Blog

The Double Consciousness of Noir

April 20, 2018

Thanks to Matt Phillips, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

There is a persistent paradigm in the American experiment: There are those among us who insist on closing their eyes to the truth, those who deny—in lieu of their discomfort—a dedicated hold on reality. More than sixty years ago, in Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote, “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster” (148). To fully understand and upend this persistent American paradigm, we must examine the too often ignored disparity between perception and reality. And we must outline and describe this disparity as a physical thing—it is a concept and/or idea, yes, but it is also an object. Noir—as a genre and practice—provides an effective palette for drawing, defining, and collapsing contrasts. And contrast, on its face, is what disparity is—an ill-drawn, and often evil, contrast.

In her noir novel The Expendable Man, Dorothy B. Hughes constructs this disparity—that is to say she gives it physical form—by manipulating character and plot. In the book, a young doctor named Hugh Densmore is driving to Phoenix for a wedding. In the middle of the desert he picks up a young woman, a teenaged hitchhiker. The doctor immediately regrets his decision and begins to feel anxious. Hughes writes, “A chill sense of apprehension came on him and he wished to hell he hadn’t stopped. This could be the initial step in some kind of shakedown, although how, with nothing or no one in sight for unlimited miles, he couldn’t figure” (5). As readers, we may not necessarily understand this apprehension—for some fifty pages we are left wondering for certain why (and how) the doctor can be anxious about a simple act of courtesy. This foreboding anxiety and tension persist until Densmore drops the teen at a bus station (her alias is revealed as Iris Croom). It’s not long before Iris appears again; she bangs on the door at Densmore’s motel and insists he help her. Her problem, as she describes it, is this: “‘I thought my boyfriend would marry me. But he’s already married’” (35). When Densmore insists he can’t help Iris, she says, “‘Yes you can … You’re a doctor’” (36). Of course, Densmore slams the door and sends the girl away, rage and fear now running through him like hot oil. But still, it’s an oddity for some readers when Densmore thinks, “There’d always be a residue of suspicion that the girl’s inventions weren’t all false. How could he prove otherwise? They had traveled together” (36). In what reality does a doctor fear the he-said-she-said machinations of a teenaged girl? And a girl who, she admits herself, is in trouble?

Not long after this episode, Densmore reads a story in the local paper: A teenager has been found dead and, reading between the lines, Densmore knows the woman is the victim of an abortion gone wrong—it turns out the dead girl is Iris Croom. In the subsequent passage, Dorothy Hughes describes the dilemma of an innocent man who knows—who is absolutely certain—that he will be accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Hughes writes, “[T]o flee in panic was not the answer. It was construed always as the act of a man bloodied with guilt, although in fact the innocent man involved beyond his depth might have more reason to run” (44). It’s clear at this juncture that Densmore knows his guilt will be assumed, that he will be called on to prove his innocence. How does one prove innocence? Must one acquire and present evidence? Must one, in the event of proximity to a crime, always be gathering evidence and formulating arguments of innocence?

When two detectives show up to question Densmore, he is immediately intimidated. His anxiety seems to burst out of him; his first question is whether or not the detectives are there to arrest him. During the ensuing interrogation, one of the detectives reveals that a witness saw a black doctor (he does not use so kind a term as ‘black’) driving the teenager into town in his “big white Cadillac” (55). And now we know that Dr. Hugh Densmore is a black man. We also know that the detectives, whether they open their eyes to it or not, are racists. Densmore’s anxiety and apprehension, his fear of the police, and his general doubt in controlling his own narrative become not only understandable, but also inevitable. In the first third of The Expendable Man, Dorothy B. Hughes depicts race as if it were a tablespoon of salt in a glass of ice water—it is present, yet undetectable. Until, of course, one is thirsty and must swig from the glass. For Densmore, this means he understands that racial bias exists within law enforcement, but he has not yet tasted the bitterness of that bias. Once he is connected by a witness to the dead woman, Densmore takes a long swig of that salty water. With his new legal trouble, race is the primary issue. If Densmore does not prove his innocence, race will be the decisive issue. Whatever your race, on page 55 of the book, with one character’s brief comment and description, the disparity that exists between perception and reality is clearly outlined—we all see it, whether black, white, or brown…the disparity between perception and reality is now a plot device. It has become a tool of craftsmanship.

