Watching the Detectives


Arts & Culture


Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe isn’t a man without needs.

It’s late. You take Sidney Bechet’s “Apex Blues” off the turntable and switch on the television. The private eye on the screen is doing more or less as you are: Ravel on his record player, his revolver in the open desk drawer, his whiskey in his hand. It is appalling how much of your everyday behavior has been modeled on these clowns and caricatures. You pick up the phone in the dark and call your father to make sure he isn’t missing the movie.

The apparent absence of any desire to please in the hard-boiled hero presupposes an absence of any need to please. When Diogenes saw a man drink from his hands, he threw his cup away. A real man doth not need either man’s work or his own gifts, his state is kingly. He doesn’t go to the grocery, he breaks off a hunk of himself and eats it.

Adorno’s “Tough Baby” from Minima Moralia:

There is a certain gesture of virility, be it one’s own or someone else’s, that calls for suspicion.

He-men are thus, in their own constitution, what film-plots usually present them to be, masochists. At the root of their sadism is a lie.

In the end the tough guys are the truly effeminate ones, who need the weaklings as their victims in order not to admit that they are like them.

Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe isn’t a man without needs: “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.” Chandler, a popularizer of this style of overtly wounded heroism—Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid—was a terrific boozehound, and the expertly casual scenes in which his detective is bludgeoned unconscious are extrapolations from a lifetime of research into blacking out. Marlowe’s stigmata demonstrate his fundamental invincibility. There is no man neither tarnished nor afraid: such a creature would be an animal, or a machine—or a god, where each gimlet is another station of the cross in a pornography of suffering that culminates in the hangover, the Crucifixion, the money shot.

When I tried to locate a certain phrase in Chandler, I can’t say I was shocked to find it instead in Travis Bickle’s mouth in Taxi Driver: “There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.” Loneliness is a small price to pay for being God’s man of any sort: divine permission to be aggrieved, with an ensuing role as the avenging angel. In the absence of willing persecutors, you flay yourself, accumulating smaller or larger scars like skee-ball tickets on the carnival midway, until you can afford a Taxi Driver–style orgy of violence. I’d like to trade in this used 1974 masochism for a shiny new sadism, please.

Adorno again: “Here pain, as pride in bearing it, is raised directly, untransformed, as a stereotype, to pleasure.” Such a man must repress his pain imperfectly: his real aim is to experience it, and to display his experience of it. That is why it isn’t enough to watch the movie by yourself in the dark. You call your father, but his line is busy. He’s calling you.

J. D. Daniels lives in Massachusetts. He will contribute an essay on Brazilian jiu-jitsu to the fall issue of The Paris Review.