The Death of Rock and Roll With Zarathustra’s Serpent

You may recall my blog post The Death of Rock-n-Roll. After writing it, I invited Zarathustra’s Serpent to talk with me about the subject because he’s studied popular music quite extensively. This is the conversation we had. You can also watch the video on YouTube:

In-Genre Fiction is Dull Outside of It

In an interesting blog post about Pulp writing (such as that of Edgar Rice Borroughs or Robert E Howard) and Japanese Light Novels, Cheah Kai Wai quoted a bit of description from a popular JLN and said about it:

This is from the first chapter Goblin Slayer, a famous dark fantasy series about the eponymous adventurer obsessed with conducting goblin genocide. The text is compact and easy to read, but it is all tell and no show. Phrases like ‘took her breath away’ and ‘taken aback’ lack power, because the sparse descriptions lack emotive power. The sentence ‘No one would tolerate the existence of armed toughs if they were not managed carefully’ feels aimed at the reader instead of being an organic component of the story.

This excerpt is simply a straightforward report of sights and peoples and business functions, revealing nothing substantial about Priestess, the people around her, the town or the rest of the setting.

(The blog post has the quote that this is a comment about, but the particular accuracy is not my point so I’m omitting it for the sake of brevity and hope that you will trust the description is accurate for the sake of argument.)

The thing I’m wondering about is whether the particular example and Japanese Light Novels in general might be suffering not from being poorly written, but from being what I’m going to call genre-referential. (This is something of an extension of ideas I talked about in my earlier post Predictability vs. Recognizability.) What I mean by this is that some stories rely on referencing ideas and patterns established in other stories—generally progenitors in their genre. This sort of referencing makes for great economy of writing, but it also lightens the reading burden for readers who are very familiar with the genre and know what you’re talking about so much that explicit description actually becomes boring.

(As a side note, this can actually make it difficult for people who started with later works in a genre to fully enjoy the original works which defined the genre—since they had nothing to reference and readers were unfamiliar with the genre, they described it in detail which, to a reader already familiar with the genre, is just unnecessary and therefore slow and over-wrought.)

I’ll give an example. Suppose a story started out like this:

“I can’t take this thing any more!” Ian said as he took off the Imperial shock-trooper helmet. “If I get a headache in this after five minutes, how on earth are we going to infiltrate the governor’s palace in this armor?”

“You complain too much,” Duke replied. “At least it’s laser-proof.”

“That doesn’t do you much good, kid, if they pick you up and throw you into a smelting pit,” Ian replied with a sour grin.

No one would mistake this for the beginning of a masterpiece, but at the same time, despite the fact that I have given approximately no description of—well, anything—I suspect that most readers who are at least 30 years old (in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2018) will still have a fairly vivid idea of what just happened. They will know:

  1. There is an empire run by a ruthless and evil emperor who
  2. dominates the solar system or possibly the entire galaxy
  3. squashing the freedom of all people through it.
  4. The empire has some sort of elite units of soldiers issued full-body armor complete with head-encasing helmets. Basically, storm trooper from Star Wars before we found out that they can’t hit anything.
  5. Ian and Duke are at least somewhat friends, but probably not intimately so
  6. Ian is impetuous and cynical
  7. Duke is idealistic and optimistic

The list goes on; people who have seen a lot of space opera know quite a lot about these characters and the setting. As I said before, this is obviously not the start of a masterpiece, but it could easily be a lot of fun. But imagine what someone who’s never read any space opera would make of this. Really, if you can stretch your imagination that far, not very much. There are a few blanks established to be filled in later, but the only description of the characters given is the single word “kid” which might erroneously suggest that Duke was, in fact, a child.

Now, consider how much is changed and what a person familiar with space opera now knows if I add just two words:

“I can’t take this thing any more!” Ian Tolo said as he took off the Imperial shock-trooper helmet. “If I get a headache in this after five minutes, how on earth are we going to infiltrate the governor’s palace in this armor?”

“You complain too much,” Duke Landwalker replied. “At least it’s laser-proof.”

“That doesn’t do you much good, kid, if they pick you up and throw you into a smelting pit,” Ian replied with a sour grin.

Now you know that this is a parody of Star Wars, but a reasonably subtle parody of Star Wars, not a Mad Magazine style over-the-top parody. More like a toned-down Mel Brooks parody.

But suppose that those weren’t the characters last names. Consider how a few extra lines can signal that this is going in a very different direction than Star Wars:

“I can’t take this thing any more!” Ian said as he took off the Imperial shock-trooper helmet. “If I get a headache in this after five minutes, how on earth are we going to infiltrate the governor’s palace in this armor?”

“You complain too much,” Duke replied. “At least it’s laser-proof.”

“That doesn’t do you much good, kid, if they pick you up and throw you into a smelting pit,” Ian replied with a sour grin.

“True,” Duke said. “But the Dakat is with us. We can’t fail.”

Ian sighed and stared down at his feet, thinking. Then he stretched out his hand, said the words “Dakat Zadum” and an imperial laster-rifle materialized under his hand. Grabbing it before it fell in a long-practiced motion, Ian put it in the empty holster on his armor. He looked up at Ian.

“You’re right,” he said, without enthusiasm.

With the same formula, Ian made a blaster to go with his armor.

“You know I am,” he said. “Now let’s go.”

The fan of space opera is put on notice that while it has some thematic similarities to Star Wars, this is by no means a mere rip-off of star wars. Granted, there are space wizards, but here we have two teammates who are space wizards; there isn’t a master and an apprentice. Though it taps into a similar setting—including high technology versus magic—it’s a very different cast of characters. And the space magic is very different, too. One of the curious questions is whether or not the space wizards will have a magnetically contained plasma torch (*cough* light saber *cough*) or any similar weapon. In fact, there are a whole host of questions in the back of the mind of the studied fan of space opera:

How are the space wizards arranged. Are they independent? Is there a guild? Is there an organization in place to dominate the space wizards since magic is dangerous? What are the limits to the magic? How common is magic? They have lasers which seem to be used as guns, how high is the technology? Obviously if they have high technology too magic can’t be that common, so what is the relationship between the technology users and the magic users?

And so on. There are tons of questions which pop up unbidden because they’ve been brought up by a whole host of previous books and movies answering these things in different ways. But none of these questions are likely to occur to a reader who knows nothing about space opera. While the imagination of the fan of space opera may be flooded by memories of his favorite—and not so favorite—space opera stories, the one who knows nothing about space opera has none of this occupying his attention. So we have two radically different experiences:

For the fan of space opera, we have an economy of language, giving him hints as to what sort of space opera this is, letting him imagine all sorts of possibilities as his mind races to figure out the universe being described.

For the one who knows nothing about space opera, we have a scene in which two people who are not described in any way—except that one regards the other as being younger—talk about how some armor is uncomfortable and partially useful, say some words and guns appear, and (may) be ready to go somewhere to do something.

Now, another criticism which Cheah Kai Wai leveled against the light novel he cited was that it told everything rather than showing it. But consider the above dialog recast into pure exposition:

Ian removed the imperial shock-trooper helmet he had been wearing. He had only been wearing it for a few minutes and he already had a headache. Granted, it was laser-proof but there are a lot of ways to die and no armor can protect you from all of them. Duke, younger and with every bit of of the optimism and idealism that comes would youth, hashed this out with Ian for a bit before Duke pulled out his trump card and pointed out that the Dakat was with them.

There was no arguing the point. The Dakat was with them, so whatever risks they were taking, they could succeed. Wearily, Ian acknowledged the fact by using Dakat magic to materialize a laser rifle and put it in the holster of his armor. Duke smiled, likewise made his own, and they were ready.

