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Phillip Marlow's throbbing core of misogyny
November 26, 2012 1:32 PM   Subscribe

Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses male mythology, biology and Raymond Chandler's Private Dick
posted by Brandon Blatcher (45 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
That's weird, I just surfed back over here from reading that myself. Serendipity. I like TNC
posted by C.A.S. at 1:36 PM on November 26, 2012


Marlowe is forever... seducing somebody's wife within minutes of meeting her...

Here he seals the deal with the Acme Book Shop proprietress in less than 3 minutes.

But I always figured that was a Bogart thing - rather than a Marlowe thing.
posted by Egg Shen at 1:40 PM on November 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Note the links in the second paragraph, this is an ongoing discussion.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:41 PM on November 26, 2012


Good essay. I like TNC too.
posted by languagehat at 1:42 PM on November 26, 2012


I think Marlowe doth protest too much.

I don't recognize a single one of these dudes. It's a kind of pornography, a humiliated boy's idea of what manhood must be.


YES.

It took me forever to get through The Big Sleep because I could not figure out if this was intentional or not. It felt like a prude writing pornography, everything was so wilting and overheated and guazy - I mean I know that's the point but man, everyone in that book is like that.

Dashiell Hammett always felt much more grounded, a crime fantasy sure, but one with at least a toe in reality where the presence of a sexually forward woman or a gay man doesn't threaten to destroy the very fabric of reality.
posted by The Whelk at 1:47 PM on November 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


There were a bunch of typos and badly-worded sentences in that. Does Atlantic not have editors anymore?
posted by tommasz at 1:48 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Does Atlantic not have editors anymore?

It's a blog post, not an article. Which is also why TNC is awesome - this is just musings on his blog.
posted by charred husk at 1:54 PM on November 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


There is something deeply scary about the first time a young male experiences ans erection. ... Whether or not that longing shall be satiated is not totally up to the male.

Mr. Coates is 37 years old. If he is not aware of masturbation, I question his authority to pronounce upon male sexuality.
posted by Egg Shen at 1:55 PM on November 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


Is that a joke, Egg Shen? In a nutshell, you can't always whack off when you want, and whacking off doesn't always scratch that itch. Ain't nothin' like the real thing, baby.
posted by Mister_A at 1:59 PM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Maybe Marlowe is gay? Has anyone explored the homosexual subtexts underlying any story where a man armed with a gun eschews much willingly available female contact and gets into a lot of fights with other guys?
posted by Renoroc at 1:59 PM on November 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


There is something deeply scary about the first time a young male experiences ans erection.

There's evidence that males experience erection in utero as well as throughout infancy, which seems to contradict this claim. And erection certainly isn't unique in being an involuntary physical response to stimulus. I think in general Coates is claiming a universal reaction by males to their own sexuality that does not stand up to closer scrutiny. Similarly, I think he overstates the difference with which males and females experience sexual desire.
posted by layceepee at 2:04 PM on November 26, 2012 [7 favorites]


I found The Big Sleep rather boring, as the situations and characters were so removed from the world as I know it that I couldn't relate to them. I found Rex Stout's work much more interesting, even if one of his main characters is an admitted and unrepentant sexist.
posted by Canageek at 2:05 PM on November 26, 2012


I'm now imagining Marlowe as Michael Shannon's character from Boardwalk Empire.
posted by The Whelk at 2:06 PM on November 26, 2012


layceepee, I think Mr. Coates is talking about the realization of what the erection is. When you're six it's just funny and you show your friends and stuff. When you're 12 it's mortifying, and it comes with this attendant burning lust that you don't really know how to explain or deal with.
posted by Mister_A at 2:08 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here he seals the deal with the Acme Book Shop proprietress in less than 3 minutes.
But I always figured that was a Bogart thing - rather than a Marlowe thing.


Personally, I think, in that case, it's more a Dorothy Malone thing.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:15 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Continental Ops main investigative ability is to take a beating and come back for more. Hmm.
posted by Artw at 2:17 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


layceepee, I think Mr. Coates is talking about the realization of what the erection is. When you're six it's just funny and you show your friends and stuff. When you're 12 it's mortifying, and it comes with this attendant burning lust that you don't really know how to explain or deal with.

