RARA-AVIS: Hardboiled and Existentialism

From: Tim Wohlforth ( tim@timwohlforth.com)
Date: 16 May 2005

Brian raises some interesting points in his reply to me on existentialism and hardboiled - specifically Hammett. He claims that Sam Spade, or for that matter, the Continental Op does what he does because
"it's the right thing to do". Right equals moral. So he acts in a moral way and therefore is not an existentialist. Wrong on two counts.

Existentialism is not amoral, immoral and certainly not sociopathic. The existentialist simply believes morality is rooted in the specific choices of the individual rather than in any universals or eternality. The external world is viewed as essentially meaningless. However, the existentialist puts huge weight on free choice, the ability of the individual to create his or her own morality and world. A case could be made that the noir outlook, which Michael Robison sees as "pessimistic determinism" is definitely not existentialist. The existentialist accepts no form of determinism pessimistic or not.

Let's look again at Spade in the Maltese Falcon. He is screwing his partner's wife. His partner is a sleaseball. Spade does not claim to be above the shady deal. He acts NOT to do the "right thing" but because of what he is, created by the choices he has made so far in life -- a private investigator. Someone kills your partner, you do something. As simple as that.

Or the Continental Op in Couffignal. "I'm a detective because I like the work. ...It's the only sport I know anything about, and I can't imagine a pleasanter future than twenty-some years more of it." Or when she offers herself to him, he responds: "I'm a man hunter and you're something that has been running in front of me. There's nothing human about it. You might just as well expect a hound to play tiddlywinks with the fox he's caught."

When it comes to the right thing, how do you explain the last two lines of Couffignal: "You ought to have known I'd do it! ... Didn't I steal a crutch from a cripple?"

I am not saying all hardboiled fiction is existential. However, I do feel the label fits the best of Hammett and Hammett is the best of the best. I doubt if Hammett wrote consciously as an existentialist. That's a European thing to do (No Exit- Sartre, The Stranger - Camus). And Hammett is about as American as a writer can be.

Personally I find the harshness, the clarity of this POV the great appeal of hardboiled writing. Especially in times when perhaps a few too many people out there are convinced they have discovered the universal truth and it is their duty to impose this truth on the rest of us.


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