Not a desire to have him, but to be like him

Slavoj Žižek

  • Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson
    Bloomsbury, 534 pp, £25.00, June 2003, ISBN 0 7475 6314 4

For me, the name ‘Patricia Highsmith’ designates a sacred territory: she is the One whose place among writers is that which Spinoza held for Gilles Deleuze (a ‘Christ among philosophers’). I learned a lot about her from Andrew Wilson’s biography, a book which strikes the right balance between empathy and critical distance. Wilson’s interpretations of her work, however, are often vapid. Can one really take seriously remarks such as: ‘Highsmith’s fiction, like Bacon’s painting, allows us to glimpse the dark, terrible forces that shape our lives, while at the same time documenting the banality of evil’? Much more pertinent are the observations he quotes, such as Duncan Fallowell’s perspicuous characterisation of Highsmith as ‘a combination of painful vulnerability and iron will’. Or the anecdotes that illustrate her complete lack of tact, her openness about her fantasies and prejudices (although a leftist, she preferred Margaret Thatcher to the usual feminist bunch). Or the ethico-political grounds – already, in 1954, she was describing the US as a ‘second Roman Empire’ – on which she based her decision to make her home in ‘old Europe’. As Frank Rich put it, she ‘made a life’s work of her ostracisation from the American mainstream and her own subsequent self-reinvention’.

Wilson’s book provides a lot of material for what Freud called ‘wild analysis’. We learn, for example, that five months before Highsmith was born, her mother tried to abort her by drinking turpentine; she later told her daughter about this, with the comment: ‘It’s funny you adore the smell of turpentine, Pat.’ It’s tempting to see Highsmith’s liking for the smell of what might have been the agent of her own extinction as an expression of the Oedipal wish to return to her mother’s womb – in other words, of the wish not to have left the womb in the first place and, therefore, not to exist. Such speculations pale into insignificance, however, when you compare them with the wealth of Highsmith’s fictional universe, which is very much more compelling than any secret that might be unearthed by a pseudo-Freudian search of her own experiences for a key to the morbid world portrayed in her fiction. The greatest challenge for a Freudian reading of Highsmith lies elsewhere: to explain how writing for her was literally what Lacan would have called her sinthome, or the ‘knot’ that held her universe together, the artificial symbolic formation by means of which she preserved her sanity by conferring a narrative consistency on her tumultuous experience. In her masterpiece, Those Who Walk Away, the hero’s wife justifies her suicide with the words: ‘The world is not enough.’ It was her writing that enabled Highsmith herself to endure in such a world.

It’s often said that in order to understand a work of art we need to know the historical context in which it was made. The lesson of Highsmith, however, is not only that too much historical context can prevent you from making proper contact with her work but that, in her case, it isn’t the context that explains the work but the work that enables us properly to understand the context. The task in reading Highsmith is not to understand her novels in the light of her biography, but to explain by reference to her books how she was able to survive in her ‘real’ life.

Even her first published work (the short story ‘Heroine’, the novel Strangers on a Train), displays an uncanny completeness: everything already in place, no further growth needed. Her only conspicuous failure as a writer is her lesbian novel, first published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan as The Price of Salt in 1952, then reprinted in 1991 under Highsmith’s own name as Carol. The cause of this failure is, paradoxically, that the novel comes too close to Highsmith’s real-life traumas and concerns: as long as she was compelled to articulate these obliquely, the result was outstandingly successful; the moment she addressed them directly, we got a flat and uninteresting novel.

In Those Who Walk Away, Highsmith takes the most narrative genre of all, crime fiction, and imbues it with the inertia of the real, the lack of resolution, the dragging-on of ‘empty time’ characteristic of life itself. In Rome, Ed Coleman makes an unsuccessful attempt to murder his son-in-law, Ray Garrett, a failed painter and gallery-owner in his late twenties, whom he blames for the recent suicide of his only child, Peggy, Ray’s wife. Rather than flee, Ray follows Ed to Venice, where he is wintering with Inez, his girlfriend. What follows is Highsmith’s portrayal of the symbiotic relationship of two men inextricably linked by mutual hatred. Ray is haunted by guilt at his wife’s death, and is ready to let Ed’s violent intentions take their course. In accordance with his death wish, he accepts a lift in a motor-boat from Ed; in the middle of the lagoon, Ed pushes him overboard. Ray pretends he has been drowned and assumes a false name and identity, thus experiencing both an exhilarating freedom and an overwhelming emptiness. He roams through a wintry Venice like one of the living dead. Those Who Walk Away is a crime novel with no actual murder, merely a failed attempt at one: there is no clear resolution – except, perhaps, Ray and Ed’s resigned acceptance that they are condemned to haunt each other for the rest of their lives.

