Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Crossing the Road to Avoid Your Friends: Engagement, Alienation, and Patricia Highsmith

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Crossing the Road to Avoid Your Friends: Engagement, Alienation, and Patricia Highsmith

Article excerpt

In one of the most arresting vignettes to be found in his biography of American novelist Patricia Highsmith, Andrew Wilson writes that if Highsmith saw an acquaintance walking down the street towards her, she would deliberately cross sides so as to avoid the person. Wilson also describes how Highsmith herself, writing in her notebook during early adulthood on the subject of rather more intimate inter-personal relationships, foresaw that she would be "forever prone to falling in love but always happiest when alone" (89), thus revealing a significant duality in her psyche. Highsmith has been the subject of much critical interest recently, part of the fascination with her arising from the difficulty of categorizing her work, there being considerable divergence of opinion regarding the precise nature of the commentary that she provides on her world. Some (for example, Victoria Hesford) see Highsmith as a commentator on Cold War psycho-sociology, while The Times leader published at the time of her death credited her above all with providing a penetrating analysis of the criminal mind. There is, however, general agreement now that she was a writer of literary rather than formula fiction.

Highsmith provides a very unusual window onto a discourse focusing on how an individual positions oneself with respect to the social and cultural milieux. This discourse has been of concern to writers and thinkers of all kinds: novelists (especially since 1945), sociologists (for example, David Riesman) and psychologists from Freud to Lacan. The issue of the individual ill at ease with their environment has also preoccupied playwrights such as John Osborne, with his dissections of class and generational conflicts, and has spilled over into popular culture, manifesting itself in places as diverse as the lyrics of popular songs (for example Paul Simon's The Sound of Silence) and the sentiments of protesters at G8 summits, giving voice to their sense of helplessness in the face of supernational forces. I will argue that Highsmith's rather unique contribution lies precisely in her complex and compelling portrayal of a central duality or ambivalence in the individual's attempt to interface with the world, and of a keynote contradiction between her protagonists' urges to self-alienate and to engage. The complexity of Highsmith's perspective is highlighted by comparison with the French existentialist thinkers whose work so dominated the intellectual climate of the mid-twentieth century and with whom Highsmith is sometimes compared.

Highsmith should be counted as very much a writer of her time and place--the postwar period in the West. This is an identification she would have relished. Wilson quotes her notebook for November 1950 as claiming that what she most wanted to achieve in her work was "Consciousness alone, consciousness in my particular era" (158). The postwar decades were characterized by profound introspection, as evidenced by the abundance of works of self-reflective sociology like David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1950) and Jules Henry's Culture Against Man (1963). The massive social changes occurring between 1945 and 1970 have continued to attract analysis and a consensus has emerged regarding the key characteristics of the period. These include loneliness and isolation (particularly emotional isolation) of the individual, and (especially in Europe, where Highsmith lived for much of her life) a growing lack of confidence in, or acceptance of, received community and spiritual values--the sense of purpose lost due to the disappearance of the latter being largely replaced by a growing acquisitiveness.

Highsmith's protagonists demonstrate striking resonance with these qualities. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Tom Ripley, newly arrived in Italy, articulates the corrosive loneliness faced by her characters when he acknowledges "a tingling fear at the end of his spine, tingling over his buttocks" at the thought of being alone (92). …

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