Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: noir

From: Kerry J. Schooley (
Date: 11 Oct 2005

I've taken my time on this one Jim because I think you're right- we're lapping ourselves again. Our points have largely been made.

First let me say that I'm sorry you've had to apologize and explain on another e-mail. There's nothing wrong with strongly held opinion, though it sometimes makes others feel uncomfortable. I know the debate has been worthwhile for me. It has expanded my thoughts on the subject. Not toward agreement with you, but you could hardly expect that, given that you're wrong.

At 03:11 PM 09/10/2005 -0700, you wrote:

>I've given reasons historical and practical for why I
>think the definition of noir is broader than you.
>You've given nothing except, "This is what I think."

That's not true. I'm not nearly so widely read as you, and admire you for that, but I have given examples from the texts before, and will do so here again, for your benefit.

First let me say that, while I agree with Jack Bludis' shorthand definition of "doomed" it has some limitations. We have to think of how that applies. What I've argued is that noir is "non-transcendent" and significantly so. All other genres in western literature suggest at least the possibility of transcendence from the human condition. Other mystery fiction, for instance, suggests that if the bad people are discovered and punished in some way, the world is improved, victims' deaths are somehow given value through understanding and the current expanded notion of victims to include relatives and family and community, may sometimes be given something called
"closure." Not in noir. The best that noir has to offer is survival, and we know that is short lived. In that sense, "doomed" does, ultimately, mean death.

Now to back this up, let's compare two significant stories- one a primal myth in western society (the story of Christ) and the other a primal story in noir fiction (The Maltese Falcon.) I do hope these sources are primal enough for you.

I'm not trying to proselytize, nor debate the truth or fiction of Christ, but merely point out that whether or not the story is true it has had significant influence on the way we think and write in the western world. At the same time, it is not by any means the beginning of western thought, yet still it makes a significant contribution primarily on the issue of love. The Christian notion of turn the other cheek, trust in love is a significant departure from the Old Testament, and still a challenge in the modern world. The promise for love, the compensating reward, was a heaven on earth, and if that failed, eternal life in some other heaven. Christ takes the risk, resists the temptations of empire, does not call upon armies in his defense, takes his awful punishment and is seen to rise again, three days later. He transcends the human condition. Oh sure, he's the son of god, but aren't we all god's children? If this wasn't meant to inspire us, what was the point of this story about his coming to earth?

Noir pointedly denies this. Sam Spade does not choose love. In fact, he compiles a list of very practical reasons why he should not trust in his attraction to Brigid O'Shaugnessy. They're very good reasons, but no more compelling than those that were aligned against Christ in his story. The difference is that Spade lacks faith. He simply cannot bring himself to trust Brigid, or to accept that there might be some other, compensating reward if she fails him, or that the short experience of love with her might compensate for her probable betrayal. So he turns her over to the cops. Is justice satisfied? Not really- the cops would sooner have had Spade for the crime. It's a corrupt world, after all. Is Archer any better off? No hint of that. What about Mrs. Archer? Well, she'd rather have had Spade too. Gutman and the others lose a competitor in their obsessive pursuit of a valueless bauble, but I don't think that's intended as a good thing, do you? Once could argue that, despite the novel's name, that's not really the point of the plot. What Spade gets is the self-evident validation of his personal, limited value system, and to survive with it in a deliberately shoddy, loveless environment for a little bit longer (until, inevitably, he dies.) He does not transcend the human condition. I doubt this is some kind of accident on Hammett's part, though I'm not sure it matters.

You may think of this as some form of bravery, and I can see that point, in the same way that I admire Sol Alinsky's recognition that the same battles must be fought over and over again, but it is certainly not heroism in the classical sense. Spade is not a conquering hero like Caesar. He's certainly not heroic in the sense that Romeo was heroic. In fact, in that sense, Spade is a coward, unwilling to take the risk, the leap of faith that even romantic love requires. That's why the Maltese Falcon is noir, and Spade's hardboiled demeanor is likely a mask for his fears. He's seen too much to keep the faith.

>You're using the word "noir" more narrowly. And I'm
>arguing that your narrow use of that word is just as
>wrong as a narrow use of "movie" that eliminate an
>entire class of the form, such as animated cartoons.
>Now do YOU get the analogy?

My point was that I use "movie" more broadly that you do, to include animation. I think of animation as a sub-category of movie (just as I use noir as a sub-category of mystery,) not as a separate thing entirely. When I was a kid and went to see Mickey Mouse, I was still going to the movies, not the animations. Maybe in Chi you went to the cartoons, but not here in the Hammer. So in that sense, your analogy to our different definitions of noir didn't work.

>And that's an argument you mount after saying "all
>joking aside?" Well, I don't include ANNE OF GREEN
>GABLES because, first of all, it's not a mystery, and
>noir, in the context of this list, is about mystery
>(crime, suspense, call it what you will 'cause I don't
>want to start another word war) fiction.

Yes, you're right. You already admitted that we were talking within the crime, mystery or suspense genres. Or across them. But still, aren't they all, in some way, atmospherically dark and sinister? If so, how does noir define a category within them? Why not just call all mysteries noir?

>Again, you miss the point, and, I think deliberately.
>If you use a word that is meant to be used broadly in
>a narrow context, you MISuse the word. "Mystery," as
>it is commonly used, has a broad meaning. But there
>are some people who use it narrowly to mean ONLY
>whodunits and, when confronted by another kind of
>mystery, will say, "That's not a mystery. That's a
>thriller." or "That's a procedural" or "That's
>criminal protagonist."

Well, there are people who think the moon is made of green cheese. I'm asking you to tell my why YOU don't call these categories noir, as they all seem to me to have at least some dark atmospherics.

>Similarly, noir, as it is commonly used, and as it was
>originally coined, has a broad meaning. But some
>people, including yourself, use it narrowly, and are
>just as wrong.

Because others use other words incorrectly, I am therefor wrong in the use of this word? You're caught in a tautology, Jim. If words have a meaning so broad that they cannot be differentiated from other words then they have no meaning at all.

>If you're going to admit that Spillane, and
>particularly ONE LONELY NIGHT, is noir, than you've
>essentially admitted that you've lost the argument.

What I'm saying is that I don't believe in Hammer's heroics. You're right that they're there within the text. And he does appear to transcend experience. Pretty hard to believe in this world though, isn't it? But I'll give you your argument. Hammer is hardboiled, but not noir.

>Similarly, I might not approve of Parker or his
>methods, but, in THE OUTFIT, we're clearly supposed to
>root for him over the forces of monlithic Organized

Sure, he's the protagonist. But we've plenty of anti-heroes as protagonists.

> Again, like Hammer, Parker sets out to achieve
>a goal, and he achieves it. I have a hard time
>describing him as a hero, but he's clearly a
>triumphant protagonist, the main thing you say a noir
>protagonist is NOT.

No, that's not true. I think there's a difference with Parker and clearly you suspect as much yourself. Parker doesn't attempt to transcend the organization. He merely attempts to get it to stop interfering with him. He fights it to a standstill in this regard, under very narrowly defined circumstances. But the organization is still out there and could get back to him if those circumstances are breached. And what Parker gets to do is to go back to his thievery, not transcend it. Again you're right. He's not heroic (he's anti-heroic) but he is noir.

>But, as far as MOST people are concerned, they are
>both noir because they both, and particularly ONE
>LONELY NIGHT, have the dark, sinister atmospherics
>that mark noir fiction.

Well, I don't, and I've told you why.

It's true that we use words to communicate with others, based on common definitions. But there are also common mistakes. I've seen a lot of people mistake the word "then" for "than." Sometimes it's a typo, sometimes it's simply substituting one for the other due to their similar sounds, sometimes it's a complete misunderstanding. But at no point will these two words mean the same thing, however popular the usage becomes.

>More sophistry. Everyone on this list, including you,
>knows that words can have more than one meaning
>depending on the context. Usually the second meaning
>is related, in a figurative way, to the original

But you seemed to think only one meaning could be correct, based upon its age.

>No it's not, for the simple reason that there are too
>many examples of mysteries, in a variety of mediums,
>that are generally classified, not by me but by
>others, as noir, that don't have the themes you say
>are the defining characteristics.

Gee Jim- what if they're wrong, instead of others on the list? All I'm asking is that you show me how you define mysteries that are non-noir.

>"You can't argue (discuss?) the case by case
>application if you have no idea of the definition.
>That's precisely what you've been saying about meaning
>and language, Jim."
>Sure you can. Two people can agree that, for example,
>"hard-boiled" means "tough and colloquial," and still
>disagree about whether or not a particular character
>fits the parameters. That's why a lot of people on
>this list say James Bond is hard-boiled, but I don't.

You can have that debate because you've agreed on the definition of hardboiled. Once again you miss the point of your own argument.

>And, at the
>risk of repeating myself yet again, I'd venture to
>suggest that about the only thing all of these
>authors' works have in common is a dark, sinister
>atmosphere. There may be a few who don't even have
>that, to my eye, but they evidently did to whoever
>wrote about them for this book.

But wait- are they right or wrong. Do we accept them as gospel, or do we apply our own cognitive skills? So I ask you again, in another form, if some of these "few" don't have what you consider to be noir, how so?

But you're right- we're repeating ourselves.

>That kind of elitism does, I admit, push a hot button
>for me. And if I sounded too passionate in the course
>of this thread, that's why.

Ah Jim- the modern hero doing battle for the common man. That is a good one.

Nobody's claiming to be some sort of elite in this thread or any other. We like the same genre is all, and we're explaining why. It's true that I've enjoyed besting you debate, but I've given you credit for your arguments too (at risk of you thinking that's the same as agreeing with them, when it suits your purpose.)

And I've engaged in this round for the same reasons you did. The talk about noir seemed to be getting mushy and pointless and include notions that just didn't seem right to me. So I'm glad you came out to go another few rounds. If others don't like it, they can skip us and go on with other discussions. I skip a few of those discussions myself now and again. I'll gladly go at it again in a year or two when there's evidence these same arguments bear repeating. Anyone wants to censure me, that's fine. Anyone wants to censor me, I'll go read the archives.

Meantime Jim, thanks for a stimulating debate. I've learned a trick or two about bluster and feints, but nothing that changes my mind about the definition of noir.

Best, Kerry

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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 11 Oct 2005 EDT