Published on: March 21, 2019
This commentary is available as both text and video; enjoy both or either ... they are similar, but not exactly the same. Today’s video, in fact, is much less detailed than the text version. To see past FaceTime commentaries, go to the MNB Channel on YouTube.
Hi, Kevin Coupe here and this is FaceTime with the Content Guy … reporting this week from Fort Lauderdale, Florida - specifically from the Bahia Mar marina there.
It is, for me, a kind of pilgrimage, because Bahia Mar has a certain cultural and literary significance for people like me. It is where writer John D. MacDonald anchored all of his Travis McGee novels, and where McGee’s houseboat, the Busted Flush, was tied up at Slip F18, waiting for some mystery to present itself, often in the form of a damsel in distress.
This was a long time ago. Times have changed, and the public consciousness about certain things has been raised. MacDonald and McGee probably would never be accused of being “woke.”
This location has changed a lot, too … Bahia Mar is a lot more upscale than in McGee’s day. Many of the boats tied up here look like office buildings and even skyscrapers that have been turned on their side, the very definition of a kind of conspicuous consumption that McGee - and many of his literary brethren, ranging from Philip Marlowe to Lew Archer, from Harry Bosch to Spenser - would find distasteful, if not outright offensive.
I found myself thinking about the literary tradition represented by McGee and Marlowe and Archer and Bosch and Spenser - the classic American detective novel - not just because I was motoring through the Bahia Mar marina, but also because that tradition can serve as a metaphor and business lesson. You know how I feel about business lessons.
The German philosopher Nicolai Hartmann once wrote that the fundamental question that must be asked in determining ethical behavior is, “What ought we do?” I’m not sure that our modern society is very good at answering that question. I’m pretty sure we don’t ask it often enough.
I would argue that the classic American detective novel often serves as a collision between expediency and “ought,” confronting Hartmann’s question, with the protagonist - Spenser and Bosch and Marlowe and Archer and McGee - charged (sometimes by a client, sometimes by fate) with putting things right, with aligning what is with what ought to be.
I’m not treading on new critical ground here. In 1902, G.K. Chesterton, in an essay entitled “In Defence of Detective Stories,” wrote that detective fiction is “the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life.”
It still does, I think, though modern life these days often doesn’t seem very poetic. Quite frankly, neither does modern business, which is replete with examples of companies taking shortcuts, valuing the short term more than the long term, thinking about reward more than consequences, not valuing the front line people who make profit possible, exploiting and harassing the vulnerable, and seeing only the bottom line without concern for ethical and moral lines crossed.
Too few people ask the Hartmann question - “What ought we do?” - within any sort of ethical context.
The good news is that the real world is catching up with at least some of the people who are not considering what ought to be. Hardly a week seems to go by without some senior executive - almost always a middle aged white male, though I’m sure that this demographic does not have an exclusive on bad behavior - being the subject of unsavory headlines, losing his job and being publicly shamed (though often with a severance check that probably makes it all a little more bearable, though I suspect - and hope - that many of these checks will have to be split with departing and disgusted spouses).
I came to Bahia Mar searching for Travis McGee, but found myself searching for something else. Maybe simpler days when literary knights errant would focus on putting things the way they ought to be.
And I thought that we all would do well to think more about ethical behavior, and learn business lessons from the likes of Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Robert B. Parker, Ace Atkins, Michael Connelly, and yes, John D. MacDonald, who gave us Travis McGee.
That’s what is on my mind this morning, and as always, I want to hear what is on your mind.
- KC's View: