Regardless of the absence of copulating transsexuals, I enjoyed reading Chandler’s noir classic The Big Sleep. It left me with a question, though: why is the reader left aspiring to be like Phillip Marlowe? I risk miring myself in embarrassment in making this admission, but I spent the day after completing it devising grim witticisms, glaring out of windows and inwardly wishing that I had not given up tobacco. I find it hard to believe that I am alone in this.
Why might this be? Marlowe is, after all, a miserable loner with an evident dependence upon alcohol; a habit of witnessing grotesque crime scenes and a tendency to commit acts of private violence against bedsheets. What makes him attractive? It is not, unlike his trashy counterpart James Bond, his sexual adventurism. Marlowe is apt to refuse sex even when it’s offered to him. It doubtless helps that he is attractive to women but this alone is a mediocre explanation. Carmen Sternwood seems to be attracted to everyone except the butler and Vivian Regan’s apparent fancy for him is compromised by the knowledge that she lies through her teeth.
I think that Marlowe’s appeal can be found in the respect that he is able to command. Whatever the beauty of the face that stands before him, or the size of their wallet or pistol, he has an insolent remark and incisive revelation that forces his interlocutor to admire him as an ally or fear him as an opponent. He might have no money and a mild alcohol addiction but he appears to have pride and this can seem enough to compensate for all the lonely nights in dingy apartments.
Chandler was too good a writer to compose escapism, of course, and Marlowe is not the cold fish that he presents himself as being: brooding on missed chances for romance; fretting about death and purging his frustrations at the expense of his own furniture. What is interesting is that he craves respect and is keenly aware of its absence. Here is a nice bit from Farewell, My Lovely (Rembrandt is on a calender)…
My foot itched, but my bank account was still trying to crawl under a duck. I put honey into my voice and said: “Many thanks for calling me, Mr Marriott. I’ll be there.
He hung up and that was that. I thought Mr Rembrandt had a faint sneer on his face. I got the office bottle out of the deep drawer of the desk and took a short drink. That took the sneer out of Mr Rembrandt in a hurry.
It seems to me that men have evolved to value respect: the dignity of individual ownership and achievement. There has been a great deal of chatter regarding the nature of masculinity in the twenty-first century. There is no one problem faced by the British male: some of them are struggling to cope with an indefinite role within their families; some of them just need a bloody job; some of them are too fond of drugs and some of them are, well, fine, thank you very much.
I suspect that an absence of esteem and, thus, pride is a detrimental force in our society, though. Working lives are often spent in awkward, artificial submission before clients, customers, managers, committees and public officials. Love and esteem, meanwhile, is directed not towards people who embody virtues they are expected to represent but a bunch of preening dullards on the television. Life, then, can mean obscure indignity – escaped from via a television on which fathers tend to be portrayed as ineffectual dimwits.
Respect is not one’s birthright, of course, and must be earned – I have no wish for us to heed demands of thugs who often abuse peaceful citizens for paying insufficiently obsequious homage to their existence. There must be the hope for respect, though: as a good father; a good husband; a good citizen. If virtue does not seem valuable, some men are going to think it pointless to achieve.