Murder By Poison

Though I’m only about halfway through writing Wedding Flower Will Do for a Funeral (the second Chronicle of Brother Thomas), it’s good to put some thought into when the next book will be—murder mystery plots are the sort of thing it’s nice to kick around for a while instead of having to come up with in a moment. Accordingly, I bought a book on poisons for mystery writers. I hope to review when I’m done with it, but I wanted to talk about the subject of poison as the murder weapon.

(I should note that this is thinking out a variety of alternatives, and is not aiming at any single conclusion; it’s more like a walk through a workshop than an essay.)

Poisons kill, but they do so in a variety of ways. Some kill quickly, others slowly. Some kill very painfully and some just put the victim to sleep and a short time later into eternal sleep. And as I was reading over descriptions of the effects of various poisons it occurred to me that some poisons have greater differences between them than there are between some of those poisons and more conventional weapons such as knives and bullets.

One of the great differences in poisons is a question of detection. That is, how hard is it to discover that the victim was poisoned? Poisons which cause the victim to writhe in agonizing muscle spasms for days before finally killing them, for example, are not likely to be mistaken for death by natural causes. So why use such a poison?

(Before answering that question I should note, in passing, that these tend not to be popular poisons in television mysteries because they don’t give the opportunity for the detective to spot the clues which indicate poison that most people have missed. If the detective confidentially whispers to the police that a victim taken suddenly ill right after dinner and who thrashes about for several days before finally was probably poisoned, he’d be liked to get a sarcastic, “How did you work that out, then?” if it’s a British show or, “Thank you captain obvious” if it’s an American show. Good television, this does not make.)

I think that the best reason to use obvious poisons—except in the case of pure malice, that is, to want to see the victim suffer—is in order to frame somebody. The big problem that murder mysteries have is that of motive. Cui bono? Whose good? Who is it who benefits so much from someone’s death that they’d commit it in cold blood (and murder by poison almost certainly has to be in cold blood since the poison must be procured beforehand). There are generally only a few people who will benefit to any great degree from the death of a person; this narrows the field of suspects down quite considerably. Good for the detective, not nearly so good for the murderer. (And to actually go through with a plan for murder, one must expect to get away with it.)

There is still a problem with the frame-up: if the case against the person being framed isn’t air-tight the field of suspects will become very small indeed. This can certainly be made to work, but poisons introduce the problem that the murderer doesn’t have to be present when the victim takes the poison. While convenient, it renders alibis useless. (This can to some degree be worked around by contriving to make it seem like the time the victim took the poison was known.)

If the murderer is not trying to frame one of the few other people who will benefit from the death of the victim, an obvious murder which does not readily admit of an alibi seems very unlikely to appear a good idea. I suspect, then, that this is probably best used in revenge killings, and in particular those where the relationship between the killer and the victim is not generally known. In English cozies this is the classic case of the killer being the grandson of someone who the victim murdered forty years ago in Australia.

This can be done extremely well; I think most of the interest is going to lie in establishing the backstory and solving a 40 year old mystery in order to unravel the present mystery.

The other sort of poisoning—the gentle kind—results, I think, in a very different sort of murder investigation. Probably the most notable aspect of this is going to be the overturning of an initial conclusion that the victim died from natural causes. The most classic example of this is, I think, the elderly rich relative.

In many stories the climax of the investigation is the digging up of the body and testing it for poison, which is then found. There’s nothing wrong with that plot, but things get very hard if a monkey wrench is thrown into it. The obvious monkey wrench is the undetectable poison—and there are a few—but it’s interesting to consider the approach that Dorothy L. Sayers used in Unnatural Death. It suffered from the minor problem that the effect she relied on was exaggerated about 100-fold; as one reviewer put it the method would work but the apparatus used would be comically large. But that aside, since a poison wasn’t used none could be found. And the rest of the story tells us, I think, how stories about undetectable poisons have to go.

If the first murder was undetectable, the only real solutions is for there to be more murders, this time imperfect. The murderer had ample time and opportunity to plot the first murder, but latter ones will either be rushed or the murderer will relax because of the overconfidence created by success.

The murderer can be pushed into subsequent, rushed murders either by the detective—who seems to be getting too close—or by someone who witnessed an incriminating part of the murder and is now blackmailing the murderer. (It’s convenient for detectives how few fictional people realize that blackmailing a murderer is a very dangerous way to make money.)

In the former case, this can be done by way of the murderer having an unwitting accomplice—somebody who didn’t understand the significance of an action they knew the murderer did or may have even done at the murderer’s request. The impetus comes when the detective is starting to ask questions which might make the unwitting accomplice realize the significance of what they know. The tricky part about this is that the detective can’t do this on purpose or he’s guilty of the unwitting accomplices’s death. It’s not easy to pull this off even unintentionally, though, since the brilliant detective should—because of his brilliance—foresee the probable outcome of asking the questions he’s asking.

All things considered, I think the cleaner way is for the second victim to blackmail the murderer. The downside is that the detective is thus being handed a piece of luck outside of his control, which isn’t satisfying. On the other hand, this is true of (basically) all possible clues. The murderer’s bad luck is the detective’s good luck. If the murderer committed the perfect murder, the detective couldn’t solve it.

