What I suffer isn’t self-pity; it is my coming up against the absolute. The ordeal the writer sets himself is to track down existence and then, both stripped naked, fight it out. Everyone experiences this in the end, some-how or other. But often the contest is short and sharp—the last seconds of a motor crash, a fall from a roof, a heart attack, being rolled and beaten to death in a dark street.
– Derek Raymond, He Died with His Eyes Open
Of late I’ve returned to noir, reading a few of the classics and generally enjoying the nuances of the differing styles and contours of this black art of night. Recently began reading Derek Raymond’s Factory novels.
Robert William Arthur Cook, better known since the 1980s by his pen name Derek Raymond, was an English crime writer, credited with being a founder of British noir. The eldest son of a textile magnate, Cook spent his early years at the family’s London house, off Baker Street, tormenting a series of nannies. In 1937, in anticipation of the Second World War, the family retreated to the countryside, to a house near their Kentish castle. In 1944 Cook went to Eton, which he later characterized as a “hotbed of buggery” and “an excellent preparation for vice of any kind”. He dropped out at the age of 17. During his National Service, Cook attained the rank of corporal. After a brief stint working for the family business, selling lingerie in a department store in Neath, Wales, he spent most of the 1950s abroad. He lived in the Beat Hotel in Paris, rubbing shoulders with his neighbors William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, and danced at fashionable left bank boîtes with the likes of Juliette Greco. In New York he resided on the Lower East Side and was married to an heiress from New England for all of sixty-five days. He claimed that he was sick of the dead-on-its-feet upper crust he was born into, that he didn’t believe in and didn’t want, whose values were meaningless. (wiki)
I’m almost finished with his first novel in the series He Died With His Eyes Open, which like most noir has an inevitability about it; a sense that we are witnessing a litany of doom, the steady march of death that inclines from a horror of life to a life of horror. As A.L. Kennedy will tell us this work “has a remarkable and disturbing physicality” about it.1 I would add that it is not so much the physicality as in a substantive vision as it is in a visceral immaterialism: the throb of words that inhabit one with a knowledge of the darkness within and without tingling in the very flesh of thought.
There is a moment in the book when the main character – a detective in London’s Metropolitan Police division A14 – that unlike Scotland’s Yard deals with the deaths of outcasts, unknowns, and the poor, etc. – remembers an early memory of a Sculptor he once knew. The unidentified detective conveys his meeting with the Sculptor saying:
Nobody who mattered liked his sculpture; when I went over to his council studio I understood why. His figures reminded me of Ingres crossed with early Henry Moore; they were extraordinarily graceful, and far too honest to mean anything whatever to current trendy taste. There was a quality in them that no artist nowadays can seize anymore; they expressed virtues—toughness, idealism, determination—that went out of style with a vanished Britain that I barely remembered. I asked him why, with his talent, he didn’t progress to a more modern attitude, but he said it was no use; he was still struggling to represent the essence of what he had experienced in the thirties.2
This notion of his failure to represent the essence of his experience conveys the very truth of what he sought, brings with it that moment of insight into things of which Zizek has repeatedly seen as the central core of a materialist vision: the most elementary figure of dialectical reversal resides in transposing an epistemological obstacle into the thing itself, as its ontological failure (what appears to us as our inability to know the thing indicates a crack in the thing itself, so that our very failure to reach the full truth is the indicator of truth).3 The Sculptor’s very failure to attain the essence of his experience is in itself the very condition of its truth, acknowledging the cracks in the stone that will not reveal that knot of light quickens the very truth in the mind that beholds it.