The young doctor’s understanding of his situation is described, in part, by what W.E.B. Du Bois termed double consciousness. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois writes: "It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of the measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." (2) The young doctor knows the truth of himself, that he simply gave a ride to a young woman who needed one. He also knows the truth of white public perception—he is a black man taking a pretty, young, white woman for a ride. And she ends up dead after enduring a secretive abortion. At the heart of the Densmore’s presumed guilt is the assumption of power and its location. Power, in the society Hughes sketches, resides in the white body, and—by extension—in the white body politic. Of course, The Expendable Man was published in 1963, and is clearly a noir of stunning realism. In a piece about the book for The New Yorker, Christine Smallwood writes, “Difference is defined by oppositions of power, after all—black, white; accuser, accused. Noir provides a language and rhythm for such differences.” Difference, however, has a cousin: disparity. And while it is not so visible as the blatancy of difference, disparity still carries within it myriad oppositions of power. In Densmore, Hughes creates a character at the perceived height of society—a doctor intent on researching cancer—and still he is subject to the basest and most treacherous of assumptions cast by men. As Smallwood puts it, “Densmore is exemplary, but he is still expendable. His guilt precedes him…”

I’d argue further that Dorothy B. Hughes, in her use of double consciousness as a tool of craftsmanship, gives physical form to the unspoken. The Expendable Man is a work about the monstrosity, the depravity, the utter insolvency of ignorance. There can be no true progress in human rights without a shared agreement—between all of us—about what is real. We are here. We exist. Our perceptions vary, and yet the effects of those perceptions do not waver. Perhaps the effects we see (and experience) on a daily basis—we might all agree—are reality. These effects then, as manifested in our daily interactions, are the truth. Our ways of seeing (or not seeing) not only make our world, but can also dismantle and reassemble our world. James Baldwin writes, “[T]ruth, as used here, is meant to imply a devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment; freedom which cannot be legislated, fulfillment which cannot be charted” (10-11). In The Expendable Man, Hugh Densmore escapes his accusations and takes to the highway with his future wife. His life is uncharted beyond the long road from Phoenix to Los Angeles, but it is a life still under observation and accusation by the tired eyes of monsters.

It is now the year 2018 and I wonder whether, to some degree, Dr. Hugh Densmore would still be The Expendable Man?

 

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955. Print.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Dover Thrift Editions, 1994. Print.

Hughes, Dorothy B. The Expendable Man. New York: Hudson Review of Books, 2012. Print.

Smallwood, Christine. “The Crime of Blackness: Dorothy B. Hughes’s Forgotten Noir.” www.newyorker.com 15 August 2012. Web.

Pop Culture Preview

November 17, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

This book review was originally published in the November 2017 issue of HMU: Dialogues.

Tube Talk, Double Features, and Sound Bites, three new publications from the Great Books Foundation.

In February, Harrison Middleton University will cohost the inaugural Southwest Great Books Weekend  which will focus on a new popular culture series from the Great Books Foundation. We will discuss essays about television (Tube Talk), film (Double Features) and music (Sound Bites). Their focus on popular culture offers some timely and important readings worthy of discussion. I was fortunate to grab a sneak preview, and so I wanted to express my enthusiasm for February's event. These essays offer any number of interesting discussions. More than that, however, I think it is vital to take a better look at the culture that we are currently making, promoting and consuming.

First of all, these three genres unite in the fact that each medium is meant to be shared. We follow television shows and films on social media, we pick favorite characters, dress in character and create intricate fandoms. We talk about our favorite media at work, in school, on the phone or at coffee shops. Clearly, we want to share our opinions or questions with others. What better opportunity, then, to share our ideas with a group of open-minded individuals interested in the same topics!? The three volumes look at what these personas might tell us about ourselves as individuals, or as cultures. In addition, they include articles of events of such originality that there is literally no word or phrase yet adequate to describe the intricate relationship between show writers, on-screen character and impersonations.

An article from Tube Talk discusses one unnamed phenomenon that has been generated by fans of Mad Men. As technology continues to evolve, it increases our avenues to connect, but also blurs the lines surrounding reality. For example, Twitter accounts impersonating Mad Men characters quickly arose, and though the show stopped after seven seasons, the Twitter accounts continue – in character. I wonder, what enjoyment do we get from assuming the voice of characters in something like Mad Men? One blogger says “I try and think like [Roger Sterling], tweet what he might say. It’s creative, and a lot of fun.” This requires a serious engagement with the time period, an understanding of cultural constraints in that society and, of course, a thorough study of the character. The Twitter-author-voice must thoroughly know the character to presuppose what they would do. And of course, in creating an alter-ego, there is the question of losing the alter-ego. 

