Hammett Time

Positively viscous this morning. Viscous should be one of the states in the ever-changing taxonomy of eyes in Dashiell Hammett. His novels are a symphony of eyes, and the eyes are constantly hardening and turning liquid, becoming opaque and releasing into transparency. The eyes rebound off one another, forming a system of interactions, some of them conscious, some of them altogether independent of the mind—sheer cause and effect. Or, to be more precise, pure affects: bodies in dialogue in ways that their minds can’t follow.

Another dynamic I like in Hammett: one part of the face will be doing something, while another, often without conscious awareness, will transmit an entirely different affect. There is no unified person behind the face in Hammett. Rather than the face being an expression of an inner person, the inner person is a deduction, a secondary effect of the disorderly actions and interactions of bodies.

Likewise, the body isn’t a unified whole. It is a combination of autonomous systems that interact with the world and with the systems in other bodies. Body parts and organs (such as the eyes) have their own agendas, their own unique ways of interacting with the world.

There is some grand recuperative gesture a critic could make here: that just as protagonists struggle to maintain their integrity in the face of circumstances beyond their control, so too do bodies attempt to maintain a sense of unity and inner purpose. But I think this statement is 1> untrue, and (what’s worse) 2> tiresome.

Integrity (bodily or otherwise) in Hammett isn’t a clarifying moment of truth. It’s a transitory illusion masking a more fundamental (and more interesting) dis-order.

What then, is a Hammett detective? To begin with, his detectives are pretty heterogeneous lot. It’s not that you can’t discover underlying similarities among them; it’s that their differences are more interesting.

Nonetheless, a hypothesis: Hammett’s detectives don’t simply or even primarily restore a sense of social and epistemological order. Instead, they are tourists of social and epistemological fracture. A Hammett detective traverses more than can be simply known (by the detective or the readers). This is perhaps clearest with Ned Beaumont, the protagonist of The Glass Key.

This still feels altogether too tidy, but it’s a starting point.

What do I learn from this kind of writing exercise? In this case I feel more prompted to attend to my body as a series of discrete systems with their own agendas. At the moment, my brain has warmed up, by stomach is a little roiled, and my spine feels like a gnarled grapevine twisting in the breeze. The way to feel better is NOT to chase after some grand sense of unity and peace. Instead, there are a set of actions and techniques (tai chi, yoga, various rituals of action and affect) that, at some profound level, don’t have anything to do with me. When I put it that way, I feel my spine relaxing already. What the spine expresses is the spine.

Here’s another way to put it: it’s counterproductive for me to think of my body’s components as the expression of an inner anything (unified or otherwise). Instead, the place to begin is by attending to the body’s bodies. They are trends, tendencies, motions I need to accept as such, and work with. They have their own immanence. They can be brought into alignment, but the place to start is NOT with the image of alignment. The place to begin is by attending to what they are actually doing, to become mindful of what is in me, but not me.

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