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

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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 Auerbach, author of that masterpiece of twentieth-century literary analysis, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946), which was written, largely from memorized sources, while Auerbach was in exile in wartime Istanbul. Auerbach was to be an abiding influence on Jameson, whose doctoral dissertation, published as Sartre: The Origins of a Style, was a philological, philosophical, and historical investigation not only of Sartre’s writings but also of his position as a leading proponent of existentialism.

Jameson’s study of Sartre was one of the factors that spurred him toward Marxist literary theory. He was influenced too by the work of members of the Frankfurt School, many of whom, after the accession of Hitler to power, had fled Europe and settled in the United States, in most cases unwillingly, and in some cases with bitter resentment—Frankfurt scholars such as Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse saw American capitalism as not much better than fascist totalitarianism, to the rise of which they had been appalled witnesses in Europe in the 1930s.1 From the theoretical radicalism of Adorno and Marcuse, as well as the Marxist writings of Walter Benjamin, Louis Althusser, and the Hungarian György Lukács, Jameson developed an approach to criticism that not only dealt with the intentional dimensions of the literary work, but sought to identify the historical—or Historical—forces that, often without the author’s awareness of them, guided, indeed to a certain degree dictated, the production of the work.

In the 1980s Jameson took on postmodernism, that philosophy, or pseudophilosophy, which would have regarded Marxist theory, for instance, as little more than a manner of speaking, since, as Jacques Derrida notoriously asserted, all is “text,” and beyond the text there is nothing. As a Marxist, Jameson naturally rejected postmodernist thinking, deploring its antifoundationalist leveling tendencies, its relativism and thoroughgoing skepticism, all of which, as a man of the left, he would have regarded as scandalously ahistorical. He saw postmodernism as a phenomenon brought about by the pressures of latter-day corporate capitalism, and branded its cultural products as mere pastiche. In this regard he was following Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the latter a longtime director of the Frankfurt School’s Institute for Social Research. In their joint 1944 work, Dialectic of Enlightenment, and most pointedly in the chapter in that book on “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” Adorno and Horkheimer excoriated popular culture, especially in its American manifestation, as late capitalism’s triumphant mode of infantilizing and controlling the masses.


In the light of their critique, suddenly it became as legitimate to study such things as newspaper astrology columns—which Adorno did, assiduously—Hollywood movies, and pulp fiction as it was to evaluate the novels of Thomas Mann or the music of Arnold Schoenberg. In this, if in nothing else, les extrêmes se touchent, or appear to, so that Jameson’s Marxist analysis of the forms of popular entertainment can seem to some of his fellow critics little different from the trivial games the postmodernists liked to play amid the ruins of Western high culture.

Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality is something of a temporal hybrid, or as the author has it, “the synthesis of several perspectives on Chandler developed over the decades.” Earlier versions of the text, he tells us, first appeared, from 1970 up to 1993, in a couple of magazines and an anthology, while “a somewhat different version” was published in French translation in 2014. It is well to know this, for the tone and style vary significantly between the book’s three chapters. The first chapter, “Shill Game,” which does read as if it might date back to 1970, is a relatively straightforward study of Chandler’s novels as singular in style, and yet at the same time as related to the work of “the chief practitioners of art-for-art’s sake in the late modern novel,” Vladimir Nabokov and Alain Robbe-Grillet.2

The remaining two chapters, “Mapping Space” and “The Barrier at the End of the World,” are increasingly dense and intricate, and in places, indeed, will be almost impenetrable for the nonspecialist reader. Certainly it calls for a stiffening of the sinews and a straightening of the shoulders to press on past a page that begins thus:

Following Greimas, we will need at least four fundamental semes, or two fundamental oppositions, in order for this thematic constellation to emerge in the form of some genuine ideological system….

Still, it is worth clambering over the odd hurdle.

Jameson notes that Chandler “thought of himself primarily as a stylist” and compares him directly to Nabokov, since both men had to write at a distance from, or even outside of, “the American language”—Nabokov learned his English from a governness in Russia, while Chandler had his early schooling at Dulwich College in England, where P.G. Wodehouse and C.S. Forester were his fellow pupils. Although Jameson does not mention it, there is in Chandler’s case a further distancing from standard American English by virtue of the fact that both his parents were Irish: his mother was born in the city of Waterford, and met in America the man who would become her husband, whose own people, by coincidence, had emigrated from the same city.