Now, this is obviously less energetic than the original, but for someone who loves space opera, I would argue that it is not disqualifyingly so. The lover of a genre is generally in the position of having already read all of the best stuff, and the mediocre stuff is at least evocative of the best the genre has to offer. The lover of space opera is, by this uninspired bit of exposition, at least promised shiny armor, laser rifles, an evil empire, and space wizards. Neither the paint on the wall—long since dried—nor his shoes offer any of these things. And on the plus side, the lover of space opera is not wearied by ornate world-building, most of which he can guess anyway. The writer at least skips to the parts he can’t guess.

To someone who is not a lover of space opera, however, this is profoundly disqualifying. It gives no background, no orientation, no idea of what’s to come, and very little happens in it.

All of this brings us to one of the fundamental problems for writers: figuring out who your reader is. The fundamental problem (which the above quickly written examples are only meant to sketch) is that the same work is radically different when read by someone who lives and breathes a genre than it is when it’s the first dipping of the reader’s toe into the genre. Or even when he’s not yet up to his ankle in it.

Now, I’m not trying to claim that Cheah Kai Wai is wrong in his characterization of Japanese Light Novels. I haven’t read them and it would be absurd to speak with any certainty about them in any case. And I’m not trying to argue with Mr. Rawle Nyanzi’s (low) opinion of Japanese Light Novels either. Both men have obviously read more of these novels than I have (since I’ve read about 3 paragraphs of them so far) and for all I know are experts in the genre. But if they are not experts in the genre, it is interesting that their cogent criticisms may in part come from being outsiders looking in on genre-referential fiction. And since no one is an expert in all genres, we will all have this problem with genre-referential fiction in some genres.

And as writers, there is the problem that genre-referential fiction has a smaller potential base of readers, but we know that they read way more stories in the genre than general readers do.

(There is another problem which comes from what one is looking for in fiction. This post is already very long, so to sketch the problem: when I was young, I craved adventure stories of people becoming heroes. Now that I have three young children and every day is an adventure where I am sometimes literally saving someone’s life—though by  intensely mundane activities like shutting a door at the top of a staircase so the two year old doesn’t fall down, or making sure that the five year old doesn’t microwave a fork and burn our house down—I find that I crave stories about calm, security, and wisdom far more than those of adventure and heroism. It stands to reason, then, that Japanese teenagers on the train home from cram school might crave something different from either. It’s possible, for example, that vivid description would be too much for their over-saturated brains.)

Lord Peter Wimsey is Very Rich

Lord Peter Wimsey has many things of dubious realism going for him, but the one which concerns me at the moment is his great wealth. Sayers never explicitly says just how wealthy Lord Peter is, but there’s never any indication made that considerations of expense ever stop him from doing anything. From a reader’s perspective, his wealthy is effectively unlimited, though it is generally used with restraint. Lord Peter never buys an apartment building or a cruise ship for the sake of a plot, say.

There are two aspects to Lord Peter’s wealth which concern me at the moment, and both of them are related to the writing of detective fiction. There’s no obvious order to address them in, so I’ll start with his wealth. Since his wealth is kept within limits, it’s not unrealistic in a science-fiction sort of sense, and it is somewhat justified by Lord Peter’s being a member of the aristocracy—a Duke’s son, in fact. That said, this is England at a time when the aristocracy was disappearing as it lost its money after having lost its justification for existing with the rise of the professional army. Hints are occasionally dropped, therefore, that Lord Peter used a smaller amount of money he had as a Duke’s son to invest and build much greater wealth.

This is of course possible, though it conflicts somewhat with Lord Peter’s experience of the Great War as a young man and his long recovery afterwards. Further, businessmen are often busy; work does not do itself or we’d all be rich.

However, here we come to the big question about realism: what is realism for, in fiction? After all, if we wanted complete realism we’d put down our book and live our own life. There is nothing more authentically real than that. And further, murder mysteries are almost inherently unrealistic. Almost none of the crimes which are found out have any planning behind them. Intelligent, hard-working people almost always have better things to do that to murder friends and relatives. I say almost, because this is not always true. I’ve read that back during its glory days, poisoning people was almost the imperial sport of Rome. But in modern times, murders are almost always either acts of passion, acts associated with organized crime, or possibly (since we don’t know) simply undetected. If anyone does plot complicated murders, they almost always get away with it.

So having a consulting detective at all is fairly unrealistic. Having him be very rich and investigate mysteries because he’s eccentric is no more unrealistic—it’s just unrealistic in a different way. For the most part no one cares that consulting detectives are unrealistic because if you didn’t simply ignore that unrealism, you wouldn’t have a mystery novel at all. Being rich is not so necessary, but it is a lot of fun. In fact, this is why Dorothy L. Sayers gave Lord Peter so much money (quoted from the Wikipedia page):

Lord Peter’s large income… I deliberately gave him… After all it cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it. I can heartily recommend this inexpensive way of furnishing to all who are discontented with their incomes. It relieves the mind and does no harm to anybody.

And Lord Peter’s wealth is not fun only for the authoress, it’s fun for the reader, too. While certainly not necessary for detectives in general, it is necessary for the character of Lord Peter, and I think that is sufficient justification for it.

(If it’s not clear, I have hang-ups about realism in fiction which I’m trying to reason through.)

And I think that this bears on the writing of fiction generally, and detective fiction specifically. Most of the fun comes from the unrealistic things which go into the making of the make-believe. But those are not themselves the fun; the fun consists in the realistic treatment of these unrealistic starting points. And this is where many people go wrong—instead of limiting the unrealistic elements to the premises of the story, they introduce further unrealistic elements into the plot, to rescue them from the difficult work they’ve set up for themselves. That in fact destroys the fun precisely because it is, in effect, undoing the premises. An unrealistic solution to unrealistic premises is in effect a rejection of those premises.

And I think that this is the key to finding other fun—having other characters who are unrealistic, but in compatible ways with the main unrealism. In such circumstances, comic relief often consists of an entirely realistic person trying to cope with all of the extraordinary things around them. But the key is that they have to be dealt with as extraordinary, not as unrealistic.

Anyway, just some thoughts for not, not at all settled.

 

The Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers

I’ve been re-reading the Lord Peter Wimsey stories in order, and having recently finished Strong Poison (review of it and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club coming soon), the next book is The Five Red Herrings. Unfortunately, this is my least favorite of the Lord Peter novels, and forty pages into it, I’m doubting that I will finish it a second time. Which is very odd because I love Dorothy L. Sayers’ writing and I love Lord Peter Wimsey. But I just don’t like this book.

I did some serious consideration to try to figure out why, and I finally realized that none of the characters are described—or at least are not described for a long time. The first real description of anyone we get is when Lord Peter draws up a list of suspects, and notes some physical characteristics about them. They still don’t have personalities at that point, and physical description in a dry list is just hard to remember.

Actually, what I said above is not quite true. We do get a fairly length description of the murder victim, Campbell, for the first two chapters. Unfortunately, he’s so unpleasant a character that I feel downright grateful to the murderer for putting an end to Campbell so I no longer have to read about the wretch. Instead of being intrigued by Lord Peter’s detection that the death was not an accident, I felt annoyed. If it was a murder, the murderer did the world a favor. Lord Peter should have left well enough alone.

In fact, that could have made the book more interesting if Lord Peter actually grappled with his detection and how much rather he’d not have done it. But of course, that brings up a problem with Lord Peter not being Christian, and so couldn’t really come up with any sort of reason for the world not being better off without Campbell.

