Riley: Hammett and Goodis
‘As if there were anywhere to go': The Lack of Transcendence in the Noir Fiction of Dashiell Hammett and David Goodis
In ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ Raymond Chandler describes the fictional detective as a man who walks down the ‘mean streets’ but is ‘not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor unafraid’.1 From a Kantian perspective, Chandler defines a transcendent position as the hero exists ‘beyond the limits of ordinary experience';2 his untarnished status elevates him above the environment he investigates. However, if we apply this model to the investigative protagonists of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and David Goodis’s The Moon In The Gutter, a significant deviation emerges. Both Sam Spade and Dan Kerrigan exist in a state of ‘immanence'; they are perpetually ‘within and ‘inherent’ to their material surroundings.3 Spade acts as a manifestation of the criminality he pursues, whereas Kerrigan becomes virtually absorbed into the fabric of’ Vernon Street’ itself.4 Having said this, differences emerge between the authors in the use and representation of this theme within their texts. Hammett, writing in 1930, reflects the psychological impact of the 1929 Wall Street Crash. The world of the text lacks an over arching controlling system. Goodis, however, writes in 1953 and places emphasis onto dehumanising working conditions, reflecting the culture of mass production which added to America’s post-war prosperity. His text then retains a controlling system yet its oppressive nature prevents the act of transcendence on the part of the individual. As a result then, Hammett removes from his text a higher sphere into which the characters can move, whereas Goodis indicates the possibility of an alternative personal existence, yet renders it perpetually inaccessible. In addition to a narrative based treatment of the theme, the idea of a lack of transcendence also emerges on a linguistic level. It can be seen as symptomatic of the ‘hard-boiled’ school of writing as the creation of ‘authenticity of character and action,5 suggests that the ‘limits of possible experience and knowledge’6 are required as a stylistic necessity. Having said this, the text’s often self conscious ‘pulp’ status offers a possible alternative to the nihilism within the narratives. The act of being read with a knowing ‘illicit pleasure’ suggests that whilst Hammett and Goodis’s characters are constrained, avenues of escapist transcendence open for the reader.7
A sense of immanence can be seen in the methods of description used by Hammett and Goodis to introduce their main characters. Sam Spade is identified with a repeated ‘V-motif’8 which evokes what Clive Bloom calls a ‘functionalism, futurism and modernism’, a direct reflection of the architectural trends of the period9 Similarly, William Kerrigan’s body becomes a text, physically marked by the conditions of ‘Vernon street’. Scars act as ‘Badges’ recording instances such as ‘an encounter on the docks when someone had used brass knuckles’ (p.3). Subsequently, both Spade and 3Kerrigan exist as manifestations of their immediate material surroundings. This reading is intensified as both Hammett and Goodis emphasise the physical effects of the urban environment upon the individual. San Francisco’s ‘night -fog’ is described as ‘penetrant’ as if to suggest the ability to invade the body, (p.383). In addition, Kerrigan states that the industrial ‘bilge’ seen around the wharf area has an almost corrupting effect. It ‘crawls right through you’ and cannot be removed ‘no matter how hard you scrub’ (p.44). As a result, both characters are explicitly ‘tarnished’ by their surrounding ‘mean streets’ thus lacking the transcendent, elevated position inhabited by Chandler’s detective.
In addition to characterisation, the linguistic structure at work in the texts reiterates this sense of immanence. Goodis states that Kerrigan’s ‘scars…signified he lived on Vernon Street’, (p.3). Whilst this implies a direct process of signification, ‘Vernon Street’ functions as a metonymic reference to a particular ‘symbolic community’.10 As a result, the passage can be seen to be based around a horizontal signifying chain which dictates that meaning is to be deferred from one signifier to the next.11 As we see, ‘scars’ refers to specific ‘encounters’ which in turn gains relevance in relation to ‘the street’ and ‘the docks’. From a Lacanian perspective, this diachronic relationship between signifiers prevents the signification initially implied by Goodis. The deferral of meaning inherent to metonymy resists signification leaving the ‘bar’ of the Saussurian algorithm uncrossed.12 Subsequently at a linguistic level, transcendence is not achieved as the signifiers are unable to move from one signifying chain to another. This structural blockage of meaning is significant as it creates a parallel with the content of the novel. Kerrigan’s link to Vernon Street denies him access to higher social echelons (‘we don’t ride the same track’, p.182). Thus, the horizontal chain of signification structuring the passage mirrors the social ‘chains’ imposed upon Kerrigan, denying him personal elevation.
