Pynchon's Politics and Anderson's Movie
Now we can look at the deeper implicit politics in the novel. We will consider love and work in the stories of Doc and Shasta Fay and how the movie redefines and rebalances them . Anderson makes love the primary, self-contained theme of the movie and elides work. In the novel, love and work share essential emotional affinities, and the two commitments interact crucially in Doc and Shasta’s relationships. Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization provides a helpful orientation to understanding the political nature of love and work and their connection to capitalism and anti-capitalism in the novel.
The German Marxist Herbert Marcuse taught at the University of California – San Diego at the time Inherent Vice takes place. His work was widely read in the New Left, and Pynchon scholars have noted thematic affinities between Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization and Pynchon’s earlier work. The affinities are perhaps even stronger in Inherent Vice. Marcuse merged Freud’s theory of the psyche with Marx’s theory of capitalism to speculate on a theory of feelings and values particular to capitalism. Freud argued that humans need to live in society in order to more completely satisfy their material needs. Life in society requires us to repress our impulses to pursue our pleasure and subordinate them to the rational requirements of work and social order. Taken as a whole, our urges to pursue our pleasure constitute the “pleasure principle.” The counter-posed necessity to repress these urges constitutes the “reality principle.” The constant effort to calibrate and reconcile these two contradictory principles comprises the ordered dynamics of our emotional lives.
Marcuse maintained capitalist production has specific consequences for these emotional processes. He follows Marx’s arguments that production in and of itself meets our need for food, clothing, shelter and leisure, and that capitalist production must also produce profit. Capitalism must therefore impose more work on us than is needed simply to meet those material needs. Competition additionally requires capital to produce an ever greater amount of profit at an ever greater rate. The growth in demand for work and repression knows no limit. As we increasingly sacrifice free time to work, our leisure suffers. Work not only shortens our leisure, the drive for profit replaces leisure activities particular to our needs with commercially produced free-time activities. Capital necessarily increases repression and decreases the scope for creativity and self-direction.
Marcuse’s diagnosis of this emotional duress also enables him to see that possibilities for fuller, more satisfying lives inhere in late capitalism. Remove the profit motive from production, and the levels of productivity would allow us all lives of leisure. Remove competition, and in all our pursuits we can practice cooperation and care. The pleasure principle can outweigh the reality principle in every aspect of our lives. In the Freudian terms that label all pleasure and prosocial impulses as erotic, Marcuse anticipates “the erotization of the entire personality,” a transformation that releases the libido, the instinct for pleasure, from its limitation to sex and infuses it into all activities. Once freedom from work allows us to choose our pursuits, the nature of what was formerly work transforms. We choose our vocations for the pleasures they provide, and we organize them to maximize those pleasures. A society no longer based on the exigencies of labor but on the materially transformed mutual inclinations of its members is Marcuse’s emotional vision of communism.
The attempt to live out these aspirations individually and to balance them against the imperatives of work and money define the emotional dramas within Inherent Vice. As Doc and Shasta work and love, they must reconcile the imperatives of the pleasure principle and the reality principle. They struggle to realize their aspirations to affection and fulfillment while confronting the coercion to work and compete. Doc attempts to live in accord with the pleasure principle while struggling with the reality principle, and Shasta Fay attempts to live in accord with the reality principle while struggling with the pleasure principle. In Doc and Shasta’s daily careers and loves communist erotics and its ethics confront capitalist erotics and its ethics.
Under the auspices of the pleasure principle, work and leisure become one and the same. In the novel, Doc strives for this erotic unity in his career as a private investigator, but his experience demonstrates that work and leisure ultimately cannot fuse in capitalism. The movie retains only disconnected vestiges of this theme. Anderson omits the glimpses that the novel gives us of how Doc arrived at his career. He also reduces the indications of how and why Doc performs his work as pleasure, although the movie still movingly represents some of these emotions.
In the novel, commodified detective stories in radio, movies and television introduced Doc to the libidinal pleasures of investigation. We hear about Doc’s first childhood pursuit of this pleasure in the scene in which Doc asks assistant attorney Penny Kimball for access to the sealed file on Adrian Prussia. In a stretch of dialog cut from the scene in the movie, Penny needs Doc to reassure her that he is not angry with her for having handed him over to FBI agents for questioning. She maintains she could not have asked him first, because “You people all hate the FBI.” Doc disarms this imputation with an absurd story of his antics in the first grade.