The writer working in an adopted language, Jameson observes, “is already a kind of stylist by force of circumstance.” Chandler himself was sharply aware of this:

I had to learn American just like a foreign language. To use it I had to study it and analyze it. As a result, when I use slang, colloquialisms, snide talk or any kind of off-beat language I do it deliberately. The literary use of slang is a study in itself. I’ve found that there are only two kinds that are any good: slang that has established itself in the language, and slang that you make up yourself. Everything else is apt to be passé before it gets into print….

According to Jameson, for an experimentalist in style such as Chandler, the detective story is an ideal form, since it is “without ideological content, without any overt political or social or philosophical point.” Nevertheless, he goes on, Chandler’s fiction affords us a general view of society at all levels of class, but especially the top and the bottom, that is, the super-rich and, not the poor, exactly, but the irredeemably down-at-heel, who, in Jameson’s fine phrase, “have their lack of money stamped on them as catastrophe.” Thus in all Chandler’s work the action moves between the mansions of the wealthy and the cheap apartment houses and seedy hotels haunted by losers, grifters, and small-time crooks; his settings are placed, Jameson writes, “inside the microcosm, in the darkness of a local world without the benefit of the federal Constitution, as in a world without God.”


Raymond Chandler, 1947; photograph by George Platt Lynes

Condé Nast/Getty Images

Raymond Chandler, 1947; photograph by George Platt Lynes

Being himself a kind of drifter—from his birthplace, Chicago, to London, to Paris and Munich, to Canada and San Francisco and, finally, Los Angeles, the most transient of American cities—Chandler knew whereof he wrote. The mean streets down which his protagonist Philip Marlowe ventures stalwartly and alone mark the liminal frontiers between wealth and indigence, between law and some kind of order, between the city and the jungle—although as Jameson points out, in Chandler’s books, “in an eerie optical illusion, the jungle reappears in the suburbs.”

Marlowe is far from being Marcuse’s “one-dimensional man,” yet even for a hard-boiled private eye he is remarkably unencumbered. He has no family, and seems to possess nothing other than a coffeepot, a chess set, and, sometimes, a gun. Every woman he falls for lets him keep on falling, until eventually, and entirely implausibly, he marries a rich man’s daughter—although his one true but undeclared love surely is Terry Lennox, the scarred war hero and alcoholic bad boy of The Long Goodbye. Through Marlowe, Jameson writes, “we are able to see, to know, the society as a whole, but he does not really stand for any genuine experience of it.”

Marlowe’s is an in-between existence, and the world he half inhabits is hardly recognizable to us anymore; as Jameson observes, part of the appeal of Chandler’s books is nostalgic, for “they are among a whole class of objects we once called ‘camp.’” Marlowe’s unflagging decency appears to us now an anachronism, as does the insouciance with which he shows off his chauvinism, his racism, his contempt for “fairies,” and of course his misogyny—it is notable that in all the major Chandler novels the killer turns out to be a woman.

Yet if Marlowe has little that he can call his own save his honor, his surroundings teem with commodities that his creator meticulously classifies and catalogues—hardly any woman writer would expend as much effort in describing women’s clothes as Chandler does. All these old-style, pre–Mad Men hats and double-breasted suits and chrome-laden motor cars “require a stable, relatively unchanging identity in order to become identified and adopted by the public,” Jameson notes, in full Marxist mode.

Thus the older kinds of products remain relatively integrated into the landscape of natural objects; they still fulfill easily identifiable needs, desires which are still felt to be relatively “natural”; lying midway between nature (land, climate, foodstuffs) and human reality, they correspond to a world in which the principal activity is still the overcoming of the resistance of nature and of things, and in which human need and desire arise as a function of that struggle.

If Marlowe seems unhoused in the world, there is one place where he can feel entirely at home, and that is, paradoxically, his office. Jameson places much emphasis on the idea of the office, which he conceives in Chandler’s work as “a single archetypal space which can stand for the human dwelling as such.” The office, he writes,

is in Chandler, if not a well-nigh ontological category, then at least one which subsumes a much wider variety of social activity than it is normally understood to do—indeed, the very notion that work is somehow fundamentally related to the space of an office is itself a sociologically revealing class marker.