In contrast to Goodis, linguistic transcendence initially appears possible in Hammett’s opening description. Whilst a horizontal chain is established via the successive references to individual features such as ‘jaw’, ‘mouth’ and ‘eyes’, the passage is concluded with a metaphor comparing Spade to a ‘blond Satan’ (p. 375). This establishes a ‘vertical’ relationship between signifiers as the image of Spade is substituted for a signifier in another chain of meaning, in this case that of mythic/biblical images.13 Subsequently, signification is produced as in moving between chains, Hammett transcends the Saussurian bar which blocked meaning at a metonymic level. Having said this, whilst Goodis’ text produces a parallel between form and content, tension emerges in Hammet as ‘Satan’ refers to a ‘fallen angel’.14 As a result, there exists transcendence at a signifying level in the movement from metonymy to metaphor, yet the semantics of the metaphor’s subject implies a reverse: the regression from the realm of the transcendent to the corporeal. Hammett’s emergent signification seems to counteract the linguistic movement undertaken.
Whilst the immanence metaphorically produced by the signifying processes is similar in both texts, significant difference emerges when considering the relationship between the theme of transcendence and the construction of the narrative voice. Goodis employs a sentence structure which organises his imagery to produce a cycle of possibility and denial. As we see, in describing ‘Dugan’s den’ we are told that ‘all the paint and varnish had vanished long ago’ (p.11). Goodis then uses the conduction ‘but’ as if to suggest an alternative to the image of a decaying interior. However, the resultant description maintains the corporealized depiction by referring to the ‘glimmer’ produced ‘by the rubbing of countless elbows’. Goodis thus uses the progression of his sentence to suggest the possibility of a change in tone and image before denying the reader by merely reiterating the initially established representation. In addition, one of Goodis’ s repeated motifs is that of the characters looking to an unspecified ‘beyond’. This continues the function of the syntactic denial as the reader is shown the act of viewing, yet the subject and/or destination under observation remains continually unidentified. As a result, Goodis creates a constant immanence. He works within the Kantian interpretation of transcendence yet prevents its operation as both the characters and the reader are presented with the implication of a higher meaning or location, yet it is rendered perpetually inaccessible.
In contrast, whilst Hammett as narrator similarly uses the third person, the construction of his voice emerges as the reverse of Goodis. Rather than assuming a position of control and narrative superiority, Hammett as narrator appears to lack a sense of omniscience. In describing the initial encounter between Spade and Bridgid Hammett refers not to their personal thoughts but to peripheral, material details such as ‘the ashes on the desk’ which ‘twitched and crawled in the current’ (p.376). This approach mirrors the technique of deferral used by Jake Barnes in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.15 His focus on surface details functions as an attempt to disavow the awareness of his own impotence. The application of this fetishistic model of language to The Maltese Falcon subsequently creates the impression of narrative impotence, an inability to gain access to the character’s interior. This can be seen further as in the same passage, Hammett refers to ‘a neighbouring office’ where ‘a power driven machine vibrated dully’ (p. 376). We are made aware of other possible narratives existing at a dormant level within the text over which the narrator has no apparent knowledge or control.
