I recently met an oddly aggressive person on Twitter (a shock, I know, please pardon me, dear reader, for not having warned you to sit down first) and that made me think of a line from the delightful song, I’ll See Your Six.
The line I’m thinking of is
The things you will run into the people that you meet Walking all alone along a New York City Street.
Twitter can be much like New York City streets. You meet the strangest people there. For much the same reason; just as in NY during the time the song is referring to crime was rampant and largely not prosecuted, there are very few repercussions for being unnecessarily aggressive with people on Twitter. I don’t mean that as a call for greater policing of Twitter, mind. Just an observation on the relationship between inducements and behavior in our fallen world.
And possibly also the observation that, like in the song, it is well to travel armed—as is appropriate to the circumstances—in such places.
Over on Twitter, Benjamin Kit Sun Cheah wrote a very interesting thread on Wuxia (Chinese heroes) and the meaning of this genre. He kindly gave me permission to quote it in full here since that’s much easier to read than a Twitter thread if you’re not used to Twitter.
Among the hottest fiction trends today, and the genre I’m working on next. I’ve been looking into the genre for years, but everywhere I looked I found too many power fantasies, too few actual wuxia. It shows a lack of understanding of the genre. Wuxia should be the stuff of legends. Highly-skilled warriors in a milieu of danger and respect. Adventure in exotic realms. A world where you can earn your place with your sword. But beyond that, wuxia has one more element: Ethics.
It’s right there in the name. Wuxia is commonly translated as ‘martial hero’ into English. The meaning of ‘hero’ is well-known. ‘Martial’ has a neutral connotation. It means the ways of war. The meaning of wuxia seems obvious: a hero who uses martial arts. But this is not what wuxia means in Chinese. Chinese is a logographic language. Every ‘word’ is a written character that carries certain meanings. Every character in turn is made up of radicals. Radicals are smaller characters that convey pronunciation, and most importantly, MEANING. Keep this in mind.
Wuxia is a transliteration of 武侠. 武 carries the meanings of ‘martial, weapons, military’. 侠 means ‘chivalry, gallantry, hero’. But this is in English. In Chinese it carries a much, much deeper meaning. 武 is composed of two major radicals. 止: Stop 戈: A dagger-axe, an ancient Chinese weapon. (When used as a radical, the word loses a stroke.) Therefore, the true meaning of 武 is: to stop the dagger-axe. The English ‘martial’ has a neutral connotation. 武 has an innately noble purpose: to stop the dagger-axe, to defend and protect.
Morality is hard-coded into Chinese martial arts. The Chinese took it very, very seriously. Some Chinese martial arts masters worked as police officers, soldiers, and bodyguards. Others were civilians, but they assisted the police in arresting outlaws. Others ‘took back the art’ by defeating (and crippling or killing) bandits who had trained in martial arts.
侠 is an interesting case. This is the simplified version of an older word: 俠. 侠 has two radicals: 人: man 夹: squeeze, pinch, wedge, carry under your arm This implies that 侠 is ‘a man who wedges’ or ‘a man who carries’. 夾 from 俠 can be interpreted in two interesting ways. The ‘official’ interpretation I’ve seen is of two smaller men lifting up a larger man. My other, artistic interpretation is a large man wedging himself between two others. With this artistic interpretation, if we look at 俠 again, we see this: A man who places himself in between a tall man (on the left) and two smaller men (behind him). A big man protecting two smaller men with his body. What is the deeper meaning of 侠? A man who lifts up and supports other people. This is how the Chinese viewed chivalry and gallantry. Or, if you look at it artistically: A man who shields the innocent with his body.
Put these characters together and we get the meaning of the true meaning of 武侠: A man who stops the dagger-axe and supports others. Martial skill is thus used to protect the innocent, NOT to puff up your ego. To be a hero is to help others, NOT to merely be strong. Many stories tagged as ‘wuxia’ miss that. Without this element of ethics, of a hero willing to shield others from the dagger-axe with his own body, there is no wuxia. Today, there are ‘dark wuxia’ stories where the MC is a VILLAIN, which defeats the genre altogether!
With this in mind, let’s examine Xianxia. Xianxia is the transliteration of 仙侠. 侠 is known by now. But what about 仙? English says it means ‘immortal, fairy, sylph’. But that’s not quite what it means. 仙 has two radicals: 人: Man 山: Mountain A 仙, an immortal, is thus a man who goes up to the mountains. But why? Isolated in the mountains, free from the concerns of the mortal world, a man can tap into the abundant qi of nature. Through cultivation, a Daoist becomes an immortal. Through cultivation, a Buddhist gains enlightenment. They do not gain superpowers.