Anyway, the non-descriptness of the book continues for quite some time, at least. It apparently was written for friends as being a time-table mystery, and it feels in many ways like an extremely extended logic puzzle rather than a story proper. If the name isn’t familiar, I mean the list of clues together with a table, like this:

logicpuzzle

I used to love doing logic problems, especially with my Aunt who would buy the magazines with them in duplicate so we could each have one as we worked them together. The Five Red Herrings is like this, except with the clues going on for hundreds of pages and (spoiler alert:) some of the clues turn out to be wrong anyway.

A contemporary review somewhat sums this up:

The first edition was reviewed in The Spectator of 1931 by MI Cole. He found the impregnable alibis of the rather indistinguishable artist suspects, and the elaborate examination of timetables, ticket punches and so on, to be really taxing to the intelligence. Lord Peter Wimsey and the author’s usual pleasant fantasies have retired into the background leaving a “pure-puzzle” book which is disappointing, dry, and dull. He acknowledged, however, that it has been appreciated immensely by puzzle fanatics who possess “the type of mind that goes on solving crossword puzzles for ever and ever”.

There are bits and pieces of Lord Peter’s personality which come through, but not very much or often. If you’re buying this in an Lord Peter omnibus, then by all means give it a try in case you like it better than I did. Otherwise I’d strongly recommend re-reading one of the other Lord Peter stories instead.

I should add, though, that The Five Red Herrings is a great title for a murder mystery.


If you like mystery novels, and especially Lord Peter Wimsey novels (with interesting characters who are described), you might like my murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

tddowb

When I Feel Sorriest For Atheists

Of all the things which rightly make an atheist an object of pity, the one I feel sorriest for the atheist for is when he realizes that all pleasure, satisfaction, and joy that he experiences is (according to him) nothing more than some chemicals in his brain. For two main reasons:

First, because he then accords Joy no significance. When this happens one can almost hear the sound of the cell door slamming shut on the mental prison in which he is trapped. It is a prison with no windows and no sunlight can enter it.

Second, because he will soon notice that there is, therefore, no distinction in kind between real happiness and what is produced with recreational drugs. And recreational drugs—the hard-core ones, I mean—are basically a form of slow suicide. (Not because their side-effects cause death, but because their main effect is basically a temporary suspension of living in a haze of mere feeling.)

There are many things for which to pity this atheist, but this one has always affected me the most. Once the door of this mental prison has been shut, I do not know of any natural force which can open it. I doubt that there is anything to do for a person in such a case but pray for them.

Review: Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers

Unnatural Death is the third Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novel which Dorothy L. Sayers wrote, following Whose Body? and Clouds of Witness. We are still several books away from Sayers’ best work—the Harriet Vane trilogy—but Unnatural Death is still very good. It is a solid, though flawed, mystery filled with interesting characters which Sayers writes extremely well.

The premise of Unnatural Death is that Lord Peter and Inspector Parker accidentally make the acquaintance of a doctor in a restaurant. Their interest is piqued when he tells them the story of trouble he had because he insisted on a post-mortem (examination) for a woman with cancer who died suddenly, several months at least before the disease should have taken her. No cause of death was found in the post-mortem but Lord Peter suspects murder and sets out to prove it, as well as to figure out who murdered her and why.

Unnatural Death is very much worth the read and I do recommend it, though it does have its flaws. The biggest of these flaws is that much of the mystery hinges on the murder method, and once it is revealed it would not work as described. However, something similar, if far less practical, would work, so I think that the book can be forgiven on those grounds. The pacing is also somewhat off. Progress is made in the case and then stalls out in an unsatisfying way, only to plunge us into an almost breathless final act. Patience with this is rewarded with a satisfying ending, however. In short it is not one of Sayers’ masterpieces, but if one goes into it with the right expectations it is a very enjoyable mystery.


If you like murder mysteries and especially if you like Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey stories, you might like murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

tddowb


(If you haven’t read the story and don’t want spoilers, stop reading here.)

(In what follows, I discuss the structure and execution of Unnatural Death with the purpose of learning from it because it is a good story. Everything I say should be understood as an attempt to learn from a master mystery writer. Criticism should in no way be taken as disparagement, as I dearly love the Lord Peter stories.)

Sayers starts out Unnatural Death in a manner she would repeat more than once in her short stories: by not naming Lord Peter for quite some time. If I recall correctly, Lord Peter’s name isn’t mentioned until the end of Chapter 2. I’m not sure what the purpose of this is within Unnatural Death as it’s fairly obvious who the pair discussing crime in a restaurant are. It’s possible that it was just Sayers being playful. Also possible was that it was meant to tell the story partially from the perspective of the doctor. This approach I really can’t figure out. I’ve never liked it when Sayers did it, but evidently she did given how often she used it. I can’t help but wonder at the purpose.

The first mystery which Lord Peter needs to solve is the identity of the doctor and his patient. This is an interesting choice on Sayers’ part because it didn’t serve any large structural purpose in the plot; Lord Peter would have had to send Miss Climpson to visit Leahampton anyway, so it was not necessary in order to bring her into the story. This may serve simply for realism, then, as doctors tend to be reticent to give details of their patients to strangers.

And of course Unnatural Death introduces us to Miss Alexandra Katherine Climpson, whose most famous performance is probably in Strong Poison. She is a very interesting character both in herself and in her broader role. For various reasons, a great many of the early detectives in fiction were male, though quite often written by women. In fact three of my favorite detectives (Poirot, Lord Peter, and Brother Cadfael) are male detectives written by women. But however good the reasons were for most of the very early detectives being male, they were not essential. Women are inquisitive and social, but what hey tend to lack that the detective requires is free time. One obvious solution to this problem is age: old women have social skills sharpened over many decades and quite a lot of free time to go with them. And with this observation, we have Miss Climpson. (Lord Peter put it in a more in-character way, but I think you can see the wheels turning in the authoress’s head as he explains it.)

It’s also interesting to note that Miss Marple would first appear in a short story a year after Unnatural Death was published and would first appear in a novel two years after that. The characters are not particularly similar past both being old spinsters, but it would be interesting to know if there was any influence.

Miss Climpson represents a very interesting complementarity to Lord Peter. They are both clever with great skill at conversation, yet they engage in very different conversations. Both also command instant respect; Lord Peter because of his rank and Miss Climpson because of her age. They are also both experts at sizing people up in a few sentences, within their respective spheres.

On the other hand, she might be better considerd a counterpoint to Charles Parker. Both of them get saddled with the grunt work of things like looking up every death certificate in a county or every lawyer in a London neighborhood. They are both at the direction of Lord Peter, though Inspector Parker has some modest independence.

Putting them together, I think that Miss Climpson is something new. Looking over the various roles played by people in detective stories, the roles her’s bares some resemblance to are partner and subordinate who gets stuck with the gruntwork. Yet her role is neither of those; she might be best described as a sort of sub-contractor. It’s an interesting role.

Speaking of roles within a detective story, Inspector Charles Parker’s role stays much the same as it was in Clouds of Witness and Whose Body?, though it is slightly diminished because there is not an official crime as far as the police are concerned. And here we come to a bit of a limitation of Parker as a constant companion to Lord Peter. Being a policeman grants him all sorts of privileges and access Lord Peter would not have on his own, but it also comes with limitations. If Parker were more of an equal to Lord Peter intellectually, this would not be a problem as Parker could at least converse with Lord Peter about the problem. And to be fair, a bit of that does go on, but Parker simply doesn’t contribute much. His main contribution is to throw cold water on all of Lord Peter’s conjectures. And that’s not really long-term sustainable.

That said, most murder mysteries do feature a body, so it’s hardly an insurmountable obstacle for Inspector Parker as a companion to Lord Peter. Ultimately I suspect that he was replaced by Harriet Vane because she was simply a better fit.

