“If thou hast eyes to see . . . “
—Othello Act 1 Scene 3
“You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, . . . because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies—which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world—what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose.”
—Charles Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister are the exact same story.
1 Heart of Darkness
Charles Marlow—an Englishman—goes on a tortured journey up river in the heart of Africa to find a man named Kurtz.
The jungle is gloomy and endless and dangerous. No wondrous life-giving rain forest here.
“Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him—all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination—you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.” (page 69)
But did Conrad write his novella to warn people that this was not a great place for a vacation? I think not.
The European colonials in the Congo are petty, selfish, greedy, insensitive, and of only average intelligence.
“They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force—nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.” (page 69)
But did Conrad write his novella simply to point out the sins of the colonial powers? Was this what “the horror the horror” was referring to? I think not.
The native inhabitants are also repellent: they are dangerous and barbaric and incomprehensible.
“We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. It was very quiet there. At night sometimes the roll of drums behind the curtain of trees would run up the river and remain sustained faintly, as if hovering in the air high over our heads, till the first break of day. Whether it meant war, peace, or prayer we could not tell. The dawns were heralded by the descent of a chill stillness; the wood-cutters slept, their fires burned low; the snapping of a twig would make you start. We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. The pre-historic man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us—who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign—and no memories.
“The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.” (page 105)
Filmmaker Werner Herzog says:
“In 1961, at the age of nineteen, after my final school exams, I met some people transporting used trucks from Munich down to Athens and the island of Crete. I invested what little money I had in a share of one of these vehicles, and made some cash by joining a small convoy. From Crete I took a boat to Alexandria in Egypt, with the intention of traveling to the former Belgian Congo. I never made it, which I’m eternally glad about. I later learnt that of those who had reached the eastern Congolese provinces at the time, almost all perished. Congo had just won its independence, and the deepest anarchy and darkest violence immediately set in. Every trace of civilization disappeared, every form of organization and security was gone, and there was a return to tribalism and cannibalism.”
But did Conrad write his novella to inform us that the Rousseauian dream of the noble savage living in peace and harmony with nature was an illusion, a European fantasy, a delusional escape from civilization and its discontents? I think not.
All of these elements—the oppressive ubiquitous jungle, the petty colonials, the alien natives—are red herrings to throw us off the scent.
Heart of Darkness is a fever dream that conceals Conrad’s true intent.
He is after something else entirely.
Humbert Humbert—a man in his thirties—has sex with Lolita, who is 12 or 13.
But did Nabokov write this novel just to shock his audience? Was his purpose to say and have us say: Isn’t it awful? I think not.
Was it perhaps the opposite: is it possible that Nabokov wanted to convince us that sleeping with very young women was a natural thing?
The age of consent varies significantly from country to country.
The age of consent in Angola, Mexico, and the Philippines is 12.
The age of consent in Spain was 12 until 1999, when it was raised to 13. Only in 2015 was it raised to 16.
The age of consent is 13 in Argentina, Japan, Niger, and South Korea.
The age of consent is 14 in Albania, Austria, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Bosnia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cape Verde, Chad, Chile, China, Colombia, Ecuador, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Liechtenstain, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Montenegro, Myanmar, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, San Marino, and Serbia.
The age of consent is 15 in Aruba, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Curaçao, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Greece, Iceland, Kuwait, Laos, Monaco, North Korea, Poland, Romania, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Syria, Thailand, and Uruguay.
Is this Nabokov’s message? I think not.
Perhaps Nabokov wrote Lolita as a radical critique of modernity and its lack of protection of young women.
Before modern times few people traveled and girls entering adulthood were sequestered and protected by their mothers and fathers and brothers and the tribe in general. If anyone had sex with or hurt a girl there were serious consequences. With this protection young women were guided into marriage and motherhood in their teens.
Now we send our daughters to college far away. There are no such protections there. In loco parentis is a joke. We abandon them when they are at their most innocent and vulnerable.
And we tell them that they should delay marriage and pregnancy till well into their twenties—many years beyond nature’s design.
This is all contra naturam.
To go from total protection and in concert with nature to no protection and against nature is dangerous. It becomes likely young women will fall prey to rape, casual sex, drugs, and emotional confusion.
Birth control and abortion are not protection. Protection from what? They stop the natural female flow from irresistible enchantress and sexual ecstasy to pregnancy and motherhood. (1)
Age of consent laws are not protection. There were no such laws before modernity because there was no need. Age of consent laws were created when real protection disappeared.
