Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Strangers of Morality

If rape, poison, daggers, arson
Have not yet embroidered with their pleasing designs
The banal canvas of our pitiable lives,
It is because our souls have not enough boldness.
Charles Baudelaire
To the Reader

Patricia Highsmith's "Strangers on a Train," is the anxiety ridden tale of two men, whose accidental meeting sends the reader on a ride of amorality. Whilst initially seeming a pillar of moral correctitude, lead character Guy Haines, has his principles eroded under the growing influence of antagonist Charles Bruno.

Bruno is continually drunk and takes to heart one of Charles Baudelaire's poems.

Be Drunk
Charles Baudelaire

You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it—it's the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: "It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish."

This need for constant inebriation is written out in the early in the novel. "He (Bruno) remembered one brilliant and powerful thought that had come to him last night watching a televised shuffleboard game: the way to see the world was to see it drunk. Everything was created to be seen drunk (p.64)." By the end of the novel he is suffering violent physical ailments due to his consumption of the drink. It is worth noting as well that Haines begins to imbibe more regularly as well in the spirits as the story progresses paralleling his moral decline.

While alcohol and drunkeness are a part of the story far more important is the wavering sense of morality, a common problem in noir tales such as this.

Bruno initially meets Haines and conjures up a plot on murdering for each other. Bruno murders Haines' estranged wife and Haines after Bruno's insistence murders Bruno's father. After all "Any kind of person can murder. Purely circumstances and not a thing to do with temperament! People get so far-and it takes just the least little thing to push them over the brink. Anybody. Even your grandmother. I know," Bruno exclaimed to Haines on the train during their initial meeting. This first statement leads the way for the theme of the book, moral ambiguity.

Haines' decline of morality came with a loss of sense of self which had physical repercussions, "-collisions with revolving doors, his inability even to hold a pen against a ruler, and so often the feeling he wasn't here, doing what he was doing (p.183).

Haines loss of self coincides with his loss of traditional "Thou shalt" morality. Taught by his mother and father that all men were good, because all men had souls, and the soul was entirely good, Haines believed that evil came from externals. It was not he that was evil, but the world outside invading him. Yet morphed by murder he began to believe that: "...good and evil, lived side by side in the human heart, and not merely in differing proportions in one man and the next, but all good and all evil. One had merely to look for a little of either to find it all, one had merely to scratch the surface (p.180)"

Lacking moral guidelines Haines began to feel eternally guilty for the sins he committed. He actions are self justified when he lets go of his morality yet the sins are repulsive to his when he tries to regain them and fit back into normal life. These feelings are projected onto Bruno the coconspirator of sin. Haines is both drawn and repulsed by Bruno.

There is a blatant homosexual subtext underneath Bruno's and Haines' relationship. Bruno doesn't care much for women and Haines' feelings for Bruno are as complicated as his relationship to his morality.

"'This is my favorite. I never saw anything like this.' Bruno held up the white knitted tie with the thin red stripe down the center. "Started to get one for myself, but I wanted you to have it. Just you, I mean. They're for you, Guy."
"Thanks." Guy felt an unpleasant twitch in his upper lip. He might have been Bruno's lover, he thought suddently, to whom Bruno had brought a present, a peace offering (p.205)"

Highsmith,herself queer, was gay during a time in which homophobia intertwined with Cold War political anxiety which made homosexuality a security risk to the nation. It could be said that Highsmith's internalized homophobia was transcribed into characters, as neither of the lead characters are easy to empathize with. Queers are evil, and isn't it coincidental that the characters are queer for each other? This would be a shallow understanding not only of sexuality but also of the main underpinning of the novel which is sexual and moral ambiguity.

It would be easy to point out polarizing aspects of characters in the novel, and people outside the world of fiction, but as Otto Penzler, veteran editor and publisher of crime writing, said of Highsmith's fiction; "you don't know who are the good guys and the bad guys because there are no nice people."

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