In addition, Hammett frequently uses the colon when introducing speech (‘Tom said: forget it’, p. 392) producing a uniform construction in relation to dialogue contrast to Goodis’s more expressive variation in verbs within the text. He uses ‘said’ but also moves between ‘shrieked’, (p.66) ‘murmured’ (p.70) and ‘demanded’, (p.36). The effect produced is of Hammett transcribing rather than describing spoken exchanges as if mirroring the operation of the detective and the police in collating an objective report. Subsequently, this indirectly adds to the lack of omniscience in that Hammett as narrator becomes coded as a recording rather than a directing textual presence. As a result, then, whereas Goodis refuses access to the narrator’s privileged transcendental position, Hammett’s narrative voice assumes a more Nietzschean position, implicitly articulating ‘the death of God’ .16 The movement away from an omniscient position removes from the text a central, controlling perspective.
Hammett’s reflection of modernist pessimism within the narrative voice can be reiterated as the wider text presents a society bereft of an overarching guiding principle. As we see, the ‘dark parable’ concerning Flitcraft highlights ‘the benign indifference of the material world’. The randomness of the falling beam’ shatters any perception of life based upon ‘stable, predictable patterns’ and creates instead a ‘universal sense of absurdity’.17 Hammett describes the incident as having a foregrounding effect, stating that it was like’ someone had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works’ (p. 429). We see here the motif of disenchantment and corporealization , yet rather than imposing upon the individual a static immobility, the effect upon Flitcraft is to encourage fluidity and movement, (‘he would change his life.. .by simply going away’, p. 430). Subsequently, Flitcraft’s response indicates the emergence of individually determined action rather than a preordained ‘fate’. Hammett engages with existential themes as divine agency is seen to be replaced by ‘blind chance’, an arbitrariness which is ‘morally chaotic’.18 As a result, although we are not presented with an oppressive immanence, the idea of transcendence is removed from the text as Flitcraft ceases to exist as a subject in relation to a higher, organizing power.
This episode also provides a model for the depiction of narrative action within the text as the characters are constantly under threat of sudden, random violence. The initial unassertiveness of Joel Cairo with ‘short, mincing, bobbing steps’ is quickly broken by his sudden production of a ‘compact flat black pistol’ (p. 4I2). Similarly, when Spade leaves his apartment to speak to Polhaus and Dundy, Bridgid attacks Cairo, their conversation interrupted by ‘the sounds of a brief struggle, a blow, a subdued cry’, (p. 438). This links to several other ‘off screen’ events within the text which create an atmosphere of peripheral chaos such as the death of Archer and the shooting of Captain Jacobi. His sudden burst into Spade’s office exemplifies the overall effect of destabilisation enacted by the violence of the text in that there is a constant creation of a ‘radical disruption of normal existence.’19
Goodis’s use of oppressive immanence also informs the events of his text. He extends the syntactic mechanism of possibility and denial to a macrocosmic level, using it to structure narrative development. The failed artist Mooney initially experiences transcendence away from Vernon Street due to artistic acclaim. However, Goodis creates a binary link between ‘critics’ and ‘patrons’ (p.7) suggesting that Mooney is unable to fully realise his success due to financial constraints. As a result, his career is seen as circular; a movement to Italy before returning to Vernon street rather than a teleological ascent further into the ‘art circles of Europe’ (p.7). Again we see that Goodis does not eliminate avenues of escape but renders them inaccessible to the characters.
This cyclical operation of transcendent denial can be further seen in the case of Bella. Her desire for Kerrigan is described as a ‘disease’ and a ‘great need’ (p.37) thus suggesting that marriage will act as a ‘cure’. Goodis links this desire specifically to a sense of transcendence as commitment on the part of Kerrigan will allow Bella to reach the ‘mountain’ in her dream above the ‘hundred thousand other women’ (p.38). However, whilst Kerrigan at the climax of the novel appears to choose Bella over Lorretta, this renewal of the relationship imposes submission rather than allowing escape. Kerrigan is seen to ‘slap…her rump’ and order ‘make me some supper’ (p.183) placing Bella not only in a role of servitude but in the use of the word ‘rump’ almost rendering her as a piece of meat. The apparent achievement of desire does not allow personal transcendence, but merely intensifies Bella’s original situation. She becomes an object to be consumed rather than having her own ‘hunger’ (p. 38) satisfied.