On the one hand, this feels like a cheat. On the other hand, it is appropriate; to murder is imperfect and imperfect people do not do things perfectly. Murder is a sort of short-cut, and people who take one short-cut will take others, too. The real trick is to keep the sort of short-cuts taken that help the detective in-character with the murder itself.

Detective Sidekicks

In his Decalogue (ten commandments) for detective fiction, Fr. Ronald Knox’s ninth commandment was:

The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

The Watson in a detective story is generally understood to be a stand-in for the reader, and not without reason. I’ve been wondering how necessary a Watson character is, so I’d like to look at the functions of a Watson:

  1. To have someone to whom the detective must explain this thinking and actions.
  2. To have someone for the detective to talk to.
  3. To have someone who looks up to the detective.

Regarding the first, it can be very helpful for the detective to need to explain himself. How the detective thinks is interesting and apart from having to explain himself we mostly won’t know. It is always possible to give him a habit of thinking out loud, of course; one sees this a bit with Chesterton’s Father Brown (who generally doesn’t have a Watson character).

Regarding the second, this is acknowledging the truth that it is not good for man to be alone. But the companion of a detective does not need to be a reader stand-in and often is better if he isn’t. My favorite example of this is Harriet Vane in the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. She’s not on Lord Peter’s level, but she’s also not—generally—a reader stand-in.

I should mention that Harriet Vane only appears in 4 of the Lord Peter books; Lord Peter’s companion is more often his friend, Charles Parker. Parker is more of the typical Watson character; I suppose my marked preference for Harriet Vane is sufficient to give my opinion of this.

Regarding the third quality of a Watson, this gets to a somewhat tricky aspect of art—most of conveying grandeur is done not by conveying it but by conveying how people react to it. Grandeur is a very difficult thing to show; people being impressed is much easier to show. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the line, supposedly said by Katherine Hepburn, describing Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers, “He gave her class and she gave him sex [appeal]”. It’s true, though not literally so.

Fred Astair had sex appeal, but Ginger Rogers (in how she acted her roles, I mean) recognized it and made it intelligible; she reacted to him as if he had sex appeal, making it clear he did. Ginger Rogers had class, but Fred Astair (again, in how he acted in his roles) treated her as if she was classy, making it clear to the audience that she was. Much of either—how we in the audience know them—is by the reactions to them.

And so it is with the brilliance of the detective. The detective must actually be brilliant or the Watson will only come off as a farce. But if the detective is brilliant, the Watson failing to understand and being enlightened will show the detective’s brilliance off.

Now, when it comes to how necessary these are, I think that the second—companionship—works fairly well, if not better, with an equal. The first and third do require someone who is not an equal, but they don’t need to be an associate of the detective. There will always be bystanders present who can take an interest in what the detective does, and he will suffice to ask questions and be impressed. There is even a potential benefit to this approach in that Watson might be a one-off, but if the detective is constantly running into people who are impressed with him, it lends credence that this is the normal reaction to him.

Of course, the two can be mixed; third parties can relieve the Watson of his duties on occasion in order to spread the work around.

I don’t really have a conclusion, here, other than to say that I don’t think that a Watson is strictly necessary. They’re a good option, but not, I think, a requirement.

The Implausibility of Large Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories are very curious things in that they are superficially ridiculous but can suck people in if they can get past that. And I think those things are related.

One of the best descriptions of God comes from a letter of Saint Paul: “He who accomplishes all things according to the intentions of His will”. It’s a marvelous contrast to human beings, who accomplish very little according to the intentions of our wills; our successes are usually only partial successes. And this is where the superficial ridiculousness of conspiracy theories comes from.

Conspiracy theories all assume hyper-competence on the part of the conspirators.

This is why it’s so hard to put into words why a conspiracy theory is ridiculous: it’s because of all the multitude of things which had to go right in order for the conspiracy to succeed.

This is also why it’s so hard to argue a conspiracy theory. Any one thing which had to go right can be explained away; it’s all of them put together that just get ridiculous.

I think this is also why, if one can get past that initial instinct to just laugh, conspiracy theories can suck people in. They’re a bit like mystery stories, but on steroids. As long as one considers the pieces in isolation, each one is a puzzle to solve where you get to match wits with someone really clever.

It’s that in isolation part which is so critical, though. There’s actually a similar problem when watching a long-running show like Murder, She Wrote. (A show I dearly love, I should add, and for me some formative fiction.) On any given episode, it’s reasonable enough that a murder mystery writer should happen to be present at the scene of a cleverly committed murder. That it happened 263 times defies belief. Hence all of the jokes about how Jessica is a serial killer who framed others for her crimes.

(It should be noted that the joke of Jessica being a serial killer is not viable given that almost every episode ends with the killer confessing.)

Large conspiracy theories are ridiculous because they’re like being presented the entirety of Murder, She Wrote all at once.

A Medieval Satirical Love Poem

Today at A Clerk of Oxford, she posted a medieval poem which satirizes the romantic poems popular at the time. It may take a few readings to be able to deal with the unusual spellings, but it’s worth it because the poem is quite fun.

