Re: RARA-AVIS: Philosophize This

From: William Denton (
Date: 01 Sep 2005

On 1 September 2005, Michael Robison wrote:

: But assuming one would want to "be" noir, what would a
: noir philosophy consist of?
: *************
: Existentialism.

It occurred to me today that maybe another axis of dividing hardboiled from noir is that hardboiled tends to be prescriptive while noir tends to be descriptive. That is, the hardboiled stuff shows people who walk the mean streets but are not themselves mean because they have morals and ethics, and they are examples of good behaviour. (Well, maybe not Mike Hammer.) The noir describes grim, sometimes brutal conditions, people trapped with no control, and lessons to be learned from it come not from following what is shown but from avoiding everything that led the people into lives where all they can say is: "I'm screwed." (Which makes noir sort of proscriptive.) This fits in with the point I think we talked about earlier, the attitude of the protagonist is key and can change a book from one to the other.

I know little about existentialism. The most recent thing I read that fits is Charles Willeford's existential western THE DIFFERENCE, which I think fits the prescriptivist pattern. If noir is descriptive, then it must be some sides of existentialism, which gives a way to understand the world and live in it. Existentialism may be the first to come to mind when thinking of the noir world--they became popular in the same time and place--but every other philosophy and religion out there also provides rules for living in the noir world. That's why we need them. But they give principles for surviving and being good, they don't just describe.

Where this puts, say, Stark's Parker books, I don't know. Certainly everyone can learn from his professionalism. It's just too bad that he's a soulless professional thief and killer. He's stoic, but he's no Stoic.


William Denton : Toronto, Canada : :

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