*Detective Novelist Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe Meets Leon Trotsky- “On The Quest For The New Socialist Persona”
Click On Title To Link To Leon Trotsky's "Literature And Revolution" Webpage.
In a recent posting I reviewed detective novelist supreme Raymond Chandler’s late work (1958), “Playback”, the last in his series of Philip Marlowe stories. (See archives, September 20, 2009.) In that review I mentioned (as I have in several previous reviews of other books in Chandler’s Marlowe series) a number of positive attributes about Marlowe that I found appealing. For starters: his sense of personal honor in a modern world (the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s) that laughed at such old-fashioned notions; his gritty intrepidness in search of ‘rough’ justice in a messy world; his amazing, almost superhuman, ability to take a punch or seven for the good of the cause; and, his minimally class conscious and sometimes barely hidden contempt for the traditional social hierarchy and its police authority. In response, I received an e-mail from a reader, an ardent socialist-feminist fellow admirer of Leon Trotsky, who took me to task for my characterizations and argued that I had it all wrong both as to Marlowe’s virtues and to his so-called (her description) anti-authoritarian posture.
In passing, the reader deeply discounted those attributes where I put a plus, deplored even the idea of the possibility that a future socialist society would have room for such attributes as mentioned above and that Marlowe’s attitude toward women was ‘primitive’ (her description). While one would be hard pressed, very hard-pressed, to include Marlowe, with his very quaint but macho attitude toward women reflecting the mores of an earlier age, as a champion of women’s emancipation and he became over time a little shopworn in his sense of honor, common sense, ability to take a punch and lay off the booze the reader missed the point of my critique. Or rather she is much too dogmatic in her sense of “political correctness” as it applies to the literary front. Thus this little commentary is intended not so much to clear the air as to posit several ideas for future discussion.
I hate to invoke the name of Leon Trotsky, the intrepid Russian revolutionary, hard-working Soviet official, well-regarded political pamphleteer, and astute literary critic into this discussion but in that last role I think he had some useful things to say. Without a doubt Trotsky could have made his mark solely on the basis of his literary criticism, witness his Marxist masterpieces “Literature and Revolution” and “Literature and Art”. What makes Trotsky’s literary analysis so compelling is not whether he is right or wrong about the merits of any particular writer. In fact, many times, as in the case of the French writer Celine and some of the Russian poets, he was, I think, wrong. But rather, that he approached literary criticism from a materialist basis rooted in what history, and that essentially meant capitalist history, when he analyzed characters, the plausibility of various plots and the lessons to be drawn about “human nature” put forth by any given writer.
This is no mere genuflection on my part to a revolutionary leader whose work I hold in high regard but a recognition that capitalism has given us some much distorted concepts of what human nature is, or can be, all about. That is the core of the genius of Trotsky’s sharp pen and wit. That is why he is still very readable, for the most part, today. Unless it is question of political import, like the struggle inside Russia in the early 1920’s over the preferential establishment of a school of “proletarian culture” supported by the Soviet state that was bandies about by likes of fellow Bolsheviks Bukarin and Zinoviev, Trotsky did not spend much time diagramming any but the most general outline of the contours of what the future socialist society, its habits, manners and morals would look like. He did, and this is central in this discussion, spend a great deal of time on what capitalism had and would bequeath a socialist state. Including both vices and virtues.
Not to belabor a point this is the link between Leon Trotsky and one fictional Philip Marlowe. Trotsky accepted that personal honor had a place as a societal goal and as a matter of social hygiene. The parameters of that sense of honor naturally would be different under a social regime that was based on use value rather than the struggle for profit margins. Certainly Trotsky’s biography, particularly that last period in the 1930’s when he appeared to be tilting at windmills, demonstrates that he had a high moral code that drove him. Certainly the word intrepid is not out of place here, as well. Hardworking, hard-driving, a little bit gruff, but in search of some kind of justice. Those, my friend are the links that are the basic premise of a socialist society as it evolves out of capitalist society. As well as individual initiative, a sense of fairness, and well-placed scorn for established authority and the time-worn clichés about the limits of human nature.
Do I draw the links here too closely? Perhaps. Although Marlowe has his own version of ‘tilling at windmills’ in search of some kind of rough justice and vindication for all those knocks on the head one cannot deny that he does not challenge bourgeois society except in the most oblique way. He will not rail against General Sternwood’s oil derricks. He will not lead a crusade against the old order in his search for the elusive Velma. He is if anything very Victorian in his attitude toward women, good or bad. (Chandler’s Marlowe and Trotsky are both men of another era in their personal attitudes toward women, although Trotsky was light-years ahead on the political front). Nor is Marlowe the prototype for the ‘new socialist man’. But he remains a very appealing fictional character nevertheless. Who is your favorite fictional character, detective or otherwise? Let the discussion continue.
Labels: american literary canon, classic detectives, dashiell hammett, leon trotsky, literary correctness, literary modernism, literature and revolution, noir detectives, Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler