Eros & Memory: Noir, Poetry, and the Past


James Ellroy opens his roman noir or memoir of his mother’s death, The Black Dahlia, his fictionalization of her world, milieu, friends, associates, enemies, the cops that tried to unravel her unfortunate death; all the aspects of a life that Ellroy never had direct access too, only the leavings and losses, the “traces of traces” (Derrida) left in the dustbin of history, myth, fact, and other’s memories. As Ellroy describes it in his first paragraph:

I never knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them. Working backward, seeking only facts, I reconstructed her as a sad little girl and a whore , at best a could-have-been— a tag that might equally apply to me. I wish I could have granted her an anonymous end, relegated her to a few terse words on a homicide dick’s summary report, carbon to the coroner’s office, more paperwork to take her to potter’s field . The only thing wrong with the wish is that she wouldn’t have wanted it that way. As brutal as the facts were, she would have wanted all of them known. And since I owe her a great deal and am the only one who does know the entire story, I have undertaken the writing of this memoir.

Reading that again I find the sheer power of that emphatic statement “I never knew her in life.” to be an almost palpable invocation of loss as there ever was. Obviously the obverse of that statement is “I only knew her in death.” Absence. Trace. History. Fact. A world of shadows and betrayals, doubts, disturbances, semblances, motions in the wind, leaves on the breath…

In William Wordsworth’s poem Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey the poet will remind us of another loss, of the loss of childhood and its attendant memories and the presence of those years in the mind’s dark weave: “I cannot paint / What then I was.”, he tells us. He goes on to say:

The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, not any interest
Unborrowed from the eye. —That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss…

 So in Ellroy we have one form of loss, the loss of his mother, and of never having had direct access to her, her presence in his life; and, the other of Wordsworth, who at one time had direct access in his childhood to the joys of natural existence that had “no need of a remoter charm, / By thought supplied”. Yet, both will come to that moment of agreement, both will seek out a specific set of fictional impress coming from thought and reflection of absent facts, on “traces of traces” as Derrida would have it. This notion of indirect access to the past through the discursive traces of others knowledge of the said “facts”, in the case of Ellroy of certain Detectives, relatives, etc., and of Wordsworth through his sister and friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and his own memory as reflected in thoughts of that time.

I sometimes think of how such notions impact my own life. My father walked out of my family life at the age of thirteen, divorcing my mother because of his own inadequacies, impotence, and mid-life crisis. He went off to southern California, began a new life, remarried, became a high executive president in ATT & T, etc., and then at the age of forty-six developed cancer of the stomach (partially due to his early Air Force years as a test-pilot in the X-15 program in which he lost most of his stomach due to a decompression accident). Because of the pain he was facing he took, I assume, the only fast way out: he committed suicide, much like Hemingway did, in his living room blowing his brains out with a shotgun.   

All these are facts I learned through hearsay from my sister, mother, etc. who had heard about this from my father’s mother who survived him. I myself had not seen my day since the day he walked out of our lives those many years ago.

So for me there was both forms of loss as described by Ellroy and Wordsworth: there was the before of my childhood memories of my father up to thirteen, and the after or absence of his presence. So in my mind there would always be this ambivalence, hatred, ambiguity, and despair of having lost this supposed authority figure in my life who had betrayed us. All these are facts. Part of growing up, scars that wound us and stay with us, and if we’re strong enough we learn to overcome and accept in the course of existence. For others the wounds never heal and many end in suicide or the insane asylums. In some ways it turned me to poetry and literature, philosophy and history, to all those forms that have been passed down to us of our cultural inheritance.

Oh I could write reams about the psychology of all this as well, but of what use would it be, would it tell us anything new, or would it reiterate the failure of modern psychology from Freud to now to explain anything at all? As Freud himself would always remind us, he’d stolen most of his notions from the poets anyway. So why spend one’s time suffering through the abstract climes of psychology books, when it will ultimately lead back to poetry.

One of the reasons I’ve felt a fondness for noir is that it typifies this whole process of loss, discontinuity, and the search for a substitution or representation in almost perfect cliché form. Noir unlike detective fiction in the older who-dun’it’s was more of a circumambulation around a theme, around the truth and the traces, by means of indirect access and a form of questioning that is always a movement through traces of traces rather than by means of solid objects that sit there in front of unmovable and silent. The truth is that most of the time in noir the missing object, the lost thing, or person is usually also a part of something missing in the protagonist. As Ellroy said in that one sentence: “I never knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them.” The key word is “drove” or in the sense of psychology of being driven or obsessed. Even the outdated Freud put it succinctly: “We know that a human child cannot successfully complete its development to the civilized stage without passing through a phase of neurosis sometimes of greater and sometimes of less distinctness. This is because so many instinctual demands which will later be unserviceable cannot be suppressed by the rational operation of the child’s intellect but have to be tamed by acts of repression, behind which, as a rule, lies the motive of anxiety.”