Highsmith recognised that true art lies not simply in the telling of stories, but in the telling of how stories go wrong, in rendering palpable the interstices in which ‘nothing happens’. In art, the spiritual and material spheres are intertwined: the spiritual emerges when we become aware of the material inertia, the dysfunctional bare presence, of the objects around us. It emerges after a murder attempt goes wrong and the would-be murderer and his victim are left stupidly staring at each other. Highsmith, more than any of her rivals, was responsible for elevating crime fiction to the level of art.

This feeling for the inert has a special significance in our age, in which the obverse of the capitalist drive to produce ever more new objects is a growing mountain of useless waste, used cars, out-of-date computers etc, like the famous resting place for old aircraft in the Mojave desert. In these piles of stuff, one can perceive the capitalist drive at rest. That’s where the interest of Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Stalker lies, with its post-industrial wasteland in which wild vegetation takes over abandoned factories, concrete tunnels and railroads full of stale water, and stray cats and dogs wander the overgrowth. Nature and industrial civilisation overlap, but in a common decay: a civilisation in decay is being reclaimed, not by an idealised, harmonious Nature but by nature which is itself in a state of decomposition. The irony is that it should be an author from the Communist East who displayed such great sensitivity towards this obverse of the drive to produce and consume. But perhaps the irony displays a deeper necessity, hinging on what Heiner Mueller called the ‘waiting-room mentality’ of Communist Eastern Europe:

There would be an announcement: ‘The train will arrive at 18.15 and depart at 18.20,’ and it never did arrive at 18.15. Then came the next announcement: ‘The train will arrive at 20.10.’ And so on. You went on sitting there in the waiting-room, thinking, it’s bound to come at 20.15. That was the situation: basically, a state of Messianic anticipation. There are constant announcements of the Messiah’s impending arrival, and you know perfectly well that he won’t be coming. And yet somehow, it’s good to hear him announced all over again.

The effect of this Messianic attitude was not that people continued to hope, but that, when the Messiah never arrived, they started to look around and take note of the inert materiality of their surroundings; in contrast to the West, where people are always frantic and never properly notice what goes on around them. In the East, people were more closely acquainted with the waiting-room and, caught up in the delay, experienced to the full the idiosyncrasies of their world, in all its topographical and historical detail. One can easily imagine Ray or Ed getting stuck at an East German railway station.

Can we imagine a proper hero in this landscape, someone who could walk these decrepit streets and counteract their inertia? Highsmith’s answer is Tom Ripley, the hero of five of her novels. Ripley is a difficult character to swallow; we can tell just how difficult from the failure of the four cinema versions of books in which he appears. First, there was Alain Delon in René Clément’s Plein soleil (1959, based on The Talented Mr Ripley, except that in the film, to Highsmith’s dismay, the police arrest Ripley at the end); next, Dennis Hopper in Wim Wenders’s The American Friend (1977, based on Ripley’s Game); then, in two strangely symmetrical remakes, Matt Damon in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) and John Malkovich in a new Ripley’s Game by Liliana Cavani (2003). Although, on their own terms, all four are good movies, their Ripley is not Highsmith’s Ripley because they somehow humanise his inhuman core: Delon is a demoniac European; Hopper an existentialist cowboy; Damon an emotionally unstable American brat; while Malkovich displays his usual decadent, ironic coldness.

