RARA-AVIS: Re:Noir -- Penzler, Kerry, Brian, Jack and MRT

From: David Corbett (davidcorbettauthor@gmail.com)
Date: 17 Aug 2010

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    Excuse me if I'm contributing to this topic after the parade has passed, I've been outside reliable Internet range. I've had a chance now to catch up, read all the postings now, as well as Otto's piece (Otto the relentless conservative writing for the Huffington Post -- now THAT is noir).

    I don't have anything scintillating to add, except I notice that the discussion of tragedy seems limited to Shakespeare. I wrote a piece for Crimespree a few years back titled "Noir, Tragedy and Other Dreary Bummers," that covered some of this same terrain, but my tragedy references were Greek, which I think is non-trivial since Athenian tragedy had such an influence on existentialists like Camus and Sartre, and they in turn had such an influence on crime writing (and vice versa -- Camus reportedly claimed THE STRANGER was a response to POSTMAN).

    One key point: the Greeks did not see tragedy as a means to "transcendence" but to catharsis, which entailed a shared identification with the hero, not a sense of transcending his plight, despite the fact the hero was portrayed as somewhat different than ordinary men or women. Sophocles is credited with inventing the tragic hero, and he used the word "deinos" to describe him, a word that combines terrible, wondrous and strange in its meaning. He was seen as both repellent and admirable, and his strangeness lay in his relation to the gods--he was portrayed as isolated, and the gods largely absent. This resonates with Camus' idea of the "benign indifference" of the universe. (In Euripides, the gods weren't absent; they were all too present: petty, callous, vengeful.)

    But in both Sophocles and Euripides, the hero faces a crisis in which disaster can only be averted by a compromise that, in his or her view, would constitute a betrayal of something he or she considers supremely important. The hero refuses to make this compromise and is thus destroyed. Antigone has to choose between loyalty to the state in a time of civil war or devotion to her brother and the rituals of burial. Orestes has to avenge the murder of his father, but this requires the murder of his mother, which is strictly forbidden. In all these cases, the moral choices are not obvious or easy. (Antigone after the 1960s was seen as a "rebel," but the Greeks abhorred her refusal to obey Creon, even as they sympathized with her devotion to Polynices, her brother.)

    Aristotle, writing a century later in his POETICS, argued that the best tragic protagonist was neither a righteous nor villainous man, but "a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just [but] whose misfortune . . . is bought upon him not by vice or depravity but by some error of judgment."

    This is where I believe a dividing line between tragedy and noir might be meaningfully drawn. Not in some intrinsic belief in hope or transcendence (tragedy) versus the absence of same, but in whether the hero's misfortune is caused by an error of judgment -- caused by his own nature or our inability to predict perfectly the consequences of what we do -- as opposed to "vice or depravity."

    Willy Loman is a tragic hero because he cannot give up his belief in the American dream, even as it destroys him and his family. This is an error of judgment (a "tragic flaw," a concept almost as widely abused and misunderstood as noir), but not a sign of depravity. As pretty much universally noted here on the list, Frank Chambers in POSTMAN and George Neff in DOUBLE INDEMNITY suffer their misfortunes because of their own embrace of lust and greed.

    Or is that too tidy?

    David Corbett www.davidcorbett.com

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