Posts Tagged 'dashiell hammett'

Right, and right again.

Months ago I clipped out this National Post article about how our society is increasingly “consumed by loneliness”.

One of the experts quoted is Dr. Fay Bound Alberti, “cultural historian of gender, emotion and medicine”, who identifies neoliberalism, individualism, and nationalism as isolating trends that have severed people from the support of their traditional communities – “whether that was good or bad”.

This gives the author her opening for the ritual denunciation of you-know-who:

The rise of populism can further pit people against others – blacks, Mexicans, immigrants – while at the same time creating a seeming sense of belonging.

The “Make America great again” rallying campaign slogan “theoretically represents a common purpose – or a new ‘religion’, given how evangelical Trump’s rallies can appear,” Bound Alberti said. “But it’s based on exclusion, division and difference.”

You’d think a topic like loneliness would be safely remote from the realm of partisan finger-jabbing. Turns out, no. I had the exhausted reaction once described by Alan Jacobs: “Is there any chance of my getting through a recent essay, an article, a story, an interview, without a reference to That Man?

I have a less self-contradictory theory for how loneliness is connected to “the rise of populism”. We retreat from human interaction because we fear that if we shared our unguarded opinions with co-workers, family members, and friends, we’d end up scratching each other’s eyes out.

***

Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse is about a private eye protecting a troubled girl who believes that, under the influence of the title curse, she’s responsible for a rash of murders that have occurred in her vicinity. She cites her oddly-shaped face and ears, and the “fog” that prevents her from thinking “even the simplest thoughts”, as evidence that the sins of her parents have corrupted her bloodline.

The private eye reassures her that she’s perfectly normal:

“Nobody thinks clearly, no matter what they pretend. Thinking’s a dizzy business, a matter of catching as many of those foggy glimpses as you can and fitting them together the best you can. That’s why people hang on so tight to their beliefs and opinions; because, compared to the haphazard way in which they’re arrived at, even the goofiest opinion seems wonderfully clear, sane, and self-evident. And if you let it get away from you, then you’ve got to dive back into that foggy muddle to wangle yourself out another to take its place.”

Whether the private eye believes this, who knows. He’s a hard-boiled type who’ll say anything to manipulate the squirrelly mooks and screwy dames he encounters. And whether Hammett believed it, again, who knows. He spent the last thirty years of his life as an unwavering follower of the Communist Party line, holding tight to his goofy opinions even when they led to prison and the blacklist during the McCarthy era.

Anyway, I believe it. Life is a half-waking stagger through a crowded underlit arcade with neon flashing, klaxons wailing, jabbering teenagers jostling you on all sides, and you’re lucky if you can focus your attention on anything for two seconds consecutively, let alone accurately describe your perceptions afterward. That’s how I feel most of the time, anyway. I assume everyone else is going through the same thing, so I try to cut them some slack when they spill their drinks down the back of my shirt.

At his trial, Socrates claimed that if he was wiser than other men, it was only in being wise enough to realize how little he knew. I’ll go Socrates one further: I’m wise enough to admit that those supposed wise men in the newspapers, on TV, on Twitter, who to me seem such overconfident know-it-alls, are probably wiser than me after all.

The trouble is, the wise men all contradict each other, so I’m forced to rely on what scraps of wisdom I can retrieve from the foggy muddle.

***

Best I can remember, I started paying serious attention to public affairs sometime in my mid-teens, which would be the early nineties – let’s say around the start of the Clinton administration in the US, and Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government in my native Canada. Since then I’ve lived through four presidents – two Democrats and two Republicans – and four prime ministers – three Liberals, one Conservative.

That’s not much of a sample, but it’s enough that I’ve begun to notice that right-wing and left-wing governments affect my beliefs in different ways. Namely, when right-wingers are in power, either in Washington or Ottawa, I become more sympathetic to conservative ideas; but when left-wingers seize the helm there is no compensating effect on my philosophical orientation.

Thus I find myself becoming more and more right-wing.