Who, then, is the ‘real’ Ripley? The contrast is most perspicuous in Minghella’s film. Tom Ripley, a broke young New Yorker, is approached by the magnate Herbert Greenleaf, in the mistaken belief that Tom was at Princeton with his son Dickie. Dickie is off idling in Italy, and Greenleaf pays Tom to go there and bring him back, so that he can take his rightful place in the family business. Once in Europe, however, Tom becomes more and more fascinated by Dickie, and the easy-going upper-class society he inhabits. Tom should not be thought to be homosexual: Dickie is not an object of desire for Tom, but the ideal desiring subject, the subject who is ‘supposed to know’ how to desire. In short, Dickie becomes Tom’s ideal ego, a figure with whom he can identify in his imagination: the repeated sidelong glances he casts at Dickie betray not a desire to have him, but to be like him. To resolve his predicament, Tom concocts an elaborate plan. On a boat trip, he kills Dickie, assumes his identity and manages things so that he will inherit his money, too. Once this is accomplished, the false Dickie disappears, leaving behind a suicide note praising Tom. Tom can now reappear, throwing any suspicious investigators off the scent, and earning the gratitude of Dickie’s parents. Finally, he leaves Italy for Greece.

The novel was written in the mid-1950s, but in it Highsmith foreshadows today’s rewriting of the Ten Commandments as recommendations which we don’t need to follow too blindly. Ripley stands for the final step in this process: thou shalt not kill, except when there is really no other way to pursue your happiness. Or, as Highsmith herself put it in an interview: ‘He could be called psychotic, but I would not call him insane because his actions are rational . . . I consider him a rather civilised person who kills when he absolutely has to.’ Ripley isn’t an ordinary American psycho: his criminal acts are not frenetic passages à l’acte, or outbursts of violence in which he releases the energy accumulated by the frustrations of daily life. His crimes are based on simple pragmatism: he does what is necessary to attain his goal (a quiet life in an exclusive Paris suburb). What is so disturbing about him is that he seems to lack even an elementary moral sense: in daily life, he is mostly friendly and considerate, and when he commits a murder, he does it with regret, quickly and as painlessly as possible, in the way one performs any unpleasant but necessary task.

Highsmith’s Ripley transcends the stock American motif of an individual’s radical reinvention of himself, his capacity to erase the traces of the past and assume a new identity. Minghella’s movie betrays Highsmith in this respect, Gatsbyising Ripley into a new version of the self-recreating American hero. In a telling difference between the novel and the film, Minghella has Ripley experience the stirrings of a conscience, whereas in the novel such qualms are simply not part of his make-up. This is why making Ripley’s gay desires explicit in the film also misses the point. Minghella implies that while, back in the 1950s, Highsmith had to be more circumspect in order to make her hero palatable to the public at large, today we can be more open about such matters. Ripley’s coldness is not a manifestation of his gayness, however; it is the other way round. In one of the later Ripley novels, we learn that he makes love once a week to his wife, Heloïse, as a regular ritual, with nothing passionate about it. Tom is like Adam before the Fall: according to St Augustine, he and Eve did have sex, but only as an instrumental act, like sowing seeds in a field. One way to read Ripley is as an angelic figure, living in a universe which as yet knows nothing of the Law or its transgression (sin), and thus nothing of the guilt generated by our obedience to the Law. This is why Ripley feels no remorse after his murders: he is not yet fully integrated into the symbolic order.

Paradoxically, the price Ripley pays for this is his inability to experience sexual passion. In one novel, he sees two flies copulating on his kitchen table and squashes them in disgust. Minghella’s Ripley would never have done anything like this. Highsmith’s Ripley is disconnected from the realities of the flesh, disgusted at biological life’s cycle of generation and corruption. Marge, Dickie’s girlfriend, sums him up very effectively: ‘All right, he may not be queer. He’s just a nothing, which is worse. He isn’t normal enough to have any kind of sex life.’ One is tempted to claim that, rather than being a closet gay, Ripley is in fact a male lesbian. Tom Ripley was not a mask for Highsmith so much as her externalised ego; we learn from Wilson’s book that she even changed her name to Patricia Highsmith-Ripley and signed her mail with ‘Tom (Pat)’. It is rather like the old Taoist idea that a man dreaming he is a butterfly is also perhaps a butterfly dreaming it is a man. Was Highsmith dreaming that she was Ripley or was she Ripley dreaming that he was Highsmith the novelist?

Minghella’s Ripley makes clear what’s wrong with trying to be more radical than the original by bringing out its implicit, repressed content. By looking to fill in the void, Minghella actually retreats from it. Instead of a polite person who is at the same time a monstrous automaton, experiencing no inner turmoil as he commits his crimes, we get the wealth of a personality, someone full of psychic traumas, someone whom we can, in the fullest meaning of the term, understand.