from it because resourceful invention is the struggle that precludes artistic failure. Direct, unmediated expression of an original self is not the accomplishment of artistic genius but the void that threatens defeat. In Ripley Under Ground the forger Bernard Tuffs reverently quotes from the deceased Derwatt's journal: "There is no depression for the artist except that caused by a return to the Self. [...] The Self is that shy, vainglorious, egocentric, conscious magnifying glass which should never be looked at or through. A glimpse of it occurs in midstream sometimes, when it is a real horror, and between paintings, and on vacations--which should never be taken" (148). Derwatt s valorization of the creative imagination in opposition to "a return to the Self" echoes Highsmiths own notebooks. She consistently emphasizes the emotional health that the hard work of writing provides: "If I were to relax and become human, I should not be able to bear my life" (Schenkar 343). Like spiritual exercises, art is a work of becoming that disciplines dying to the self. This pious rigor sanctifies through self-denial. So too with Tom: assuming another's personality makes him feel "blameless and free" while his feelings of self-regard and self-pity torture him with self-hatred. Tom is horrible, finally, because he embodies the complete horror of the fallen self's destitution that no secular morality can remedy.

It is Tom and not Derwatt, however, who models the novel's aesthetic philosophy. Tom's response to the self perfects Bernard's art of forgery. Throughout the novels Tom maintains that creativity is the work of overcoming another's work to the point of reinventing it. In Ripley Under Ground the quality of a forgery is not validated by its fidelity to an original likeness, but as an ongoing creative process. Ripley argues that an "artist does things naturally, without effort. Some power guides his hand. A forger struggles, and if he succeeds, it is a genuine achievement" (Under Ground 72). The "genuine achievement" is not distinctive self-expression, but comes through the work of mastering another's style to the point of making it one's own. The forger's style expands, faithfully assimilating the original painter's and moving forward beyond the assimilation. It is a theme that Tom returns to in Ripley Under Water, trying to convince another character that Bernard's forgeries were not a matter of copying to the letter, but of mastering the letter to capture the spirit and continuing to innovate from it:

More important--what would the catastrophe be, if the last half or more Derwatt productions were revealed to be those of Bernard Tufts? Are they worse as paintings? I'm not talking about the value of good forgeries--in the news these days, and even a fad or a new industry. I'm talking about Bernard as a painter who developed from Derwatt--went on, I mean. (Water 163)

To go on "from Derwatt" implies that forgery is not the counterfeit of creativity, but its paragon; art is here conceived as an act of innovative incorporation rather than as an act of individual genius. It demands discipline, not original inspiration. Tom's creativity repeats the impossibility of self-realization to indirectly gesture toward the self's possible redemption. The novels' murders are recast as a negative-capability where the negation is as literal as sin. Dickie's murder is not construed as an act of selfishness, which it clearly is, but as Tom's fearless self-abandonment. This hint of Tom's redeemable qualities emerges again when he--a man who can commit murder with less than a grimace--weeps at Keats' grave.

II. Sinning against the Sentimental Novel

Appropriately for a writer who delights in the artistry of a good lie, Highsmith's fiction sneers at bad ones. That evil might be somehow transcended through self-realization, rationalizing institutions, or fellow-feeling struck her as ludicrously naive. When Tom uses a garrote to strangle a Mafioso he meets violence in kind; to Tom the law only mediates violence by pushing it beyond the body into the realm of representation. Highsmith found little credit in modernity's secular hope for a just society, and the novels accordingly betray an at-times reactionary politics. (18) Evil has wide-ranging ramifications in the bleakness of the Ripliad, but particularly in its refusal to lend credence to modernity's better angels--sentimentality and individuality. Just as he learns to fear the pain of self-exposure, Tom learns to disdain the promise of sentimentality. The novels deliberately lampoon the belief that people have natural sympathy for one another. Most famously articulated in Adam's Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, this Enlightenment conception of universal moral reactions has had remarkable influence on the art of the novel. (19) From Uncle Tom's Cabin to Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, the sentimental novel has had significant staying power in American literature. (20) For Highsmith, the notion smacks of idle foolishness.

The endemic violence of the Ripliad is a literary assault on the ethics of sentimentality. Tom makes the conscious decision to murder and live the way he does only after he realizes the profundity of his isolation from others. It is a conscious conviction Tom comes to about the nature of human bonds once he is rejected by Dickie Greenleaf. Staring into Dickie's blue eyes, Tom discovers no acknowledgment and feels a shattering disappointment. He internalizes the isolation and moves on, but is transformed by it:
   Tom felt a painful wrench in his breast, and he covered his face
   with his hands. It was as if Dickie had been suddenly snatched away
   from him. They were not friends. They didn't know each other. It
   struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the
   people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the
   future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would
   know time and time again that he would never know them, and the
   worst was that there would always be the illusion, for a time, that
   he did know them, and that he and they were completely in harmony
   and alike. For an instant the wordless shock of his realization
   seemed more than he could bear. [...] He laughed a little. That was
   reality, laughing it off, making it silly, something that was more
   important than anything that had happened to him in the five weeks
   since he had met Dickie, maybe that had ever happened to him.

Tom suddenly sees that friendship is an illusion. It is a painfully realized verdict and emotionally stultifying. Though he nervously laughs off its devastation, it determines his plan to murder Dickie. The "real horror" of the self that stupefies expression denies the power of sentiment to bridge its abyss. Just as no act of imagination can portray Christs salvation for Highsmith, no symbolic mercy is adequate to absolute forgiveness.

Highsmith most effectively narrows her critique of sentimentality through the structural disparagement of "reader-identification" that the Ripliad elicits. "If there must be reader-identification, a term I am rather tired of," Highsmith smirks, "then provide the reader with a lesser character or two (preferably one who is not murdered by the hero-psychopath) with whom he can identify" (Plotting 47). She has little interest in provoking the sympathies of reader-identification and Toms aloofness and passionless murders do not facilitate them. Yet there is a curious hitch in her view of the protagonist. The peculiarity of the Ripliad is that Tom remains a compelling and mysteriously likable character. Readers cannot but admire his courage and improvisational skills. In Ripleys Game Highsmith turns the question of reader-identification into the problem of reader-denial: the likable, conventional "lesser character" discovers his own latent, Ripley-like cynical opportunism. Reader-identification is apparently admissible on one condition: to recognize one's own capacity for evil. Like a good Puritan preacher Highsmith assures her bourgeois readers that they, too, are destined for the pit.

In the cruelest novel of the Ripliad, Ripley's Game pits Tom against Johnny and Simone Trevanny, a husband and wife cheerfully in love with each other and their young son, Georges. Tom plays a vindictive game with them that turns out to be lethal. Tom is offended because Johnny has snubbed him with a self-righteous sneer, "Yes, I've heard of you." The stakes of the titles "game" involve Johnny's life, but Tom is also waging whether or not, given the right conditions, such an ostensibly moral person, a good husband and father, would be as dishonest and violent as Tom. (21) Under the belief that his health has deteriorated so as to make his death precariously imminent, Johnny agrees to help one of Toms underground connections assassinate two Mafiosi for a large sum of money (meant for Johnny's widow and child). Tom gets involved, helps Trevanny when he falters in completing the task, and then helps protect him from the Mafia. Though Johnny is killed, Tom sees that his wife Simone and son Georges get the money. The book ends with Simone spitting in Tom's face while passing him on the sidewalk. It is out of spite: she knows Tom was responsible for corrupting her husband, but, like her husband, she wants the illicitly-earned money and does not turn Tom in, contenting herself by assuaging her guilt with hypocritical judgment. Ripley's Game makes the case that it is not the ability to imagine the pain of others that all people share, but rather the ability to inflict pain on others.

If Ripley's Game foregrounds the extent of Tom's mendacity, The Boy Who Followed Ripley responds in kind by foregrounding his virtues. Highsmith is not content to use Tom as an illustration that the desire to wound is more natural than empathy. He is not merely depraved. Tom has the virtues of a respectable rebel. His violence is alluring, even inspiring in its audacity. These virtues become the focus of a moral education in The Boy Who Followed Ripley. The novel brings Tom's recalcitrance into a world where the fragile quality of social bonds are of dramatic consequence--that of the American adolescent. In certain respects The Boy Who Followed Ripley turns away from the generic constraints of suspense fiction to the classic problems of the Bildungsroman: virtue, vice, and the components of moral instruction. Sixteen year-old Frank Pierson has run away and sought out another identity near Tom's small village; he has come to Ripley after secretly pushing his father off a cliff on their estate home on the coast of Maine. To Frank's tortured conscience Ripley holds out the promise of going on with life despite committing such a crime. Tom obliges; he urges Frank to shake off the conventions of sentimental thinking and the limp tentacles of its guilt.

The novel ironically positions Tom, dressed in drag for a night of derring-do to save Frank from kidnappers, as a father figure to the boy. Tom tries to convince Frank to replace familial sentiments and teenage angst with a guiltless courage. After having killed one of Frank's kidnappers, Tom tries to assuage the boys conscience over killing his father: "The act shouldn't be devastating--to the rest of your life. There's no reason to collapse" (252). Tom's reassurance immediately lapses into a reflection on just what is at stake in such a collapse: "Did the boy, could he, know the meaning of collapse at his age? To collapse from a sense of total failure?" Tom wonders, but "many adolescents did collapse, even committed suicide, because they had met a problem they couldn't cope with, sometimes just schoolwork" (252). Tom is imparting the moral education he gained in The Talented Mr. Ripley: life is just this struggle against imminent collapse, against accepting failure as a form of justice. Tom is explaining his values to an impressionable young adult--take courage, there's "no reason to collapse," keep going! The earlier Ripley Under Ground ends as Tom feels the onslaught of a collapse himself: "he anticipated defeat and seemed to suffer it. Exposure. Shame. Carry it off as before, he thought. The show wasn't over yet. Courage!" (285). Even though he ultimately fails to pass this courage on to Frank (the boy commits suicide), it is a vital and even virtuous aspect of Tom's destructive art of living. The devil's strength is more honest brutality than secular salves. Sentimentality is not the civilizing moral glue of these novels but the tenuous assumption they disparage.

Tom's courage is the virtue motivating his violent actions, what pushes his evil beyond simplistic religious allegory. For Slavoj Zizek, however, this evil has less to do with the will than it does the inherent structure of desire. (22) According to Zizek, Tom's actions do not illustrate free will but its structural opposite--the inhuman desirelessness at the heart of human desire. In perhaps the most consistent and credible deterministic reading of Ripley's psychological motivations, Zizek argues that Tom's isolation indicates his lack of fully human subjectivity. (23) In Zizek's psychoanalytic reading Tom's rejection of the moral order is a resistance to what Jacques Lacan calls the symbolic order, the social mores one assumes in the process of becoming a fully functioning subject, an integrated member of society. The flaw in Zizek's case, however, is that Tom is in fact integrated into the symbolic order--freedom, courage, and creative forgery take on sacred significance for Tom. His violent lifestyle is commenced only after his intense desire for friendship is thwarted. To ascribe Dickie's murder to Tom's desire for what Dickie desires disregards the fact that Tom disparages Dickie's taste on several occasions. Tom may find Dickie desirable, but not his all too dilettante lifestyle.