Miss Climpson’s investigations prove very useful, though the downside to her mode of intelligence gathering being gossip means that one needs to read through a fair amount of gossip. Sayers does a good job of rendering it tolerable, but at least to me it was not the highlight of the book.

With the advertisement Lord Peter puts in or the Gotobed sisters and the subsequent murder of Bertha Gotobed, the plot shifts gears. What had started as a cold case mystery suddenly became an ongoing mystery. I have mixed feelings about ongoing mysteries, though I should note that they’re popular for good reason. They are, however, not nearly as calm as mysteries about crimes which are completed by the time the narrative begins. Much of that will come down to mood and temperament on the part of the reader. Having, as I do, three young children, I always appreciate calm since every day of real life is an adventure.

In this case the ongoing murders make good something Lord Peter says several times in the book—that murderers can cover up their tracks so excessively as to leave more clues than had they not covered their tracks. And indeed this happens here, with each murder (or attempt) getting progressively more daring and sloppy. This is very well for Lord Peter and Inspector Parker, who in the end do not have enough evidence to charge Miss Whittaker for her original crime.

Which brings up the issue of the method which Miss Whittaker used to kill her victims.  It is true that air bubble introduced in the blood stream can kill a person, but from everything I’ve heard and read they have to be very large bubbles. Small bubbles—I was once assured by a nurse—are no problem at all and simply dissolve away without causing any harm. The reason why one always sees doctors (in TV, anyway), holding syringe up and flicking it to get the air bubbles out has to do with accurate dosing, not with the bubbles themselves being a problem. Ultimately I don’t know the exact quantity of air which would be necessary to kill a person, but it’s large. This is not an insurmountable problem for a murderer, as one could ultimately hook up a bicycle pump to an IV. Such an apparatus would be a bit silly and take away some of the sinister element of a merely empty syringe, but it would be doable. One would tend to suspect that such a thing would be detectable by the large quantity of air to be found in the circulatory system, but Miss Whittaker did tend to kill people in ways where their body would not be examined for some time, and I suspect that between blood settling and gas absorption, it seems at least plausible that such a method of killing would be hard to spot unless it was looked for.

On the other hand, I can’t recall ever having heard of this method of killing people since, either in fiction or in reality, which suggests that it is not really a practicable method of killing people. Which, it must be noted, is just as well, since it’s good for people to be hard to kill without leaving a trace. Both for the sake of fiction and for the sake of reality.

The other curious element of Unnatural Death is the way that in the end, Miss Climpson is very nearly murdered. What’s particularly curious about this choice is that she is both put in danger by a series of coincidences and saved literally at the last moment also by coincidence. Had Wimsey and Parker been sixty seconds later in breaking into “Mrs. Forest’s” flat, Miss Climpson would have been dead. Given that they had no idea that Miss Climpson was in any danger, this is very fortunate indeed. But on the other hand, it was pure luck that Vera Findllater had confessed to a priest that she had lied for Mary Whittaker and moreover written down notes to her confession complete with an street name in London, and moreover had dropped the note in a place that Miss Climpson found because she had dropped something in the same place. And had this string of coincidences not been enough, she still would have been safe had she not spotted Mary Whittaker (dressed in her disguise as Mrs. Forest) on the street. And that would not have been sufficient had Miss Climpson had an unerring memory for backs.

I must confess that I’m very dubious about the claim that while faces may be confusing, backs are unmistakable even in disguise. I’ve mistaken enough strangers from the back that this just doesn’t seem plausible to me.

So, ultimately, what to make of this string of improbably coincidences culminating in a last-moment salvation from death? Sayers did make it work, but I don’t think that it’s something to emulate. Improbably coincidences are most at home in comedies and Greek tragedies. The events starting with the faked gang-attack are probably my least favorite part of the book, as they really feel like they’re part of a different story. They’re well written, of course, but when I re-read Unnatural Death I tend to read this part very quickly.

In the final act of the story, Mary Whittaker kills herself. This seems to happen fairly often in Lord Peter stories, and I’m really not sure what to make of it. It’s seems far more accepted than makes sense for a putatively Christian society, though really devout Christians seem pretty think on the ground among people of action in Lord Peter stories. I find this part very distasteful, though I’m not sure that there’s much to learn from it other than “don’t do it”. Dorothy L. Sayers was, from what I’ve read, a devout Christian, so I’ve really no idea what to make of suicide coming up so often and so little remarked upon. Perhaps Brittain of the 1920s was more pagan than is appreciated today.

Lucky Detectives

Within detective fiction, luck plays a very strange role. In traditional hero stories, luck should always favor the bad guy so that the good guy can win by the exercise of virtue. For this reason, luck helping an investigation is disappointing—it feels like cheating.

The problem in detective fiction, however, is that all clues which allow the detective to solve the mystery are pieces of luck because they are mistakes on the part of the murderer (or other culprit). A perfect murder simply couldn’t be solved.

Because of this the detective must be lucky, and the writer of the mystery has to figure out how to deal with this luck. I’ve seen it dealt with in a variety of ways, most of which work. Of the methods for dealing with this luck, I think that hanging a lampshade on it is probably the least satisfying. That’s usually of the form

Inspector Lieusew had no idea what made him think to stop and enter the ordinary-looking dry-cleaner’s shop, but later he was glad that he did.

Of course I’ve seen it done far more skillfully, as in Chesterton’s first (and excellent) Father Brown story, The Blue Cross:

He alighted at Liverpool Street, however, quite conscientiously secure that he had not missed the criminal so far. He then went to Scotland Yard to regularise his position and arrange for help in case of need; he then lit another cigarette and went for a long stroll in the streets of London. As he was walking in the streets and squares beyond Victoria, he paused suddenly and stood. It was a quaint, quiet square, very typical of London, full of an accidental stillness. The tall, flat houses round looked at once prosperous and uninhabited; the square of shrubbery in the centre looked as deserted as a green Pacific islet. One of the four sides was much higher than the rest, like a dais; and the line of this side was broken by one of London’s admirable accidents–a restaurant that looked as if it had strayed from Soho. It was an unreasonably attractive object, with dwarf plants in pots and long, striped blinds of lemon yellow and white. It stood specially high above the street, and in the usual patchwork way of London, a flight of steps from the street ran up to meet the front door almost as a fire-escape might run up to a first-floor window. Valentin stood and smoked in front of the yellow-white blinds and considered them long.

The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen. A few clouds in heaven do come together into the staring shape of one human eye. A tree does stand up in the landscape of a doubtful journey in the exact and elaborate shape of a note of interrogation. I have seen both these things myself within the last few days. Nelson does die in the instant of victory; and a man named Williams does quite accidentally murder a man named Williamson; it sounds like a sort of infanticide. In short, there is in life an element of elfin coincidence which people reckoning on the prosaic may perpetually miss. As it has been well expressed in the paradox of Poe, wisdom should reckon on the unforeseen.

Aristide Valentin was unfathomably French; and the French intelligence is intelligence specially and solely. He was not “a thinking machine”; for that is a brainless phrase of modern fatalism and materialism. A machine only is a machine because it cannot think. But he was a thinking man, and a plain man at the same time. All his wonderful successes, that looked like conjuring, had been gained by plodding logic, by clear and commonplace French thought. The French electrify the world not by starting any paradox, they electrify it by carrying out a truism. They carry a truism so far–as in the French Revolution. But exactly because Valentin understood reason, he understood the limits of reason. Only a man who knows nothing of motors talks of motoring without petrol; only a man who knows nothing of reason talks of reasoning without strong, undisputed first principles. Here he had no strong first principles. Flambeau had been missed at Harwich; and if he was in London at all, he might be anything from a tall tramp on Wimbledon Common to a tall toast-master at the Hotel Metropole. In such a naked state of nescience, Valentin had a view and a method of his own.

