A Case of (Decadence, Emptiness, and) Identity

Will Norman’s assessment of Chandler’s style is a fascinating study that speaks not only to Chandler’s style, but which also raises questions about the nature of genre and periodization themselves. In reading about Chandler’s biographical details–particularly as set forth by Norman–I was struck by how much his “dates” overlap with Dorothy Sayers (he lived 1888-1959, she from 1893-1957) and how little their styles do. I sense this is rooted in more than their geographical distance and more in something more deeply philosophical: an understanding of the modern world taking shape around them, as well as an understanding of their recent past.

Norman seems to claim that Chandler’s fiction has the trappings of decadence, that Chandler’s sense of being “born half a century too late” fed into the quest for a particular aesthetic that was crystalized in a hollowness, an emptying out of meaning that came to define the author’s style. (751) I’ll admit that while reading these Chandler selections, I myself did not get a sense of the decadence I associate with the British fin-de-siècle tradition: if anything, that was much more apparent to me in Sayers’ work. To me, Peter Wimsey easily fits the image of a man holding onto an aristocratic, decadent past that seems to be transforming into something grotesquely modern before front of his eyes; Philip Marlowe seems embittered by the modern space he inhabits without any particular nostalgia for another time or place.  I imagine Norman would ascribe this interpretation to David Weir’s assertion that “in America, the cultural conditions that produced the possibility of decadence in Europe simply did not exist,” perhaps insisting that my very assumption that “American decadence” should look like English decadence is what prevents me from seeing said decadence in Chandler’s work. (756) But is it really fair to equate hollowness and emptiness with decadence? It seems to me that while the atmosphere that Chandler creates could look like decadence with its smoky rooms and pleasure-seeking characters, it is really something else entirely–that it is that very “emptiness” which prevents from being decadent. After all, in order to have decay or decline, one must start with some kind of substance. I don’t know that I find the explanation of a “temporal dysfunction that empties the past of significance and establishes a disorienting equivalence of late and early” enough to justify an existence of American decadence at all. (757)

All this being said, the lingering questions I have relate to choice of this particular genre for Chandler to work out his transatlantic identity, his own geographic and temporal tensions in forming his identity as a writer. Perhaps my real question is even larger: what draws writers to the particular genre of the detective story? There are clearly other subgenres of popular fiction at their disposal; what is it about the detective story–or, it seems to me– the figure of the detective himself that draws writers like Chandler to work out their understanding of the modern world through this form? Does the detective figure lend himself to a type of loneliness, a type of isolation due to his inherent suspicion of others, his obsession of following the facts to solve problems, his need to work alone to puzzle out what things truly “mean”?