Modernism and Disciplinary History: On H. G. Wells and T. S. Eliot

By Fluet, Lisa | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Modernism and Disciplinary History: On H. G. Wells and T. S. Eliot


Fluet, Lisa, Twentieth Century Literature


        Gutman stopped whispering. His sleek dark eyes examined Spade's
     face, which was placid. The fat man asked: "Well, sir, what do you
     think of that?"
        "I don't know."
        The fat man smiled complacently. "These are facts, historical
     facts, not schoolbook history, not Mr. Wells's history, but history
     nevertheless."
     --Dashiell Hammett (124)

"Mr. Wells's history" serves as a casual point of reference in Caspar Gutman's account of the appearance and subsequent disappearance of the Maltese falcon from recorded history. As he explains to Sam Spade, the Knights of Rhodes ordered the making of a tribute to Emperor Charles V that reflected and celebrated their unabashed looting of the East: a "glorious golden falcon" assembled by Turkish slaves, "encrusted from head to foot with the finest jewels in their coffers ... the finest out of Asia" (124). But it never reached the emperor because it was stolen--and had been stolen repeatedly ever since. As the most academically invested twentieth-century seeker of the falcon, Gutman's complacent avarice makes him the modern historical authority of the moment, since historical facts are as steeped in contented criminality as he is. As both thief and historian, he brushes received, "schoolbook" history against the grain to expose forgotten thefts. Sam Spade's placid, noncommittal response to the relish with which Gutman narrates the falcon's bloody travels suggests a present gone blandly indifferent to the exotic, high-stakes backdrop of crusades, conquest, slavery, greed, and international piracy.

In this context, Mr. Wells's history--that is, The Outline of History--appears naively distanced from historical facts, a vague "outline" removed from the insistent materiality of the falcon's travels through time. (1) If Sam Spade's outward refusal to be moved by past violence stems from his hard-boiled sense that modernity is characterized by everyday bloodshed, Wells's Outline stands for a kind of soft-boiled modernity. Simply unaware of either past, exotic brutalities or present, routine ones--lacking both Gutman's and Sam Spade's insights--The Outline, like many of Wells's interwar works, adheres to a belief in universal humanity's enlightened progress toward a secular world government, a condition that would render obsolete the crusading past that interests Gutman. And yet "history nevertheless" possesses a complicated allure for Sam Spade as well as Gutman. A kind of cultural knowingness attaches to the historical facts that Gutman conveys to Spade, a sense that "we men of the world know" how greed and bloodshed really propel history, not the sanitized, bloodless innocence of Edwardian popular historians. The desire that both men share to hold the falcon implies a desire to hold the material of history in one's hands, to touch the barbarically authentic in what Walter Benjamin might recognize as this "tainted ... cultural treasure" (256).

Of course, Hammett will counter Gutman's narrative with the subsequent discovery that the falcon is a fake. Gutman's "rara avis" (204) is both a copy and a rarity: not the real thing, but evidence of a rarely expressed desire for the kind of brutal crusading efficiency that the novel's hardboiled present can only weakly imitate. For all the weight of this falcon, holding it implies holding nothing at all--"the stuff that dreams are made of," in John Huston's fortunate, if un-Hammett-like, addition to his film. In Gutman's depiction, the authentic falcon's origins are implicated in highly effective barbarism: the systematic looting of the East coupled with efficient exploitation of "the anonymous toil" (Benjamin 256) of enslaved workers. In contrast, the clumsier efforts to obtain the falcon by both Spade and Gutman's gang come to be implicated in a wistful "dream" to reproduce the success of such extortion. In The Maltese Falcon, gangster ineptitude and haphazard, wasteful violence are only feeble contemporary echoes of an older, more exacting order of barbarity, as when Sam Spade awkwardly steps on the hand of the dead man who has just "toiled" to deliver the fake falcon to him, while his own "widespread fingers" exhibit "ownership in their curving" over it (159). …

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