In such cases he reckoned on the unforeseen. In such cases, when he could not follow the train of the reasonable, he coldly and carefully followed the train of the unreasonable. Instead of going to the right places–banks, police stations, rendezvous– he systematically went to the wrong places; knocked at every empty house, turned down every cul de sac, went up every lane blocked with rubbish, went round every crescent that led him uselessly out of the way. He defended this crazy course quite logically. He said that if one had a clue this was the worst way; but if one had no clue at all it was the best, because there was just the chance that any oddity that caught the eye of the pursuer might be the same that had caught the eye of the pursued. Somewhere a man must begin, and it had better be just where another man might stop. Something about that flight of steps up to the shop, something about the quietude and quaintness of the restaurant, roused all the detective’s rare romantic fancy and made him resolve to strike at random. He went up the steps, and sitting down at a table by the window, asked for a cup of black coffee.

As a side now, if you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend that you do. (It’s available online. Like all Father Brown stories it’s a short story, so it won’t take long.)

This is probably the best that I’ve seen the lampshade-hanging done and because Chesterton is a master, it works. But it’s not entirely pure lampshade-hanging. It has elements of what I think is the best approach, which is to have the detective earn his luck. Of course, in a strict sense one can’t earn luck because luck comes from God and all that comes from God is grace. But one can, through work, make oneself a fit vessel for grace—that is, a vessel without leaks that will not spill the grace poured into it.  (That too is, of course, grace, but life and language is easier if one just recognizes at the outset that all is grace and what is not distinct need not be pointed out in every sentence.)

The detective can earn his luck by doing the hard work to be in the right place to receive the luck. He can ask many questions that eventually turn up a useful answer. He can look into many places to find something there.

But there is an opposite danger, too, which the writer must avoid. A detective story is not interesting if the detective merely grinds his way through every possible place to look for clues. There is the tedium of that, of course, but tedium is very easy to elide. It takes only a few words to say:

After seven weeks of fourteen hour days spent knocking on every door in a five mile radius, Detective Inspector Drumwalt at last found somebody who had seen Wolfgang Gruenwald on the night he was murdered.

The problem to be avoided is not tedium for the reader. It’s a lack of imagination on the part of the detective. There’s no fun in trying to match wits with someone who evidently doesn’t have any.

There is of course a traditional solution to that, too, which is an army of people to do the grunt work for the detective. One can see this in the way CSI labs and uniformed policemen are used if the detective is himself formally with the police, but you can also see it in Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars.

This of course must be used sparingly and only for initial clues; the detective ceases to be the detective if somebody else hands him the solution together with conclusive evidence. In mystery novels—which need twists and turns before the solution becomes obvious to the reader—the solution to the problems raised by this solution is often to make the clues turned up by grunt-work misleading. This can often serve double-duty by putting an innocent person under suspicion and thus raising the stakes.

A popular way to play with that, by the way, is to have the evidence planted by the culprit to intentionally mislead the investigators. A clever murderer will make the evidence require some work to get, playing on human nature’s inability to believe that hard work does not come with rewards.

One of the great things about mystery novels is that at this point—130 years after Sherlock Holmes and 90 years after the golden age—every possible solution to every problem in the genre has been done straight, as a fake-out, and as a faked-out-fake-out. If you’re at all familiar with detective fiction, there’s really no way to guess which way the writer is playing it this time based solely on the form of what’s happened so far.

Suppose a suspect has confessed. Well, perhaps it’s a false confession to shield someone else, but it might also be a true confession with enough lies in it that it will be taken as a false confession and so suspicion will be thrown elsewhere. At this point, the mere fact that someone has confessed doesn’t tell you anything about who did it. This keeps things surprisingly fresh.

In fact, about the only think that you can be sure of, at this point, is that the butler didn’t do it.


If you like my discussion of murder mysteries, you might like my murder mystery, The First Chronicle of Brother Thomas: The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

tddowb

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

Clouds of Witness is the second novel featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, following Whose Body?. While my general recommendation is to start with Strong Poison, as my favorite Lord Peter novels are the Harriet Vane quadrilogy, Clouds of Witness would also be a good place to start with Lord Peter Wimsey if you’re new to him.

Clouds of Witness is a good, solid armchair cozy. There is a dead body in the first chapter, at an English hunting lodge rented by the Duke of Denver (Lord Peter’s brother) and occupied by several friends. The Duke was the first to discover the body, and is put on trial for having been the one who put it there. The victim was engaged to the Duke’s sister, and he can give only a very unsatisfactory account of his whereabouts at the time of the murder. In fact, most everyone at the hunting lodge contradicts the story of everyone else there. It is from this tangled situation that the title comes: the whole situations is fogged by clouds of witness.

Clouds of Witness has everything you expect in a Lord Peter Wimsey story:  detection, reasoning, speculation, wit, engaging characters, and 1920s England. I highly recommend it.


If you like Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries even half as much as I do, then you might enjoy my murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

tddowb


(If you don’t want spoilers, stop reading here.)

Analysis

(This analysis is an attempt to learn from a master. Anything which may sound critical should be read in the spirit of being a close examination of an excellent novel.)

Clouds of Witness is very interesting both as a second novel about a detective and as a followup to Whose Body?. There’s a lot to talk about, but what stands out to me the most is the character of Inspector Charles Parker. As in Whose Body? he is both Lord Peter’s sidekick and his partner in detection. This is a curious choice as the requirements of sidekick are different and to some degree contradictory to those of a partner.

That’s not to say that such a thing is impossible to pull off. Sayers pulled it off in the character of Harriet Vane, for example. But it feels like she hasn’t quite gotten the balance right in Charles Parker; one can never quite be sure which he’s being in any given scene. And the difference was really in the personality of the characters themselves. Or perhaps it would be better put that the difference was in their skill sets.

Harriet Vane was a mystery writer and her strengths were aligned with this. She understood human behavior well, she was clever, imaginative, and had a great command of language. She was quite intelligent, though not the match of Lord Peter. But the advantage which he really had over her was in experience. Being older and richer, he had a far broader experience of humanity than Harriet did. It made for an extremely good pairing.

Charles Parker’s skills were far more similar to Wimsey’s. Wimsey was established as being more observant than Parker, but Parker was observant. Wimsey had a lot of experience of humanity, but Parker—as a policeman—had a great deal of experience of humanity as well. Wimsey was skilled at research, but Parker was also good at research and had the resources of Scotland Yard behind him. There’s nothing in this which is inherently a problem, but it doesn’t allow the character to be strong at times and weak at times. Watson—the character who needs things explained to him—can’t be played by an equal. It will simply feel wrong that he needs explanations—or it will feel wrong when he doesn’t.

Now, I don’t want to overstate what I mean, because there is a significant personality difference between Parker and Wimsey—Parker is more methodical and cautious, while Wimsey is more inclined to speculate and take up theories provisionally. This has the benefit of making Wimsey need to prove his steps—to Parker, if not to himself—which helps to move the investigation along in a more orderly way which is easier for the reader to follow.

Above and beyond this, though, I suspect that Sayers became a bit surprised by Charles Parker. Especially in Whose Body? but continued in Clouds of Witness, it feels like his original purpose was to be an assistant to Lord Peter. Every writer of an amateur detective has the fundamental problem of why on earth the detective is permitted to go where he goes and do what he does. For much of the detection there can be trade-offs, because the amateur is not restricted by rules of evidence in the way the police are. But there are some places the detective really needs to go which are hard to explain. Viewing the body and scene of the murder being two of them.

