Friday, September 26, 2008
Falling Beams: The Flitcraft Parable
I was asked about the meaning of the name "Falling Beams Adjustment". I know its kind of wordy, but it refers to a story within a story by Dashiell Hammett in the Maltese Falcon. It was truncated by Humphrey Bogart in the movie, but in the book it played a prominent role. Sam Spade's dialogue is choppy and to the point, so it stands out when he stops to tell Brigid O'Shaughnessy what has come to be known as the Flitcraft parable.
To me it is a good example of some of the existential themes underlying early 20th century film Noir and a unique message about individualism in American story telling. Like the Cowboy, the Independent Detective is rugged and alone, fighting evil forces while following his inner code. He stubbornly clings to his freedom and independance, and reluctantly takes part in causes bigger than himself, only when he believes it is right.
I think the message in this parable is an apt metaphor for the post 9/11 world we live in. September 11 was a Black Swan event. It burst into our psyche so unexpected that many people reacted in strange and improbable ways. Eventually, many would claim that it was not unexpected, that it was inevitable, and once they made sense of it, they washed their hands and moved on.
This Parable closes with Spade showing fascination with the adjustments Flitcraft made in his life in an attempt to come to grips with life's mystery. Where one man might have reacted like the American buffalo grazing on an open plain, indifferent to another Buffalo falling at his side from a hunter's bullet, Flitcraft refused to return to his grazing, he made a choice to adjust, never explaining if his adjustment had made a difference. The meaning is left up to the reader.
The Flitcraft Parable
Spade sat down in the armchair beside the table and without any preliminary, without an introductory remark of any sort, began to tell the girl about a thing that had happened some years before in the Northwest. He talked in a steady matter-of-fact voice that was devoid of emphasis or pauses, though now and then he repeated a sentence slightly rearranged, as if it were important that each detail be related exactly as it had happened.
At the beginning Brigid O'Shaughnessy listened with only partial attentiveness, obviously more surprised by his telling the story than interested in it, her curiousity more engaged with his purpose in telling the story than with the story he told; but presently, as the story went on, it caught her more and more fully and she became still and receptive.
A man named Flitcraft had left his real-estate-office, in Tacoma, to go to luncheon one day and had never returned. He did not keep and engagement to play golfafter four that afternoon, though he had taken the initiative in making the engagement less than half and hour before he went out to luncheon. His wife and children never saw him again. His wife and he were supposed to be on the best of terms. He had two children, boys, one five an dthe other three. He owned his house in a Tacoma suburb, a new Packard, and the rest of the appurtenances of successful American living.
Flitcraft had inherited seventy thousand dollars from his father, and, with his sucess in real estate, was worth something in the neighbourhood of two hundred thousand dollars at the time he vanished. His affars were in order, though there were enough loose ends to indicate that he had not been setting them in order preparatory to vanishing. Adeal tha would have brought him an attractive profit, for instance, was to have been concluded the day after the one on which he diappeared. There was nothing to suggest that he had more than fifty or sixty dollars in his immediate posession at the time of his going. His habits for months past could be accounted for too thoughly to justify any suspicion of secret vices, or even of another woman in his life, though either was barely possible.
"He went like that," Spade said, "like a fist when you open your hand,"
"... Well, that was in 1922. In 1927 I was with one of the big detective agencies in Seattle. Mrs. Flitcraft came in and told us somebody had seen a man in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband. I went over there. It was Flitcraft, all right. He had been living in Spokane for a couple of years as Charles - that was his first name - Pierce. He had a automobile-business that was netting him twenty or twenty-five thousand a year, a wife, a baby son, owned his home in a Spokane suburb, and usually got away to play glof after four in the afternoon during the season."
Spade had not been told very definitely what to do when he found Flitcraft. They talked in Spade's room at the Davenport. Flitcraft had no feeling of guilt. He had left his first family well provided for, and what he had done seemed to him perfectly reasonable. The only thing that bothered him was a doubt that he could make that reasonableness clear to Spade. He had never told anybody his story before, and thus had not had to attempt to make its reasonableness explicit. He tried now.
"I got it all right," Spade told Brigid O'Shaughnessy, "but Mrs. Flitcraft never did. She thought it was silly. Maybe it was. Anyway it came out all right. She didn't want any scandal, and, after the trick he had played on her - the way she looked at it - she didn't want him. So they were divorced on the quiet and everything was swell all around.
"Here's what happened to him. Going to luch he passed an office-building that was being put up - just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn't touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. It only took a piece of skin off, but he still had the scar when I saw him. He rubbed it with his finger - well, affectionately - when he told me about it. He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works."
Flitcraft had been a good citizen and a good husband and father, not by any outer compulsion, but simply because he was a man most comfortable in step with his surroundings. He had been raised that way. The people he knew were like that. The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.
It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not in step, with life. He said he knew before he had gone twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By tht time he had eaten his luncheon he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away. He loved his family, he said, as much as he supposed was usual, but he knew he was leaving them adequately provided for, and his love for them was not of the sort that would make absence painful.
He went to Seattle that afternoon," Spade said, "and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife didn't look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn't sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. Idon't think he even knew he had settled back naturally in the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling."
Taken from Dashiell Hammett's 'The Maltese Falcon',(1930)
Chapter 7, entitled 'G In The Air',