Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Sternwoods' Oil Fields

Throughout the novel, the integrity of Phillip Marlowe is tested by the corruption, or perhaps reality, of his environment. Sacrificing himself to serve a higher code of honor, Marlowe acts as the modern-day counterpart to the knight on the Sternwoods' stained glass window. While he follows the old fashioned ideals of the past, he is willing to immerse himself within the subterranean world of Los Angeles to do so. Yet by the end of "The Big Sleep", motives to propagate such outdated and seemingly naive notions of justice are put into question. In a world where crime is the pervasive feature of a society in decline, as accentuated by the blurring of social borders within a sprawling Los Angeles, how can one pursue a life of meaning? In the final passage, Marlowe comes to the strikingly nihilistic conclusion that such pursuits are meaningless as we are all going to be dead soon enough anyway.

"What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn't have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep." (230-231)

Pictures of the Baldwin Hills Oil Field were taken from "Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles" by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward.


L.A. Stories said...

I think you two raise a really interesting point about the pursuit of a meaningful life (and the particular difficulty that comes with trying to do it in a notoriously corrupt city). Marlowe clearly grapples with this a lot, and while I can’t say that he comes to any particular conclusions, I would disagree with characterizing him/his point of view as “strikingly nihilistic.” By Marlowe’s pointing out that once you’re dead you won’t care about anything, I feel like it implies that he does in fact care in the present. He might not like that he cares, and might be searching for some way to explain all of the “nastiness,” but he does care (otherwise, why bother being so “ethical”?). That he is able to separate the nasty from the non-nasty shows that things matter enough for him to differentiate among them—which to me is distinctly un-nihilistic.

L.A. Stories said...

Perhaps you are right. Having not read any other Chandler stories, it is hard for me to conclude whether or not Marlowe loses faith in the ethical and gives in to the fatalistic view of the anti-myth. But regardless, I think your point is valid. I do not have a copy of the book on hand, but I believe that the last line of the novel sees Marlowe drinking himself into a stupor as he thinks of "Silver Wig". Maybe nihilism was the wrong word to describe Marlowe at the end of the novel, but Chandler seems to point us to the conclusion that the detective and Vivian to a similar extent have given themselves to the dirtiness of the city in order to support an ideal of innocence/ignorance. That Marlowe knowingly desires the unattainable is telling to me that while he feels that there is no escape other than that of death, he is still drawn and connected to the world that he has spurned. So maybe it is the backdrop of the novel that is nihilistic, a feeling of corruption that runs through the streets beneath the hills where General Sternwood is left untouched, and it is Marlowe who finds himself out of place as an "ethical knight."