It’s not because I have an “authoritarian personality” which makes right-wing arguments somehow seem more convincing when backed by the iron fist of the ruling party. It’s actually kind of the opposite. I live almost entirely in a left-wing milieu. My friends and nearest family are left-wingers. The restaurants I eat in, the neighbourhoods I hang out in, are populated mostly by left-wingers. And the media I consume – apart from conservative news sources I’ve sought out deliberately in the interest of balance – is produced largely by left-wingers.

When leftists are running things, the left-wing masses are content. Sure, they’ll still bitch about the horrible things those fascist pigs are planning to do if they ever take over, but there’s a complacent undertone to their bitching. They’re convinced of the long-term inevitability of their victory – the arc of the moral universe bending toward what they regard as justice. Aren’t all the cool young people left-wing? Aren’t all the high-birthrate immigrants left-wing? Aren’t all the old fascists dying off, their communities withering, their perks sustained only by anachronisms like the electoral college and first-past-the-post voting? We’ll be rid of ’em soon. Just a few mopping-up operations, that’s all.

But when the fascists upset their sense of destiny by actually winning elections, left-wingers go absolutely nuts. Where before they might have lobbed the occasional snide comment into the opposing trenches, in the spirit of keeping the enemy on their toes, now the barrage becomes nonstop and desperate. You flip open the arts section and every book review includes an irrelevant swipe at the uncultured rednecks occupying the capital. You sit down in a coffeeshop and the kiddies at the next table are bewailing some half-remembered social media listicle about the government’s viciousness. You attend a dinner party and sit biting your lip through a series of wisecracks made in the assurance that no-one present could ever support those ignoramuses who have tricked and slandered and demagogued their way into power.

Now, I’m pretty sure that in a right-wing milieu, the masses act out just as annoyingly when left-wingers are in charge. Never having lived in such a milieu, it’s never concerned me. Living the lifestyle I do, it’s pretty easy for me to tune out right-wing idiocy. Left-wing idiocy I simply can’t escape. And I react to it by sympathizing with the targets of left-wing ire.

It may seem silly to think of Donald Trump and George W. Bush and Stephen Harper as underdogs. Objectively, they aren’t. But from my perspective, in the milieu I inhabit, when left-wingers are on the attack, right-wing ideas appear harried, besieged, bombarded with disproportionate force. Which makes them sympathetic. So I migrate rightward – until left-wingers resume power and call off the siege, and I resume my state of indecisive stasis.

(I have also considered the idea, of course, that I’m simply getting older, and older people tend to be more right-wing – maybe because of growing wisdom, or aversion to change, or because we hold on to the same middle-of-the-road opinions we held in our youth and discover to our surprise that they’re now considered conservative.

There’s also the possibility that left-wing ideology, at least in its popular form, is becoming more unhinged with each passing decade, and older people are the only ones who’ve been around long enough to notice.)

***

During the last provincial election I read an op-ed about British Columbia’s log policy. I had been unaware of the elaborate system of rules governing when unprocessed logs can be shipped abroad and when they must be retained locally in order to provide work for our own sawmills. I can’t remember if the op-ed was pro-log policy or anti-log policy. My reaction was something like: ugh, yet another goddamn thing to think about.

I’m pretty dumb and lazy – maybe dumber, definitely lazier than the average. But I doubt all my intelligence and effort could add much to the log policy debate. The many, many British Columbians who are smarter than me, and the practically all of them who are more energetic than me, for all their deep thought and careful analysis haven’t managed to arrive at a consensus yet. Instead, unsurprisingly, they’ve clustered around two viewpoints which we might tag (however arbitrarily) as left-wing and right-wing – with the right-wingers, in this case, supporting the liberty of logging companies to market their logs abroad in pursuit of higher prices, while the left-wingers want to keep the logs here to preserve blue-collar jobs.

(A hundred years ago, the “left” side of this argument would have been for free trade, while the “right” would have favoured a mercantilist National Policy. With Trumpist protectionism ascendant on the right and “open borders” the rallying cry on the left, the two sides appear to be in the process of swapping places again.)

I’m not sure how I’d balance those two values – economic liberty for all, versus job security for a few – assuming that the anti-traders are even correct that limiting exports helps preserve local jobs. I recently spent an hour reading up on the subject, bashing my head on jargon like the Surplus Test and Fee-In-Lieu Of Manufacture, and I’m no wiser than when I began.