More precisely, these powers are NOT the point of cultivation. They serve as way markers. Confirmation that you are on the right path. And, if needed, skills TO HELP OTHERS. To pursue powers at the expense of your own development is to lose the Way and fall into delusion. Not only that, the archetypal xian is a hermit. He goes up the mountain AND STAYS THERE. Cultivation is a long, difficult, tedious process. He needs to be free of worldly distractions. Why would he climb down the mountain?
The answer, for this genre, is 侠. What is the deep meaning of xianxia? A man who goes up the mountain to cultivate himself and gains powers along the way, then climbs down the mountain to use his skills to help others. Modern-day xianxia show ‘heroes’ gaining power, beating up bad guys, attracting a girl, gaining more power, ad infinitum. This is a power fantasy, with optional harem elements. The purpose of power is not MOAR power. It is to be used to help others – or not at all. Without this moral element, a wuxia / xianxia story is not wuxia / xianxia. It is a mere power fantasy. But it is the dominant trope today. A mere aesthetic to dress up a hollow fantasy, no more. A shadow of the true meaning of the genre.
Only one thing left to do: Overturn the heavens and the earth. SAGA OF THE SWORDBREAKER, coming 2021 / 2022.
I have a small comment of my own to add, which is that you see the sort of perversion of a genre which Benjamin has described almost anywhere in which you see vivid world-building, no more than ten to twenty years later. It will inevitably come about when there are people who grew up with the world-building but who reject the heroism in it for the various reasons that people reject heroism. (Mostly it’s because they’re bad people and contemplating great virtue makes them feel bad about their vices, rather than encouraging them to increase their virtues, but that’s a topic onto itself.) These people, having spent so much time in such worlds in their imagination, long to tell their own stories in the same setting, though not at all to tell the same sorts of stories.
(This is a reason, by the way, that you will tend to see a golden age in which a type of new fiction has some particular excellence at the beginning, but then the genre becomes a swamp in which it is still possible to find diamonds. At first, people enter the genre to tell the sorts of stories this new fiction lets them tell especially well. Later, people who are used to the genre it want to tell all sorts of stories that have a superficial resemblance to the originals, and most of them are bad because they do not fit. The diamonds are those stories telling stories which do actually fit the genre.)
Earlier I mentioned I got the book Hollywood Rat Race by Edward D. Wood Jr. of Plan 9 From Outer Space fame. I don’t have time for a full review now, but I do want to say that for people interested in the history of film, it is definitely worth reading.
It’s a weird book, which I suppose is no great surprise because it was written by a very weird man. Equally famous for Glen or Glenda, a semi-autobiographical movie about crossdressing in which understanding for people so afflicted is pleaded to the audience, Hollywood Rat Race more than once comments fairly negatively on men and women who dress in such a way that one cannot tell the difference between them, and also on men who wear women’s clothing. There’s something very curious there, because Ed Wood had publicly admitted to wearing women’s underwear many years before he ever started writing this book, so it’s not like he could have been trying to draw attention away from himself. (A lot of public hypocrisy around moral issues is frequently much less about actual hypocrisy and more a smoke screen by the vicious in the hope that publicly condemning their vice makes them less likely to ever be suspected of it.)
This is but a small part of the book, though. The various ways in which people who want to be stars are taken advantage of when they get to Hollywood is the main subject, at least by page count. It’s actually primarily financial predation, though he does talk about other types, as well. This is intermixed with advice on practical matters like having a 24 hour messaging service because you can’t carry your phone around with you in your pocket and how to get room and board cheaply. Some of this includes very practical advice, like taking into account the cost of gasoline to go to a further away grocery story with slightly better prices.
Also quite interesting is a section on just how great movies are. It begins by being against actors, writers, etc. who rail against Hollywood, and this section really shows just how much Ed Wood loves movies. I think that this is why people like me who love Mystery Science Theater 3000 so enjoy laughing at Ed Wood’s movies—we’d love to make movies too and if the best we could afford to do was a movie in which the grave stones are cardboard and the airplane steering wheels are artfully cut paper plates, we’d make that movie. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, a thing worth doing is worth doing even if you can only do it badly. In laughing at Ed Wood’s movies, we’re laughing at a friend, and in so doing, we’re laughing at ourselves.
There’s also a very curious reminiscence of when Bella Lugosi felt bad because he learned fans didn’t know whether he was alive or dead, and so Ed Wood put together a public appearance for Bela, who used it as a springboard into comedic performances in Las Vegas. Just how much Ed Wood loved Bella comes across.
It’s a very quirky book. I’m not sure if it was ever edited past basic grammar. I believe it was unfinished at the time of Ed Wood’s death. For example, there’s a chapter in it which consists of three paragraphs, none longer than three sentences, all of which fit on a single page.