What if we replace in the above quote “child” with “poet”: We know that a poet cannot successfully complete his/her development to the civilized stage of culture without passing through a phase of anxious expectation sometimes of greater and sometimes of less distinctness. This is because so many instinctual demands which will later be unserviceable cannot be suppressed by the rational operation of the poet’s intellect but have to be tamed by acts of repression, behind which, as a rule, lies the motive of anxiety.” So what is being repressed? What are these instinctual demands? What drives us to pursue art, writing, or in the case of uncovering the truth about one’s mother’s death as in Ellroy? As Bloom would have it Ellroy’s novelistic rendition is an achieved anxiety, a defense against the very dark powers hovering in his own life, and when he says “I owe her a great deal and am the only one who does know the entire story, I have undertaken the writing of this memoir” … what do we here but the oldest of tales, of Coleridge’s Mariner on the threshold, of Melville’s mariner who has returned from the deeps to tell us of the tale of Ahab and the White whale, of all those tales that can never truly be told completely and factually because they are visions of things that exceed all telling. In this sense all poetry is a lie against the facts of life, against the literal truth, against time and death (which is literal meaning caught in sameness and repetition, doomed to repeat endlessly the litanies of despair and defeat).

Most noir anti-hero’s are already malformed and broken creatures of desperation, who live on the edge, who have seen the worst of it and are just trying to survive the best they can. Some can be outsiders like Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor, an alcoholic ex-Guardia (Irish Cop) who have no clue how they fit into the picture, who seem to stumble through existence from moment to moment, case to case, not so much as members of some organized truth squad, but rather as its victims and comic troubadours. Others like Ellroy’s cynics take on the hues of another desperation, one that seems bent on uncovering the very power of evil and corruption itself in the very fabric of reality that surrounds us. Such men quest after a knowledge left in the very stones, blood, and traces of the factual world of lost lives, as if they could through those traces resurrect the very flesh and blood creatures they dream about.

Sometimes I wonder on which side of the divide am I? Then I realize I’m somewhere in-between wandering in the no-man’s land of desperation in a desert much like Stephen King’s fantastic Gunslinger series in search of Robert Browning’s Dark Tower. A sort of grotesque sublime of the visionary impulse that is part fiction, part fact: all connected to thought, memory, and feelings caught up on the voids in search of reality. It’s out of the catastrophes of our lives, those moments between past and future, those severing ties that bind us to continuity and send us into a discontinuous present that forever separates us out of the matrix of desire and unconsciousness, that we suddenly are forced through pain and suffering to forge our won way forward. In those moments of catastrophe the creation of something new is formed that will change us forever.

In the old Romantic poetry this is defined as an internal quest to know who and what we are, to seek out in the sublime the powers that seem to manifest in outer sense as truly the powers of our own internal being at work. Noir tells us that we have no choice in the matter, that we must play out the hand dealt us by fate and power, circumnavigate its ruthless designs upon us and overcome the best we can. Even such as Emerson would ultimately see the truth of this, yet they would both assent to the need to develop defenses against this catastrophic event that seem to lock us as Freud would uncover in repetition-compulsions that lead to endless cycles of pain and lose and ultimately defeat in death or solipsism. In poetry these defensive measures are the very power of rhetoric itself: tropes, the defense against – as Nietzsche would put it, against time and “time’s it was“. For it is against this sense of anteriority, of loss and the endless traces that lead to that moment of creation and catastrophe that make or break us.

For many of us poetry is a form of exploration rather than expression, it opens out onto a blank canvas of the world in an endless movement of search and knowledge, tracing the truth of our lives in tropes and defenses against those dark avenues of power and corruption that would seek to exploit and enslave us. Poetry in this sense is the power of freedom at work in our lives, a movement out of the cage of despair and apathy, darkness and solipsism that can enclose us in a hell of emotion and immeasurable infinity cut off from all that we love, or that could love us in return; our only salvation the wit and humor that keeps us sane.

  1. Ellroy, James (2008-08-01). The Black Dahlia (Kindle Locations 127-132). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

2 thoughts on “Eros & Memory: Noir, Poetry, and the Past

  1. Well done. That first line weighs heavily. I love noir, have spent many hours reading Ellroy – Brown’s Requiem, Clandestine, L.A. Confidential, etc., and am oh so glad that my life has not resembled Ellroy’s in the least. I once owned an copy of Black Dahlia which bore Ellroy’s inscription: “Let this book eat your soul.” It cuts closer than most.


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