But if BC’s log policy for some reason became a topic of heated national debate – with my left-wing friends all reposting conspiracy theories about how this or that pundit was in the pocket of Big Logging; with John Oliver and Samantha Bee snarking about those halfwit Log Denialists; with websites supposedly dedicated to movies or comics sanctimoniously trumpeting their participation in the International Day Without Logs – well, that would clarify things enormously. The surest way to align my sympathies with the right is for the left to decide that no intelligent person could disagree with them.

It appears I’m as susceptible to brainwashing as the most credulous left-wing dunderhead. Turn bien-pensant opinion against something and I soon start seeing the good points in it.

M.

I’m afraid this is all ground I’ve covered before, for instance in my discussions of Jordan Peterson and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Jane Jacobs and the flexible definition of “populism”, and why I can’t be bothered to vote.

A discerning elimination.

We’ll begin with Sam Spade sneakily entering a room in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon:

He put his hand on the knob and turned it with care that permitted neither rattle nor click. He turned the knob until it would turn no farther: the door was locked. Holding the knob still, he changed hands, taking it now in his left hand. With his right hand he brought his keys out of his pocket, carefully, so they could not jingle against one another. He separated the office-key from the others and, smothering the others together in his palm, inserted the office-key in the lock. The insertion was soundless. He balanced himself on the balls of his feet, filled his lungs, clicked the door open, and went in.

In Rex Stout’s The League of Frightened Men, the reclusive criminological genius Nero Wolfe answers a criticism from his assistant that he has neglected to follow certain promising leads in their current case:

“In the labyrinth of any problem that confronts us, we must select the most promising paths; if we attempt to follow all at once we shall arrive nowhere. In any art – and I am an artist or nothing – one of the deepest secrets of excellence is a discerning elimination. Of course that is a truism.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yes. Take the art of writing. I am, let us say, describing the actions of my hero rushing to greet his beloved, who has just entered the forest. He sprang up from the log on which he had been sitting, with his left foot forward; as he did so, one leg of his trousers fell properly into place but the other remained hitched up at the knee. He began running towards her, first his right foot, then his left, then his right again, then left, right, left, right, left, right…As you see, some of that can surely be left out – indeed must be, if he is to accomplish his welcoming embrace in the same chapter. So the artist must leave out vastly more than he puts in, and one of his chief cares is to leave out nothing vital to his work.”

Wolfe is obviously correct, at least insofar as his observation applies to the art of writing. (How it applies to the art of detection, I couldn’t say.) But I would extend it by adding that the amount of detail the artist elects to put in or leave out is a question of style.

I’m not sure if the theorists of literature have devised a name for this element of a writer’s style, so let’s call it granularity. The fine-grained writer will include more details of his characters’ actions, of their inner thoughts, of their surroundings, while the coarse-grained writer will include fewer. The parodic extreme of the fine-grained technique would be Wolfe’s narration of the hero’s tortured progress toward his lover in the forest: “First his right foot, then his left, then his right again…”

(…Which, as shown by that excerpt from The Maltese Falcon, is not that much of a parody.)

Its polar opposite, the quintessence of coarse-grainedness, would be a bare plot outline: “She meets him in the forest. They make love. Afterward…”

This isn’t to say that the fine-grained style is more precise, let alone better. A fine-grained but clumsy writer will include every detail of a character’s action but the one that matters; a talented coarse-grained writer will include that detail and no others, and the reader will be perfectly satisfied.

The famous quip about Henry James, that he “chewed more than he bit off”, could be applied to most fine-grained writing. But while James may too often have tried to stretch a stare, a blush, and a fluttered eyelid into a four-course meal, he was no more fine-grained than hard-boiled, hard-drinking Dashiell Hammett. Fine-grained writers are alike only in their high estimation of their readers’ level of wakefulness. One may be fine-grained on matters of psychology, another on sociology, another on technology. The one who transcribes every flicker of a character’s flow of consciousness won’t say a word about that character’s appearance, while the one who’ll specify which hand the hero uses to pluck his keys from his pocket will expect you to deduce said hero’s emotions from actions alone.