There is no earth-shattering insight in this book, but I none the less recommend it, at least if you like movies. It’s an unfinished and not-well-organized book about a bygone time, but it is very personal about a curious figure.
Somehow or other, my ten year old son discovered my blog post The Least Jedi, wherein I make fun of one of the worst movies of all time, point-by-point. He’s actually having me read it to him in place of a bedtime story and finds it very funny. (This is not actually the first time; he made me watch The Last Jedi with him, and now has me reading it to him again.)
This got me to wondering why he’s enjoying it so much. I think that part of it is the same reason I enjoy Mystery Science Theater 3000—I’d love to be involved in making a movie so much I’d be willing to help make a bad movie. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “anything worth doing is worth doing [even if one can only do it] badly”. But I think that there’s another aspect to this, too.
Sarcasm is not polite. Sarcasm about a work of art, however, is (except in particularly grumpy company) not impolite. It can be very mean to make fun of a person, but it is not mean to make fun of a movie. And the problem with politeness, especially from a child’s perspective, is that you never quite know what people who are being polite really think.
I think, then, that part of the pleasure of sarcasm, especially for younger people—who, after all, are the people who generally enjoy sarcasm the most—is that one can take it far more at face value than most of the things one comes across. It is a vacation from veiled meanings and subtle hints. In sarcasm, we find good and bad openly called by their names.
There is a lesson, there, for people who write sarcastic things. They have a special appeal to children for a reason; it behooves us to make sure to write them very well, since children will absorb errors when they see them far more than will adults.
Something I’ve noticed about Twitter is that I frequently come away from it feeling less emotionally balanced than when I went to it. The obvious thing to do, therefore, is to figure out why, so that I can figure out what to do better, or at least how to approach it or whether it’s possible to approach it usefully. The first thing I notice when I consider this is that Twitter—by which, of course, I mean the tweets of the people I follow on Twitter—contains a great deal of complaining.
This is a little bit odd because I’ve generally selected people to follow on the basis of having said something insightful or something funny. So the first question is: what did I do wrong in how I’ve selected people to follow?
The answer there seems to have several parts. One of which is just that it’s far easier to complain than to come up with anything insightful to say. When people run out of insight, they may simply turn to complaining because it’s better than nothing. Another explanation is that there simple are people who one needs to turn retweets off for, because they will retweet things that they will not write. That’s easily done, and not the majority of what tends to cause my day to be worse after going to Twitter. I think that another part of it is that there are people who have valuable things to say, but minimal self-control when they themselves become upset. I don’t think that there’s anything practical to do with these people other than to unfollow or mute them. A happy medium is actually to only read lists, and just leave these people off of the lists.
There are also people who have valuable things to say, but fundamentally misunderstand the medium in which they are saying them. Twitter is called “micro-blogging” for a reason, though people frequently think of it as merely conversing with friends. This dissonance can produce things that would make sense if heard only by the person to whom they were written but are highly liable to misunderstanding in public, where they actually are. Much of the above about people with little emotional self-control does apply, though on rare occasions it may be helpful to point out to these people that they are making public statements that really are meant for private audiences; since this is, fundamentally, a mistake, they may possibly be helped.
There is also a problem with Outrage Quoting. This is harder to know what to do with; one thing that helps is to block the idiots who are frequently quoted. And, of course, using lists, muting, and unfollowing are all options.
Ultimately, I suspect that the correct approach is just to narrow down yet more carefully the list of people whose tweets I see and to double-down on my rule about only reading twitter via Tweetdeck using lists.
Still, I think it’s also worthwhile to do some introspection on why I’ve broken down on that rule I imposed on myself; what am I looking for? I’ve got more than enough to do, I certainly don’t need Twitter in order to stave off boredom. I’ve got enough to read (and write) that I shouldn’t have time to be bored in the next twenty years (God willing). It could be looking for human contact, or hoping to find people to help me think through some topics that I’m thinking about. I could just be craving a certain sort of stimulation, since the current environment requires more patience than I’m used to practicing.
I can’t recall if I’ve mentioned this before, but this is a really great song:
There’s a slow intro that takes about 50 seconds before it gets to the song, which is upbeat and fun. The basic theme is it doesn’t matter what you do or how healthy you get, you’re still gonna die. The whole song is fun, but I’ve got two favorite lyrics:
You can search for UFOs, up in the sky. They might fly you to Mars, where you’re still gonna die.
The other is in reference to the idea, popular for a while, of cheating death by disease by using cryogenics to become frozen and being thawed out at a later date when the disease is finally curable, to be able to live out the rest of one’s natural life then.