But Coates seems to be making biological claims about erection. Erection is not merely sexual desire, but the physical manifestation of that desire. Isn't he claiming that the erection and the attendant burning lust are the same thing? He wants to use this biological experience as a marker that significantly male sexual desire as fundamentally different from female desire, but if the erection and the lust can be separated (which an in-utero erection implies), then the argument collapses.
posted by layceepee at 2:18 PM on November 26, 2012


But Coates seems to be making biological claims about erection.

I think he's making a sociological claim about erections - that when we see a boy or a man with an erection, we see sexual desire. This is made clear in the next paragraph.
posted by muddgirl at 2:24 PM on November 26, 2012


layceepee: “But Coates seems to be making biological claims about erection. Erection is not merely sexual desire, but the physical manifestation of that desire. Isn't he claiming that the erection and the attendant burning lust are the same thing? He wants to use this biological experience as a marker that significantly male sexual desire as fundamentally different from female desire, but if the erection and the lust can be separated (which an in-utero erection implies), then the argument collapses.”

That seems emphatically not what Coates is saying. His argument is that the tenaciousness of misogyny often has its roots in a male inability to conflict between the mythology of maleness and the biological reality of maleness. This argument doesn't hang on male desire being different from female desire, and it doesn't hang on the erection and the lust being the same thing. It hangs on the inevitability of the erection being irreconcilable with the mythology that men are absolutely in control of their desire.

Or maybe I'm missing something; but it seems distinctly as though we're taking a single sentence completely out of context and pushing it far beyond what it seems to have been intended to express.
posted by koeselitz at 2:24 PM on November 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


I see erection conflated with desire, ejaculation conflated with orgasm, and he insinuates that men cannot be raped. I guess some of this is just describing stereotypes, but the whole thing makes him look fairly ignorant about male sexuality.
posted by idiopath at 2:40 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Marlowe is forever slapping some woman, or seducing somebody's wife within minutes of meeting her, or declaring his sexual invulnerability to still another woman, or berating some man for being gay—and thus being a woman. At all events, Marlowe triumphs with his unhurtable manhood intact:

Marlowe doesn't go around seducing anyone. He's a professional, and the women present in TBS are his client's daughters. Of course he's not going to sleep with them. (It doesn't hurt that the younger daughter is obviously mentally disturbed, and that her attempts to seduce Marlowe are presented in that context.)

He has all of one sexual relationship in all of his books. That's in The Long Goodbye, which is quite different from the pre-war novels, like The Big Sleep. TLG is a novel about heartbreak, and the crushing disappointment that comes when Marlowe takes a case personally and ends up putting himself out there (including being brutally beaten by the police to help cover for a friend who turns out to be guilty). So, Marlowe is hardly a static character. He's capable of being vulnerable.

There's plenty of misogyny in hard boiled fiction, but it's not particularly pronounced in Chandler's work. It's nothing compared to Sam Spade's extended torture of Brigid O'Shaunessy in The Maltese Falcon, or anything in Mickey Spillane's work (which is so repugnant that it's hard to put into words.)
posted by dortmunder at 2:41 PM on November 26, 2012 [9 favorites]


That seems emphatically not what Coates is saying.

That we have so much disagreement about what Coates is saying is evidence of how poorly written this piece is.
posted by Egg Shen at 2:43 PM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can see where the author is coming from, but for me that was part of the appeal of Chandler's stories. Marlowe is a screwed up guy, and nearly everyone he runs into (or with) is trying to manipulate everyone with whatever resources they had available- men with guns, money and connections, women with seduction or even their supposed respectability, e.g., The Little Sister). I never saw it as showing how manly Marlowe is, but how damaged he is, mostly by running in such a seedy crowd that every last word or gesture is suspect.

I found The Big Sleep a little boring because I'm of a generation that doesn't pick up on innuendo, so I missed half the clues and couldn't figure out what was going on. If you grow up with gay family members and porn on your friends' coffee tables, it's hard to figure out why anyone would hint around about it.

Chandler is one of my favorite authors- his characters were mostly mixed up people, and for the era anyway, his women were nicely mixed up, too. His use of language never fails to entertain me, and it's oddly comforting to realize that the corruption and backroom favors have always been around, and people figure out how to get by anyway.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:45 PM on November 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


Also, what dortmunder said.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:46 PM on November 26, 2012


Egg Shen: “That we have so much disagreement about what Coates is saying is evidence of how poorly written this piece is.”

I don't know that it's well-written. It seems like there are a lot of bits that are pretty resonant, though.
posted by koeselitz at 2:47 PM on November 26, 2012


Also it's a blog post, not an edited, revised, polished, published piece.
posted by Mister_A at 3:10 PM on November 26, 2012


That we have so much disagreement about what Coates is saying is evidence of how poorly written this piece is.