Assuming a work of finite length, the more fine-grained the writer’s treatment of any aspect of the story – internal or external, personal or historical, metaphysical or concrete – the more coarse-grained must be the treatment of all the others. The trick is to choose the degree of magnification, adjusting to the length of readers’ attention spans and to the overall size of the story you want to tell.

By these means, a story of any size can be shrunken or enlarged to fill any number of pages. Nicholson Baker’s intensely fine-grained 1988 debut The Mezzanine describes an office worker returning from lunch, crossing his building’s atrium, and heading up the escalator to the mezzanine floor, reflecting on the mundane events of his morning. Many a science-fiction work has narrated the rise and fall of a galactic civilization in fewer words.

You might quibble with my use of the word “size”; you might say that The Mezzanine‘s visit to the CVS for a new pair of shoelaces is no bigger or smaller, literarily speaking, than Frodo and Sam’s march to Mordor. To me it’s obvious that stories do come in different sizes – that Ulysses’ wanderings around the Mediterranean are bigger than Leopold Bloom’s wanderings around Dublin in Ulysses, that To Kill A Mockingbird is bigger than Catcher in the Rye. A “normal-sized” story would involve two or three main characters, take place in an area no smaller than a neighbourhood but no larger than a city, encompass a timespan of between a few days and a few weeks, and have an outcome affecting people besides the characters themselves…but not too many people.

These parameters, you’ll notice, are distantly descended from Aristotle’s three unities, but unlike Aristotle I don’t mean to suggest that stories adhering to these rules are somehow superior. They are, I think, easier to write. To successfully tell a very small or very large story requires special skill as an author; for large stories, Nero Wolfe’s discerning elimination – knowing what to leave out – and for small stories, what I’m calling magnification – the enchanted lens that allows a Nicholson Baker to expand a broken shoelace or a stop at the men’s room to chapter size without losing his readers.

The master of magnification is that proverbial padder of word counts, Charles Dickens. In an old post on Sentimental Education I compared Flaubert unfavourably with Dickens:

[When Flaubert’s hero] fights a duel with a flighty aristocrat, or attends a ludicrous meeting of a radical political club, or serves an evening on duty with the National Guard, one wishes for a bit of Dickens’ comic expansiveness, his eagerness to digress, his concern to endow every character, no matter how minor, with a quirk or a verbal tic or, at the very least, a funny name. The fleas that harass Frédéric while he huddles in the guardhouse would have been good for a couple paragraphs in Dickens; Flaubert mentions them and moves on.

But whether you’re eliminating or magnifying, the key is to do it discerningly. Henry Fielding in Tom Jones compares a good writer to a tourist,

who always proportions his stay at any place to the beauties, elegancies, and curiosities which it affords. […] The woods, the rivers, the lawns of Devon and of Dorset, attract the eye of the ingenious traveller and retard his pace, which delay he afterward compensates by swiftly scouring over the gloomy heath of Bagshot or that pleasant plain which extends itself westward from Stockbridge, where no other object than one single tree only in sixteen miles presents itself to the view[.]

Inappropriately fine-grained writing, then, we might visualize as a slow, rattling buggy-ride across the naked prairie, with an overfamiliar driver directing our attention to every shrub and hillock as it passes.

Fielding is in my view guilty of the opposite impropriety, whipping his horses too briskly through the final chapters of Tom Jones, crammed as they are with revelations and reconciliations which the reader would enjoy the luxury of examining at greater length. Take the reaction of Squire Western upon learning that the penniless bastard Jones, whom he has been damning and blackguarding through the preceding 800 pages, is to be reinstated as Squire Allworthy’s heir. Western’s profane rants against those who would undermine his sacred right to tyrannize his daughter are some of the novel’s most hilarious passages; we chuckle as we wonder how he will step down from his habitual perch of enraged dignity. But Fielding only informs us that

No sooner, then, was Western informed of Mr. Allworthy’s intention to make Jones his heir than he joined heartily with the uncle in every commendation of the nephew, and became as eager for [his daughter’s] marriage with Jones as he had before been to couple her to Blifil.

One sentence! This is the same Fielding who expended four entire chapters on the life story of a random hermit Jones encountered on a hilltop outside Gloucester. Discerningly, my good man, discerningly.

M.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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