Jameson sees in these novels “a kind of substitution of an architectural language for that of individual characters”—Chandler’s people become the spaces they inhabit, or rather, “these spaces are ‘characters’ or actants.” We find an echo of this assertion from another left-leaning critic, T.J. Clark, who in his book Picasso and Truth makes the perhaps surprising but, it turns out, persuasive claim that Cubism, as well as being the iconoclastic movement that it was taken to be, represented, in its concentration of the subject into small spaces, a kind of apotheosis of bourgeois values. For the bourgeoisie, Clark writes, the world is a room. “Rooms, interiors, furnishings, covers, curlicues are the ‘individual’ made flesh. And no style besides Cubism has ever dwelt so profoundly in these few square feet, this little space of possession and manipulation.”3

A case might be made, Jameson points out, that one of the “social and ritual functions” of the detective story is the “reinvention of the myth of the private, of private space and personal or private life….” However, one of the peculiarities of Los Angeles is “the coexistence of the urban and the natural landscapes,” of the inside and the outside, of the natural and the man-made, of the private space and the public. We think of Chandler’s novels as quintessentially fictions of the city, yet nature figures in them throughout—at the end of almost every room that Marlowe enters there will be a window, with greenery beyond, and then, beyond that, the ubiquitous, oneiric foothills.

And then there is the weather. The chapter sequence in The Big Sleep, Jameson remarks, is “a virtual fever chart of weather,” and more than that:

The realm of the weather—and Chandler’s attention to it—turns out in fact to be the unifying mechanism of these novels, in a far more concrete fashion than the complex plots themselves: it is the evolution of the weather…which holds together the otherwise random or even centrifugal tendency of the episodes to drift apart from one another, to become “timeless” unities in their own right.

As we progress through his book we come to recognize that Jameson is bent on identifying, on bringing out into the Heideggerian clearing, the latent dualities that lie at the heart of Chandler’s work. The novels at once offer “closure,” that is, an essential self-containedness, but they also, and much more radically, refuse the constraints that closure necessarily imposes. In the final chapter Jameson notes that so far he has “largely followed the implications of a classical structuralist aesthetic,…or at least the aesthetic effect of formal closure and formal satisfaction….”

Now, however, he returns to that peculiar aspect of the city of Los Angeles that offers the possibility of simultaneously being inside and outside, the possibility that “this particular deployment of the ‘urban’ includes nature in a dialectically different way,” and that therefore “programmatically avoids the attribution of any a priori content to terms hitherto implicitly predefined by such traditional oppositions as subject and object or culture and nature.”

At this point he turns for assistance to Heidegger’s magnificent essay “The Origin of the Work of Art,” which the philosopher first delivered as a public lecture in Freiburg in 1935—what his listeners can have made of it is a matter beyond surmise; it is in this essay that the famous phrase occurs, “The world worlds,” which provoked the mockery of more than one of his philosophical colleagues. In Heidegger’s conception of it, the work of art arises from a “rift” between World and Earth, terms that Jameson refigures as “the dimensions of History and the social project on the one hand, and Nature or matter on the other.”

The force of Heidegger’s account lies in the way in which a constitutive gap between these two dimensions is maintained and even systematically enlarged: the implication is that we all live in both dimensions at once, in some irreconcilable simultaneity, at all moments both in History and in Matter, at one and the same time historical beings and “natural” ones, living simultaneously in the meaning-endowment of the historical project and in the meaninglessness of organic life.

It is this seemingly impossible simultaneity of our being in the world—though not the World—that Chandler’s novels emphasize with “unmistakable aesthetic intensity.” But whatever the aesthetics of the matter, the vision Jameson offers us is a bleak one. Turning sleuth himself for the purposes of his inquiry, he draws our attention to what he considers “one of the most fascinating and enigmatic objects in all of Chandler,” namely, in Chandler’s own description, “a white fence of four-by-fours” at the dead end of a road where, in Farewell, My Lovely—which Jameson considers Chandler’s finest achievement—Marlowe is supposed to have a rendezvous with thieves but ends up being knocked unconscious. The fence stands there, stark, immovable, final, a brute reminder of life’s limitedness, “as though it somehow marked the end of the world itself.”

In these final pages of Jameson’s book death rises up before us, ineluctable, horribly final, “something like a spatial concept, a spatial construction,” similar to nature “when at its farthest verge…it touches on the outer edge of Being itself.” It is as if the “rift” that Chandler insists on holding open is in fact the entrance to the Underworld. Beyond the white fence, beyond the sea that figures so often in Chandler, and that is, according to Jameson, “the watery element that is the sign of the non-human axis of matter in these novels.”

Jameson’s short book thus comes to a conclusion that is, strangely, at once dispiriting and invigorating. If we are inclined to let ourselves be seduced by Chandler’s entrancing prose style into forgetting what lies at the heart of all detective novels, then it is here that we will be brought up short. “I claim, indeed,” Jameson writes, “that it is this opening onto the not-World, onto its edge and its end, in the void, in non-human space, in death, that is the ultimate secret of Chandlerian narrative.” The big sleep, indeed.