The final novel of the series, Ripley Under Water, seems deliberately written against the critical tendency toward diluting Tom's free choice with psychological diagnoses. Tom is at his most affectionate, thoughtful, and at points even remorseful in Highsmith's final retaliation against this blow to her most cherished character. In repeatedly contrasting Tom with the "cracked" David Pritchard, the novel's sadistic antagonist, Highsmith highlights Tom's fully subjective, conscious responsibility for his actions (Under Water 180). Pritchard heckles Tom with his past murders, hoping to find evidence to convict Tom of at least one of them--and he does. But Pritchard is graceless and monomaniacal; he lacks self-control. As a foil to Tom he clarifies just how affably sane Tom is. The novel parades Tom's regard for Heloise, his heartfelt appreciation for his friends, and the fact that good "neighborly relations were important" to Tom (193). Pritchard's sadistic desire to harm others self-destructs in the face of Tom's cool judgment and his ability to seize an opportunity. Whereas Tom has created himself through weighing the risks, Pritchard's violence is parasitic, uncertain, and pathological. It lacks Tom's confident, nimble ease.

The reason to insist on this freedom is that much of Highsmith's remarkable literary achievement in the Ripliad is due to the cohesive moral motivation informing each event-filled plot. Without their anti-humanist veneer, Tom's actions depict a religious view of evil that would have elicited little more than a disbelieving sneer from the cosmopolitan sophistication of Highsmith's European expatriation. But the veneer was also a cloak. The Calvinistic pessimism of Highsmith's early upbringing too convincingly becomes Tom's insouciant anti-humanism. It is an aspect of her fiction that unmistakably differentiates it from her Catholic counterpart, Flannery O'Connor. In the larger scene of postwar American fiction, the two writers share the distinct regionalist sensibility of their upbringing, famously combative personalities, Christian backgrounds, and a penchant for violent fiction--they even shared time at Yaddo. (24) Yet where O'Connor thought of the Catholic writer's task as revealing God's grace in its unlikely tenacity, Highsmith's writing explores the turmoil of a world without guilt and therefore without God. (25) Highsmith and O'Connor were similarly skeptical of secular causes and progressive politics; but whereas O'Connors fiction proffers uncanny sacramental moments of restoration, Highsmith's work evacuates the secular realm of all redemptive symbols. As such, she is the Calvinist iconoclast whose destruction borders too precariously on the demonic. The Ripliad is one of the most notable examples of anti-humanist morals in the post-1945 American novel, yet its lack of hope is not merely an affirmation of the abyss. It is true that overcoming others--not mere playacting, but overcoming them like a forger who is able to go on from within another's style--is the key to the fullness of Toms success, not humane sympathy or spiritual wholeness. Nevertheless, this anti-humanism began as a shrewdly taken wager. Highsmith refuses redemptive iconography to gamble on the perpetual chaos of crime. The sad secret that the Ripliad finally discloses, however, is that some wagers fail.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


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Trask, Michael. "Patricia Highsmith's Method". American Literary History 22.3 (2010): 584-614.

Trilling, Lionel. Sincerity and Authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1971.

Weil, Simone and Rachel Bespaloff. War and the Iliad. New York: New York Review of Books, 2005.

Wilson, Andrew. Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.

Zizek, Slavoj. "Not a desire to have him, but to be like him." London Review of Books 25.16 (2003): 13-14.


(1) The apt summation is Michael Dirda's. See Michael Dirda, "This Woman is Dangerous," The New York Review of Books, July 2, 2009.

(2) The American critic Lionel Trilling thought of anti-humanism as the broad and influential moral stance taken by the best of modern literature. His essay "On Teaching Modern Literature" addresses the pervasive as well as positive moral influence of its ideas, as does the later and more thorough Sincerity and Authenticity. Charles Taylor uses anti-humanism to describe not only the current of midcentury French thought in which Nietzsches work effloresced, but to include various critiques of the Enlightenment (see A Secular Age, especially 636-37). Indeed, for Taylor, it is especially the American youth culture of the sixties that achieves the widespread acceptance of authenticity he associates with anti-humanism. For an explanation of the specific forms of prominence it attained in French thought, see 331-34 of the Encyclopedia of Modern French Thought, ed. Christopher John Murray, London: Taylor and Francis, 2004. I retain a broad use of the term because the death of the subject outlined in Highsmith's fiction is not clearly aligned with any particular philosophy.

