Raymond Chandler's Private Dick


Our man Marlowe comes home from a sexually charged confrontation with Vivian Sternwood to find Carmen Sternwood, Vivian's sister, giggling and stark naked in his bed. Marlowe notes that "The Sternwood girls were giving me both barrels that night." He then orders Carmen Sternwood to get dressed and get out.

As far as our ongoing discussions, the telling moment is here:

It's so hard for women—even nice women—to realize that their bodies are not irresistible.

Marlowe later describes Carmen Sternwood's nude body as "corrupt," and still later remarks on her attempts to seduce him and the lack of effect. I've had the privilege of reading The Big Sleep, between bouts of dabbling with the new Kendrick Lamar. Both works are technically impressive. And both have a hot throbbing core of misogyny. Lamar's misogyny is more profane, but it's no more intense. 

I think to understand misogyny one has to grapple with the conflict between male mythology and male biology. There is something deeply scary about the first time a young male experiences ans erection. All the excitement and hunger and throbbing that people is there. But with that comes a deep, physical longing. Whether or not that longing shall be satiated is not totally up to the male.

Erection is not a choice. It happens to men whether they like it or not. It happens to young boys in the morning whether they have dreamed about sex or not. It happens to them in the movies, in gym class, at breakfast, during sixth period Algebra. It happens in the presence of humans who they find attractive, and it happens in the presence of humans whom they claim are not attractive at all. It is provoked by memory, by perfume, by song, by laughter and by absolutely nothing at all.  Erection is not merely sexual desire, but the physical manifestation of that desire.

Masculinity's central tenet is control—and perhaps most importantly, control of the body. Nothing contradicts that edict like erections. It unmans you, it compels you through sensations you scarcely understand. And it threatens to expose you, to humiliates you, in front of everyone. Laugh now at the boy at the middle school dance, who gets an erection on the slow number (God help him if he has orgasm.) But he does not forget that laughter, nor does he forget what prompted it. That boy is going to be a rapper. Or a painter. Or an author of fictions where men are men and somehow are invulnerable to the humiliating effects of the female form.

I think Marlowe doth protest too much. As do rappers who, within the first bar, assure us of their pimp status and thus reconstitute themselves not as mortal hetero men who slave before women, but as street gods who are enslavers of women. The two approaches are different. Marlowe is too noble, too certain, too be seduced. Biggie stayed gucci down to the socks, and thus wielded the power to make women as vulnerable as a man—black and ugly as ever—might himself have felt as a child.

The problem is that men can be hurt. Men can be rejected. More, men have no right to what they are raised to consider simple sustenance. In effect they must live as some approximation of what they imagine the weaker half to be. Women must live with sexual vulnerability, with the threat of rape. This makes a kind of sense when the whole society says you are weak. But how do you live with vulnerability when your identity is rooted in impossible strength? Being raped and being refused are not the same thing. But the tyrant's gaze must be absolute, or it must not be at all.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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