I dunno, maybe it's because I read TNC's blog every day, but this comes across as weirdly misunderstandy here. TNC sees his blog entries as conversation starters with his loyal community of commenters (and he says so, and participates, often). It's not a polished piece, or even an unpolished piece. It's TNC starting the process of thinking out loud along with a lot of other people.
posted by shakespeherian at 3:16 PM on November 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


"It's a blog post" is the "Well, it doesn't have to be Shakespeare" of online discourse.

On preview, Shakespeherian gets it right. I'm glad it's not a free-standing piece, because it displays lack of forethought, but the discussion below somewhat reduces the need for it.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:27 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Rustic Etruscan, I pointed out that it's a blog piece with the expectation that readers would understand that not only is it not Shakespeare, it is not intended to be read as literature. A blog, at best, is a conversation, and need not apologize for failing to be something other. I can see how one might interpret my wording as an apology, however.
posted by Mister_A at 3:46 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't know from male sexuality, but that Baffler deal on the Atlantic and its omniscient gentlemen has given me a new context in which to examine the ideas that ride under its aegis.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 4:34 PM on November 26, 2012


Maybe Marlowe is gay?
That was the impression I got as a teenager reading the one with Terry Lennox in it...
posted by titus n. owl at 4:49 PM on November 26, 2012


It's TNC starting the process of thinking out loud along with a lot of other people.

A writer (and especially an editor) should not crowdsource his opinions.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:15 PM on November 26, 2012


charlie don't surf: Are you really taking a stand against discussion?
posted by baf at 5:30 PM on November 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


So is he saying men are unable to match up to some mythical man and this causes misogyny? Because we lack control we hate? Ok, I agree, this is almost like the Male supremacy stuff, if I am reading it right.

Good article, speell chkers are avalable though.
posted by marienbad at 5:35 PM on November 26, 2012


[folks maybe make it clear about how talking about the format of the writing is related to the subject of the writing if you're going to keep going this way, otherwise maybe wrap it up with the derail?]
posted by jessamyn at 5:36 PM on November 26, 2012


I think that TNC is touching on some decent points here, even as I think he picked a poor example to cite. The refusal happens for legit reasons in The Big Sleep (which is mostly a muddle of a book anyway), and Marlowe's more prone to the sort of background contemporary misogyny than most.

As for Mickey Spillane, I'd recommend that anyone who has trouble reading him as high camp should pick up (for free only, don't waste money) his final book, The Goliath Bone, in which Mike Hammer, his long-suffering secretary Velda, and two mostly incestuous (but not thanks to Deus Ex Stepmother) college kids find Goliath's actual legbone. It's a heady blend of Mary Sue, chronological improbability (Mike's still a WWII vet, but can kick ass with the best of 'em), retro sexism and a total lack of self awareness that makes it a fun, if profoundly stupid, read.
posted by klangklangston at 5:48 PM on November 26, 2012


Egg Shen: "That seems emphatically not what Coates is saying.

That we have so much disagreement about what Coates is saying is evidence of how poorly written this piece is.
"

Heh! What a silly thing to say.
posted by barnacles at 6:11 PM on November 26, 2012


layceepee: "There is something deeply scary about the first time a young male experiences ans erection.

There's evidence that males experience erection in utero as well as throughout infancy, which seems to contradict this claim. And erection certainly isn't unique in being an involuntary physical response to stimulus. I think in general Coates is claiming a universal reaction by males to their own sexuality that does not stand up to closer scrutiny. Similarly, I think he overstates the difference with which males and females experience sexual desire.
"

I did a double-take at that sentence, but upon a re-reading I decided that what Ta-Nehisi was trying to discuss there was experiences with poorly timed erections once puberty was reached and sexuality was starting to come to the forefront of a boy/young man's experiences. I imagine that Coates, as a possessor of a penis and also the father of a son, is quite aware that erections happen even when males are young. I think he's arguing simply that they take on a whole new load of baggage once males hit puberty.
posted by barnacles at 6:15 PM on November 26, 2012


barnacles, that's what I got out of it, quibbles about the writing aside. Social convention wants men to be in total control of themselves. Erections resist this, rising when least wanted: Anxiety ensues.

Marlowe may reject women out of professionalism, but he also does it because he fears for his self-control. Someone in the comments below the piece writes that Marlowe is trying to preserve his moral purity in a fallen world, which is probably connected to this idea.