There are a variety of solutions to this problem, but the author does need to solve it for the mystery to have any plausibility. And a friend in the police force who is in charge of the case does solve this problem very handily. And while in a certain (very limited) sense this is cheating, I suspect most readers don’t care because what they want to read is detection, not a spy thriller in a deerstalker hat. I know that, as a reader, I’m quite forgiving of improbable though logically possible things which let me get to the good parts.

And this felt like the role that Charles Parker was meant to fulfill. He had many of the requisite attributes—other than being a police inspector, I mean. He looked up to Lord Peter as a genius, thought Lord Peter highly likely to catch clues which he himself missed, and even told Wimsey about his cases.

But then a curious thing happened—Parker also turned out to be a close friend of Wimsey’s. This introduced a tension which built over the course of the novels: brilliant, well educated men don’t have dumb friends. And Parker wasn’t a dumb man. But the more intelligent Parker becomes, the less need he has of Lord Peter.

I want to say that Clouds of Witness was the high-water mark for Charles Parker, but I’m not sure why I want to say that because it’s not true, or at best true from a very narrow perspective. He features very prominently in the next book—Unnatural Death—in fact he’s on the very first page. But then a decent chunk of the book is about a detective in the employ of Lord Peter—Miss Climpson—rather than about Parker or Lord Peter.

After Unnatural Death comes The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, which also features Charles Parker heavily, but only in (roughly) the second half. Then comes Strong Poison, which is the last novel in which he really features heavily. He’s all but not in The Five Red Herrings and Have His Carcass. He is somewhat more present in Murder Must Advertise, then has a small role in The Nine Tailors. He isn’t in Gaudy Night and is only mentioned briefly in Busman’s Honeymoon.

So while Inspector Parker does have a fairly long run, he peters out in the end. I can’t help but wonder if his role as the official access-granter prevented the further development of his role as friend. The problem with being an access-granter is that he can’t be everywhere. A friend might visit a friend anywhere, but a police inspector would not have jurisdiction throughout the entire country and be assigned every interesting case throughout the country. It’s only a speculation, of course, but it’s something to think about in the construction of friends and assistants for a detective.

Setting aside the question of Charles Parker, the construction of Clouds of Witness is very interesting too. It begins with a brief connection to the previous novel, then jumps into a long recital of the facts of the case by way of a transcription of the inquest over the murder victim. This is an interesting approach to handling the exposition necessary in a mystery. Though it should be noted that mysteries have an enormous advantage over most other genres when it comes to exposition since at least some of the characters in a mystery don’t know what happened and want to know. So straight-up information dumps are often in-character.

But the same is true of a British inquest, at least as presented in Lord Peter novels, and that’s the device Sayers used. And I have to say that it was pretty efficient at communicating the setup in detail. Though not very quickly; it did drag on a little. It felt like we could have used a little more investment into the story before that many pages of facts delivered in rapid succession. Still, it is an interesting approach. In America we don’t have inquests, but we do have the grand jury which serves a similar function. Unfortunately, our grand juries our secret (I believe to protect the innocent in case the grand jury returns the verdict that there is not enough evidence to bring a trial). Probably the closest American version of this would be to have a trial end in a hung jury and a new trial scheduled. (Though Sayers had that option, too, in British courts and took advantage of it in Strong Poison.)

It is also interesting that given us all of the principle evidence, Lord Peter still has detection to do when he arrives. This is arranged in two stages because Inspector Parker has already done some of the investigation, but only after the local police have bungled the initial investigation, leading to the Duke of Denver being charged. This sequence of events sets up the main jeopardy of the story—the Duke’s life—while still putting the Parker and Wimsey in charge.

This also respects an observation of Chesterton’s (in The Mirror of the Magistrate):

“Ours is the only trade,” said Bagshaw [a police detective], “in which the professional is always supposed to be wrong. After all, people don’t write stories in which hairdressers can’t cut hair and have to be helped by a customer; or in which a cabman can’t drive a cab until his fare explains to him the philosophy of cab-driving.

By the arrangement of the local police bungling and Scotland Yard swooping in to help, the professional is given some of his due. It certainly is in keeping with the elements of realism Sayers weaves in to the Lord Peter stories. (Which, it must be said, form a counterpoint to Lord Peter himself, and keep him grounded.)

Parker and Wimsey of course find a number of clues which the local police overlooked, which is simply necessary to the story being a detective story at all. Their hottest clue is the footprints of Mary’s second fiance, Goyles, who wears a number 10 shoe, but I find it hard to be as enthusiastic as Lord Peter and Mr. Parker in their hunt for the fellow. It’s just not very plausible that a stranger came from far away to kill Cathcart whom he expected to find outside using the Duke of Denver’s revolver.

To some degree this must be chalked up to the eagerness of Lord Peter and Inspector Parker to exonerate the Duke of Denver, but I think it would have felt better if they were pursuing the owner of the number 10 shoes as an important witness since that was the overwhelming likelihood of what he was.

These investigations bring Lord Peter to meet Mr. and Mrs. Grimmethorpe of Grider’s Hole. Mr. Grimmethorpe is a curious character. He is a man so consumed by jealousy that he has become almost pure rage. I’ve always found him an intensely unpleasant character, though that is the point of him. And I suspect that he is actually realistic, given how often jealousy has led to murder.

I suspect that my dislike of the character is because he is a little out of place in an armchair cozy mystery. He is certainly not cozy. And he is important to the plot. He’s not quite central, but at the same time he’s not far from the center of the mystery and is at least tangentially related to (perhaps) half the plot. Given his relevance to the mystery, it would have been very difficult for him to be less involved in the plot. But there’s another reason why he had to show up once again towards the end, and it relates to the fundamental structure of murder mysteries.

A murder mystery is the story of a man who distorts the natural order by the wrong use of reason, put right by the detective’s right use of reason. It is the salvation of the world, in the manner of a medieval miniature. At the end of every good murder mystery, then, what is wrong must be put right. And Mr. Grimmethorpe of Grider’s Hole is very wrong. The book cannot end with him continuing to be the monster that he is, and it doesn’t. In the end he is killed trying to kill the Duke of Denver. (Or possibly Mrs. Grimmethorpe; I’ve read the passage several times and still can’t figure out exactly what happened.) There is not really any other possible outcome given the constraints of the situation.

Though it must be said that Mrs. Grimmethorpe is not right either. She has committed adultery. And indeed, so has the Duke. I find it odd how much this is passed over as inconsequential. Its only real significance seems to be that the Duke won’t say where he was when Cathcart was killed. Neither repents in any way of their sin; they basically simply agree to forget about it. Which is a resolution of sorts, but a very cheap resolution that is not really fitting. But leaving that aside, it’s rather strange just how cavalier everyone else is about the Duke having committed adultery. The characters all seem to think it inconsequential that he adulterates he marriage, and completely inconsequential whether news of his infidelity reaches his wife. No one seems to think any less of him for it.

I don’t know what to make of it. Perhaps it was plausible at the time. The 1920s is known as a very immoral time—a reaction against the stricter Victorian era, which was itself a reaction against the more morally lax Georgian period. (Clouds of Witness was published in 1926.) And that itself was a reaction against the era which came before it. And moreover every era is a combination of many threads; people are never uniform. (Also, curiously, the greatest saints tend to show up during the generally worst times.)

The conclusion of the mystery is also interesting, where Lord Peter tracks down Cathcart’s former lover in America then has a harrowing and dangerous trans-Atlantic flight to bring the evidence back to the trial. The audacity of this flight is, I think, lost on modern people who can safely travel the Atlantic in a jet which cruises several miles above the clouds for $100 per seat (one way, on a really good sale). As I mentioned, Clouds of Witness was published in 1926. The first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight was made in 1919 (and of the three teams making the attempt on the same day, two didn’t make it across). Charles Lindbergh had not yet become the first to cross the Atlantic solo—he would do that the next year in 1927. In 1926 going between New York and London by airplane was only just slightly more realistic than science fiction. It’s a curious thing to stick into a detective story. Consulting detectives are already quite unrealistic, though, so perhaps it does go together.