His jocular anecdote assumes he was a member of the Junior G-men, a club organized through a popular radio drama about an FBI agent. He claims to have used his “Dick Tracy Junior G-man” kit to fingerprint all the kids in his grade and ended up with detention for a month. He has clearly fabricated this story. Not just that he asserts the six year-old enjoyed his detention because he got the chance to look up his teacher’s skirt. In fact, the comic strip police detective Dick Tracy was never associated with the Junior G-men, and the G-men radio broadcast had ended before Doc was born. The memory of the show, however, still remained vivid, even in my own childhood a decade after Doc’s. Doc can plausibly enough for comic effect cast himself as one more child absorbed in a pervasive anti-crime movement initiated and organized through the commercial media and inducing boys everywhere to imagine themselves exuberantly investigating.
At other times, Doc talks more seriously and credibly about the impact of fictional investigators on his aspirations. Deep in the novel, after Shasta Fay returns to Gordita Beach, Doc goes to see her. She tells him about befriending Burke Stodger, the former owner of the Golden Fang and blacklistee turned anti-Communist. She mentions having seen his film .45-Caliber Kissoff, and Doc exclaims, “That picture made me who I am today. That PI that Burke Stodger played, man, I always wanted be him.” Burke Stodger is a fiction within the fiction, but on another occasion Doc also names fictions from the world of the novel’s readers, the prototypical hard-boiled investigators Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, and the less familiar Johnny Staccato, “the shamus of shamuses,” a jazz-playing private eye from a television series that ran at the end of Doc’s teens. The vicarious enjoyments of media mysteries provided Doc with models for emulation, and his mediated pleasure ultimately translated into real enjoyment. After just one week as a skip-tracer trainee locating debtors, Doc remarks to Fritz Drybeam, who has given him his first job as an investigator, “This is fun.” The sheer pleasure of investigation, first as an object of medial consumption, then as job, forms the foundation for Doc’s career.
Over burgers with Fritz, after Fritz has given him the history of the Golden Fang, Doc even provides a little detail about the qualities he esteems in the PIs of movies and tv. He admires them not simply for their abilities, but because they excel the police in investigation, PIs are “always smarter and more professional than the cops, always end up solving the crime while the cops are following wrong leads and getting in the way.” Doc aspires to the success that results from intelligence, investigative discipline and imaginative skills unencumbered by institutional regimentation and routine. He also laments how the shift in television viewing from PI shows to cop shows results in respect for and reliance on cops and in disrespect for PIs, with the result that “most of us private flatfoots can’t even make the rent.” The career that fulfills his desires conflicts with the realities of earning his living. But when Fritz asks Doc why he sticks with it, Doc can only intimate how unhappy he would be without it. The pleasure Doc finds in investigating outweighs considerations of income, but he must endure the clash of the pleasure principle and the reality principle, as long as work is the precondition of him investigating as he desires.
Doc’s devotion to investigation rather than to earning his living through investigation has deep roots. The novel establishes early on that money does not motivate Doc’s career. It goes on to show that besides investigating for the personal pleasure of fully, productively employing his mind, Doc investigates out of friendship, a social expression of the pleasure principle. Over the course of the story, Doc is commissioned for six investigations. Two of these clients, Tarik Khalil and Coy Harlingen tell Doc when they first request his services that they cannot pay. Doc responds to Khalil, “Groovy with that,” and tells Coy, “When you can.” With the other four clients, all women, money is never even mentioned.
A pair of interactions with people who know him closely establish that Doc’s nonchalance and silences express a deliberate disavowal of money and that this rejection of mercenary motives is central to Doc’s character. In their conversations with Doc, his Aunt Reet, very early in the story, and his best friend Denis, very late, explicitly presume Doc’s disinterest in money. These conversations frame the other examples of non-paying agreements. Right after Shasta Fay has asked him to investigate the apparent plot against Mickey Wolfmann, Doc calls Reet, a real estate agent, for information about Wolfmann, the real estate developer. She fills in some background, advises Doc against tangling with Wolfmann then bluntly asks “Whos’s paying you?” Doc hesitates, “Well … .” Reet retorts “All on spec, eh? Big surprise.” Doc’s aunt anticipates and views with concern his lack of interest in paying work.
Similarly, as Doc and Denis prepare to meet the Golden Fang’s agents to return the stolen heroin that will secure Coy Harlingen’s freedom, Denis expresses his own concern at Doc’s disregard for money. He tells Doc “… I know you’re not dealing smack and probably not making any money out of this trip tonight either. But you should be getting something for your trouble.” Doc responds to Denis’s worry, “I’m getting their word they won’t hurt anybody. My friends, my family – me, you, a couple others.” Doc prefers the intangible reward of caring for and protecting clients, friends and family to earning money. Every one of Doc’s investigations in the novel manifests this desire to help and protect.