You can have yourself frozen, suspended in time. But when they do thaw you out, hehehe, you’re still gonna die.
My third favorite lyric is probably:
You can get rid of stress, get a lot of rest, get an AIDs test, enroll in Est, move out west, where it’s sunny and dry, and you’ll live to be 100 but you’re still gonna die.
It’s not a perfect song; the ending, in particular, where the moral they draw is that you should have some fun before you say bye bye, is so much less than it could have been. Still, the song is so well constructed you don’t need them to draw better conclusions for you; that’s easy enough to do for oneself.
Being, as I am, a fan of English Literature from previous centuries, especially of Pride & Prejudice and golden age detective stories, something I couldn’t help but note is that if anyone was near London (or another big city), going to plays was a common form of entertainment. Something else I’ve learned, in doing research about early detective stories, is that a lot of detective stories and tropes seem to be from plays more than novels.
Putting these together, I’ve begun to wonder whether plays were not, speaking broadly, the television of yesteryear.
In my own experience of plays, these are either some of the cream of English writing, as in the case of Shakespeare, or else are at least fairly time-tested things that are quite expensive and one travels a long distance to see. But plays are not generally talked of that way in earlier British fiction; they were as often a spur-of-the-moment thing as planned, and if planned, just an alternative to something like having people over for dinner. What is, or at least was, talked of like this in my experience is television.
Further, there are parallels. People usually didn’t seem to expect the plays to be very good, and they really didn’t expect them to last. And, indeed, most plays did not. As far as I can tell, the typical play had a short run in a small theater, and then everyone local had seen it and they’d move on.
If this is the case, it makes sense that plays would be frequently formulaic, since they were written on tight schedules and without any expectation of being remembered, and so it would be possible for the theater critic in the story What, No Butler? to say that in all the plays he saw, the butler always did it. (I’ve got a bunch of posts about the trope that the butler did it, btw.) This would be a lot like saying that in Murder, She Wrote the businessman’s wife did it. (There is, by the way, a hilarious formula for a typical Murder, She Wrote episode that illustrates some of what I’m talking about.)
Obviously, there are differences between plays back in the day and television today, even apart from the technology. Television shows have long runs of consistent characters, and occasionally the episodes try to be consistent with each other. (After Babylon 5, it became common to have a “show arc” where there was a long-running story that would make up some and occasionally all of each episode. In a sense these are just a return to the days of the serials, though.)
That said, I think that this might be a useful interpretive key to understanding the attitudes characters would show toward plays in older literature. Even more importantly, I think, it suggests that when trying to work out the development of genres like mystery, it means that by not having access to many of the plays people were seeing, we’re lacking one of the major influences on writers of the novels and short stories that we do have access to. In some ways, it might be like, in the future, trying to understand the development of Science Fiction through the present time without having seen Star Trek or Babylon 5. People who, in the early 2000s, write science fiction novels certainly have seen these influential things and moreover expect that their audiences to have seen them, too. It would be interesting to get a hold of some of those short-lived detective plays from the 1900s.
I saw this rather odd writing tip on Twitter the other day. I’m quoting it, rather than another, because it does such a good job of summarizing an attitude towards writing I’ve seen over the years.
Writing Tip: If “editing” your first draft consists of fixing a few typos and changing a word here and there, you’re not doing it right. A first draft should be ripped apart, refashioned, and sewn back together. Anything less is vanity.
It’s that last part that’s the key to this weird attitude. If a particular writer has a writing style where the first draft is essentially a protracted brainstorming session and that works for them, then good for them. The weird attitude is that this is how it should be.
In reality, for at least some people, writing a decent first draft is a viable option. If you’ve done enough planning that you’ve constructed the characters and planned out the setting and written the plot in such a way that it flows out of the characters in their circumstances—substantial changes wouldn’t be editing, they’d be just writing a different book where some of the characters have the same names.
Now, again, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. If for some reason a writer cannot bring themselves to do this sort of planning and thinking before they start writing, then I understand doing a book-length brainstorming session in order to generate some material to work with. I’ve written a few first drafts of novels which I haven’t carried through to publishing, and there’s even a very loose sense in which The Dean Died Over Winter Break can be thought of as a substantial rewrite of a previous novel called A Murder At Yalevard—though it was really more of a different book in which I borrowed some elements of the original. But I find it very strange that the writer quoted above cannot conceive of someone who can plan out their books.
