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REVIEW : He Died with His Eyes Open (1984) by Derek Raymond

March 4, 2009

In order to grasp the devastating beauty of Derek Raymond’s He Died with His Eyes Open (1984), it is first necessary to grasp the devastating beauty of another text; Conrad’s altogether more famous Heart of Darkness (1899).  Conrad’s book ends with one of the most memorable soliloquies in British literature :

“Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror — of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision — he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:

‘The horror! The horror!’”

As one of the most commented upon texts in academic literary criticism, this passage has been found to contain endless meanings but one particular meaning has clawed its way up out of the Darwinian jungle of ideas with greater panache and ferocity than the others.  The most common interpretation of that final line is that Kurtz has somehow seen the savage, devouring emptiness that lurks at the heart of existence.  A heart of darkness that can only truly be grasped by the mad or the inspired who can free themselves of the comforting fictions that animate our day-to-day lives.  For Queen.  For Country.  For Myself.  For Love.  All fictions.  One reason for the popularity of this interpretation is that it echoes the themes of meaninglessness that pervade existentialism, that most popular of Post-War philosophical postures.

Noir crime fiction is seen by some as a form of populist agitprop for existentialism.  While Camus and Sartre took over the left bank, it was the Noir writers who were on sale in every news-agent.  It is only natural to read Raymond’s book as a continuation of this de facto intellectual alliance, but I would argue that Raymond’s take on existentialism is almost diametrically opposed to that of Sartre, Camus, Kafka or Marcel.

cover of the 2007 edition

cover of the 2007 edition

He Died with His Eyes Open is a book with minimal plot.  An upper class drunk is found brutally beaten to death and is dumped on a nameless detective who works in an unfashionable part of the London Metropolitan Police.  Combing through the deceased’s tapes and writings, the detective discovers that the drunk spent his later years wracked with guilt over the collapse of his marriage and trying desperately to win the love of a woman whose coldness and brutality is frankly terrifying.  However, refusing to back down from the horrors of his life, the drunk eventually winds up forcing the hand of his murderers leaving behind only a grieving ex-wife and a detective so consumed by empathy that he winds up making many of the same mistakes the drunk did.  What makes this book interesting is not its plot.  Only Raymond’s second genre work after some moderate success as a mainstream author and an initial work of crime fiction published only in French, He Died with His Eyes Open feels like an ambitious and experimental work that has been crammed into a set of ill-fitting genre parameters in the hope that it might sell.  Indeed, the ending where the detective uncovers the depths of the murderer’s insanity feels prurient and graphically sensationalist in a way that fits badly with the book’s melancholy tone.

What makes this book powerful is not its plotting or its characterisation but its emotional landscape.  The drunk, an upper class man who turned his back on wealth and position in order to work the land and die a drunk, is closely based upon the realities of the author’s own life.  Through a series of taped vignettes, the drunk expresses regret and sadness over almost every aspect of his life.  He rails against the injustices of the working world, the stupidity, cowardice and cruelty of the people around him and, most importantly, his own stupid mistakes in alienating his wife and child and breaking himself upon the jagged rocks of a woman incapable of returning the love he felt for her.  In the hands of a lesser writer, this relentless self-pity and internalised anger would feel self-indulgent, narcissistic and petty, but in the hands of Raymond these vignettes fill the book with this tangible and bone-crushing sadness.  A sadness born of alienation and regret but also self-loathing over the drunk’s complete inability to sort himself out and harness his potential to change his life for the better.  Raymond’s drunk is simply crushed by the world.  The true horror of his death lies not in the gore-soaked details of his murder or the psychosis of his killer, but in the fact that he knew what was going to happen to him and why but he was unwilling and incapable of doing anything about it.  He felt the waters closing over his head.  He saw the last air bubble disappear towards the rapidly retreating surface.  He knew.