The rise of Twitter in tandem with shows like Newsroom and Mad Men, which relate to a relatively recent time of American history, has created a different kind of fandom than that of, say, Star Trek. Yet the urge to become or live in a fictional skin continues. The introduction to Tube Talk claims that “[Television] is the greatest mirror that our global society has ever held up to itself, and even though sometimes we may not like what we see, it is impossible to look away.” I would further say that, not only is it impossible to look away, we should not look away. Rather, we should attempt to understand the underlying culture as a way to change what we do not like, or to better understand that which we do not know. For example, in the introduction to Double Features, Nick Clement writes, “The collective practice of gathering with a group of strangers in a darkened theater to watch images moving on a screen represents one of the more unusual agreements that human beings can reach.” Funny, but his comment also opens up a number of different questions regarding film culture, human connection and historic trends.

These books offer some excellent insight into current culture. They are an essential reminder that, for better or worse, we actively participate in a dynamic era filled with mixed media and art forms. It is essential that we realize our involvement in these forms if we have any intention to understand ourselves and our society. If we intend to create the best future for ourselves, our children and our communities, then it is worth our time to understand contemporary art forms. I look forward to discussing these books in February!

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

Plutarch Review

May 19, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's review. (This was originally published in the HMU: Dialogues May 2017 newsletter. You can find the rest of the newsletter at hmu.edu .)

Plutarch. The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Roman; The Dryden Translation.

Throughout the Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans, Plutarch surprised me with his repeated generosity and devotion to virtue. I choose the word generosity deliberately. In his writings, Plutarch enables the reader to meet a variety of great characters, but he also expresses information and emotion regarding the virtues of their interaction with others.

Each narrative builds a world around the main individual and describes them in the fullest context available. He discusses ancestry, birth, heritage, expectations, culture, education, friendships, travel and, of course, warfare. This is all in an attempt to better understand virtue. He also includes information about the women closest to them. He endeavors with great effort to learn about and write about the entire environment of the times while simultaneously excluding his own prejudices (which he admits is partially unavoidable).

Plutarch's Lives do not move chronologically. Instead, he chooses parallel leaders of similar virtues, explaining the history of each, first Greek and then Roman. He then writes a short comparison which includes his analysis of the leader, the times and the leader’s reaction to the times. At the beginning of his section on Alexander, he writes, “My design is not to write histories, but lives.” The distinction is important. Plutarch never intends to tell a chronological story. He never intends to map a geography. His proposal, and I believe, his great success, is to recreate a story of a real man who became larger than life and had to wrestle with extraordinary circumstances in his pursuit of excellence. In each section, the man outgrows his life, many of them with heartbreaking results. For example, Cato the Younger takes his own life after many long years of arguing that Julius Caesar's path would be ruinous to Rome. In other words, Cato, who self-identified as a stoic, took his own life when he realized that he was an anomaly according to contemporary society. He saw none of his own values reflected back to him from the society which had chosen Caesar. It is unclear whether the people chose, or whether the many factors involved became too complex a web to change. Either way, Cato, feeling sadness and defeat, removes himself. From this example, the reader better understands the complexity of the pursuit of virtue.

In another example, Tiberius Gracchus and his defenders are brutally butchered by senators wielding benches and the paraphernalia from the senate room. Plutarch notes, “[O]f the rest there fell above three hundred killed by clubs and staves only, none by an iron weapon.” He also notes that this was the first seditious act experienced in Rome. Though Tiberius was a prized soldier, which is most often to be prized, it seems even more incongruous and painful for such a man to fall in an enclosed room of angry and jealous senators who disliked his austerity and friendship with the poorer class. Plutarch paints a brutal portrait of greed, jealousy and fear. In the comparison, then, it is not surprising to find that Plutarch prizes Tiberius' lack of aggression. In a life led by reason, logic and temperance, Plutarch is understandably outraged by a lack of compassion and civility, but can in no way support fighting one's own countrymen.

In the history itself, Plutarch discusses possible motivations and often comments on abuses, but he reserves final judgement until he places that person in contrast with another person. This is remarkable for two reasons. First, Plutarch himself struggles with the cultural ties that bind his own perspective. In order to better understand the intricate strings woven into culture, he identifies these great, heroic, brave and revered men, and places them one against another. This instructive device formalizes a sort of compassion that is difficult to demonstrate, especially in historical writings. This compassion, however, is a foundational piece of Plutarch.

He genuinely felt the importance of each scene that he describes, and most definitely understood the intricate web of events and backstory. Secondly, Plutarch's reluctance to judge based upon immediate evidence leads to a broader discussion and development of virtue. At times, he finds the cultural hero to be of lower virtue than previously imagined. Myth often breeds inaccuracies. Plutarch attempts to enlighten us by removing the heroic figure from the man in discussion of the path from man to cultural hero. Therefore, his writings instruct future generations on a vast conglomeration of past actions. The importance of this cannot be underscored enough.