The link established between a lack of transcendence and unfulfilled desire is significant when seen from a Lacanian perspective. According to Slavoj Zizek, desire ‘compels us to progress infinitely from one signifier to another in the hope of attaining the ultimate signifier.20 However, this is a constant process of deferral as desire is always directed at ‘the other’, thus rendering the object of compulsion continually and necessarily out of reach.21 It is the very lack of the transcendental signifier which allows desire to function as a progressive mechanism. This process then implies that transcendence with the texts of Goodis and Hammet in terms of a realisation of the key signifier, is not merely denied but is structurally impossible. As we see, Hammett’s text is based around the pursuit of the falcon. Its absence generates not only the exotic travel frequently mentioned (‘shall we…go to Constantinople?’ p.558) but also the narrative development, Spade initally offered payment by Cairo to find the statue. Similarly, Goodis uses the ‘permanent question mark’ (p. 2) of Catherine’s alleyway blood stains to provide the focus of Kerrigan’s epistemological investigation throughout the novel. Both motifs then function as what Helmut Heissebuttel calls ‘the trace of the unnarrated. . . that without which the narrated world and the groups of suspects would cease to exist.22
The necessity of this absence can be seen as in the case of Hammett, once the falcon is directly manifested, it is revealed as ‘fake’ (p. 557); it no longer emphasizes ‘lack’, thus loses its desirability In addition, the effect of this realisation is to enact a sense of collapse on the part characters such as Gutman and Cairo who define their own identities in relation to their ‘quest’ (Gutman’s jaws sagged, he blinked vacant eyes’, p. 557). In the same way, Kerrigan’s realisation that ‘the Vernon gutter’ (p.180) was essentially responsible for Catherine’s death prompts a similar collapse. He loses the opportunity for cathartic revenge due to the inability to link the death to ‘any man’s face or name’ (p. 180) and Catherine herself becomes coded as one ‘the weaker ones’ (p. 180): an image of fragile mortality in contrast to the saint like role her absence previously generated. As a result then, although the mechanism of desire denies the emergence of a transcendental signifier, it is this lack which is central to character motivation and structural composition in both texts.
The movement away from a reductive manifestation can be further seen in The Moon In The Gutter as Goodis suggests a degree of transcendence is possible at moments of non-vocal communication. As we see, one of Goodis’s repeated motifs is that of individuals establishing significant connections via ‘silent conversation’ or ‘speaking without words’ (p. 57). In addition, bar owner Dugan is described as ‘standing with his eyes closed humming the melody that took him away from Vernon Street’ (p.174). In contrast, the homogenous group of ‘drinkers’ talk ‘a meaningless jumble of incoherencies’ (p. 11). These speech acts are linked by Goodis to a state of static immanence. The lack of direction in the discourse used reflects the nature of the drinkers themselves, ‘very old men who had nothing to do and no place to go’ (p. 11). As a result then, the speaking voice is seen to act as a reductive, materialising device, locating the individual within a constraining social group. It appears to function in the same way as the realisation of desire in that as Joan Copjec asserts, ‘the moment the voice is anchored in the body…it is submitted to the destiny of the body, corporealized, rendered decrepit and mortal’.23
Goodis’s emphasis on interior withdrawal can be seen further with Kerrigan’s experience of a ‘flashback’ to a ‘summer night’ spent with Catherine (p. 60). This narrative sequence assumes an expressionistic tone as by focusing on personal memories generated by viewing a portrait of Catherine, Kerrigan is able to ‘ignore the visible world’, placing emphasis instead on an ‘interior vision’. In accordance with Lotte H. Eisner’s analysis of expressionism, this process results in a sense of ecstasy as via the mediation of Kerrigan’s memory, Catherine’s ‘painted face’ becomes a ‘living face’ (p. 60).24 The image transcends the material and aesthetic boundaries initially imposed upon it through its status as a ‘framed’ illustration. However, when constructing this sequence within the text, Goodis uses a mechanising discourse, referring to the transition into memory as a ‘shift in the gears of time’, (p. 60). This phrase is repeated at the conclusion of the passage causing the movement into memory to function as a temporary escape; a momentary snapshot or ‘peepshow’ rather than an ecstatic release from the material body. In addition, the references to ‘time’ link to the language of Kerrigan’s workplace. He refers to ‘overtime’ (p.61) Mooney sets his watch in order to announce the beginning of the working day and the Dock foreman continually highlights the passing oftime, ‘spurring the Stevedores to work faster’ (p.66). As a result, Goodis suggests that Kerrigan’s withdrawal into the self offers no real transcendence; the construction of his interiority is pervaded by the discourse used in the very space which he hopes to move beyond.
This connection between the interior and the exterior established via Goodis’s use of language is symptomatic of Frederic Jameson’s ‘postmodern epoch’ wherein ‘corporate capital has succeeded in penetrating and dominating the very fantasy kernal of being’ producing an individual ‘bereft of the last pockets of resistance’.25 Goodis is here reflecting his wider cultural context. Whilst America during the 1950s achieved high levels of productivity it resulted according to Robert Von Hellenberg, from the use of alienating working conditions wherein individual ‘identity and belief became ‘immaterial to the industrial role’.26 Goodis manifests this loss of a personal, interior self not only through references to dehumanising working practices (‘we ain’t got enough space to work in’, p. 68) but also on a more psychological level. In the case of Kerrigan, such is the dominance of the industrial sphere that it appears to corrupt his imaginative capabilities. This links to the idea of a lack of transcendence as in accordance with the corporealized reduction implied by the title, the moon in the gutter, Kerrigan is only able to express himself in images relating to his working environment. As a result he constantly occupying a position within its sphere of influence. As we see, rather than moving towards the sublime and engaging with the ‘breathtaking’ the image of the ‘moonlit river’ Kerrigan perceives only ‘scum and garbage’ (p.44), the waste products of the docks.
The loss of an essential interiority is extended to a greater degree in The Maltese Falcon. Hammett denies the reader an insight into the inner sphere of the characters, instead focusing his prose on material, surface details. This can be seen in the passage describing Spade’s dressing following the news of Archer’s death. Hammett provides great detail into the process involved, telling the reader how Spade ‘made a cigarette with deliberate care’ before putting on ‘a thin white union suit, grey socks, black garters and dark brown shoes’,(p.383). Spade emerges as an assemblage of components rather than a character as whilst the repetition of the pronoun’ he’ creates a great sense of presence, as Bloom points out, the description ‘does not explain the inner forces of character and will’.27 Rather than expressing thoughts and emotions, Spade constructs a substitute interior, ‘stuffing’ his ‘pockets’, the inside of his assembled identity, with various signifiers of his profession; ‘keys, tobacco, money’ (p.383). In addition, Hammett implies that Spade’s ontology is entirely based around this surface appearance as before he begins to dress, his presence is ‘acousmatic'; he exists as an disembodied voice, only able to identify himself as ‘speaking’ in the darkness, (p.382).28
Hammett’s minimalist construction of Spade conforms to the conventions of hard boiled fiction, emphasising ‘authenticity of character and action’. Transcendence is thus denied as Hammett roots his description in objective reality, moving away from the subjective withdrawal employed by Goodis to allow Kerrigan temporary ecstatic release. The emphasis on surface rather than interior also covertly indicates a wider lack of transcendence. Hammett is writing in 1930, not only a period of interwar uncertainty, but also a year after the catastrophic Wall Street Crash. According to Hugh Brognan, the overall consensus was that ‘the whole fabric of modern, business, industrial America was unravelling,29 Brognan’s imagery of fragmentation is significant in relation to Hammett’s construction of Spade as Deborah Thomas states that the ‘noir man’ undergoes a ‘literal and metaphorical solidification’ in order to ‘ward off perceived chaos’.30 Spade’s physicality and lack of interiority can be seen as a defensive enclosure of the self in the midst of widespread collapse, and as is indicated by the ‘falling beam’ of the Flitcraft episode, an atmosphere of chaotic randomness. In contrast Gutman, a representative of the capitalistic excess which arguably led to financial disaster, lacks the ‘tough definition’ of Spade and is thus an ‘image of the body gone mad.31 As a result, Hammett’s emphasis on manifest physicality reflects an attempt to control identity and gain stasis during a period of disruption. Subsequently, whereas Goodis’s construction of personal interior highlights the all pervasive nature of an oppressive system, Spade’s plenitude becomes indicative of the wider absence of a transcendental governing structure.