This knowledge is beautifully expressed in two of the the book’s more moving vignettes.  At one point, the detective likens the drunk to the wife of a communist sculptor he knew before joining the force :

“His wife was completely mad.  From time to time they discharged her from the mental hospital and sent her home, but those spells never lasted long.   Ransomme would do everything for her :  ‘she’s much better,’ he would whisper to me confidentially, ‘much’.  Maisie knew that something was expected of her because there was a visitor, just as when she tried to pull herself together in the Asylum Park for Ransomme’s own visits to her.  she would try to make tea for us at the studio, but Ransomme usually had to take over from her halfway through because she started wringing her hands over the teacups in the kitchenette, seeing them, as far as we could make out, as wrong and too flat.  He would finish setting out the tray himself while she sat between two of his sculptures in a wicker chair.  she was as white as they, an atrociously thin woman with terrified brown eyes, shuddering with terror.”  Page 177-178.

Another vignette recounts the drunk’s childhood experience of finding a crashed German plane with a surviving crew :

“The crew was in there, a lieutenant and a sergeant; I knew all their uniforms.  They sat wearing their goggles, looking grim and practical.  They smoked, but not cigarettes.  They smoked all over, soaked in petrol; the fumes simmered in the sun.  They sat there, slowly smoking.  After a while, the village policeman arrived on his bicycle; he was covered with sweat and had his helmet on the back of his head.  He made the first sound; everything had been as quiet as a church before.  The policeman looked into the cockpit, too, but reeled back from the fumes.  The people inside didn’t care; they just went on smoking in a very deliberate way, staring stonily ahead through the windscreen.  The bobby told me: ‘Let’s get clear of this son, it’s bloody dangerous, the ignition’s still on.’   We just had time to run like hell before there was a spark somewhere in the cockpit and the whole lot went up.”  Page 160.

Both the sculptor’s wife and the aircrew knew what the drunk would come to know.  They too were crushed by the world.  But what is it that does the crushing?

Existentialism is a philosophy of emptiness.  Sartre expresses this central theme through the slogan ‘existence precedes essence’, meaning that there are no meta-narratives governing who we should be or what the world must become, instead we are free.  Free to make of the world what we will.  Religion, according to Sartre, is just an act of cowardice; the response of people who see the meaningless nature of existence and recoil, seeking out a metanarrative that is personalised and psychologised through easily understandable ideas such as universal love, forgiveness and salvation.

Raymond’s vision of the world is one of fullness.  Where existentialism suggests that the world is black, Raymond suggests that it is nothing but light.  We are blinded and paralysed by this light and forced to cook up convenient beliefs and mythologies in order to filter the light and make the world comprehensible.  Rather than being devoid of meta-narratives where nothing really matters, Raymond presents us with a world where absolutely everything matters.  Everything your life touches has emotional repercussions and far from being fictions best ignored or trifles we need to overcome, we need to shield ourselves from these crushing emotional weights or else be plunged into terrified madness like the sculptor’s wife or complete paralysis like the doomed aircrew.

The drunk’s attempts to embrace the blinding inner light of our own regrets, failures and weaknesses are symbolised by his relationship with Barbara.  Like life, Babsy is beautiful, distant and horrifyingly cold.  She has utter contempt for even a moment’s weakness and responds only to those that are willing to throw caution and principle to the wind and force her into the shape they desire.  Those who show emotional weakness in the face of her glacial fury are ground up into little pieces as though trapped in the gears of some sinister and gigantic machine.

He Died With His Eyes Open presents us with a model of existentialism with the Nietzschean elements ripped from it.  As a school of thought with one foot firmly planted in the 19th Century and another in the charnel houses of the Holocaust, existentialism is a moral philosophy that places great stock on individual becoming; it lionises the supermen who stare into the bleakness of existence and feel a sense of freedom instead of fear or loathing.  It is a philosophy that presents us with a mystico-political model for self-actualisation and so its links with Christianity and psychoanalysis seem fairly logical (if not to the taste of all existentialists).  However, Raymond does not write about supermen.  He writes about normal people and normal people do not transcend the world, they suffer from it and weep at its unfairness.  Raymond’s drunk is hugely sensitive, intelligent and a talented writer but the world beat him.  If the world can beat the likes of him, what hope do the rest of us have?  Indeed, the only person who seems to be able to cope with existence in its rawest form is Barbara and far from being something to aspire to, her embodiment of the howling chaos of existence is genuinely alien and terrifying.