(3) Biographer Joan Schenkar notes the importance of Highsmith's relationship with her grandmother Willie Mae Catoes, the woman who raised Highsmith for the first six years of her life and provided the home to which she would return in times of uncertainty or duress. See especially Schenkar's concise chronology (565).

(4) John McClure's account of how contemporary fiction is reimagining forms of religious community and practice is particularly relevant, though the tendency to categorize Highsmith's work as genre fiction puts her somewhat outside of his purview. See Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison, Athens: U of Georgia P, 2007. Hungerford, on the other hand, ranges far more widely in her study, but Highsmith skirts just beyond Hungerford's encompassing considerations in her preoccupation with the absence of belief. See Hungerford, Amy, Postmodern Belief: Religion and American Literature since 1960, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2010.

(5) Charles Taylor makes this argument throughout A Secular Age, but most concisely on page 636.

(6) Highsmith would have found compelling Andrew Delbanco's study of this phenomenon, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995). Delbanco's book traces the importance of evil in the American imagination and its gradual fading into an unnamed indecipherability during the postwar era.

(7) This is what Taylor calls the "three-cornered picture" of modern secularity. See A Secular Age, 636-38.

(8) Henry James' The Ambassadors is mentioned twice in the narrative and Highsmith's novel directly lifts from it the problem of retrieving a wayward son from European moral degradation. Yet whereas James' novel explores the sensuality of reflection, Highsmith's will not let life pass Tom by as it did Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors.

(9) The Ripliad considers this mocked Wilde in terms of a moral refusal to acquiesce to social expectations. It is not surprising then, that Wilde is the figure to whom Lionel Trilling turns in Sincerity and Authenticity. Wilde is a harbinger for a creative, life-affirming morality that Trilling will not call nihilistic. See 118-25 of Sincerity and Authenticity, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1971.

(10) Schenkar contends that "like her overlooked work in the comics, her involvement with religious tenets was another critical part of a life concealed in plain sight" (30). Highsmith was no meek ascetic saint and her rough treatment of others suggests she did indeed keep that part of her life concealed. Yet as a college student she felt askew missing Sunday church services, and into her late thirties she was still singing in the church choir. In her sixties, Highsmith returned to America to study what she saw as the cynical use of religion for economic exploitation and political power in the emerging popularity of televangelists and born-again Regan Republicans.

(11) Highsmith is not alone in this. Other postwar novelists found in Kierkegaard's work a Christian philosophy of artistic representation, most notably John Updike's Rabbit, Run and Walker Percy's The Moviegoer.

(12) For an account of "Friday's Child" and its relation to Auden's thinking about his art and his faith, see Edward Mendelson's Later Auden (Farrar, Straus, Giroux 1999), 426.

(13) Dostoevsky is another source of Highsmith's thinking here. His portrait of Christ in the "Grand Inquisitor" chapter of The Brothers Karamazov is precisely the moral rebel who refuses to give credible proof of his message that inspires Highsmith's portrayal of Ripley.

(14) Simone Weil's The Iliad, or, The Poem of Force (in Mary McCarthy's 1945 translation) opens with a sentence that conveys Highsmith's less than sanguine attitude toward rational modernity's capacity to mediate violence: "Those who have supposed that force, thanks to progress, now belongs to the past, have seen a record of that in Homer's poem; those wise enough to discern the force at the center of all human history, today as in the past, find in the Iliad the most beautiful and flawless of mirrors." In several respects my essay reads the Ripliad as Highsmith's attempt to verify the truth of Weil's claim about the Iliad. See Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff, War and the Iliad (New York Review of Books, 2005).

(15) See "How the Misfit Became a Moral Protagonist" in Nancy Armstrong's How Novels Think: The Limits of British Individualism from 1719-1900 for a genealogy of the novel genre's relationship to the morality of individualism.