Doc’s generous commitment to caring motivates not just the six commissioned investigations. In the most important and dramatic investigation in the story, Doc knowingly colludes with Bigfoot Bjornsen as the police detective manipulates him into investigating Puck Beaverton and Adrian Prussia. The climax of that investigation almost costs Doc his life, ends only when Doc has killed both Puck and Adrian in self-defense, and leaves Doc raging at Bigfoot. Nonetheless, Doc remains irrepressibly concerned for the detective’s well-being. After Doc has handed over the heroin to the Golden Fang agents, Bigfoot tails them as they drive off. Doc watches him go after them and reflects on the perils of the detective’s grief-driven vendetta, “Bigfoot’s not my brother … But he sure needs a keeper.” Denis, knowing Doc too well, soberly replies, “It ain’t you, Doc.” Doc assents, “I know. Too bad, in a way.” Doc’s bond with a fellow investigator and his empathy with Bigfoot’s pain and rage runs so deep, he can acknowledge the unbridgeable and perilous differences in their values and ethics only with regret. Doc aspires to help all who need assistance solely on the basis of their humanity. This desire for investigation driven by caring rather than money is Doc’s outstanding communist trait.
No matter how soundly and firmly Doc responds to the impulses of the pleasure principle, these impulses conflict with the reality principle of capitalism. As we have seen, commercial narratives channel Doc’s desire for emotional and social gratification into a career inseparable from the legal institutions that serve the interests of property. In fact, the interests of property open Doc’s opportunity to become an investigator. Doc’s investigative career not only begins with him collecting debts, Fritz Drybeam in fact hires Doc to become a debt collector, so that Doc and can work off his own debts by skip-tracing. When Doc asserted that he “can’t even make the rent,” he understated a bitter truth. The novel’s last chapter reveals that Doc has such substantial debt that a $10,000 windfall will barely cover them. The novel understates this conflict, but the Doc’s struggles with his rent and his debt underscore the idealism of his investigations.
At times, the movie conveys Doc’s caring well, but Anderson retains only rudiments of the frame that contrasts communist and mercenary motives, and he alters the significance of the trait. Reet and Denis’s expressions of concern are cut from the respective scenes in the movie. Without Reet’s reproach, we cannot hear the eloquent silences on money when Doc agrees to investigate for Shasta Fay, Hope Harlingen and Clancy Charlock. Without this frame Doc’s dismissal of Coy Harlingen’s express inability to pay no longer belongs to a pattern. Thus the movie does not represent Doc’s rejection of money and earning money as a consequence of his caring and caring is not the fundamental motivation in Doc’s character. Nonetheless, Anderson still emphasizes the importance of Doc’s caring and adds two scenes of his own to the story to recontextualize it.
The first scene, between Doc and Sortilege, touchingly registers the depth of Doc’s concern for Coy and his family. As Doc broods over a postcard he received from Shasta Fay while she was missing, Sortilege gently, but probingly inquires after the feelings that trouble him aside from his longing for Shasta Fay. Doc hesitantly identifies his distress at Coy Harlingen’s undeserved separation from his beloved wife and child. Sortilege urges Doc to act on his feelings, as he will. The scene is poignant and affecting. But Doc’s reluctant resolve presents his motives not as a constant and consistent personal trait present in all his investigations, but as particular to Coy’s dilemma and rooted in Doc’s own similar loss.
The second scene forms a thematic counterpart to the first. Doc drives Coy home from the treatment facility Chryskylodon, and the two take their farewells in Doc’s car. Coy walks up the sidewalk onto the porch, and Hope answers his knock. They embrace quietly, then go inside, where jubilation erupts. In the foreground Doc sits pensively behind the wheel. The scene emphasizes that Doc has brought Coy and Hope back together because Coy’s situation mirrors his own separation from Shasta Fay. While Doc’s success in restoring the Harlingens’ marriage may console him, it cannot assuage his longing. Doc yearns to restore his own romantic relationship, not to rectify the injustices his friends and clients suffer at the hands of the propertied interests of Southern California. Doc in the movie is a sad and lonely man possessed by his loss rather than choosing an exile from work and wages in order to devote himself to assisting others. Anderson has divested Doc’s caring of its social dimensions. Doc’s libidinal impulses are primarily sexual and romantic and his social impulses derived from his internal emotional conflicts.