My main frustration with Plutarch's text is that a few of his comparisons are missing, most notably, Caesar and Alexander. I wonder what he actually said when comparing these two great leaders and warriors. Plutarch often scolds others for an over-abundance of ambition, which is undoubtedly true in the case of these great warriors. But, is it possible that Plutarch noted a greater good extending from the leadership and actions of these two who undoubtedly caused greatness to be mixed with much ruin and destruction? The reader is meant to ponder, and so, as is always the case with a great work, one is left with more questions than answers.

Plutarch values love, but does not condemn the men whose marriages are without love. Plutarch values compassion, but does not condemn the actions that seem to lack compassion. Plutarch values action, but does not immediately revere a man of action. Instead, the magic of this text is that Plutarch describes life, in all its complexity. He honestly recreates the lives of famous individuals and then offers judgement based upon all of the gathered information, including cultural restrictions. I strongly feel that this invaluable text should still be studied and discussed because it deals with the idea of virtue from the very beginnings of human history. It grants a sweeping view of history, but also reinforces the fact that we experience the same emotions, desires and needs as our ancestors. This history is not so ancient as to be irrelevant, but quite the reverse. Plutarch's exhaustive research and careful reason are still worthy of attention. I do not intend to say that one must agree with Plutarch's definition of virtue, but rather how fruitful it is to see history through someone else's eyes.

If you are interested in Plutarch, consider joining our July Quarterly Discussion which will focus on Plutarch's Lives. Email asimon@hmu.edu for more information.

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

 

BOOK REVIEW: Imperfect Ideal

November 20, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for the following book review. This was first published in the HMU fall newsletter.

Alquist, Denise, et al., eds. Imperfect Ideal: Utopian and Dystopian Visions. Chicago: Great Books Foundation, 2015. Print.

In his essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”, Oscar Wilde says, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.” The complexities involved in crafting an ideal state are immeasurable. Likewise, printing a book about utopia can be a daunting task. However, The Great Books Foundation (GBF) recently printed a new text attempting just that.

In classic GBF style, the book includes all genres, from poetry to essay, science fiction and political treatises. Imperfect Ideal places texts of different formats creatively. For example, “The Economic Basis of the Withering Away of the State” by Vladimir Lenin falls in between the essay by Oscar Wilde and a selection from the science-fiction novel We by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin.

In addition, the selections in Imperfect Ideal stretch across a long history, beginning with early treatises by authors such as Mencius and Aristotle. There are also more modern-day essays, such as Robert Owen's “A New View of Society”. Each of these authors approaches the idea of utopia from two standpoints. First, each one speaks with a specific historical reference point and, second, each has a precise form of government that they address. GBF has creatively selected pieces that can be specific to a region and time, yet they also address similar issues found in other times and places. This tactic enriches the dialogue of utopia itself. As Oscar Wilde says, utopia is a dream that exists in every culture, yet there is no singular approach.

The idea of utopia inherently involves human desire, which further complicates the argument. Wandering through the full text demonstrates the fact that man has a few basic requirements and, yet, an infinite possibility of desires. As a sort of answer to the great variety of landscapes encompassed by the idea of utopia, GBF separated Imperfect Ideal into sections. These sections discuss questions such as what is 'best', what is missing, and the map of internal, specific human desires. Under each subheading, then, falls three or four texts that really represent the main idea of that section. Each of these selections, however, is also larger than its subheading. The ideas and questions overlap.

One idea that runs throughout these texts is that perfect peace and perfect perfection does not satisfy man. In the science-fiction texts, these elements lead to an unstable, disintegrating world. In the political treatises, these elements are controlled by some force who claims perfection, at the expense of an other. There is an ever-present element of discord that also, ironically, unites man. For example, Dostoyevsky's “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is an example of a fight against culturally-accepted barriers and imposed values. At the end, the narrator declares that he will continue to fight and this purpose drives him to live a better life. In some way, the fight is as necessary as the goal.

This text highlights many of the Great Ideas, but one pleasant surprise was the interplay of the idea of One and Many. One person has the power to affect the happiness of the many and vice versa. For example, in “Black Box” by Jennifer Egan, the narrator states, “In the new heroism, the goal is to transcend individual life, with its petty pains and loves, in favor of the dazzling collective.” This idea is also present in Lenin's essay, and he notes that the state will pass through trouble before arriving at the ideal. However, the reverse is important in Ursula Le Guin's and George Saunders' short stories, which focus on the importance of providing a community which allow for individual growth. For this reason, Imperfect Ideal succeeds in raising important questions about an idealized world. Many of these experiments involve some form of enthusiasm, some strife, personal ideals, all of which stem from individual desires.

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll to the bottom.