(16) See Locke's "Of the Beginning of Political Societies" in Two Treatises on Government and Nussbaum's "The Feminist Critique of Liberalism" in Sex and Social Justice, Oxford UP, 1999.

(17) With Kierkegaard, Highsmith's other great intellectual influence is Dostoevsky. The epigraph to one of the novels she most revered, The Brothers Karamazov, is Christ's pronouncement on the self's dying transformations: "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit" (John 12:24). The idea is perversely parodied in the deadly repercussions of Tom's version of dying to self.

(18) In an analysis of Ripley's performing methods, Michael Trask unfortunately glosses over the various implications of Highsmith's moral vision because he does not deem it as "subversive" as Michael Bronski has. Trask is right to question its subversive side, but, as I argue, Ripley displays other forms of moral motivation. While he is no radical, he does illustrate Highsmith's belief that radical evil is an everyday reality. See Trask, "Patricia Highsmith's Method." American Literary History. 22.3 (2010) and Bronski, "The Subversive Ms. Highsmith." Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide. 7.2 (2000).

(19) Smith's famous passage captures the role of the imagination for sentimentality: "As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our sense will never inform us of what he suffers" (2).

(20) Dorothy Hale has noted the extent to which imagining another's perspective continues to justify the novel's moral value to society for ostensibly postmodern theorists. See Hale's "Aesthetics and the New Ethics: Theorizing the Novel in the Twenty-First Century." PMLA. 124.3 (2009).

(21) I take the "game" of Ripleys Game to be largely a formal wager: to what extent can a novel reverse reader expectations for identification without losing the reader's interest? But for an account of how this novel exhibits a microsociology informed by game theory, see Mark Seltzer's essay "Playing Dead: Crime as a Social System," published in Crime Culture: Figuring Criminality in Fiction and Film (Continuum, 2011).

(22) Zizek just may be Highsmith's biggest fan. Zizek writes: "For me, the name 'Patricia Highsmith' designates a sacred territory: she is the One whose place among writers is that which Spinoza held for Gilles Deleuze (a 'Christ among philosophers')." See "Not a desire to have him, but to be like him," London Review of Books. 25.16 (2003).

(23) Zizek's is the most interesting of psychoanalytic readings of Ripley's behavior. Some critics suggest clinical diagnoses for Tom, despite the fact that Highsmith has insisted on Tom's sanity, and his civilized, even heartfelt behavior. Highsmith has remarked in an interview of Ripley: "he is not insane ... his actions are rational.... I consider him a rather civilised person who kills when he absolutely has to." Yet William Cook calls him "a morally neutered sociopath." The evidence of the novels tends toward a more generous reading of Highsmith's claim. See Cook's "Ripley's Game and The American Friend: A Modernist and Postmodernist Comparison." Journal of Popular Culture. 37.3 (2004).

(24) Whatever their affinities, Highsmith did not share the public fervor of O'Connor's faith. An anecdote related by Highsmith's friend Phyllis Nagy about Highsmith's reaction to O'Connor while they were at Yaddo together brings this difference into clear, if caricatured, relief. One night Highsmith and some other writers returned from an evening of carousing to find O'Connor out on the porch, kneeling down. According to Nagy, Highsmith incredulously asked her what she was doing only to have O'Connor emphatically point to a knot of wood in the porch floorboards, exclaiming "Look, can't you see it?!" O'Connor insisted it looked like Jesus' face. Highsmith's comment was a dry, "That happened. And ever since then I've not liked that woman" (Schenkar 256). Whatever its veracity, the anecdote's tone conveys Highsmith's scorn for O'Connor's display. It is not necessarily the religious nature of O'Connor's comment that offends, but the spectacle of it.

(25) Christina Bieber Lake's The Incarnational Art of Flannery O'Connor (Mercer UP, 2005) makes a persuasive argument for the ways that O'Connor's religious convictions shaped her view of fiction's cultural work as well as her distinctive style.
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Author:Dill, Scott
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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