The one part of Clouds of Witness which I think was a mistake in what was otherwise an excellent book is the very end, where Inspector Sugg finds Lord Peter and Inspector Parker slobbering drunk—one comatose, the other talking with a statue. It’s not that I disapprove of drunkenness—I do, but that’s not my issue here—since after all saving the life of one’s brother after nearly dying excuses a lot. It’s that it’s very out of character for Lord Peter to want to lose himself in the manner that one loses himself in drunkenness. And if it’s out of character for Lord Peter, it’s even more out of character for Charles Parker. I suspect that it was meant as a comedic note to end on. Another possibility is that it was meant to humanize Lord Peter and make him more relatable. I don’t think it really does either. It would have felt far more in character if Lord Peter took Parker out to an opera or even if Parker invited Lord Peter to go with him to church and after all of the emotional exhaustion, Lord Peter went with him. (Of the two, the opera would be more likely.) Or even brought Parker to his flat and played music and sang into the wee hours of the night. And even if Lord Peter got drunk, Parker really shouldn’t have. A moment of sober conversation between Parker and Sugg over the drunk Lord Peter would have been more interesting than Sugg calling Peter and Parker a cab.

You Can’t Get an Ought From an Is In Hell

One of the questions which comes up in discussions of morality is whether you can get an “ought” from an “is”. This is relevant primarily to discussions of atheism, since to the atheist everything is a brute fact, i.e. an “is” which is not directed towards anything, and therefore an atheist cannot get any “oughts” out of their description of what is. Or in simpler language, if God is dead then all things are permitted. (Note for the unpoetic: by “God is dead” we mean “there is no God”.)

There are two reasons why if God is dead all things are permitted:

  1. If God is dead, who is there to forbid anything?
  2. If God is dead, then there is no ultimate good because all is change and therefore nothing has any lasting reality.

If you argue this sort of stuff with atheists long enough, somewhere along the line while you’re explaining natural ends (telos) and natural morality, you may come by accident to a very interesting point which the atheist will bring up without realizing it. It often goes something like this:

OK, suppose that what God says is actually the only way to be eternally happy. Why should you be eternally happy? Why shouldn’t you do what you want even though it makes you unhappy?

This question sheds some very interesting light on hell, and consequently on what we mean by morality. Our understanding of morality tends to be like what Saint Augustine said of our understanding of time:

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.

Somehow or other atheists tend to assume that ought means something that you have to do, regardless of what you want to do. It’s very tempting to assume that this is a holdover from childhood where ought meant that their parents would make them do it whether or not they wanted to. It’s tempting because it’s probably the case and because that’s not an adult understanding of ought. And it’s not because ultimately we can’t be forced to be good. (Or if this raises your hackles because I’m “placing limits on God”, then just take it as meaning that in any event we won’t be forced to be good.)

Hell is a real possibility. Or in other words, it is possible to see two options and knowingly pick the worse option.

What we actually mean by saying that we ought to do something is that the thing is directed towards the good. And we can clarify this if we bring in a bit of Thomistic moral philosophy: being is what is good. Or as the scholastic phrase goes, good is convertible with being. But being, within creation, is largely a composite entity. A statue is not just one thing, but many things (atoms, molecules, etc.) which, in being ordered toward the same end, are also one thing which is greater than their parts.

And you can see a symphony of ordering to a greater being, in a human being. Atoms are ordered into proteins (and many other things like lipids, etc), which are ordered into cells, which are ordered into organs, which are ordered into human beings. But human beings are not at the top of the hierarchy of being, for we are also ordered into community with other created things. (Please note: being part of a greater whole does not rob the individual of his inherent dignity; the infinite goodness of God means that creation is not a competition. Also note that God so exceeds all of creation that He is not in the hierarchy of being, but merely pointed to by it.)

And so we come to the real meaning of ought. To say that we ought to do something is to say that the thing is ordered towards the maximum being which is given to us. But we need not choose being; we can instead choose non-being. The great lie which the modern project (and, perhaps not coincidentally, Satan) tells us is that there is some other being available to us besides what was given to us by God. That we can make ourselves; that we can give ourselves what we haven’t got. And, not at all coincidentally, are the things which we ought not to do—that is, those things are not ordered toward being. They’re just what the atheist says that all of life is—stimulating nerve endings to fool ourselves that we’ve accomplished something.

And yet atheists complain when one says that, according to them, they’re in hell.

God, at least, has a sense of humor.

Gold Covered Chicken Wings

If you haven’t heard, there’s a restaurant which came up with the idea of gold-covered chicken wings. While there are all sorts of things which could be said about about the wisdom of buying such things, the thing I really want to talk about is the symbolism of the thing.

(Since there’s too much outrage on the internet, I think I should note in passing that due to gold’s astonishing brilliance with only a few atoms of thickness the wings are not actually wildly expensive. You can get 10 wings for $30, which for the location is probably a 3x markup—wasteful, but not very wasteful in absolute terms. You can easily get less food for more money in Manhattan.)

To see the symbolism of the thing, we need to consider what gold-plated food is. Unlike many heavy metals, metallic gold is (basically) inert, which is why it is safe as a food additive. But the fact that it’s inert also means that it has exactly no nutritional value, either. It’s not bad for you, it’s not good for you; it’s just there.

As such it’s an almost pure waste. I say “almost” because it does look pretty, though its beauty in the wrong place. If gold is to be present, it should be on the plates, where its beauty is not destroyed by the act of eating. It should not be on the food itself, where the beauty is destroyed by the act of eating. And that is, I think, the key to the symbolism.

My favorite version of the baptismal promises includes the questions:

Do you reject Satan?

And all his empty promises?

But there is another translation of the second question:

And all his empty show?

Gold-covered chicken wings seem to me an almost perfect illustration of Satan’s empty show. It looks like it has value—but has none—and the acceptance of it destroys even the slight good it uses as a bait.

Hearing the Same Story Twice

One of the great benefits of having friends who are at least twenty years older than oneself is that they have a wealth of life experiences that they are happy to share. This enables one to circumvent the problem in the popular saying:

Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment.

Having significantly older friends means that one can benefit from their experience. (The same is true of parents, if one can bring oneself to listen to them.)

But there is a problem with listening to the stories of people who are several decades one’s senior: they tend to tell you each story several times. Contrary to popular belief, this is not because they’re old, but because while stories are memorable, the act of telling them isn’t. In fact, telling a story is actually quite hard to remember because the storyteller’s attention is on the story, not on the telling.

Further, older people simply have far more to remember because they’ve got much fuller lives than young people do. Our culture’s obsession with youth not withstanding, older people have far more friends and acquaintances than young people do. They also have vastly more people’s lives and concerns to keep track of.

And since one very remarkable experience—that is, one good story—will touch on many aspects of life, in conversation with one’s older friends their especially good stories will come up from time to time, and they will probably not remember that they already told you that story three years ago. As I said, the story is far more memorable than the telling of it.

There are, at this point, three options:

  1. Interrupt them to tell them they already told you the story.
  2. Let them tell it then tell them that they already told you the story.
  3. Let them tell the story and appreciate it again.

Of the three, the second is the worst option. It’s basically throwing a gift back in the giver’s face. Don’t do this.

