“Reading reflects the structure of experience to the extent that we must suspend the ideas and attitudes that shape our own personality before we can experience the unfamiliar world of the literary text.”—The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach - Wolfgang Iser
I think every writer is a little schizophrenic. I think we have to be. I’ve spent my entire life being a little bit of everyone at some point. I’ve seen a little bit of everything. I’ve felt a little bit of everything, but I’ve never completely been anything. And I guess I just don’t know whether that’s magnificent or utterly miserable. That’s the point of it though, isn’t it? I have to have been a little bit of something so that you can be a little bit of someone else. I have to run as fast as I can towards death down as many filthy roads as I can so that you can forget about the way you’re dying for 274 pages. I just fear one day I’ll go too far down one road and end up David Foster Wallace or Hunter S. Thompson or Jack London (if the stories are true). That’s why there isn’t a good book in the history of the world without a conflict. That’s why the byronic hero and patricide and mania and pity and fear are the best tools in the damn box, because anyone who reads those books and loves them has never been touched, has never killed their parents, has never been too crazy, has never been so pitiful, has never feared so deeply, but they’ve always wanted to. They get to see what it feels like to sink down into the mud of hell just a little bit without ever having to die that way at all, because they can close the book any time they want and come back to life. That’s why reading makes us feeling invincible. We get to die and die and die and die and never be dead. Even if the characters are. Even if the authors are. Even if Hemingway took his favorite double barrel shot-gun to his chin in a city with the same name as a cursed pirate and blew his jaw out, you didn’t; but you got to feel how impenetrably hopeless Jake felt in the Cathedral of The Sun Also Rises. You got to watch man fight a back breaking fight for absolutely nothing in Old Man and the Sea. You got to be somebody who was dying in a completely different manner than you ever well. You got to die faster than you were before. The resolution of conflict just gives us an easy transition back into our own pace of dying. It lets us end the death game we love playing without having to worry too much about it. And I’m not just talking dystopian literature here. Your favorite part of the fairy tale isn’t really the end when the knight and the princess ride off together in the sunset, it’s the dragon. It’s the harrowing climb up the side of the mountain. It’s the scrapes with death that get you on the edge of your seat. You never want the hero to actually die, because you wouldn’t be able to draw a bridge between that experience and your own experience, because you have no idea what being dead feels like. You know all to well what dying feels like. And I think you love it. I think you can’t get enough of it. You want to die, but you never, ever want to be dead. So you let other people die for you. “So it goes.”
This isn’t quite an accurate depiction of Red Harvest, but it demonstrates fully Dashiell Hammett’s talent. I have grown very fond of this book. For reference, the narrator is a detective brought into a town called Personville to clean out its crooks. In this selection, he is describing a dream he had after drinking a good amount of gin and laudanum.
"I dreamed I was sitting on a bench, in Baltimore, facing the tumbling fountain in Harlem Park, beside a woman who wore a veil. I had come there with her. She was somebody I knew well. But I had suddenly forgotten who she was. I couldn’t see her face because of the long black veil.
I thought that if I said something to her I would recognize her voice when she answered. But I was very embarrassed and was a long time finding anything to say. Finally I asked her if she knew a man named Carroll T. Harris.
She answered me, but the roar and swish of the tumbling fountain smothered her voice, and I could hear nothing.
Fire engines went out Edmondson Avenue. She left me to run after them. As she cried, “Fire! Fire!” I recognized her voice then and knew who she was, and knew she was someone important to me. I ran after her, but it was too late. She and the fire engines were gone.
I walked streets hunting for her, half the streets in the United States, Gay Street and Mount Royal Avenue in Baltimore, Colfax Avenue in Denver, Aetna Road and St. Clair Avenue in Cleveland, McKinney Avenue in Dallas, Lemartine and cornell and Amory Streets in Boston, Berry Boulevard in Louisville, Lexington Avenue in New York, until I came to Victoria Street in Jacksonville where I heard her voice again, though I still could not see her.
I walked more streets, listening to her voice. She was calling a name, not mine, one strange to me, but no matter how fast I walked or in what direction, I could get no nearer her voice. It was the same distance from me in the street that runs past the Federal Building in El Paso as in Detroit’s Grand Circus Park. Then the voice stopped.
Tired and discouraged, I went to the lobby of the hotel that faces the railroad station in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, to rest. While I sat there a train came in. She got off it and came into the lobby, over to me, and began kissing me. I was very uncomfortable because everybody stood around looking at us and laughing.
That dream ended there.
I dreamed I was in a strange city hunting for a man I hated. I had an open knife in my pocket and meant to kill him with it when I found him. It was Sunday morning. Church bells were ringing, crowds of people were in the streets, going to and from church. I walked almost as far as in the first dream, but always in the same strange city.
Then the man I was after yelled at me, and I saw him. He was a small brown man who wore an immense sombrero. He was standing on the steps of a tall building on the far side of a wide plaza, laughing at me. Between us, the plaza was crowded with people, packed shoulder to shoulder.
Keeping one hand on the open knife in my pocket, I ran toward the little brown man, running on the heads and shoulders of the people in the plaza. The heads and shoulders were of unequal heights and not evenly spaced. I slipped and floundered over them.
The little brown man stood on the steps and laughed until I had almost reached him. Then he ran into the tall building. I chased him up miles of spiral stairway, always just an inch more than a hand’s reach behind him. We came to the roof. He ran straight across to the edge and jumped just as one of my hands touched him.
His shoulder slid out of my fingers. My hand knocked his sombrero off, and closed on his head. It was a smooth hard round head no larger than a large egg. My fingers went all the way around it. Squeezing his head in one hand, I tried to bring the knife out of my pocket with the other—and realized that I had gone off the edge of the roof with him. We dropped giddily down toward the millions of upturned faces in the plaza, miles down.”
- Taken from Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, pg. 162-164 -
“As a result, the mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing.”—What is An Author? by Michel Foucault