More Questions than Answers

To my mind, the first question that needs to be answered, before embarking on any interpretation of this novel, is whether one can actually pull a Herbert Quain (as suggested in the previous post), comb back through Assumption after reading the ending, decipher the clues, and reconstruct a coherent version of what happened. The whole meaning of the book depends on whether that’s possible.

But that would be hard to do even in the time devoted to a full-length paper, and I certainly wasn’t able to do it by the time this post was due. Maybe we can put our heads together and work through it in class on Monday.

In lieu of that, here are some questions about the novel that I thought merited reflection:

1.) Genre and the desire for resolution/coherence. If the point of this novel is that there is no point, and that’s all there is to it, I would feel pretty disappointed. Such points have certainly been made often enough before, and frankly I find them tiresome. It’s more interesting, I think, to say that the novel’s lack of resolution forces us to examine our own desire for resolution, and more importantly, how certain generic elements sculpt that desire. In this case the relevant ones are (modernist?) high-literature and of course detective fiction

2.) Identity and denotation. Many passages in the novel made me wonder whether “Ogden’s mother” and “Eva Walker” in fact refer to the same person. The top of page 60 is a particularly suspicious example. The same can of course be applied to the last scene. Is it really Bucky who says “It’s me” when Warren Fragua calls out? Is it really Ogden who gets shot? After all, the face of the guy who got killed is not the “a face he [Warren] knew” (225). Was it really Ogden who held Warren at gunpoint? Warren could have easily misrecognized him.

3.) Holy Mary, Mother of God. Well, the title of the novel is Assumption, right? So we have to talk about the Assumption of Mary into heaven, right? (I know I’m not the only one in this class who was raised Catholic.) Anyway, on page 199 a junkie tells Ogden: “My name is Mary… You know, like in the Bible. Jesus’s mother. The light blue one.” Honestly, I think this (modernist?) high-literary clue is just as unlikely to lead anywhere as the detective-style clues in the novel are. What’s really interesting is how Assumption points out the similarities between high-literary and detective-fiction discourses by showing how the same kind of story can subvert both at once.

A Tale of Two Racisms

If “Knights of the Open Palm” criticizes the KKK, McCann correctly points out, it criticizes it not from a position of antiracism, but from a position of superior whiteness. “Race Williams represents the true nature of whiteness,” McCann writes. “The nature of that quality is to scoff at the Klan’s fraternal bonds and to pursue an uncompromising personal liberty” (61). Although I agree with McCann that what this story is staging is a conflict between two different types of whiteness, I would like to suggest that there is, at the very least, another dimension to this conflict besides the binary McCann sets up between whiteness-as-community and whiteness-as-individualism. Central to the story, I would suggest, is the notion of whiteness as work.

Crucial for the question of racialized work is the passage McCann points us to on page 436 of the Daly, where Race says “Oh, I’m a pretty tough egg — none tougher, I guess, but I felt as white as my robe in comparison with most of this gang.” To understand this passage, I think we need to look at a passage earlier on the same page, where Race describes the Klansmen to whom he is comparing himself: “…the new citizens [Klan members] swear never to tell anything nor give evidence against a Klansman unless he’s committed rape, willful murder or treason. Hot dog! Burglars, counterfeiters, and check raisers welcome — also arson might be appreciated — I don’t know.” Most of the crimes listed here are crimes that make money, which fits the earlier narrative of Dumb Rogers joining the KKK so he can more easily rob people. Crucially, the Klan members make money buy stealing, and although Race is “a pretty tough egg” he is ultimately construed as whiter than the Klan, I would argue, because he makes his money through work.

In “Knights of the Open Palm,” we are perhaps seeing the beginning of the shift from a racism that defines whiteness through a construction of moral and sexual purity, to a racism that defines whiteness as “hard work.” This is particularly apparent on page 436, where Daly’s narrator/protagonist says those who make money through any means — theft, fraud — besides “hard work” are by definition not truly white.

9/25 — The Curious Case of Inspector Boltanski

In a liberal-capitalist society, where equality before the law often fails to perform the necessary legitimation of hierarchy, fictions like those of Doyle call in the detective as someone who can act, in a state of exception, outside the law, in order to save that very law from its own contradictions. This is the case that Boltanski makes against the detective. Boltanski acts, as Holmes does in Boltanski’s reading of him, in the service of an assumed moral order. Like (his reading of) Holmes, Boltanski’s mission is not to punish the guilty party (detective fiction) for its crime, but merely to present a rational demonstration of its guilt. Critique and ratiocination are both ‘finalities without end’, disinterested rational operations that want to exist only for their own sake.

In this investigation of the myth of the detective, Boltanski falls into a kind of unawareness typical of his model for the analysis of myth, Lévi-Strauss. Like Lévi-Strauss (and his ilk,) Boltanski doesn’t realize that to analyze the myth is to retell the myth.

As I tell it, this myth is not about the detective bringing the abnormal back to normalcy. The detective, rather, is himself the anomaly. The ‘rationality’ of Holmes and Dupin is fascinating precisely because they are human characters, with fleshly bodies. As such their commitment to operating via a bloodless rationality, and nothing else, is really the defining quirk of antisocial, ‘diseased’, and ultimately sad people. Holmes’ request that Watson write only of the rational steps in the case, and not of its entanglement with embodied humans, human emotions, is a request typical of this strange, alienated, and nearly friendless man. There is a reason that The Sign of Four opens with a cocaine injection — it foregrounds the fact that, without more earthly characters like Watson and Mary to suggest social, humanly meaningful outlets for his ratiocination, Holmes will inevitably destroy himself.

If Boltanski’s reading operates according to an ‘autonomous’ reason similar to that of Holmes, perhaps Watson is a better model to use in our writing about detective fiction. Rather than demonstrating the detective’s guilt in committing the crime that is the liberal state, perhaps we can write in a way that gives the ratiocinations of his diseased mind an embodied and human meaning, pulling him away from the brink and back into the social world.