Feb 4, 2009

The true extent of the tangle

No Thursdays at the County Hospital for Mr Jules Amthor. Cash on the line for his. Rich bitches who had to be dunned for their milk bills would pay him right now.

A fakeloo artist, a hoopla spreader, and a lad who had his card rolled up inside sticks of tea, found on a dead man.

This was going to be good.

                  – Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely

Of course the psychic is a scam man. In the noir world, anybody who believes anything needs to take a drink, and anybody who leads other people to believe is pulling a scam. There are no believers in Raymond Chandler’s world. There is no faith found in any investigation. Religion is a fiction used as a cover. Everything’s sort of psychologically simple, in noir, and everyone’s economically motivated, even in their appearances of faith. It’s like the world was designed by insurance salesmen.

We normally talk about the despairing detective, when talking about the noir world, but reading Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, I noticed the psychic who, of course, is up to something. I don’t have a particularly high regard for psychics either, but it seems key, to me, that Chandler’s world doesn’t have anything better to offer, in the way of religion, than a “fakeloo artist.” Jules Amthor might as well be the Pope or the Dali Llama, because this is the extent of belief found in noir. Men are never motivated by anything but money and self-preservation, which they pursue with booze and an all-protective bitterness. This is obvious, and this is familiar, but it seems still startling to me that no one believes. It seems startling the world can be presented as that flat. Life is more tangled than that.

In this noir, religion and anything beyond “just the facts” is sort of conceived the way a New Atheist would conceive it: “Belief” belongs to idiots and those with something to gain. Both the noirists and the New Atheists make the same mistake of making the world seem flatter than it actually is. Before there can be any argument about the content of belief, it seems like it has to be acknowledged that there really is belief – and not just stupid or conniving belief, but also thoughtful belief, cautious and carefully considered belief, deep and life altering belief.

In Ross Macdonald’s The Moving Target, the religious character, a new age sort of guru who promotes the sun god, is always assumed by everyone to be involved in a scam. No one ever thinks he might believe. The only question is which scam he’s involved in and how many angles he’s playing. The character is pretty minor, but got himself a place on the cover art with sunglasses and a jew-fro, and he earned the book a reputation of delving into the weird world of freaky new religions, counter cultures, and faith-crazed kooks. But the religion, for the guru, is never anything more than a little make-up covering the criminal activity. Even the followers aren’t fooled, but are really just thugs playacting at devotion as disguise. In the depicted world, though, it’s not much of a disguise, because there’s no such thing as the real thing. All religion is faked. To pantomime the practices of faith, in noir, isn’t to imitate the devout, but to copy the pantomimes and imitations of pantomimes and imitations. Religion, here, is like a faux Indian accent ripped off of black and white westerns shown on afternoon TV. There is no real belief, but only fakes.

I guess this would be perfect for Zizek on belief or Baudrillard on simulacra, but I want to make the point that this noir understanding of belief isn’t even right when it comes to scams masked as belief. It isn’t accurate in describing even the precise thing it thinks it’s describing. The world is full of religious-looking con men – from Ted Haggart to Creflo Dollar, from David Koresh to Warren Jeffs – and I’ve even known some of them, and the thing is, they are never crass enough for faith to be just a disguise. Even they believe. They are tangled up in their belief, with their appetites informing their pieties and their pieties making space for their appetites, with their personal predilections and psychological problems feeding their faith and their faith feeding their egos, the way an old woman feeds that cats that will eat her when she dies. It’s never simple and it’s never about money. Even when it is about money, that’s not what it’s really about, with money just standing in for other holes in the souls of the charismatic characters. I understand why there are religious con men in these books, but the noirists seem to misunderstand the relationship between the religious con man and their religion. It’s not a mask. It’s not a disguise. It’s at least as complicated as the relationship between the Columbine killers and their guns, with the guns giving them a way to fulfill their fantasies and the guns informing their fantasies too (though never in a way that’s causally clear).

It’s not like I wanted to find a faithful family of evangelicals regularly attending church in Farewell, My Lovely. My complaint isn’t that the noirists present the religious in a negative way, but that the religious in noir are not nearly perverted enough. They’ve been flattened and untangled. They’ve been made sort of safe, in being simple. In order to be accurate and, even more than that, in order to be even approximately as interesting as the real thing, we have to allow depth, complication and confused motivation. We have to allow for the true extent of the tangle, for the weirdness and wildness, for the full depravity of devotion.