There is of course the explanation that such a writer just cannot see beyond their own limitations, but I can’t help but wonder if this attitude isn’t tied in to the idea of the tortured genius. It was an idea that, so far as I know, became popular somewhere in the 1800s, around the time of Byron and Shelley, who were tortured not so much be genius as by their inability to control their lust. Shelley, in particular, seems to have been afflicted in this way, and his vices seem to have been excused by himself and his wife and friends as, not weaknesses, but virtues. To try to say it was not bad for Percy Bysshe Shelly to cheat on his pregnant wife, they invented a new kind of morality where artists were excused from being halfway decent human beings because of the enormous value they gave to humanity. Their art, I mean.
I’m not sure why this idea was popular, but it does seem to have had some currency through at least the 1930s—at least if golden age detective stories are anything to go by. It also seems, curiously, to be more popular with women than with men; it seems to have been female writers who wrote about it approvingly, and within their fiction it was generally only the women (and occasionally a close male friend) who bought the nonsense. Why that is, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s related to the “bad boy” phenomenon. And for that reason, the idea that one should tear a first draft up in a passion of anger at how far it falls short, and completely rework it, may be related.
As a related side-note, actual geniuses never seem to have been tortured, except occasionally by actual problems, like Beethoven being deaf. Shakespeare was, so far as we know, as reasonably happy as a recusant Catholic could have been in England in the late 1500s. Mozart seems to have no greater troubles than having a period when he didn’t make much money because a war made it hard for musicians; summary biographies don’t mention anything which would interest modern people by similarity, such as profound depression.
Shelly’s genius, to the degree that anyone still holds that he was a genius, seems very overrated. Ozymandias is a good poem, but certainly nothing worth excusing adultery for.
Casting the mind’s eye over other examples of tortured geniuses and actual geniuses, it seems like perhaps the thing that’s really attractive about the tortured genius is not the genius part, but the torture part. And I can’t help but think that this attitude that writing should be torture—what else can throwing away something one worked long and hard at be?—is an attempt to try to find some shreds of life in pain, by people who have no idea where to find life in this world.
A wag I know one described the characteristic masculine and feminine addictions on the internet as:
Men play video games to pretend to be good at doing things. Women use social media to pretend to have friends.
I’m going to leave the second half of that alone, but the first half is interesting. Video games, at least for males, are great and dangerous for really the same reason: they have a much lower effort-to-reward ratio than real life does.
I should clarify that by “real life” I mean skills that still work when the electricity is out. For example, lifting heavy things, carving wood, playing a piano, flying a kite, boxing, riding a bicycle (fast), shooting a bow and arrow, building a miniature ship inside of a bottle, dancing, building a fire from gathered wood and starting it, etc. All of these skills, and many, many more, take a very long time to get good at, typically with a long time at the beginning which has little result besides besides frustration.
In video games, by contrast, one can typically learn the relevant skills to get some rewards within an hour, and often within a few minutes. It is true that they will sometimes have skills which are difficult to master, but even those tend to only require hundreds of hours to master, not tens of thousands, and they almost never involve enduring physical pain along the way.
All this is correct for video games for their intended purpose: relaxation. Video games, used well, are fun. They are a restorative to a weary soul who has been ground down by the trials and tribulations of doing real things, in situations and environments which were not designed to be enjoyable. The quick fun and easy rewards help one to remember the slow enjoyment and eventual rewards of good work in the real world.
The problem is something that really is more dangerous to young men—it is possible to become so used to the ease and comfort of video games that the difficulty of real life becomes insurmountable. Without the rewards of accomplishment coming on the schedule a young video game player has been trained to expect them, he may face crushing disappointment. Instead of being a restorative to a fallen creature in a fallen world, enabling him to face the world in which he lives, it may be an impediment which makes it harder for him to do real things.
As in all things, the trick is to use things in the right way and to avoid their pitfalls.
I’ll write about it more soon, but I do have to say that Hollywood Rat Race is an interesting book. It gives some interesting insight into Ed Wood. He’s definitely a far more sympathetic figure from this book than just from the movies. Something else which comes across very clearly is how much he loved movies. You can see it in the movies themselves, of course; he would do anything to make movies and that included making bad movies, if that’s what it took to make movies. I’m reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s often misunderstood epigram, “if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”
Much of the book is a warning to people not to come to Hollywood, for one reason and another. The last two lines in the book are very interesting, especially in light of just how much movies were Ed Wood’s life:
But that’s the extent of it. That’s the Hollywood as an insider knows it. Trouble. Problems. Heartaches…
Believe it or not, your life is more real than the Hollywood scene.
I was recently thinking about how awful a movie The Least Jedi is, and how much better a movie Plan 9 From Outer Space is, except in the visual aspects—costumes, props, sets, lighting, photography, and special effects. I’ve joked that I want there to be a $150M shot-for-shot remake of Plan 9 From Outer Space to be used as the yardstick by which all sci-fi movies are judged.
