Quote: Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.
This is one of Raymond Chandler‘s most famous quotes. If you haven’t read The Big Sleep you may think it comes as a closing line of a grand argument or as a poignant reminder of life’s tragedies during a display of heightened emotional turmoil. You may think it, but er … I guess I shouldn’t tell you. It is at least true that the protagonist says it and not some minor character or the antagonist (e.g. in Goethe’s Faust Mephistopheles gets some of the best lines).
Hard-boiled detectives in general, and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in particular, are descendants of the nineteenth century romantic heroes—think Goethe’s Young Werther who got it all started, Dumas’s Dantès, Pushkin’s Onegin—those self-destructive, misunderstood, lonely souls that pursue justice or a higher truth on society’s margins. So it is to be expected that Marlowe should contribute to this romantic tradition with a statement about love, death, and the thing that causes both and lies in the middle: life.
What makes the Quote quiver?
The Quote is one of those lines that look either deep or cheap, depending on your mood, and that you suspect to be the opposite of what your first impression told you. It’s not a paradox, nor is it ironic, it’s a neat, slippery statement that sounds cool.
What is at the core of the Quote?
A conventional metaphor allows us to comprehend a less familiar thing by referring to a more familiar thing. In Language: Quirks and Perks I discuss metaphors for language (Quinn’s Language has all the suppleness of human flesh, and something of its warmth) and before that, in The Art of Writing: Quirks and Perks, the various ways of comparing the act of writing to the act of tipping a teacup. We have experience with human flesh, warmth and teacups, therefore it make sense to talk about the less tangible language or act-of-writing in these terms. What of dead men and broken hearts—does the Quote follow the same pattern?
Firstly, note which metaphors are involved in the Quote.
- A broken heart is a symbol, a metaphor for a crushing disappointment in love (unlike a heartache which could be both a literal symptom of stress and a metaphor for love troubles).
- Using heavier implies both dead men and broken hearts have weight. Broken hearts can have only metaphorical weight provided by the circumstances surrounding the heartbreak, the way disappointment or depression is a psychological down-pull.
- Dead men have a literal weight (dead weight), but they also have a lot of metaphorical weight: the circumstances of their death weigh down on family and friends, on the murderer (the context implies this), on all others affected by the disappearance of this life.
Secondly, to compare two things, they must be measurable by the same scale. Therefore, the Quote compares the metaphorical weights of dead men and of broken hearts; it states that the circumstances of murder are heavier than the circumstances of heartbreak. And most people know heartbreak well.
So, yes, on the one hand, the Quote is just making a statement about a less familiar thing in terms of a more familiar thing. On the other hand, the metaphor has more “depth” than teacup tipping or language suppleness: most of us don’t meet dead men often, especially not the violently murdered, so the metaphor refers to a truly unusual experience. Further, any statement about death takes on more gravity. Lastly, the Quote has “shimmering depth” because the first part can be interpreted literally, as dead men are heavy to lug around, and because we hold (only) this literal interpretation in mind until we get to the broken hearts, when we switch over to the metaphorical interpretation to achieve meaning—the switch is what shimmers.
If Meaning is the brain, then Metaphor is the heart of language. To all wordsmiths this weekend: may your language be clever, and may its heart beat strong.
- Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Discusses metaphors and what makes them work.
- A Natural History of The Senses, Diane Ackerman. Metaphor at its best in non-fiction. Or see her language at work in the QQ article Swirling Sahara and an Apricot Whoosh.
- The Art of Writing: Quirks and Perks, QQ. On the metaphors describing language.