Having said this, Hammett’s use of ‘one dimensional images’ creates what Geoffrey O’Brien calls a ‘stunning massiveness’.32 Subsequently, whilst denied to the characters, transcendence emerges for the reader, as Hammett’s spare, corporeal prose results in an amplified hyperreality. The reader is transported ‘out of this world…into some impossibly energetic superamerica, parallel to the one we know’.33 As we see, Bridgid is initially introduced using brief, unelaborated details in a repeated structure. We are told her hair was ‘darkly red, her full lips more brightly red’ (p. 375). However, this image contrasts greatly with the dull, monotone colour scheme used in the wider passage in which Spade’s ‘pale brown hair’ mirrors Effie Perrine’s ‘brown eyes and tan dress’ (p. 375). Subsequently, whilst sparse, the resultant effect of Bridgid’s description is to produce an explosion of colour, providing the character with a powerful, hypnotic and erotic presence from the outset of the text. Additionally, when describing Gutman, Hammett focuses purely on the character’s external appearance, stating ‘the fat man was flabbily fat’ (p. 466). This approach maintains Hammett’s characteristic lack of reference to personal interior, yet in this instance, it adds to the nature of Gutman creating a carnivalistic body of excessive physicality. This idea is highlighted further by Hammett’s repeated use of the phrase ‘the fatman’ as if Gutman’s soft bulk has absorbed all sources of distinguishable identity.
The emergence of hyppereality can also be seen in The Moon in the Gutter. Just as the bleak, abysmal spaces in Edward Hopper’s paintings can be considered ‘luminous’ so too does the intensity of Goodis’s imagery cause a movement from the real to the fantastic.34 As we see, Kerrigan’s overwhelming sense of immobility is linked by Goodis to the panoptic and oppressive effect of the ‘Vernon Moon’ which ‘had them all trapped’ (p.180). However, the verbs used in constructing the passage, ‘drifting’ and ‘glimmering’ (p.180) create a quiet delicacy and a poetic lyricism at odds with the material imprisonment initially implied. Additionally, the use of the moon in relation Kerrigan’s social status elevates his situation to an almost cosmic significance. As a result, the reader is presented with what Bloom calls ‘banality made strange’.35 Kerrigan’s materialised position becomes surreal and is defamiliarised through Goodis’s attempt to convey it in a direct, visceral and realistic mode.