Then it occurred to me that in lieu of this to suggest to people that they watch Plan 9 but imagine all of the bright colors, amazing special effects, and so on. Curiously, I could not picture anyone even trying. “Why should I have to do that work for them, that’s their job?” I can hear my interlocutor say. And yet, such people want me to do the exact same thing with the plot. They want me to imagine the motivations, the extra dialog we didn’t see, the equipment we weren’t told about, the things we don’t know anyone did—in short, because the thing is pretty, they want me to do the work of the writer and think that this is quite reasonable to expect me to do, while they are utterly unwilling to do the work of the special effects department.
I think that this suggests that for many people, movies are an extremely visual medium. Perhaps there is even a fraction of the population with a very weak imagination for whom movies are vicariously indulging in having a powerful imagination. If a weak imagination is coupled with a poor memory, that would explain a lot about what movies tend to be mega-blockbusters.
(Note: I’m not, here, criticizing people who were not given as much of some natural virtues as I was. Rather, I think that this makes liking truly awful movies more forgivable and perhaps, even, a little understandable.)
In the not too distant past, a relative gave me a copy of the book Hollywood Rat Race. What’s really notable about it is that it was written by Edward D. Wood, Jr. (If the name doesn’t ring a bell, he’s famous for such movies as Bride of the Monster, Glenn or Glenda, and most of all for Plan 9 From Outer Space.) The text on the back bills it as “part how-to manual, part memoir,” and certainly the beginning certainly seems like a how-to manual.
I’m not sure when I’ll have the time to read it, but it can’t help but be interesting. Curiously, the beginning is actually fairly reminiscent of some dialog in the Ed Wood movie The Sinister Urge.
Something else curious is that the book was written mostly during the 1960s, but wasn’t published until twenty years after the authors’ death. (Wood died in 1978, at the age of 54, and the book was first published in 1998.)
A curious thought occurred to me recently with regard to how we talk about lepers in the bible, and especially in the new testament. It’s fairly common to hear about how lepers were feared, had to stay outside of society, etc. and this is often connected to people in modern times who are on the outskirts of our society. Jesus was not afraid of lepers, and so we should not be afraid of those on the outskirts of society, either. (That this means that, among others, we should love neo-nazis and KKK members and the like is rarely mentioned, though, nor is the fact that love does not always look like acceptance, as it would not in those cases.)
What this modern approach seems to miss is that ancient people avoided lepers because lepers had a communicable disease. They weren’t outcasts because they looked different, or had a different culture, or pronounced words in a strange way; they were outcasts because being too close to them might cause one to catch a serious disease. That is, people practiced social distancing from lepers.
In these modern times of COVID-19, we have an exceedingly similar practice with people who have COVID-19, though with our modern understanding of diseases and the conditions of transmissibility, we do admit some exceptions who are wearing a great deal of anti-germ-armor (“PPE”). Medical personal in body suits with respirators aside, people with COVID-19 are outcasts, except we phrase it, “they should self-quarantine”. If someone with COVID-19 comes to a hospital, we expect them to call ahead to warn the staff, and to come through a different entrance, which is a slightly more technologically advanced version of clapping a bowl and calling out “unclean!”
If Christ were conducting his earthly ministry today, there would undoubtedly be COVID-19 patients who came within six feet of him hoping to be cured, and instead of lecturing them to maintain social distancing, he would, undoubtedly, cure them. But he would not come within six feet of someone with COVID-19 because he doesn’t recognize human prejudices and is not afraid of human superstitions—disease is not a human superstition and people with a communicable disease can actually spread it. He would come within six feet of people with COVID-19 because, as Lord of the world, he is Lord of diseases, too. As the one through whom all things were made and nothing was made apart from him, COVID-19 could not hurt him. The one who can make the blind see and the lame walk and clense lepers cannot be harmed by disease, unless he were to choose to permit it.
In short, Jesus did not care about social distancing with lepers because his miraculous power made him immune to communicable diseases. The closest parallel I can think of was when he angered a crowd who brought him to the top of a cliff to throw him off, but it was not his time, so he just walked away from them. This was a demonstration of Christ’s power, not an instruction that Christians should treat angry mobs as if they aren’t dangerous. In like way, Christ was not afraid of lepers because he could cure them, not because communicable diseases are, to use another modern phrase, fake news.
The second episode of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote, is titled, When Thieves Fall Out. It’s a very unusual episode of Murder, She Wrote.
The episode begins with the owner of a car dealership firing a drunk salesman. After that we meet a rather enigmatic character. I’m not sure whether to call him the protagonist or the antagonist, and in many ways the episode isn’t sure, either.