"All the excitement and hunger and throbbing that people is there. But with that comes a deep, physical longing. Whether or not that longing shall be satiated is not totally up to the male."

Whether a girl's deep, physical longing will be satiated isn't totally up to her, either. Sex takes two, which makes TNC's particular self-controlled man - who always gets what he wants - an impossibility. But I guess I'm just repeating TNC's point. Something in these three sentences bugs me.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:05 PM on November 26, 2012


Well, Carmen murdered Shawn Regan out of a fit of entitled and mentally-disturbed pique when she turned him down sexually, if I recall correctly. Later, she takes a shot at Marlowe as well, apparently from the same motive. Thus, she seems kind of an odd choice for this argument against the ugly entitlement at the core of all Marlowe's apparently cool restraint. Though again, maybe she's the sign of the unrestraint that makes Marlowe's restraint necessary.

Marlowe, by the way, never really seemed like an ideal to me: clearly he's held up as better than the world he finds himself in by Chandler, but it's a pretty terrible world, all told. Marlowe sees the angles and that gives him a measure of protection against attempts to manipulate him, but relationships in Chandler's books are almost all about exploiting the angles. The world itself is misogynist, but also misanthropic in its darn-near universal corruption.

Marlowe's not really a professional: the whole story is him pointedly exceeding General Sternwood's orders, in order to find out what Sternwood wants to know, but can't ask (what happened to Shawn Regan, who Sternwood used to project his failed / decayed masculinity on). Marlowe does go far out of his way to protect some pretty strange points of misdirected masculine pride in other men--to generally a self-destructive extent. There's a ton to be said about Marlowe and masculinity. A movie like _Miller's Crossing_ goes a long way towards putting some of the more covert parts of noir masculinity on display. I don't quite buy Coates' as sufficient, though, again, it's a conversation starter.
posted by LucretiusJones at 7:48 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


There is also the whole thing about how strange Marlow's world is. It's not naturalistic at all, which is the point-the draw for these stories is the language and the mood, and everyone is going around acting like the most horrible, manipulative version of themselves possible.
posted by The Whelk at 8:27 PM on November 26, 2012


Dashiell Hammett always felt much more grounded, a crime fantasy sure, but one withy at least a toe in reality where the presence of a sexually forward woman or a gay man doesn't threaten to destroy the very fabric of reality.

Hammet had walked the walk, of course. And his pet obsessions were much more existential and somewhat less bound up in women than Marlowe's. The Op's fucked up relationship with Dinah in Red Harvest, for example --- I'd say that's more about his fear of what he's capable of becoming; the corrupt temptation she represents is more to do with greed than sex. Sex is a tool in her toolkit, but so's booze and drugs and cunning; ditto the Op. Hammett's more intrstested in the good than the man when he writes about how to be good man in a corrupt and possibly meaningless world.

Someone in the comments below the piece writes that Marlowe is trying to preserve his moral purity in a fallen world, which is probably connected to this idea.

Well, something that always has to be remembered about Chandler, perhaps the most profound separations between him and and Hammett, is that he's an Edwardian public school boy in LA in the '40s. Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori, and all that. Downtown Abbey takes to drink. The chivalric ideal was his mother's milk --- I'll be he read enough Tennyson and Malory to choke a horse when he was a young 'un. And people really believed in that shit --- or at least young people did. It's easy to, when you live in a society that's extremely prudish and repressed and practices strict sex segregation until the age of 18. And so picture that guy --- starched collars and spats and dressing for dinner --- in LA in the '40s. I think in Chandler there's an authentic mourning for a lost ideal of womanhood, an authentic revulsion at the difference between the story and the reality, that you never get a sense of from Hammett, who never had money and scraped along on his wits to make something of himself. With Chandler it always goes back to the knight in the window.
posted by Diablevert at 7:05 AM on November 27, 2012 [10 favorites]


Diablevert, I hadn't thought of that. Thanks.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:35 AM on November 27, 2012


It's condescending, but I've always liked James Ellroy's line about the two, "Chandler wrote the kind of guy that he wanted to be, Hammett wrote the kind of guy that he was afraid he was. "
posted by ActingTheGoat at 8:06 PM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I like that line, too. Wasn't Hammett a Pinkerton and a socialist? I'd imagine his anxiety over the conflict between the two would turn up in his writing.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:41 PM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


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