Carmen Sternwood lay on her back, in my bed, giggling at me. The tawny wave of her hair was spread out on the pillow as if by a careful and artificial hand. Her slaty eyes peered at me and had the effect, as usual, of peering from behind a barrel. She smiled. Her small sharp teeth glinted.
“Cute, aren’t I?” she said.
I said harshly: “Cute as a Filipino on Saturday night.”
So begins perhaps the most instructive scene in Raymond Chandler’s 1939 debut classic of noir fiction, The Big Sleep. Tucked midway through a story about private investigator Philip Marlowe, who is prying into the shady connections of two wild and pretty daughters of an ailing California oilman, we find a super-masculine ideal.
Marlowe’s purpose, from the very start of the novel, is made clear; he wants to earn his pay from the Sternwood girls’ wealthy father, who is making a last-ditch attempt to preserve the quality of his name while dying in a mansion that overlooks his defunct oil fields. In pursuit of satisfying the old man and receiving a paycheck, Marlowe occasionally finds it prudent to use a 100 cc injection of what we now call “game”; in 1939, it was just called being a man.
At one point in time, being a man came natural to males, and stayed with them like a cattle-brand into adulthood and beyond. Today, men forget what they are long before they can escape the ever-tightening vice of boyhood. Philip Marlowe, as he appears in Chandler’s The Big Sleep, is a case study in how an effective man should carry himself. In his time, it was effortless, as the well was relatively poison-free. In our time, a concerted effort must be made by men who cherish old masculine traditions like ambition, aggressiveness, honor, and cunning.
A famous politician once said, “Extremism in the defense of masculinity is no vice. and moderation in the pursuit of self-mastery is no virtue.” Or something to like that. His point was that the defense of certain values are so important that a timid pursuit of them is not only undesirable, but reprehensible, and defending those same values with vigor is not only the best way, but the only morally acceptable way, to ensure their perpetuation.
Man’s most nourishing environment is something like a desert. The desert is an austere and harsh environment that, in spite of its inhospitable climate (or perhaps because of it), cuts a magnificent and unique beauty. A man, in other words, blossoms from the things he refuses himself. A man who allows himself to be smothered in the culture and habits of modern Western society will not flourish among the coddling comforts of his pampers-soft environment, but will instead suffocate among them. A man must deprive himself, to a great extent.
He must refuse himself the convenience of Sonic cheese and bacon-bit dogs to keep his body strong and able. He must refuse himself the convenience of conventional wisdom to keep his mind sharp and curious. As with Marcus Aurelius and the stoics, who slept on cold stone floors instead of beds to train their minds to cope with the inevitable loss of material possessions, the consummate man must deprive himself often, to shore up his mental and physical toughness, which will otherwise erode in the inundating stream of inanity that is the modern West.
Re-enter our case-study, private dick Philip Marlowe. In a pivotal scene, Marlowe returns home from a harrowing day of work to find a beautiful, naked woman in his bed. There are several problems with this particular woman, the youngest of the two Sternwood daughters. To begin, she often uses drugs that conveniently allow her to forget all the dumb shit they cause her to do, like pose for porn. Also, she is the youngest daughter of Marlowe’s client; essentially the subject of his investigation. Lastly, her name is Carmen, and she happens to be blonde.
“I bet you can’t even guess how I got in.”
I dug a cigarette out and looked at her with bleak eyes. “I bet I can. You came through the keyhole, just like Peter Pan.”
“Oh, a fellow I used to know around the poolroom.”
She giggled. “You’re cute, aren’t you?” she said.
Marlowe is playing a game that is etched into his bones. He isn’t kind, he isn’t pliable, and he isn’t a celibate either; in the previous scene, he found it prudent to take a kiss from Carmen’s older sister, Vivian, who had just finished a night of drinking, gambling, and brushing off men (including the desperate lush who is passed out in her car). But when she gives Marlowe the world-famous “Where do you live?” line (I’d guess it’s probably even older than 1939, likely originating from as far back as Genesis), Marlowe is all business.
“Kissing is nice but your father didn’t hire me to sleep with you.”
“You son of a bitch,” she said calmly, without moving.
I laughed in her face. “Don’t think I’m an icicle,” I said. “I’m not blind or without senses. I have warm blood like the next guy. You’re easy to take – too damned easy.”
After calling her out for her boorish attempt at sleeping with him, Marlowe at least does the courtesy of taking Vivian back to her father’s mansion. But not before Vivian tells Marlowe what he is already acutely aware of, or rather, so naturally attuned that he is entirely unfazed by it:
“You have a lovely way with women.”
Marlowe has a lovely way with women because his mind is sharp and his discipline is iron. Where the men and women swirling around him are recklessly throwing down for all greens on the roulette table, Marlowe is playing a concentrated game of chess, where he is able to maintain a semblance control.
The game of chess is not simply a metaphor for this particular interaction with Vivian, or this particular investigation. Chess is the metaphor for his innately masculine existence.
In the game of chess, each side is given pieces that have specific strengths and weaknesses. A single piece has a purpose. A rook cannot kill on diagonals, and a bishop can kill only on diagonals. The pawns are made to die. The queen is swift and devastating, but it is the fate of the king that determines the game. The pieces are single-minded in their individual purposes. They must adhere to their paths, even as they function in tandem to build a trap for the enemy king to fall in. It is a game of discipline and self-mastery. It is the long game of austerity, of defined purpose, and of calculated aggression.
So when Marlowe finds himself being seduced for the second time in one night, this time in his own bedroom, he aptly moves over to his chessboard, where he has a game going with himself. It is a metaphor for his strategy; not only his strategy in ridding himself of Carmen tonight, or finding the answers to his ever-complicating investigation tomorrow, but for the entirety of his life.
I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.
I looked at her again. She lay still now, her face pale against the pillow, her eyes large and dark and empty as rain barrels in drought. One of her small five-fingered thumbless hands picked at the cover restlessly. There was a vague glimmer of doubt starting to get born in her somewhere. She didn’t know about it yet. It’s so hard for women – even nice women – to realize that their bodies are not irresistible.
Marlowe removes Carmen from his home after gathering the essential clues he needs to complete his investigation, and then goes to sleep. In the morning, he will head out into the world, with a continued awareness of his purpose.
Men today cannot fathom such actions as Philip Marlowe so effortlessly concocts in situation after situation, chess move after chess move. The man-children of the modern era sport neither the austere, iron will nor the tactical gall of the once proud and common masculine man. Men today are fledgling creatures, occupying the unsavory doldrums between the quiet stoicism of the desert and the coordinated precision assaults of the battlefield. They sleep on king sized beds with fifteen pillows, and quietly shy from taking courageous stands or calculated risks in any aspect of their lives.
Risk, courage, advance, gain: all words belonging to a language as foreign as Swahili to the modern Western male. I don’t suspect we will realize how far we have fallen until some calamity calls upon worthy men, as they were designed by God and Nature, and no one fitting the bill is around to answer.
Philip Marlowe, once our last best hope, is well over 70 years past his prime…and not to mention, a concoction of fiction.