Written by Laura Alexander, Staff Writer
The police in the small town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, worried briefly in 1974 about a man seen prowling in the dark, night after night, the red glow of his cigarette floating along the back streets. He would pace for hours, heading nowhere in the starlight that hammers down through the thin air of the mesas. The police were not the only ones to wonder. At the national laboratory some physicists had learned that their newest colleague was experimenting with twenty-six hour days, which meant that his waking schedule would slowly roll in and out of phase with theirs.
Chaos, James Gleick
People’s actions have an internal consistency that can almost add up to a moral system. Consider Genet and Dostoyevsky, who constantly return to the morality of one’s actions being judged internally, where the greatest punishment is shame, where its opposites are honor and pride. Shame that can attack you, physically like heartburn, years after the act, shame you can learn to masochistically enjoy. And, most importantly, shame that isn’t distributed in proportion with, in the eyes of the world, are your biggest sins.
So it is with the men that Patricia Highsmith uses as her heroes, especially of her most famous, Tom Ripley from the novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. When Highsmith’s heroes ever feel a drive to do ‘the right thing’ it is in the way a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day. That story about the mathematician (Mitchell Feigenbaum) who decided to live on a 26 hour sleep cycles and cycled in and out of sync with everyone else, is very like what Highsmith’s characters do morally.
Their guide is the construction of this internal logic, the threading of these deeply individual networks of values, motivations, principles, desires, memories, that hides in plain sight because most of the time is doesn’t lead to any action so particularly extreme. Except when it suddenly does. In The Thief’s Journal Genet takes pride in his triumvirate of anti-virtues; treachery, theft and homosexuality. “There is a relationship among them which, though not always apparent, at least, so it seems to me, recognizes a kind of vascular exchange between my taste for betrayal and theft and my loves.” Vascular – related to the blood vessels, the arteries and veins of the circulatory system of the body. That is, something self-enclosed, something that must only be consistent with itself to survive. This is true of all theories, whether they’re ideas of moral philosophy or the standard model of particle physics. It’s also true of these networks of values and morals which could be called a ‘self’.
In The Talented Mr. Ripley, we get to watch the construction of a ‘self’ taking place. We follow Ripley over the course of five books, though between the end of The Talented Mr. Ripley and the beginning of Ripley Underground a lot has happened – he’s consolidated his fortune, got married, settled down in a country house in France – his character is in place and fully formed by the end of the first. We see him first as a drifter, a formless mass of vague malevolence and resentment. Over the course of the book, Ripley acquires what we might call a self – the things he will do and the things he will not do and the reasons for them. All this adds up to a unified personality that he doesn’t have at the beginning. Can we break down how he does this? Perhaps. In three points.
First, Ripley superficially finds his self, by becoming an expat who can live in luxury; to be alone it helps to be foreign and self-sufficient. Ripley makes himself a sauntering, loping, slouching, rootless cosmopolitanism – I like these words very much, like the way of moving they suggest, both physically and metaphorically. The term ‘rootless cosmopolitan’, was originally used by the Stalinist regime against Jewish intellectuals as in ‘a rootless cosmopolitanism which is deeplessly repulsive and inimical to Soviet man’, that is repulsive to the great healthy mass of heroic workers. There are certain props that set the scene again and again, the trappings of Highsmith that make her so deliciously filmable. The sun, certain types of clothes, foreign languages, cigarettes, drinks. To what extent are these just visual tropes that Highsmith gets a kick out of and to what extent are they necessary for this kind of solitude? I have had something approaching this kind of solitude while penniless, but Ripley’s incapable of it.
Second, by trying on, and ultimately discarding, the identity of another, Dickie Greenleaf, who he first admires and envies, maybe even lusts for. Within 60 pages Ripley has murdered Dickie, and assumed his identity. There are resonances in the relationship between Ripley and Dickie with a particular kind of relationship between two men that shows up all over literature. We could call it the relationship between the charmer and the narrator. It’s a specifically male relationship, tinged with queer desire that’s never allowed to be exactly vocalised, between the inspiring figure who represents some more exciting way of being in the world, and the quieter friend who will eventually tell their story. A kind of murder through resentment seems sometimes to be inherent in all these relationships, even if it’s mostly metaphorical. The charismatic charmer must always be eliminated somehow in the end so that the shy narrator’s voice can be heard. Each version of the narrator begins to find flaws in the charmer, see the shallowness of their glamour and resent them always being the center of attention in what should be the narrator’s story. The train of thought that eventually leads to a murder in a boat begins with Ripley beginning to suspect he could live Dickie’s life better himself, that Dickie is not taking as much advantage as Ripley could of his privileges of wealth, of good looks, of charm. Even from when they first meet Ripley resents the fact that Dickie is a ‘lousy amateur painter’, finds himself ‘waiting for something profound and original from Dickie’ With Ripley’s murder and identity theft, Highsmith takes the dynamic to its logical conclusion. By the end of The Talented Mr Ripley, however, Ripley must discard Dickie’s identity and go back to living under his own papers, but with a self that has emerged crystallised from the experience of being someone else.
Third, and most importantly, by the act of committing murder. The key word here is committing, not murder. This is an act committed in knowledge of one’s total freedom, in which the culprit takes responsibility. Not responsibility in the sense of owning up and accepting the consequences but an interior responsibility that of not disowning the act, of facing up to the fact that you can’t ‘be pardon’d and retain the offence’.
The idea that such an act changes a person forever is an old existentialist theme. When I was younger I felt like I understood it because I felt I’d never made a decision and didn’t have a self. Now I’ve made decisions and have a self, and as a consequence I understand this idea less. It may or may not be true of life in general, but it does seem to be true for the kind of man made hero in a Highsmith book, and these actions are violent in nature (they don’t have to be). There are acts of violence that are sudden and life-altering, committed consciously but not exactly premeditated (less than three short pages sit between Ripley’s first thought of killing Dickie and him striking of the first blow), and since their culprits have no intention of taking the penalty for their actions, they come to live with the knowledge of their crimes without hypocrisy. This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.
There are other elements that push Ripley to become a full character by the end of the first book, but these three are most important. In all three aloneness is crucial, the changes that take place cannot even be communicated, let alone shared with others. Ripley’s actions take place under those special conditions of aloneness where one’s ‘self’ stops being reflected. That’s when internal moral consistency becomes the thing. Highsmith’s heroes live with one foot in this world of moral self-sufficiency and one in the real world, where there are bills to be paid, high-quality suits to be bought, and an image to be kept up.
Highsmith’s heroes are still able to live in this real world, even in the most high-class social world. Instead of forgetting all about it, or glorying in their renouncement of it they take pleasure in drifting through it, and sometimes out of it.
For all the social connections he eventually develops, Ripley’s character exists in isolation, revealed in full only to the reader through Highsmith’s close third person. Ripley is not like anyone else morally, his way of seeing the world appears similar to the majority enough to be able to hide, while his otherness lies just far enough below the surface to be ignored by everyone, even his wife (who doesn’t know or pretends not to know he’s a criminal).
The heroes of Patricia Highsmith who follow closely behind Ripley, are always alone. Entirely, metaphysically alone. For them, human contact only makes sense at the most trivial level or on the grand existential level of the internal emotional logic. The whole fun of a Highsmith book is that these conundrums are played out under the veneer of pulp.