RARA-AVIS: Re: the mythological link

From: Frederick Zackel ( fzackel@wcnet.org)
Date: 28 Jul 2003

In digest #242 Michael Robinson admitted he (like me) is fascinated by the mythological aspects of noir & hard-boiled fiction.

Yes, the Greek myths are "ancient noir." Oedipus is the original born loser, and the best you can say about him is he is one sorry mother-(you can't say that!) But he finds a sort of redemption & salvation along the way. Oedipus isoften called the first detective. (Just as Pandora was the first wife, the first bride, the first femme fatale.) Poor Orestes! Mother-murderer on the run, with the Furies as John Law after him. Redemption & salvation, 'cause Judge Athena casta a vote of compassion. Big difference between ancient noir & modern noir is kings and gods versus ordinary joes.

In the end no diff really between ancient heroes and modern anti-heroes. Aristotle says the audience feels fear & pity. You see the fate of the born loser and you feel pity for the poor dumb slob; by the same token, you see the fate of the born loser and you feel fear because YOU could just as easily be that same poor dumb slob. Out of fear and pity come compassion.
(Can you find the ONLY act of compassion in Joe Conrad's Heart of Darkness? Hint: it's a cookie. And yes, Conrad & Marlow are both racists.)

The fix was in from the gitgo. Because of who you are, you act and you have no choice but you act that way. (The official position of the gods in Oedipus is, hey, don't ask, don't tell. You don't want to know. But Detective Oedipus keeps asking questions.) The mythology part of it is the story is endlessly recycled with slight variations. The Hero has a Thousand Faces.

Back in the late 1920s & early 1930s, a college kid-hitchhiker named Joe Campbell stayed in a Monterey hostel next door to a Stanford college kid named Ed Ricketts. Those two guys and a third college guy named Steinbeck partied like college kids all summer. Steinbeck wrote Grapes of Wrath, which is a mythological reworking of the Biblical story of Moses, also wrote a book called Tortilla Flats, which is a reworking of King Arthur's round table (i.e., Danny's table with the pisanos,) among others. Oh, and Steinbeck died while re-writing the Tales of King Arthur.

I too am reading Peter Spiegelman's Black Maps. A good book where the Mean Streets is Wall Street. His lone wolf PI is a loser . . . in the eyes of his family. But things will change by the ending. Oh, and some rara avis folks (Bill Crider, for one) like F. Paul Wilson's Lone Wolf hero Repairman Jack stories. Welll, I rented the new "Midnight Mass" DVD of a Wilson short story, about a lone wolf priest (" a blonde Satan"?) who loses his faith when vampires take over the world. Good hard-boiled horror movie. Yesterday morning I didn't make it to church; instead I watched Mel Gibson's
"Signs" about a minister who lost his faith and ETs take over the cornfield. Gibson of course is making a new movie called "Passion" about a lone wolf loser who gets crucified and on the cross has this really great noir line:
"How come you forsaken me?"

The ancient Greeks had a story about the wolf and the farmer's dogs. The wolf comes by the farmer's place, sees the farmer's dogs all running wild and jumping around the meadow, having the time of their lives, partying like crazy. The dogs see the wolf, come running over. "See how free and wild we are," the dogs all tell the wolf. The wolf don't say nothing. In truth, the wolf sees the collars on the dogs' necks.

That's Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. Spade is pure mythology: "the blonde Satan" is the Good Warlock in battle against the Bad Wizards (i.e., Gutman as Appetite, Cairo as Homosexuality and the dandy Oscar Wilde and Art for Art's sake, Brigit is the Femme Fatale, Wilmer as the Punk who gets buggered by Everybody Bigger than him, etc.) The Falcon itself is a mythological
"rara avis," almost like something Sinbad the Sailor discovered on one of his trips. If my bedraggled memories serve me right, Marlowe in The Big Sleep is the Tarnished Knight. Even the name Marlowe is mythological (and Conradian, too.) Chandler went to a British public school. Hogwarts?

All Ancient Tragedies are High Class Noir. Hamlet, too, is a born loser. Well, he was born to be a king, but he got cheated by Murder! (The Sword always trumps the Line of Succession.) College kid comes home on spring break, finds Dad is dead, & Mom and Uncle Claudius stinking up the bridal sheets. ("Reechy!") Along the way, College Kid got kicked out of the Family Business (King) and goes Goth in black threads; the play ends in a replay of Columbine High School. Medieval Noir?

Yesterday Terence Rafferty in the (July 27th) New York Times Movie section was writing about the gloomy status scriptwriters have in Hollywood and in the films, using Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard as his anchor. Joe Gillis, you remember, is the corpse in the swimming pool. Rafferty writes that,
"The worst (disrespect) is that Norma Desmond gets all the best lines. "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces." "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up." All spoken by mad Norma, not smart Joe, who narrates in the tough/florid style of the noir hero - that is, in the defensive voice of the born loser." What could be more mythological in 20st century America than a movie star?

A born loser is a born loser in the eyes of his (or her) Society. All that means is the loser has been marginalized. Somebody oughta write a biblical PI story about Rahab the hooker in Joshua's battle against the walls of Jericho. Yeah, Joshua sends two men as spies into Jericho; they stay with this hooker who is so marginalized in her society that she lives (and works) in the margins of Jericho (i.e., within the ten-foot thick wall itself of the city.) Rahab betrays the whole city; in return, she becomes part of the family tree for a guy named Jesus. What a deal! Dante says that unbaptized hooker ends up super-close to God in Heaven. What a deal!

Michael thinks of Greek heroes as immature children. How smart was Spade fouling his own nest by balling his partner's wife? Spade is nuts about pussy but a real wussy around women. Spade KNOWS the only reason Archer died in Burritt Alley is because Burritt talked faster than he did into taking on the new client and following her scent across the city. Spade goes after Archer's killer because, like any born loser, he recognizes HE should been the poor dumb slob dead with his gun in his holster. No match for a woman. A wussy? Anytime he needs advice, he asks Effie first. He strip-searches Brigit to see if she's carrying weapons. (Well, of course she is; all women got them.) How mythological is she? Compare Brigit's physical description (the red nails, lips, etc.) with the Woman playing Cards with Death in the rowboat in Samuel Taylor Coolridge's The Ancient Mariner. They are mythologically identical. They each look like the Hindu Goddess Kali the Killer and like Vampira the Vamp. Each broad is a Man-Eater. And the last thing he does in the book is "shudder" 'cause Archer's wife wants to see him. After that we get The Silence of the Lambs from Spade.

Mythology is not something you know in your head. It's what you feel in your heart. Man, these stories are NEEDED!

"When there has been a long season of quiet, people are slow to wet their hands in blood; but once blood is spilled, cutting and shooting come easy."
~ Mark Twain, "Roughing It."

Well, that's outa my system now.

Frederick Zackel

# Plain ASCII text only, please.  Anything else won't show up.
# To unsubscribe from the regular list, say "unsubscribe rara-avis" to
# majordomo@icomm.ca.  This will not work for the digest version.
# The web pages for the list are at http://www.miskatonic.org/rara-avis/ .

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 28 Jul 2003 EDT