Re: RARA-AVIS: Types of noir (was Re: Pop. 1280)

From: Kerry J. Schooley (
Date: 31 Jul 2007

>I wrote:
>In noir the characters are doomed regardless of
>whether their behaviour is moral, normal, ethical or
>Miker replied:
>I don't agree. 95% of the characters are doomed
>because of moral transgression. A very small
>percentage are doomed by circumstances beyond their
>control. Others simply aren't doomed. They manage to
>extract themselves from the abyss at the end.

I didn't expect agreement, of course, but I won't quibble your figures. The fact that you agree that at least a small percentage of the characters in noir are doomed by circumstances beyond their control means that as a whole, in noir the characters are doomed for more reasons than that their behaviour is immoral or illegal etc.

I won't deal with the others who simply aren't doomed. In my opinion, this is not noir.

We can also disagree over what constitutes immoral or illegal behaviours and certainly the variations here have been exploited by some very nasty characters in life and literature, but our disagreement is not whether morality plays a role in noir but the actual role it plays. You feel that in noir characters (customarily the protagonists) are doomed as a consequence of their immoral behaviours. I feel that in noir characters are doomed by their circumstances, decisions and ambitions to commit immoral, unethical and illegal behaviours (or behaviour contrary to the stated values of the collectives in which they live) and therefor to live in a world of often violent conflict and immorality.

If it is the immoral behaviour that dooms the characters then presumably the doom follows and certainly a great many noir novels punish their ne'er do well protagonists in the end. So do a great many tragedies, satires, comedies, making this definition of noir dubious at best, and we also have examples of noir novels in which protagonists commit immoral and/or illegal acts, but do not appear to be punished.

Spillane is a good example. Hammer is a killer. Killing is immoral and, at times, illegal. Readers may feel that his killings are just but there is no question that he is not the designated authority to mete out the justice he does, morally and, at times, legally. It is the fact that Hammer's behaviour is immoral and illegal that provides the impact at the end of I the Jury. But there's no consequence for Hammer's immoral behaviour in I the Jury and little in the series that follows. Hammer carries on killing and seems quite pleased to do so. If the protagonist is doomed for his immorality, then Spillane was writing hardboil, but not noir.

On the other hand, if Hammer is doomed by his decision to fight violence with direct violence, whatever his motivation, he has doomed himself to a life of more violence, immorality, criminality. This may not bother him, but it bothers many readers. And his behaviour corrupts others around him. Pat, the buddy cop who should uphold the law, makes excuses and overlooks much of Hammer's illegal behaviour. And Hammer's original concerns are not really addressed. There is no shortage of nasty characters for Hammer to blow away as the series progresses, just as there is never any shortage of people to fill our jails. Some of these nasties may even be drawn to commit more immoral acts as a consequence of the challenge Hammer poses to them. This is noir. No way out.

This is Lew Griffin, who, despite outward success as an author and university lecturer, is constantly drawn back, by circumstance and his own appetites to a life of violence and addiction. Sometimes in the process he appears to locate someone he's been looking for, but rarely and even more rarely is he able to help that person overcome their problems and then those victims go back to high-risk lifestyles that put them in harm's way to begin with. It appears (as much as anything is certain in Sallis' series) that Griffin is unable to prevent his own son from falling into this pattern of behaviour, repeating Lew's mistakes.

If I read Lethem correctly (Motherless Brooklyn, Fortress of Solitude) he's describing how children are socialized into a culture of corruption, by family and other institutions before they've even had a chance to understand and make decisions about right and wrong. Doomed from the get go.

Certainly these issues go back to the beginning of our civilization
(and probably civilization entirely) but I think noir is a bit different from earlier approaches. It is not just about a fascination with the dark side of humanity, or the satisfaction of watching immoral people receive their just desserts, though there are these things too. Maybe the Greeks were more accepting of the human condition, but I think Christianity and the literature since has been largely about transcending civilization's problems and getting "back to the garden." Problem is, if we're going to accept Eve as the original femme fatale, I think we have to accept that we were doomed by our nature before the fall itself. Noir is about our inability, collectively and individually, to stop behaving in ways contrary to what we believe, morally, legally, ethically etc. We act contrarily to our own values, that is, what we percieve in the long run to be our own best interests and don't seem to be able to do otherwise. Often, despite the evidence of free will, there doesn't seem to be any choice. Other times it's bad decision making. Other times it's a case of putting immediate interests against long term interests- there are a whole bunch of reasons, logical and otherwise and this is the turf where noir operates.

My opinion anyway, Kerry

BTW- while we're at it, couldn't persistence enacting behaviours contrary to what we believe to be our own, espoused best interests, be described as psychotic?

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