Having said this, whilst the implicit hyperreality of hard-boiled language offers escapism only via ‘the illicit pleasure of reading’, a similar emergence of possible transcendence from an apparent absence takes place within Hammett’s narrative.36 Specifically, Spade’s climatic adherence to the detective code highlights what Nietzsche calls ‘the myth of eternal return’ the re appearance of higher values due to ‘the inability of man to live without any illusions.37 As we see, throughout The Maltese Falcon, Hammett works to break down the binary of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, characterising Spade as ‘half gangster’.38 Whilst a detective he also uses the same methods and violence as those he investigates. We see at one point him beating Cairo unconcsious even when he has been ‘disarmed’ (p. 415). Bridgid also frequently moves between polar positions, appearing as both victim and willing perpetrator of violence a fluid, transgressive nature indicated by her unstable identity.39 As a result, the text conveys a sense of nihilism, ‘a crisis of non distinction’40, as the lack of difference between the characters removes any possibility of a higher, moral position.41 However at the conclusion of the text, Hammett reverses the situation with Spade’s ‘sending over’ of Bridgid (p.563). Whilst often identified as symptomatic of the character’s absence of morality, the action ironically functions to re-impose upon the text a transcendental system. As William Brevda states, ‘in refusing to play the sap’, Spade ‘rejects normal human life in favour of an ideal code of honour’.42 In referring to himself specifically as ‘a detective’ Spade re-establishes difference, self consciously elevating himself above the ‘criminals’, Gutman and Cairo, (p.568). This adherence to an overarching system of governance, ‘the detective business’ (p.568) ends the sense of nihilism by ‘mystifying a transcendental system that sanctifies distinctions.’43 In committing himself to the ‘natural thing’, the expectations of a wider ‘organisation’ (p.568) Spade enacts a pre-set course of action which climatically works to counteract the aimless individuality and cosmic randomness previously represented by Flitcraft.
This model of transcendence is not, however, unproblematic Not only is itbased upon Bridgid’s punishment, but Spade’s movement away from the undifferentiated and amoral philosophies within the text essentially involves a loss of identity By following a ‘code of honour’ Spade places himself within what Mircea Eliade calls the ‘primitive’ or platonic conception, the identification of the real as a repetition of an archetype, a paradigm. Thus his ritualised acts as a detective, conforming to the code ‘presuppose an absolute reality which is extra human, suggesting that Spade himself is only able to become ‘real when he ceases to be so’.44 As we see, when Spade refers to himself specifically as a detective, he is implicitly distancing himself from the ‘Sam’ known personally and intimately to Bridgid. This is seen further in the construction of the phrase ‘a detective’ as the indirect article used is indicative of a non-specific personal identity, an anonymity which emerges due to Spade’s movement towards an idealised but essentially homogenising ‘business’. Subsequently, the text maintains its mechanism of desire as Spade’s transcendence continues to produce lack. Whilst there is the emergence of an identity, the ritualized loss involved prevents a final full definition of the signifier ‘Sam Spade’.
Hammett’s transcendental code is also significant as it allows us to identify a key structural and philosophical difference with Goodis. Whereas Spade is seen to lose a degree of identity by moving towards a transcendental system, it is Kerrigan’s position within a governing system which results in the production of a similar lack. As we see, although oppressive, Kerrigan’s clearly defined role under the authority of the dock foreman positions him within a transcendental system as he is subject to a higher governing power, the machinations of which are beyond his control. This can be seen in the aftermath of Kerrigan’s fight with Ruttman as he is ‘blackballed'; condemning information about him is sent ‘down the line’ (p.78) to the other piers highlighting the operation of a powerful network out of reach of the individual. However, Kerrigan’s position within an organising system links to Kant’s notion of the ‘transcendental turn’, the impossibility of locating the subject within the great chain of being’.45 As Zizek argues, the emergence of the individual as a transcendental subject, a ‘noumenal self distinct from ‘a thing apprehended by the senses’ would result in the loss of the very feature which constructs the self as an ‘I of pure apperception.46 Subsequently the act of transcendence can then be said to be impossible for Kerrigan as in linking his ontological status directly to his industrial role, (‘I’m a dock labourer, a Stevedore’, p. 44) he is confirming that it is this position which defines his existence as a subject. The implication then emerges that an attempt to move outside of this specific sphere of influence would result in an absence of identity. He would lack a self consciousness and cease to exist as a ‘spontaneous transcendental agent that constitutes reality’.47
This paradox is manifested directly within the text. Kerrigan’s relationship with Loretta develops to the extent that he hastily proposes marriage, offering to take care of her ‘for keeps’ (p.123). The attraction and motivation is that Loretta offers an avenue of escape, allowing him to say ‘good bye to Vernon street’ (p.119). However, this departure is also rendered as a ‘good bye to everything he’d known’ (p.119); not merely a movement away from a living space, but a rejection that which has constructed Kerrigan as an individual subject As we see, following Lorreta’s agreement, Kerrigan experiences ‘a kind of paralysis’ (p.124) an experience in direct opposition to the expected mobility, and during the ‘ceremony’ he also has difficulty writing his name, as if to suggest a loss of both identity and cognitive ability. Subsequently, whereas Spade’s idealistic elevation initially functions to counteract nihilism, creating an identifying difference, Goodis explicitly highlights the production of anonymity resulting from the rejection of surroundings which influence an individual’s self-consciousness.
