Philip Marlowe’s Revolution

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in a publicity photograph for the film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, 1946
Archivio GBB/Contrasto/Redux
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in a publicity photograph for the film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, 1946

For the critic with a conscious ideology, the world must be a manifold entity, fraught with significance, immanent with shadowed meaning, a landscape strewn with clues. In this endlessly interpreted world, practically everything is metaphor and nothing merely itself. And of course, there is no such thing as an innocent reading. For instance, most nonacademic admirers of the novels and short stories of Raymond Chandler will be startled to learn, from Fredric Jameson’s new book, that these delightful fictions not only emerge, as do all works of art, according to Heidegger, from the “scandalous rift” between World and Earth—a radical distinction that we shall return to later—but indeed hold apart in tension the two sides of that rift, and thus “open a space in which we are ourselves called upon to live within this tension and to affirm its reality.”

One can easily imagine Philip Marlowe’s response, and the response of his creator, to such a notion, and others like it that Professor Jameson elaborates in Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality. Yet by the time we have made our not unhindered way to the close of his short study—and it is in the closing pages that most of the heavy work is done—we shall, even the most anti-Marxian among us, find ourselves compelled, if not to accept the book’s intricate hypotheses, at least to accord them an ungrudged admiration for the brilliance of their formulation and the serene and quietly convinced tone in which they are advanced. Chandler in his essays and correspondence never missed an opportunity to blow a raspberry at literary critics—Edmund Wilson was a particular and frequent object of such spatterings—but in his secret heart he would surely have been gratified to know that his fiction should one day be the subject of such a close reading, and interpreted with the kind of weight and seriousness usually reserved for works of “high” art.

Fredric Jameson, Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at Duke University, is one of the most prominent of the Marxist critics of our time, a body of savants whose influence certainly is disproportionate to their number. Born in 1934, he studied at Haverford College outside Philadelphia, under Wayne Booth, theorist of the rhetorical underpinnings of narrative and originator of the term “unreliable narrator.” Later Jameson spent a brief time in Europe, where in France and Germany he immersed himself in the study of literary theory and, in particular, structuralism, which was all the rage at the time. After a year he returned to the United States and to Yale, and was taught there by the German-Jewish philologist and critic Erich…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.