We abandon young women and this is cruel. No wonder many become unhinged. (2)
The opening scene of The Godfather (1972) shows these two worlds in stark contrast:
But is this critique of modernity and its lack of protection of women Nabokov’s primary purpose in Lolita? I think not.
Well perhaps Nabokov—who was married—secretly desired women of 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, and he decided to make the sex with Lolita at a “shocking” age as a distancing device designed to prevent anyone from suspecting that Humbert was Nabokov. This could well be but it is not Nabokov’s primary purpose.
Did Nabokov write Lolita to show that for a sophisticated European America was a vacuous cultural wasteland? I think not.
All of these possibilities are red herrings.
And even the title is misleading: the book is not really about Lolita. Even she is a distraction from Nabokov’s real purpose.
Nabokov is sly. Everything is camouflage. The real story lies elsewhere.
3 The Little Sister
Philip Marlowe is hired by a young woman from the Midwest to find her brother. And like all good detective stories there are red herrings that lead us astray as we try to solve the mystery.
But did Raymond Chandler write The Little Sister just to give us a thrill? I think not.
Chandler’s writing is both beautiful and brilliant. Take for example his description of cops:
“They had the calm weathered faces of healthy men in hard condition. They had the eyes they always have, cloudy and gray like freezing water. The firm set mouth, the hard little wrinkles at the corners of the eyes, the hard hollow meaningless stare, not quite cruel and a thousand miles from kind. The dull ready-made clothes, worn without style, with a sort of contempt; the look of men who are poor and yet proud of their power, watching always for ways to make it felt, to shove it into you and twist it and grin and watch you squirm, ruthless without malice, cruel and yet not always unkind. What would you expect them to be? Civilization had no meaning for them. All they saw of it was the failures, the dirt, the dregs, the aberrations and the disgust.” (page 177)
“You go in through double swing doors. Inside the double doors there is a combination PBX and information desk, at which sits one of those ageless women you see around municipal offices everywhere in the world. They were never young and will never be old. They have no beauty, no charm, no style. They don’t have to please anybody. They are safe. They are civil without ever quite being polite and intelligent and knowledgable without any real interest in anything. They are what human beings turn into when they trade life for existence and ambition for security.” (page 222)
“Lee Farrell, one of the hottest trouble-shooting lawyers in the country. His hair was white but his eyes were bright and young. He had a deep outdoor tan. He looked as if it would cost a thousand dollars to shake hands with him.” (page 223)
This is dazzling—right up there with Conrad and Nabokov—but it distracts us from his most important message.
Chandler’s deepest reason for writing The Little Sister is hidden from view.
4 The game revealed: a cri de coeur
All that dazzling writing by Conrad and Nabokov and Chandler is a brilliant disguise. It is all written in code.
Upon deciphering the code we discover that Conrad and Nabokov and Chandler have—au fond—written the same novel.
Each novel is a desperate cri de coeur. Using their protagonists—Marlow, Humbert, Marlowe—as stand-ins, they cry out from the empty wilderness that is the world: “Mayday! Mayday! Is there anyone out there? Is there anyone who can save me from this intense loneliness?”
But this is a special kind of loneliness.
There are three kinds of loneliness:
A: The loneliness that every person can feel at any time in history:
This can be caused by a specific incident such as a divorce, a death, or a shipwreck. And it can also be caused by the realization of the tragic nature of life—the human condition.
B: The additional loneliness caused by modernity:
Modernity has deracinated everyone—some quite dramatically. This is the essence of existentialism: a loneliness filled with an intense sense of isolation and loss of identity.
At a lunch several years ago I met Nino Amsandze, a woman from the European country of Georgia. She was here in America studying capitalist marketing practices.
I asked her: “What is the biggest difference between life in Georgia and life here in America?”
Without hesitation she replied: “Well in my country if you have a great loss—a death or a divorce or some awful tragedy—and you feel lost and lonely then your mother and father and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters and uncles and aunts and friends and neighbors all come to you and give you hugs and kisses and cook for you and take care of you until you are feeling better. But here in America these people are far away and you have to pay money to strangers to save you.” (3)
Leonard Cohen said: “The term clinical depression finds its way into too many conversations these days. One has a sense that a catastrophe has occurred in the psychic landscape.”