What is significant about this paradox is that it is repeated consistently not only in The Moon in the Gutter but also throughout Goodis’s wider body of work.48 To a certain extent, this provides the reader with a degree of transcendence as the repetition of themes and character dissolves the boundaries between novels. However, at the level of the individual text, the resultant effect is a breakdown in the narrative mechanism of desire. We shift instead to drive, ‘a circulation endlessly around some fixed point of attraction, immobilised by the power of its fascination’.49 At the end of the novel, Kerrigan remains imprisoned by Vernon Street, taking the same ‘heavy’ (p.183) walk home as that which opened the text A similar circularity ultimately structures Hammett’s text as the narrative closes with Spade in the same office having gained neither money nor the Falcon. The idea of repetition is intensified as his closing words, ‘send her in’ (p. 571) mirror the ‘shoo her in’ (p. 375) initially spoken at the opening of the text. As a result then, whilst Spade and Kerrigan transcend the circumstances of the individual plots recounted, the texts climatically fail to offer ecstatic ‘jouissance’ as both the characters and the reader remain within a central, single location.50
Both Hammett and Goodis use their texts to present pessimistic and often nihilistic visions of the world. However, it is perhaps Goodis who conveys this paradigm with the greater intensity. In contrast to Hammett’s implicit absurdity, Goodis’s characters are able to conceive possibilities of transcendence, yet the execution of the process and the achievement of the desire remains continually out of reach. Having said this it is perhaps the case that in both texts, the inability to gain transcendence is a structural necessity which allows the narrative development. As a result then, we are able to position the argument on two levels. The lack of transcendence offered to the characters creates a sense of imprisonment but the resultant narrative generation allows the reader imaginative engagement with the text. We move away from our own material surroundings via the graphic rendition of an alternative, corporealized sphere.
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Partridge, Eric, Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (London: Routledge: 1958)
Priestman, Martin, Crime Fiction: From Poe to the Present (London: Northcote House, 1998)
Renner, Rolf, Gunter, Edward Hopper 1882-1967: Transformation of the Real (Germany: Taschen, 1993)
Russell, Bertrand, History of Western Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1996)
Silver, Alain, ‘Introduction’ in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide, ed. Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward (London: Bloomsbury, 1980)
Spicer, Andrew, Film Noir (Singapore: Longman, 2002)
Stern, J.P., Nietzsche (London: Triad/Panther, 1973)
Thomas, Deborah, ‘Psychoanalysis and Film Noir’ in The Movie Book of film Noir, ed. Ian Cameron (London: Studio Vista, 1994), pp. 71-88
Zizek, Slavoj, “The Thing That Thinks': The Kantian Background of The Noir Subject’ inShades of Noir, ed. by Joan Copjec (London: Verso, 1993), pp.199-223
2 Term defined in Robert Allen (ed.), The Penguin English Dictionary (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2002), p. 949. See also Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1996), pp.675-691 and Eric Partridge, Origins: A Short Eytemological Dictionary of Modern English (London: Routledge, 1958), p.506.
Copjec, p. 176.
28 The acousmaticl disembodied voice discussed by Michel Chion in ‘The Impossible Embodiment’ in Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid To Ask Hitchcock), ed. Slavoj Zizek (London: Verso, 1992), p. 195
37 Discussed in William Brevda, ‘The Double Nihilation of the Neon: Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles’ in Texas Studies in Literature and Language. Vol. 41. NO.1 (Austin: University of Texas Press, Spring 1999), p.91.
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