The first can be polite, but it’s tricky to pull off. If the story is recognizable in its first few words, you can probably find a pause in the first sentence (or so) to interrupt and ask if it’s the story you’re thinking of—and bear in mind you might be wrong because sometimes different stories sound similar. If it is, then tell the friend how much you like the story. The danger of interrupting them is that you might seem ungrateful or unappreciative of the wisdom being conveyed and telling them how much you appreciate the story—not merely appreciated it in the past, but kept its lessons with you—will ensure that the proper reaction of gratitude is conveyed.

The third option is often the best option. First, because it is the most grateful option. Second, because the same story is often told with different details filled in, so one gets a more complete version of it by putting the two together. Third, because one will probably learn new things from hearing it again. And fourth, because the impossibility of perpetual novelty (while maintaining quality), happiness depends upon the ability to appreciate good things one has already experienced. Hearing a good story again is excellent practice at this.

One should not lie and pretend that one has not heard the story before, but it almost never comes up, and if it doesn’t, there’s no need to bring it up.

And you’re vastly better off having heard the same story twice than not at all.

Atheists’ Bluster

Around a quarter century ago, in my early teens, I did online Christian apologetics in various forums (AOL, usenet, etc.). And something I came across was the habit of atheists using bluster—the extremely confident assertion of things that, if pressed, they couldn’t defend.

In my later teens I took a hiatus from apologetics to spend time learning, to better prepare myself. It ended up being a fairly long hiatus, and by the time I was ready to get back to apologetics I was Catholic and now it was called evangelization. And in the great dealing of thinking and reading and so forth that I did in those years, I  came to the conclusion that reasoned argument was not what most people needed. Atheism was not so much an intellectual position as it is a mental prison. The atheist is in a tiny, cramped little universe, so much smaller than a human mind. What atheists really need—as Chesterton said of the madman in his masterpiece, Orthodoxy—is not arguments, but air. He needs to come in contact with enough truth that he will realize it can’t fit inside his prison, at which point he will realize that he’s not actually inside of a prison, and leave.

But being an open Catholic online and hanging out with the sort of people I hang out with does bring one into contact with a lot of atheists—though almost all of a few related kinds. And in meeting the same sorts of people I was arguing with 25 years ago, I found that they were still using bluster—making assertions with impressive confidence. But as an adult in my 30s, this was nowhere near as intimidating as it was to me when I was 13. And I found something very interesting when I would respond to bald-faced assertions with contrary bald-faced assertions.

I somewhat naively expected to simply come to a standstill of assertions that would result either in agreeing to disagree or providing space for a real discussion to take place. Instead, the atheists tended to get angry. Very angry. And what was curious was that it was the sort of anger one sees from a dog owner who isn’t any good at dog training when their dog fails to perform on command. It’s the anger of, “you’re not doing what you’re supposed to!”

You’ll see this all over the world, from all sorts of people. Doubtless many atheists have gotten this from irate grandmothers. But they were holding themselves up as rational inquirers. But if you scratch the surface, like with gold leaf, you find out that their rationality is just a coating which is only a few molecules thick.

And I started noticing that this applied in other places, too. The people who scream, “only believe things because of evidence!” get awfully huffy when you ask them for evidence of their honesty. They don’t put it that way, but apparently that, you’re supposed to take on faith.

“Don’t believe things without evidence!”

“OK, do you have any evidence that you’re not a moron?”

Again, their principle apparently comes with a lot of unstated qualifications. In theory, this should be an entirely reasonable question since you’re just asking for evidence. Instead you’ll typically hear about “ad homs” (argumentum ad hominem, i.e. arguing that the man is bad as if that proved his conclusion is false, see here for more), which is rather bizarre since a question cannot be a fallacious argument since it is not any kind of argument.

It’s been rather fascinating to see, since these people have great conviction, but it’s not conviction in their own principles. I still haven’t really found what their conviction is in. (I have my suspicions, and it will vary with the individual, of course. But I haven’t come to any definite conclusions yet.)

But it’s been very interesting to see how little there is behind atheists’ bluster.

Lack of Belief in Belief-Capable Entities

Recently my friend Eve Keneinan had a Twitter Thread in which she talked about the problems with defining Atheism as “a lack of belief in God”:

There is a problem she doesn’t mention with this definition, which is that there are no useful sentences which you can construct.  In order to have a useful sentence using a word, there has to be something you can predicate of all of the things described by the word. And (ignoring the problem of rocks and krill being caught up in the lack-of-belief definition), there is nothing you can predicate of people who believe God doesn’t exist, people who aren’t sure he exists, babies, the mentally retarded, and people who’ve never heard of the concept. They’re not all tall or short, stupid or intelligent, fat or thin, nor anything else. You can say that they exist, but that’s about it. This disqualifies it as a possible definition by what should be called the “uselessness test”. That said, let’s ignore it for now.

Eve mentioned a possible way of amending this definition to avoid catching up rocks and bricks and such-like as atheists:

However, this amended definition still leaves it a completely useless definition for a different reason than the one above (which still applies). Actually, before I even get to that, there’s a problem which needs addressing: it’s under-specified. Specifically, what sort of beliefs must the atheist be capable of forming?

There are different ways of defining “belief”, but since atheists are pretty much all materialists and thus don’t believe in a soul nor an intellect (in the traditional sense), they have to define “belief” as some sort of behavioral relation to the outside world. As such, it is clear that a rat which nibbles on a block of rat chow “believes” that the rat chow is food. So we still have the problem that under this amended definition, most atheists are bacteria and funguses, followed by higher-order life forms like krill and beetles. OK, so let’s grant the atheist the ability to use a theist’s definition of “belief” such that it’s the sort of thing which only human beings have, despite there being absolutely no way for a materialist to do this at all consistently.

We now get to the problem I mentioned about under-specificity. What sort of beliefs must these beings be capable of forming? To give an overly simplistic example to illustrate the point, it is utterly uninteresting that a man whose ability to form beliefs encompasses nothing more than the belief that cucumbers exist does not believe in God. This generalizes to the real point: if a man is for some reason limited in that he’s not capable of forming a belief in God, it is not an interesting property that he doesn’t believe in God. It is uninteresting for the same reason that we don’t count a man who can’t do even 1 pushup as as physically unfit if the reason he can’t do a pushup is because he has no arms. An armless man who can run a sub-6 minute mile is still quite physically fit. And further, his being fit but unable to do pushups tells us nothing about a couch potato with arms who cannot do pushups because he does nothing all day long. In the same way, if a man has a cognitive defect where he cannot form a belief in God he is unfortunate, but he has nothing whatever in common with someone who can form a belief in God but has formed the belief that God does not exist instead.

But really, either way, this definition cannot be applied to anyone given the limits of human knowledge. We have no way of finding out whether a man is capable of forming a belief in God except that he actually forms it. And even if we retreat from that we have no way of knowing that a man is capable of forming beliefs at all (without being him). We can tell us that he does, but I can easily program a computer to say that it forms beliefs, too. Heck, one could easily write on a rock, “I, this rock, can form beliefs”. If one rejects noetic knowledge as most online atheists do and demand evidence from the one making the claim, it is impossible to know whether anyone is an atheist since we can’t know what’s actually going on inside of his head. And this is different from taking his word about whether or not he in fact believes in God, since that presupposes he’s the sort of being which could have a word to give. The amended definition of “atheism” now requires us to find out whether he’s the sort of thing which can give his word before we know whether the definition applies to him.

Of course atheists tend to take the practical solution of demanding that theists merely assume the theistic worldview at all necessary places in order to make sense of what the atheist is saying, but to then reject it wherever it is not necessary for the atheist’s statements to be other than raving gibberish. At some point I think that everyone is tempted to say of online atheism what King Arthur said of Camelot, “No, on second thought, let’s not go there. It is a silly place.”