He Died with His Eyes Open
is a book that is as stylistically stunning as it is emotionally powerful.  Despite being an intensely cerebral book, Raymond never dumps his opinions on you in a direct fashion.  Instead he pieces together a disjointed narrative  edifice that makes you understand, on an emotional level, what the book is trying to get across.  Despite having read the book twice and sat on this review for weeks, I still feel that I am doing it a disservice with my crude attempts to unpick Raymond’s writing.  Cocteau once said that for some, style is a complicated way of saying simple things, but for him style was a simple way of saying very complicated things.  The first book of the Factory series seems to embody this thought perfectly.

8 Comments
  1. March 4, 2009 3:34 pm

    Barbara is filled with loathing for the world, she uses sex as a weapon to wreak harm upon it.

    I agree with you on the sculptor’s wife, I do think though the book bears other analyses. The protagonist spends much time contemplating the absurdity (used non-technically) of his own self-awareness, he is crushed in part by the realisation of his own irrelevance as an animal doomed to a knowledge of its own demise.

    The ending is one of the book’s weaker parts, but I think what it’s aiming at is that by the end the detective understands what the drunk is saying, and having that knowledge he too is consumed by it. By the pointlessness of it all.

    I think the book isn’t about how existence is filled with light so much as it’s about different ways of responding to existence. For the sculptor’s wife, the significance of it all is too much, the sculptor captures transitory moments in stone but knows his work will not outlast him, the drunk despairs and in doing so abandons things that could have given his life meaning, the detective finds meaning through his work and the drunk casts doubt upon that, Barbara seeks revenge for it all. There is no single narrative, there are multiple narratives, multiple responses to a lack of extrinsic meaning and multiple answers to the possibility of intrinsic meaning.

    I definitely see noir as existentialist literature, I think it would be a mistake though to see it simply as a defence or refutation of particular philosophers, I see it more as a continuation of a conversation about implication. McIlvanney, whom I urge you read, has a very different response to that of Raymond, seeing instead the absence of god as a call to arms – we must love each other or die.

  2. March 4, 2009 3:48 pm

    I was reading your comments on my blog entry on this book, and I noted you thought that Raymond may not be neutral between the different responses. I think that’s right, but I think it’s the policeman’s response that’s the most meaningful ultimately, not Staniland’s (though I think you agree on that) or indeed the sculptor’s wife.

    The policeman sees a value to life despite it’s fragility and ultimate irrelevance, he pursues truth despite there being no good reason to do so and plenty of reasons not to, he creates order and meaning from chaos.

    Staniland ultimately despairs and pisses away his own life, albeit eloquently. Barbara carries out empty acts of revenge which make her no happier, the sculptor’s wife is in an asylum. The detective, and for that matter the sculptor, engage with the world on its own terms and carve meaning from its indifference, they live within the world but expect little from it.

    What these characters have in common, unlike the other detectives, is their recognition of reality. The other policeman have no such awareness, and notably are happier for it. I don’t think though the book holds that happiness out as itself laudable or something to aim for – in part as if you’re aware it exists you are viewing it from outside and it’s already too late for you to aim for it.

    Not sure about Raymond being crammed into genre bit by the way, Raymond is distinctly a crime writer, the fact he’s also an author of real talent and with something profound to say doesn’t remove the fact he wrote about murderers and policeman and was quite happy to work within the constraints of genre. His themes are ones I see as classic to noir fiction, as found also in McIlvanney, Peace, McCoy and others.

  3. March 4, 2009 3:54 pm

    Policemen in the above, not policeman.

    Oh, for an edit function.

  4. March 4, 2009 4:07 pm

    I definitely think the ending is rushed, the move to paint the Laughing Cavalier as some kind of sexual midget is explanatory and is a similar genre move to the one underpinning the early James Elroy serial killer novels as well as those of Thomas Harris. I think Harris polishes the technique and raises it to the level of sub-genre but given how peripheral the laughing cavalier is to much of the action, the sudden interest in his home life and his relationship with Barbara feel a lot like an attempt to bring the story to an end by hammering it into a recognisable genre shape.

    He Died With His Eyes Open was the first of Raymond’s books to be published after a long French hiatus. It was his second work of crime fiction. All his previous works were more mainstream and literary and so I think the idea of his struggling to coax HDWHEO into a genre shape is understandable.

    Regarding the idea of being crushed by light, I think that this is the idea that Raymond is trying to get across but yes, different characters do react differently to it. But I don’t think that Raymond is happy with all reactions. He definitely sees Barbara’s denial of emotions and regrets as somehow mentally unhinged and while he is not entirely hagiographic in his depiction of Stanisland (The Drunk) I do think he favours that reaction.

    Indeed, I think that Raymond’s subtle distancing from Stanisland is what allows the book to be so incredibly melancholic without ever feeling as self-indulgent as you might expect from a book that grieves at length over a dead representation of the author.

  5. March 4, 2009 4:21 pm

    He definitely doesn’t support Barbara’s response, it’s portrayed as essentially evil, anti-life. I think he’s ambivalent on Staniland, as you pointed out on my blog actually.

    Staniland despairs, but his despair is itself a protection, his embrace of pointlessness is itself a meaningful response, there is a paradox there as well possibly as a simultaneous act of courage in recognising reality and of cowardice in failing to live his own life.

    The sculptor recognises his own irrelevance, he knows his work will be destroyed on his death, but he lives regardless and he is part of life.

    Indeed, perhaps there’s something in that, some characters in the novel are unthinkingly part of life, some are thinkingly so, and some in various ways cease to be so. Staniland, Barbara, the Poet’s wife.

    I think there’s a lot by way of possible interpretations, more than we’ve canvassed between us in all likelihood. Like you, when I blogged it I felt frustrated at the impossibility of fully capturing its subtleties.

    Agree on the Cavalier by the way, and the ending is a bit rushed. I think I’m right that he’s trying to suggest the policeman is infected by Staniland’s viewpoint and in understanding it approaches Staniland’s fate, but Raymond doesn’t wholly succeed and the ending is not the part of the book that lingers in the memory.

  6. March 4, 2009 4:31 pm

    I remember what I said on your blog but since re-reading it and reading more about Raymond’s life (his autobiography is lamentably out of print and costs £100 second hand but there are some pieces that mention its contents) I think that the book probably errs on the side of sympathy with Stanisland whilst also acknowledging his failures. I think the book presents him as a hero of sorts simply because he looked into the light and refused to blink or explain away or deny its presence. Instead he allowed it to slowly consume him.

    I definitely think you’re right about the Detective becoming infected. You can see it in his relationship with Barbara and the fact that he initially comes on strong, knowing how to deal with her so as to get information out of her, but then, like Stanisland he falls for her and ultimately disgusts her. There are suggestions that Stanisland and Barbara’s relationship was not always the twisted mess it was towards the end. I can imagine her respecting his intellectual combativity and courage.

    That also explains the weird scene in which the detective speaks to his superior almost in tears, crying that he doesn’t understand what Stanisland achieved. Indeed, it’s never made completely explicit what he did achieve other than the hint given in the book’s title.

  7. March 4, 2009 4:43 pm

    He’s certainly a hero of sorts. As to what he may or may not have achieved:

    “Most people live with their eyes shut, but I mean to die with mine open. We all instinctively try to make death less difficult for ourselves. Personally, I’ve got two ways. First, I drink. I drink for oblivion, and then a fall of some kind or a blow, once I’m beyond thinking or feeling. That’s how I’d die, with my eyes shut. My other way is to rationalise my experience. But, no matter how logically you think, you soon get in a muddle. Existence is blind – neither for you nor against you. This impartiality contradicts everything in human experience; there is neither love nor hatred, caresses or assault, in your dealing with the everyday. Existence is like a stock exchange – you can make as big a fool of yourself as you like, and go on until you’re hammered.”

    That’s his goal, he achieves it, whether it was worth achieving though, that’s a question I think the book leaves somewhat open. Maybe, there is a heroic quality, but maybe not, to return to your opening para ‘The horror! The horror!’”.

  8. March 4, 2009 5:57 pm

    Yes but what does reaching death with one’s “eyes open” actually mean?

    In my review of Blindness I touched on the idea of sight being a floating signifier meaning that having sight is always seen as a good thing and being blind is always seen as being a bad thing, but those states can refer to any number of different things.

    The book’s subtleties come from the fact that you have to piece what Raymond is getting at together by the emotional content of the text as relating to different vignettes and characters.

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