Saturday, April 2, 2011

"The fiction of reprobation"

J. Mark Bertrand, in "Writing About Reprobation," argues that noir fiction fits the Christian view of human nature better than the classic detective fiction of authors like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers:
.... When critics attempt to explain the appeal of the classic tales, they often invoke the Garden of Eden. The murderer enters, serpent-like, into the ordered world (creation), and by killing his victim shatters it (fall), casting the sleuth in the role of redeemer setting the broken world to rights. There is an appeal to this structure—certainly to Christian readers—but perhaps there is also a reactionary bent. In an age of lost certainty, readers yearn for what Eugene Peterson describes as “moral and intellectual breathing room.” ....

Dividing the world into good and bad people like this, pitting the “side of light” against the “side of darkness,” suggests a Manichean moralism much more than a Christian one. By positing a lost order susceptible to restoration by a lone, rational hero, the classic story offers an escape to readers who fear that, in the real world, no such restoration is possible. ....
On the other hand, noir authors [e.g. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson] do better by recognizing the human reality Bertrand describes: "We can resolve to be good. But when it comes time to measure our actions against a moral yardstick, we’re forced to decide just how pure a deed must be in order to qualify. Nobody’s perfect, after all. If we’re honest, even our whitest whites can look a little gray."
.... What is true for a christened moralist does not apply to one who sees the corrupting effects of the fall as all-encompassing, who sees man’s depravity as total and therefore regards man’s institutions as structures in need of direction, not good in themselves. ....

So noir exists as the fiction of moral breakdown, the fiction of corruption, and yes, the fiction of reprobation. To its practitioners, this also makes it realistic fiction, because it depicts the world—this side of Christ's coming—as it truly is: not a realm of Newtonian regularity on the path to an ever brighter future, but a shattered, dystopian place only putting on a show of law and order. And for an unreconstructed Calvinist, a hint of noir helps capture a world where it rains on the just and the unjust alike, where fools are rewarded and wise men punished, and where to the making of many books there is no end. [more]
J. Mark Bertrand is a mystery author, but he first came to my attention at his great site, the Bible Design Blog, devoted to evaluating typeface, layout, binding—everything related to the quality of printed Bibles on the market today.

byFaith Magazine - Arts & Culture - Writing About Reprobation

1 comment:

  1. This is interesting. And it makes me wonder why this mood only appeared in fiction when and where it did, and why the literature of more thoroughly Christian and Calvinist times and places is so different from noir detective stories. Chaucer's Pardoner is very different from a Chandler villain. Perhaps optimism and pessimism were more in balance in earlier eras, and noir was a reaction to a more thoroughly optimistic culture? [locked out of facebook, by the way]


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