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EXISTENTIALISM, NOIR, AND THE BIG SLEEP

I AM SAVORING MY WAY through The Annotated Big Sleep. See “As Hard-boiled as a Shamus’s Simile” and “On Chandler’s Greatness” and “Sleeping with Virginia Woolf, Dreaming About a Naked Girl with Long Jade Earrings.”

The Annotated Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler, edited by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Rizzuto, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2018.

This time around, I got hooked by yet another provocative footnote (gee, these last two words sound suspiciously like a fetish, don’t they?). The item “Dial M for Murder, Meursault, Ménalque, and Marlowe” begins with “The French Existentialists looked out at the same dark, haunted world as American hard-boiled writers like Cain, Hammett, and Chandler.” 

So here I am, confronted once again with Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée/Nausea, equally incompressible à moi/to me in either language. 

Annotators Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto say, “The Americans were just being translated into French in the 1940s in what the French publisher Éditions Gallimard called ‘Série Noire’ because of the books’ generic black covers.”

Série Noire books. Image from Wikipedia.

Early Existentialists. Hill et al note, “Albert Camus had pointed to American detective writers as a prime influence on his portrayal of the quintessential existential outsider, L’Étranger, in 1942.”

They continue, “Marlowe has something in common with Camus’s profoundly alienated Meursault. However, there’s an idealism that Marlowe retains as the outsider looking in: He is an ethical, not an emotional, outsider, which makes him an archetypal hero.”

André Gide’s hero Ménalque in L’immoraliste, 1902, is cited for his quandary of absolute freedom: “Knowing how to free yourself is easy,” Ménalque tells Michel; “knowing how to live free is the hard part.”

Geez. If that isn’t “existence over Aristotelian essence,” I sure don’t know what is.

Aristotle, 384–322 B.C., Greek philosopher and polymath. See plato.stanford.edu.

Marlowe’s Law. “Marlowe is outside the law,” Hill et al note, “while carrying his own lawfulness within him. Enlightenment thinkers like Kant and Rousseau might say that he ‘gives the law to himself’ (which is the literal meaning of the word ‘autonomous’). Closer to home, folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote of the bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd, ‘I love a good man outside the law, just as much as I hate a bad man inside the law.’ ”

What Does This Mean for Marlowe? “Of course,” Hill et al write, “he isn’t an outlaw (exactly), but he does live strictly by his own ethical code. And he breaks the law to do so, as angry police officers frequently remind him.”

Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre, 1905–1980, French philosopher, playwright, biographer, and literary critic. He was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature, though attempted to refuse it, as “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.” Photo, 1967, by Moise Milner from Wikipedia.

Returning to our ami français, Hill et al recall, “In 1943, Jean-Paul Sartre published his existential magnum opus, Being and Nothingness, which warns: ‘Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he forges for himself on this earth.’ ” 

“The key word here,” they note, “is ‘responsibilities.’ Marlowe would understand that Sartre’s admonishment is not an ending but a beginning. Immense as it is, Marlow accepts the challenge….”

Which makes this antihero heroic indeed in my book. And you can see why it’ll take me a while to finish savoring The Annotated Big Sleep. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022 

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