Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Marxism And The Maltese Falcon

If zealotry is in your life script it's best to have it come in youth and get it over with. I've come to this conclusion after watching a film on Dashiell Hammett whose trajectory included membership in the Communist Party in mid-life and a jail term twenty years later.

Hammett started as a Pinkerton detective, an agency famous for strike-breaking tactics. In the thirties he reversed himself and joined in left-wing action groups. I don't mean to disparage the work of these causes. However, along with labor organizing and civil rights advocacy came rigid ideology and a blind defense of the U.S.S.R.

My own parents were communists and I inherited some of their zeal and dogma. I regard their membership as political romanticism, a benign identification with the down-trodden. Partisan politics became part of my adolescence. It offered me a simplistic entrée into adult life and an outlet for my passions and occasional vehemence. At the same time it gave me a distant perch once-removed from the conventions of society.

It also marked me with some rigidity and limited my imagination. I took Marxism seriously. Not as an activist at the barricades but as a template for approaching social and historical events and as a lens through which to see my life ahead.

On balance I don't think I fared too badly. I haven't lost my radical persuasion or historical perspective. I've come to my senses about the Soviet Union without turning that embrace inside out. I recognize those early days as being close to a religious catechism in my apologetic for Russian repression. What, me religious? God forbid.

Hammett was a complex man and aren’t we all; reason enough not to think in doctrinaire terms. His writing went from hard-boiled to soft-boiled; from Sam Spade to the Thin Man. It's hard to imagine these two detectives springing from the same creator. As tough as Bogey in 1933 and la-de-dah as William Powell in 1936.

In a scene in which Spade turns his ferocity up a notch with particular menace he leaves the room and then his hand starts shaking. We are led to believe that his tantrum was an act he put on to cover his soft side as if Nick Charles lay in waiting beneath that veneer.

Fifteen years later Hammett was teaching a course at the Jefferson School in N.Y.C., devoted to Marxism. I was across the hall steeping myself in Dialectical Materialism. It took me many years to find my Maltese Falcon and a few more than that to fix a martini. But in the end the black bird is hollow. We're all detectives trailing our own shadow down a dead-end street,

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