Cohen expresses the angst and the loss of identity and the loneliness caused by modernity in his song Stories of the Street:
Oh, come with me my little one, we will find that farm
And grow us grass and apples there and keep all the animals warm
And if by chance I wake at night and I ask you who I am
Oh, take me to the slaughterhouse, I will wait there with the lamb
With one hand on the hexagram and one hand on the girl
I balance on a wishing well that all men call the world
We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky
And lost among the subway crowds I try to catch your eye
Everyone in modern society feels this to a greater or lesser degree depending on how far he or she is from the last remnants of the protections of family and land. Anti-depressant drugs only make things worse because people are actually responding understandably to a world that goes against human nature.
( I believe that people choose a political party primarily as an expression of how deracinated they feel. The greater the deracination the more likely someone will become a Democrat. For example let’s say a woman is very bright and she leaves her small town and goes to Harvard or Stanford. She does well and is offered a top job in New York or Washington D C with a big salary. Birth control and abortion are essential to her survival because she is far away from the protection and support of family. In contrast another woman does not get into college and stays in her home town and marries a local boy. She is more likely to be pro-gun and anti-abortion and become a Republican because land and family are her protections and guns and babies add to that security.)
C: Six-sigma loneliness:
Everyone experiences the first two kinds of loneliness. But there is a third loneliness—one that afflicts only a certain kind of person.
Conrad, Nabokov, and Chandler have extraordinary sensitivity and intelligence. They have acute perception. They see deeply into reality. They do not run away.
Each is a scientist and a poet: he is open and seeks the truth no matter what and at the same time expresses deep feelings from the heart.
People with these qualities are very rare so I call them six-sigma—more as alliterative metaphor than a precise literal mathematical statement. I am referring to the upper end of the bell curve of sensitivity and intelligence measured in standard deviations (sigmas).
Because such a person is rare it is unlikely that he will find another person who experiences the world the way he does—someone he could truly talk to.
And so he feels an intense and desperate loneliness—and an equally intense yearning for connection with someone who truly understands him. Just one such person would save him.
It is this third kind of loneliness that Conrad and Nabokov and Chandler are expressing. Our three protagonists—Charles Marlow, Humbert Humbert, Philip Marlowe—are six-sigma men who desperately want to find salvation from this intense unbearable terrifying isolation and loneliness.
Why did they write in code? Why be so oblique? For three reasons I suspect:
1 Embarrassment: They would be just too exposed to come out and say directly to the world that they feel so alone.
2 Fear: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs. Neither cast ye your pearls before swine lest they trample them under their feet and turn again and rend you.”
3 Advertisement: They are saying in effect: I am sending a camouflaged signal out into the world. If you can see through the camouflage and read this then perhaps you are like me and we could connect at a deep level.
5 Heart of Darkness is a cri de coeur
The endless awful jungle, the petty insensitive colonials, and the alien menacing natives intensify Charles Marlow’s separateness. He connects with nothing and no one.
Kurtz is a metaphor: the wished-for comrade. Marlow would go to the ends of the earth—up the Congo river—to find this comrade, a man of equally extraordinary intelligence and sensitivity. But Kurtz is a wish against all odds that does not pan out. Kurtz may be the best of his generation but that is not good enough: he has a tragic flaw and has become monstrous.
Kurtz—the brother who could save Marlow—is the imaginary secret sharer. He does not exist. He is a phantasm.
“There was a sense of extreme disappointment, as though I had found out I had been striving after something altogether without a substance. I couldn’t have been more disgusted if I had travelled all this way for the sole purpose of talking with Mr. Kurtz. Talking with . . . I flung one shoe overboard, and became aware that that was exactly what I had been looking forward to—a talk with Kurtz. I made the strange discovery that I had never imagined him as doing, you know, but as discoursing. I didn’t say to myself, ‘Now I will never see him,’ or ‘Now I will never shake him by the hand,’ but, ‘Now I will never hear him.’ The man presented himself as a voice. Not of course that I did not connect him with some sort of action. Hadn’t I been told in all the tones of jealousy and admiration that he had collected, bartered, swindled, or stolen more ivory than all the other agents together? That was not the point. The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.
“The other shoe went flying unto the devil-god of that river. I thought, ‘By Jove! it’s all over. We are too late; he has vanished—the gift has vanished, by means of some spear, arrow, or club. I will never hear that chap speak after all’ — and my sorrow had a startling extravagance of emotion, even such as I had noticed in the howling sorrow of these savages in the bush. I couldn’t have felt more of lonely desolation somehow, had I been robbed of a belief or had missed my destiny in life. . . . “ (pages 119-120)
“He had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land—I mean literally. You can’t understand. How could you?—with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbours ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums—how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man’s untrammelled feet may take him into by the way of solitude—utter solitude without a policeman—by the way of silence—utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbour can be heard whispering of public opinion? These little things make all the great difference. When they are gone you must fall back upon your own innate strength, upon your own capacity for faithfulness.” (pages 121-122)
MacDuff cries out “O horror horror horror” upon discovering Duncan’s dead body. He feels the loss—the emptiness—deeply. But he is not deracinated. He can mount an army of his countrymen and reclaim the land from MacBeth.