His name is Andrew Durbin. It’s a bit complicated, but we learn his backstory: he just got out of prison for a murder he claims he didn’t commit 20 years ago. He had been a hitchiker, and a wealthy businessman was giving him a ride. A car swerved almost into their lane and they swerved to avoid it, crashing. The businessman was injured and Durbin ran to a nearby farmhouse for help, but they didn’t hear his banging on the door. When he got back someone had bashed the businessman’s head in with a rock, and $100,000 in bearer bonds were missing. At that moment the police showed, and he was taken to be the murderer, and was convicted.
He’s back in Cabot Cove because he recognized a kid in the car (in a prom outfit; it was prom night) that ran them off of the road, and he wants vengeance and to know who the driver is.
The kid turns out to be Bill, the owner of the car dealership.
Somewhere around here, the car dealership owner recognizes that some weird things are going and her husband is very scared, so she goes to Jessica for help.
Andrew Durbin goes to the car dealership and says that there seems to be some electrical trouble with his car.
Bill says that he’s busy and will need some time to get the repair done. He suggests that Andrew come back at 9pm to pick up his car. Andrew agrees. Jessica shows up and talks to Bill, but not much really comes from this. He denies everything. Jessica leaves, and Bill calls a confederate—presumably the other person in the car, that fateful night.
Interestingly for a Murder, She Wrote episode, while we’re pretty sure that someone is about to be murdered, we don’t really know who.
It turns out to be Bill, which is an interesting turn of events because it leaves the field so wide open for who the murderer could be. One obvious suspect is the man with whom he had an appointment at around the time he was killed, Andrew Durbin, but it turns out that Durbin has an air-tight alibi. He was eating dinner for 2 hours at a restaurant where several reliable witnesses could vouch for him.
The alibi is useful, structurally, but it’s also very curious that Durbin never showed up to the appointment. It’s somewhat implied, later in the episode, that this was really a setup; he expected this to stir up Bill’s confederate and get him to kill Bill. It’s never explained in detail, and doesn’t make all that much sense as a plan. Unless he figured that Bill’s killer would be sloppy and get caught, this plan would most likely result in the trail going cold and Durbin’s only hope of justice being extinguished. That said, for whatever reason he does it, he never shows up and is careful to have an excellent alibi for before, during, and after the murder is committed.
Convinced that Durbin is both innocent and telling the truth, Jessica interviews Bill’s old high school friends who were with him that night.
They lie to Jessica, of course, in order to protect Bill’s memory, and say that he was with them the whole time. Eventually it comes out that Bill was drunk and left early. There’s some further investigation and a sub-plot where one of Bill’s old football friends who is pretending to have been crippled in a car crash and is suing Bill turns out not to be crippled and to only be scamming.
I probably should have mentioned earlier that high school football was a big theme. All of Bill’s male friends from high school were on the football team with him, and they were the only team from Cabot Cove who ever won the state championship. This is important because it turns out that the driver, and the murderer both of Bill and of the driver 20 years ago was the beloved high school football coach.
There was actually a pretty good line from his confession, when he talked about how the business he had invested his share of the $100,000 into went bust almost immediately: “I guess I should have known that nothing good would come of that money.”
What really makes this episode special, though, is that it doesn’t stop here. Later that night, as Jessica and Amos are having dinner, Andrew Durbin shows up at Jessica’s doorstep to thank her.
Jessica says that she wishes he wouldn’t. She acknowledges that he was telling the truth and spent 20 years in prison unjustly, but he knew what would happen when he came. He replies that he did warn her that he was after justice.
“I can’t help but think that justice could have been served in a better way.”
Then he gets one of the all-time great lines in Murder, She Wrote.
“Oh? Well you give it some thought, Mrs. Fletcher, and when you figure out what could have been, let me know.”
Jessica is at a loss for words. He turns and leaves, and she closes the door. She then leans against it, thinking.
And there the episode ends.
Something I touched on in my blog post about how Jessica Fletcher is an oddly libertine scold is that she has an extremely strong but highly selective sense of indignation. She deplores violence but not, in general, any of the things which tend to make it necessary.
She dislikes, tremendously, that people she cared about were made to suffer. This is understandable, but it is a fault in Jessica that she didn’t rise above her feelings and stick to her principles and acknowledge that Durbin was in the right. Instead, she resents being made to be the one to find them out. In short, she is entitled to grieve, but not to be indignant, and Durbin’s final line points out to her how little she is entitled to her indignation.
Jessica does not learn from this moment, of course. First, because she’s written by television writers. Second, because Murder, She Wrote was episodic, with episodes not being related to each other. Frankly, I think it’s really more the former than the latter, though. All that said, it’s pretty satisfying for Jessica to get a comeuppance, for once.