Our detective will ask him “why, with his talent, he didn’t progress to a more modern attitude, but he said it was no use; he was still struggling to represent the essence of what he had experienced in the thirties” (ibid. 176). The Sculptor will reply:
‘What I’m always trying to capture,’ he explained, ‘is the light, the vision inside a man, and the conviction which that light lends his action, his whole body. Haven’t you noticed how the planes of a man’s body alter when he’s in the grip of a belief? The ex-bank-clerk acquires the stature of an athlete as he throws a grenade—or, it might be, I recollect the instant where an infantryman in an attack, a worker with a rifle, is stopped by a bullet: I try to reconstruct in stone the tragedy of a free man passing from life to death, from will to nothingness: I try to capture the second in which he disintegrates. It’s an objective that won’t let me go,’ he said, ‘and I don’t want it to.’ He had been full of promise before he went to Spain; he grubbed about and found me some of his old press-cuttings. In one of them he was quoted as saying: ‘A sculptor’s task is to convey the meaning of his time in terms of its overriding idea. If he doesn’t transmit the idea he’s worth nothing, no matter how much fame he acquires or money he makes. The idea is everything.’ (ibid. 176)
This notion of retroactivity, of reconstructing in “stone the tragedy of a free man passing from life to death, from will to nothingness” of trying “to capture the second in which he disintegrates”: this moment or event at the horizon of intelligibility, when the oscillation between life and death, will and nothingness collide in the instant that can never be re-presented except retroactively in the very movement of the sculptor’s hands on stone: this is event of which Zizek speaks of Hölderlin:
he sees the solution in a narrative which retroactively reconstructs the very “eccentric path” (the path of the permanent oscillation between the loss of the Center and the repeated failed attempts to regain the immediacy of the Center) as the process of maturation, of spiritual education. (Zizek, KL 577)
Isn’t this the Lacanian object petit a – the central paradox of the excess which cannot be conveyed because it is always beyond representation:
The paradox is here the paradox of a thing which is always (and nothing but) an excess with regard to itself: in its “normal” state, it is nothing. This brings us back to Lacan’s notion of the objet a as surplus-enjoyment: there is no “basic enjoyment” to which one adds the surplus-enjoyment; enjoyment is always a surplus, in excess. The object-in-itself (photon, atom) is here not negated/ mediated, it emerges as the (retroactive) result of its mediation.(Zizek, KL 95)
One could read this as pure Idealism, as the typical realist of Ideas; or, one could read it in another way, as the opposite of what we usually think of an Idea. As Zizek in his reading of the Parmenides suggests:
…as to the status of Ideas, then the result should be that Ideas do not exist, do not have ontological reality of their own: they persist as purely virtual points of reference. That is to say, the only appropriate conclusion is that eternal Ideas are Ones and Others which do not participate in (spatio-temporal) Being (which is the only actual being there is): their status is purely virtual. This virtual status was made clear by Deleuze, one of the great anti-Platonists. Deleuze’s notion of the Virtual is to be opposed to the all-pervasive topic of virtual reality: what matters to Deleuze is not virtual reality, but the reality of the virtual (which, in Lacanian terms, is the Real). Virtual Reality in itself is a rather miserable idea: that of imitating reality, of reproducing experience in an artificial medium. The reality of the Virtual, on the other hand, stands for the reality of the Virtual as such, for its real effects and consequences. (Zizek, KL 1739)
He will continue in this vein on the Parmenides, telling us that Plato’s battle against the Sophists consisted of reaction to their fracturing of words and things, and philosophy “proper can only be understood as a reaction to this, as an attempt to close the gap the sophists opened up, to provide a foundation of truth for words, to return to mythos but under the new conditions of rationality.” (ibid. KL 1953) Plato himself was the first philosopher who tried to provide a foundation for truth based on his theory of Ideas, and in his battle with the Sophists he realized just how fragile this foundation truly was. As Zizek will tell us:
The irony of the history of philosophy is that the line of philosophers who struggle against the sophistic temptation ends with Hegel, the “last philosopher,” who, in a way, is also the ultimate sophist, embracing the self-referential play of the symbolic with no external support of its truth. For Hegel, there is truth, but it is immanent to the symbolic process— the truth is measured not by an external standard, but by the “pragmatic contradiction,” the inner (in) consistency of the discursive process, the gap between the enunciated content and its position of enunciation. (Zizek, KL 1962)
The irony in Derek Raymond’s book comes in acknowledging that the truth his friend tried to convey in his efforts would all come to naught:
I knew what would happen to Ransome’s work when he died. The council would come round, view what Ransome had left behind, and order it to be junked; a truck would arrive, and a couple of men with sledgehammers. The whole lot would be smashed up and go into the council dump; in a thousand years’ time one of his stone faces might be found staring enigmatically upwards from the base of a demolished block. Meanwhile, in our lifetime, horrible pieces of rubbish, commissioned by the ignorant from the ambitious, would continue to clutter London parks, blessed by the senile patronage of the Arts Council. (‘The most terrifying responsibility in stone,’ Ransome said, ‘is that it’s eternal.’) The dwindling number of places in London parks where you could peacefully eat a sandwich in the shade of the plane trees on a hot day would go on being deformed by stone drivel, bronze and marble drivel, eternal drivel. (Raymond, 177)
Isn’t this truly the sadness at the heart of noir, the acknowledgement that our lives, the lives of those situated outside the accepted halls of the rich, powerful, and elite – for lack of a better term, “the beautiful people” (those captured in the mediataiment stain of an irreal world) will ultimately go down into the darkness forgotten and alone. The trace of our accomplishments broken in the dustbin of history like so many stone sculptures shredded and pulverized into oblivion. This is the bleakness of noir: people would rather live in the illusory than know the truth of their unlived lives. Yet, one also realizes that our anonymous detective has redeemed the truth of this man and his work through narrating it retroactively so that we the readers receive the very light or aura that was hidden in the ruins of those stones become words.
1. A.L. Kennedy’s Darkness Visible: ‘He Died With His Eyes Open’ Is A Crime Novel Like No Other (NPR March 10, 2013)
2. Raymond, Derek (2011-10-04). He Died with His Eyes Open (Factory 1) (p. 176). Random House Inc Clients. Kindle Edition.
3. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 588-590). Norton. Kindle Edition.