Not so Marlow. Kurtz’s words “the horror the horror” are really Marlow’s state of mind—an expression of devastating loneliness and despair. But unlike MacDuff, Marlow has nowhere to turn for support. He is the lonely sea captain. A man without a country. Returning to the Continent he finds an equal emptiness.
Well if there is no man who can save Marlow is it possible a woman could? But no. Conrad offers no such possibility.
The native women are alien to him and as impenetrable as the ubiquitous jungle. There is zero chance of connection there.
And women back in Europe are also beyond the pale.
“It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.” (pages 76-77)
6 Lolita is a cri de coeur
Charles Marlow looked for a man—a comrade—to give him connection with another human being as salvation from utter loneliness and despair.
But Humbert has no male friends. And he seeks none.
He looks for salvation through the feminine. His yearning is intense. He finds Lolita when she is beguiling and falls madly in love with her.
He is the complete opposite of Quilty, who has no love for Lolita and who just uses her sexually and discards her without feeling.
Humbert is a romantic:
“I looked and looked at her, and I knew, as clearly as I know that I will die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth. She was only the dead-leaf echo of the nymphet from long ago—but I loved her, this Lolita, pale and polluted and big with another man’s child. She could fade and wither—I didn’t care. I would still go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of her face.”
But Lolita will not go with him and he finds himself alone.
Humbert—the suave European—finds his sophistication cannot help him. He has no defense against such desolation.
“And presently I was driving through the drizzle of the dying day with the windshield wipers in full action but unable to cope with my tears.”
Nabokov—using Humbert as his protagonist—lets us experience the anguish that a man of exceptional sensitivity and intelligence feels when romantic love fails and he realizes that he is alone and no one can save him.
As he said earlier in the novel: “There was no one else like me. Eventually the trail went cold and dead and I went back to cold dead Beardsley.”
E. E. Cummings expressed this same feeling:
it may not always be so; and i say
that if your lips, which i have loved, should touch
another’s, and your dear strong fingers clutch
his heart, as mine in time not far away;
if on another’s face your sweet hair lay
in such a silence as i know, or such
great writhing words as, uttering overmuch,
stand helplessly before the spirit at bay;
if this should be, i say if this should be—
you of my heart, send me a little word;
that i may go unto him, and take his hands,
saying, Accept all happiness from me.
Then shall i turn my face, and hear one bird
sing terribly afar in the lost lands.
Humbert kills Quilty in despair explaining: “. . . because you cheated me of my redemption.”
But is Lolita his redemption? Is she what he dreams of? Is she Annabel Leigh from his youth?
Annabel in Adrian Lyne’s Lolita (1997)
Edgar Allen Poe’s Annabel Lee:
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.
And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.
The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.
But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.
Is Lolita Annabel?
No. Lolita is a story Humbert has written in his mind that is without reality. The real Lolita—however beguiling—is insensitive and selfish and ordinary. Lolita has no idea who Humbert is. She does not see him at all. She was never in love with him.
Furthermore, Lolita is already “older” than Humbert. Humbert is the romantic. Lolita is the sophisticate. He is faithful to her. She has already had a lover before him and she has sex on the sly with Quilty.
Humbert’s dream of the beautiful innocent sexy nymphet who can save him is—like Kurtz—an illusion. There can be no salvation for Humbert with Lolita.
This dream of the feminine has been dreamed by many men:
La Petite Lili
A Walk with Love and Death
A Woman at her Window
The Last Tycoon
The Last Tycoon 1:30 to 2:10
Winterset 35:40 to 38:40
A Man and a Woman 0:00 to 0:40
Meet Joe Black
The Manchurian Candidate
American Gigolo 0:45 to end
Such stories are almost always created by men—not by women. All of the movies above were directed by men and most of the writing was by men.
Men dream of such women. They dream of salvation by an intense connection with the feminine. And it does exist—even if it does not always last.
But this dream of the feminine is not a crime. It is completely natural for men to do this.