Apart from all this, it’s an interesting episode. Detectives investigating long-ago mysteries is interesting, because the evidence is so limited (at least when people don’t oddly good memories about things long-past to which they hadn’t attached any great significance at the time). This is done much better in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, but it’s an unfair comparison. That was a novel; a 48 minute long TV episode cannot be as good. It does partake of some of what made that novel so good, though, even if it takes the easy route and uses photographs instead of people’s partial memories.
This is a continuation of my post from yesterday, giving some prelimary thoughts on Dorothy L. Sayers essay Gaudy Night in the book Titles to Fame. Today something Ms. Sayers said about the development of a character over many books caught my attention. I’m going to quote it here because I think that the expression of Ms. Sayers own words are necessary to understand the thing she is trying to communicate:
I had from the outset, of course, envisaged for Peter a prolonged and triumphal career, going on through book after book amid the plaudits of adoring multitudes. It is true that his setting forth did not cause as great a stir as I had expected, and that the adoring multitudes were represented by a small, though faithful, band of adherents. But time would, I hoped, bring the public into a better frame of mind, and I plugged confidently on, putting my puppet through all his tricks and exhibiting him in a number of elegant attitudes. But I had not properly realized—and this shows how far I was from understand what it was I was trying to do with the detective novel—that any character that remains static except for a repertory of tricks and attitudes is bound to become a monstrous weariness to his maker in the course of eight or nine volumes.
I cannot contradict Ms. Sayers from my own experience, yet, as I’m only beginning work on my third Brother Thomas novel. However, there is something here on which I think she is mistaken, or, rather, about which she is over-generalizing.
Before saying what, I also think it’s worth considering the Lord Peter bibliography, bearing in mind that Ms. Sayers had tired of Lord Peter and set off to retire him in Strong Poison:
Clouds of Witness
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
The Five Red Herrings
Have His Carcase
Murder Must Advertise
The Nine Tailors
The eight or nine volumes in which Lord Peter had become a monstrous weariness to his maker was, in fact, four volumes. It’s worth considering what those four volumes were like. In Whose Body? we (and the authoress) meet Lord Peter, and everyone is interesting when you first meet them. Clouds of Witness was an excellently crafted mystery, and there was some character development in it, though in the sense of revealing the character of Wimsey rather than changing it. In Unnatural Death we see a great deel more of Miss Climpson and not nearly as much of Wimsey, and that quite often to serve the plot. In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, we see more of Wimsey, but his personality has largely retreated. Over the stories, we also see the diminution of Charles Parker, in whom Sayers seemed to initially place some personality and intend character development.
What we see, when we look at him, is that he became somewhat more of a puppet in these stories; he was there because someone had to investigate the mysteries, and Sayers balked at introducing a new detective in each story after her experiment with doing so in Unnatural Death. The problem, though, is not really that Lord Peter wasn’t changing. The problem is that Lord Peter didn’t have much of a personality (yet). You can see this in what Ms. Sayers said she needed to do in order to humanize him in order to pull off the romance which was started in Strong Poison but which didn’t work there:
If the story was to go on, Peter had got to become a complete human being, with a past and a future, with a consistent family and social history, with a complicated psychology and even the rudiments of a religious outlook.
None of this requires Peter to change throughout the books. All it requires is to actually do it.
To give an example of what I mean, in the first four books we do learn that Lord Peter likes music, but he never says anything about it. We don’t know what he likes about which pieces. He collects first editions, but we don’t know why he collects first editions, and rarely which things he collects first editions of. He has read literature, but we don’t know what he thinks of it. And then, of course, he’s the sort of pointlessly non-religious character which was extraordinarily common amongst golden age detectives, for no discernible reason.
I don’t mean to keep harping on this point, but it is closely related to the problem Ms. Sayers has with Lord Peter—that he can’t articulate a reason for anything that he does other than sheer curiosity is a massive problem to him being a flesh-and-blood human being. All human beings have curiosity; the detective merely being curious is not enough. He must also either overcome the inhibitions which people have to investigating murders, or he must simply lack them. A religious reason for risking death and people disliking you can overcome this inhibition, as they did for Father Brown. The other detectives of the time seem to merely lack this inhibition. This may partially be why they are all eccentric, but they are mostly eccentric without being interesting because of it.
While there was still the thrill of working out the form and nature of the mystery novel, this could be overlooked. One detective might do as well as another when the reader wasn’t much paying attention to him anyway. As Chesterton showed, however, this was in no way necessary. And I think that this is what Ms. Sayers discovered when she finally started putting flesh onto her detective.