Humbert’s real crime lies elsewhere: he wants to stop time. He wants to capture the feminine in its early enchanting phase of the female flow and go no further.
Nabokov collected butterflies. A chaser of butterflies goes out with a net on a pole and catches a butterfly and then quickly pulls out a bottle of chloroform and puts a drop on the butterfly to stop its flapping. He keeps the butterfly in its perfect beauty. He then sticks a pin through its body and puts it on a wall under glass. In his attempt to capture beauty he stops time. Which is impossible. Big game hunting—and putting the head on the wall as a trophy—is the same thing only more grandiose. Both are grotesque.
Lolita is a beautiful butterfly and Humbert does not want her to become a caterpillar so to speak. So he knocks her out with his purple pills and tries to stop the flow. He does not want her to follow the pull of nature. He wants to keep her young forever—a nymphet and never a cow. But in so doing he kills her spirit and she rightly hates him for it.
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise (4)
Only by letting nature run its course is there any chance for happiness. Any attempt to stop a woman’s flow brings only death—of the soul and the body. Nabokov instinctively understands this: Humbert and Lolita each die not long afterwards. (1)
7 The Little Sister is a cri de coeur
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe does not have these illusions. He is without hope.
No mythological Kurtz waiting for him if he goes to the ends of the earth and overcomes all obstacles.
No imagined enchanting sexy Lolita with whom to find salvation before she turns into the Haze woman.
“Will you make love to me tonight? she asked softly.
“That again is an open question. Probably not.”
“You would not waste your time. I am not one of these synthetic blondes with a skin you could strike matches on. These ex-laundresses with large bony hands and sharp knees and unsuccessful breasts.”
“Just for half an hour,” I said, “let’s leave the sex to one side. Its great stuff, like chocolate sundaes. But there comes a time you would rather cut your throat. I guess maybe I’d better cut mine.” (page 182)
No. Philip Marlowe has no such dreams.
He has only his inner code and stoic resolve to see him through. And these are not enough to save him from despair.
Philip Marlowe—like Charles Marlow and Humbert Humbert—has acute perception: he sees clearly and deeply into the nature of things. He is literally a detective. A private eye.
He wants to find just one person to talk to. Someone who will see him and connect with him at the deepest levels.
But no. He cannot find this person. He is utterly alone. There is no one who can help him. And certainly no one who can save him.
I give you Chapter 25 in its entirety. Res ipsa loquitur:
The office was empty again. No leggy brunettes, no little girls with slanted glasses, no neat dark men with gangster’s eyes.
I sat down at the desk and watched the light fade. The going-home sounds had died away. Outside the neon signs began to glare at one another across the boulevard. There was something to be done, but I didn’t know what. Whatever it was it would be useless. I tidied up my desk, listening to the scrape of a bucket on the tiling of the corridor. I put my papers away in the drawer, straightened the pen stand, got out a duster and wiped off the glass and then the telephone. It was dark and sleek in the fading light. It wouldn’t ring tonight. Nobody would call me again. Not now, not this time. Perhaps not ever.
I put the duster away folded with the dust in it, leaned back and just sat, not smoking, not even thinking. I was a blank man. I had no face, no meaning, no personality, hardly a name. I didn’t want to eat. I didn’t even want a drink. I was the page from yesterday’s calendar crumpled at the bottom of the waste basket.
I pulled the phone towards me and dialed Mavis Weld’s number. It rang and rang and rang. Nine times. That’s a lot of ringing, Marlowe. I guess there’s nobody home. Nobody home to you. I hung up. Who would you like to call now? You got a friend somewhere that might like to hear your voice? No. Nobody.
Let the telephone ring, please. Let there be somebody to call up and plug me into the human race again. Even a cop. Even a Maglashan. Nobody has to like me. I just want to get off this frozen star.
The telephone rang.
“Amigo,” her voice said. “There is trouble. Bad trouble. She wants to see you. She likes you. She thinks you are an honest man.”
“Where?” I asked. It wasn’t really a question, just a sound I made. I sucked on a cold pipe and leaned my head on my hand, brooding at the telephone. It was a voice to talk to anyway.
“You will come?”
“I’d sit up with a sick parrot tonight. Where do I go?”
“I will come for you. I will be before your building in fifteen minutes. It is not easy to get where we go.”
“How is it coming back,” I asked, “or don’t we care?”
But she had already hung up.
Down at the drugstore lunch counter I had time to inhale two cups of coffee and a melted-cheese sandwich with two slivers of ersatz bacon imbedded in it, like dead fish in the silt at the bottom of a drained pool.
I was crazy. I liked it.
Chandler gives the game away in Chapter 25. No red herring here. Or perhaps the perfect red herring: hiding in plain sight: one could read it and move on and not realize that Chandler had just handed us the novel’s actual raison d’être.
8 Going deeper: goodness and innocence
These extraordinary six-sigma men—Conrad/Marlow and Nabokov/Humbert and Chandler/Marlowe—leave conventional society, venture out to the land of the gods, steal fire (true poetry), and bring it back to us.
They are very sensitive. They see deeply. They do not run away. They do not escape from reality.
The sea captain far from civilization, the European professor of literature in the wilds of America who breaks the taboos, and the private detective who doesn’t quite play by the rules—all are beyond the law and outside normal society.
It is true they are not castrated. But they are alone. And without deep connection with another soul the entire world is a desert.
And so the fire they bring us in Heart of Darkness and Lolita and The Little Sister is a veiled but deeply felt cry from the heart wishing against wish for salvation from the despair of that loneliness.
But it is more than that. In that cri de coeur you will find something else: goodness and innocence. The yearning for it, the belief in it, the realization that goodness and innocence are all that matter.
Go back and read these three novels again and you will find that goodness and innocence fill every page even as the foreground is often nothing but the opposite.
9 Coda: the view from the windy hilltop
My dad told my sister and me the following story when we were kids. He was climbing Mount Washington with some friends. He looked up and saw what he thought was a shortcut even though it would take him off the trail. So he started climbing straight up. But he got to a point where he could not go up any more. He tried to go back down but found he could not do that either. He was stuck: whatever he did would result in his falling and seriously injuring himself or worse. He hollered for help. His friends formed a human chain above him and saved him from disaster.
A few years ago I was in Montreal. I was staying at the Hotel Gault—a small hotel with a wonderful staff: Melissa and Jean-Christophe and Jonathan and André and Marie-Philippe and Luisa and Albert. Each gave me personal and friendly attention. I had many things to think about during my three days there and they provided support that was especially valuable to me.
On the morning of my departure I went to the front desk and checked out. I had decided that instead of driving back to Maine I would drive west to Canton, New York, to visit my high school baseball coach and math teacher, Jake Dillon, a man of great heart, whom I had not seen in many years.
I asked how to get onto Route 720 heading west out of Montreal. Albert printed out a map and marked it with his pen and explained how to do this.
And then he did something extraordinary. I had simply asked for directions—nothing more. But perhaps he could feel that I was in an emotional state. He looked me in the eyes and said: “Mr. Hobby here is my personal cell phone number. If you should lose your way call me. I will get in my car, find you, and stay with you until you are safely on the right path.”
Albert’s beautiful gesture moved me deeply and softened my westward journey.
We are here to save each other.
Dialogue from Night of the Iguana (1964):
Hannah Jelkes: So here we are, Mr. Shannon. Like a couple of scarecrows on this windy hilltop . . . over the cradle of life.
Nono: The plummeting to earth and then . . . Hannah? Hannah?
Hannah: Yes, Grandfather?
Nono: I’m pretty sure I’m gonna finish it here.
Hannah: I have the same feeling myself, Grandpa.
Nono: I’ve never been surer of anything in my life.
Shannon: I’ve never been surer of anything in mine, either.
Hannah: Of course, you’ll finish the poem. Why, it’s nearly finished already. I’ll be outside if you want me to write something down . . . .
Shannon: Miss Jelkes, may I . . . ? May I have one of your cigarettes?
Hannah hands him her pack.
Shannon throws her pack away.
Shannon: You must never smoke those. They’re made out of cigarette ends taken out of the gutters. Have one of mine. English, imported, in an airtight tin. It’s my one luxury in life.
Hannah: Yes, thank you, I will, since you’ve thrown mine away.
Shannon: Well . . . l’m going to tell you something about yourself, Miss Jelkes. You are a lady, a real one and a great one.
Hannah: What have I done to merit that compliment from you?
Shannon: Well, you took out your cigarettes, found out you only had two left. You can’t afford to buy another pack of even that cheap brand . . . and so you put them away for later, right?
Hannah: Mercilessly accurate, Mr. Shannon.
Shannon: But when I asked you for one, you gave me it without the slightest sign of reluctance.
Hannah: I think you’re making a big point out of a small matter.
Shannon: Oh, no, no. I’m making a small point out of a very very large matter.
Night of the Iguana: Nono finishes his poem