This may be my favorite stanza from it:

Whosoever wist what life I lead,
In mine observance in divers wise;
From time that I go to my bed
I eat no meat till that I rise.
Ye might tell it for a great emprise, [triumph]
That men thus mourneth for your sake;
So much I think on your service,
That when I sleep I cannot wake.

One of the two books in which this poem is found was in a commonplace book owned by a grocer, in the 1500s. It’s also fun to see, though the expression is somewhat different, the sense of humor is very much the same as what one might get from Chesterton or even a more modern wit.

Just to illustrate my point, compare this with Chesterton’s poem The Logical Vegetarian:

You will find me drinking rum,
    Like a sailor in a slum,
You will find me drinking beer like a Bavarian
    You will find me drinking gin 
    In the lowest kind of inn
Because I am a rigid Vegetarian.

Time Wears On Us All

My furnace has recently been failing to heat the house, and after a bit of investigation I discovered that the fault was in the inducer motor. (The inducer motor powers the fan which induces, i.e. sucks, the air through the combustion chamber.) I did some lubrication and manipulation of it, which managed to coax it into working for another day or two until a new motor arrived.

Replacing it turned out to be about maximally difficult; the inducer fan had rust-welded onto the shaft and even copious amounts of WD-40 specialist rust remover did nothing to loosen it. I eventually had to drill out not only the screw which held the fan onto the motor shaft but the motor shaft itself, then I had to resort to using a claw hammer to pry the thing off. Once that was done taking the old motor off and putting the new motor (and new fan which I had fortunately thought to also purchase, just in case) was the work of a few minutes.

Once my furnace was back to heating the house I turned my attention to the motor, because I was very curious what was wrong with it. From the occasional screeching sound, the help of lubrication, and the fact that once in a while turning it backwards allowed it to start spinning freely in the correct direction, I had thought that a piece of metal debris had gotten lodged in the motor.

It turned out to be wrong.

It was actually that one of the two bearings on which the motor shaft rested had rusted out and disintegrated to the point of no longer working.

If you’re not familiar with how a bearing is constructed, there is an inner sleeve and an outer sleeve. These sleeves are held apart by a number of balls. The outer sleeve rotates against the inner sleeve by rotating these bearings; they reduce the friction of rotation because—being spheres—a tiny fraction of them is actually in contact with either the inner sleeve or the outer sleeve. Moreover, they allow the two sleeves to rotate relative to each other by rolling along both, rather than by the sleeves rubbing against each other. They’re ingenious inventions.

There is, however, the problem of keeping the balls between the sleeves. This is done with some walls and also with what one might call a retaining bracket. If you look, you can see that the retaining bracket on the ball bearing of my motor had rusted into nothing in parts (specifically, the lower right part). Actually, that’s probably not quite true; I suspect it had mostly rusted by some small parts hadn’t rusted but instead got caught into the balls, preventing them from rotating smoothly. That would explain why counter-rotating it might occasionally allow the shaft to spin freely—it would have dislodged the tiny bits of metal and moved them to somewhere harmless. Until they fell back in the way, again. Which in practice seemed to be every few hours.

This is the problem with metal—it is very hard, but it is dead. It cannot repair itself from the wear-and-tear of life, so it eventually fails. In theory one could have taken the motor apart and thoroughly cleaned it, periodically, to prevent the build-up of the sort of grime which causes rust, but this is still a living thing fixing a dead thing.

This is the curious thing about life. All things are dying, and can only survive by being continually renewed. Avid fans of Chesterton will note this as Chesterton’s Post:

We have remarked that one reason offered for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow better. But the only real reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse. The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument against being conservative. The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.

He went on to note, by the way, that these is as true of human institutions as it is of material objects; this is a curious property of our universe—truths always have echoes. You can find this idea in C.S. Lewis’s essay Myth Became Fact, but you can also find it in real life. I once had a pumpkin which grew large and looked beautiful but when I went to harvest it it had turned out that mice had eaten almost the entire thing from the back and inside. It’s a wonderful metaphor for all sorts of things—modern universities, for example—but it also was a very disappointing event in my garden, years ago.

Our universe is full of echoes.

Edit: as Mary in the comments pointed out, the story I quoted is Chesterton’s Post, not Chesterton’s Fence. (Thanks, Mary!)

A More Modern Recording Alibi, Still Feels Wrong

This is an follow-up to Alibi by Recording. Discussing that post on Twitter made me think of a more modern version of using a recording to convince someone that the murderer is in a place when he’s actually somewhere else committing the murder.

Instead of merely recording a conversation which would be overheard, the murderer could record a series of responses and use voice recognition to map a tree of responses to what a microphone hears. Thus the murderer could actually have a conversation with someone—through a locked door. Something like this:

Janice: [knocks] Are you working late again?

Bob: Yes. I have to get these reports done for tomorrow.

Janice: Can I get you some coffee?

Bob: No thanks, I already got myself some coffee. In the big mug. It’s going to be a late night.

Janice: OK, I’ll leave you to it.

Bob: Good night.

Janice would swear to the police that she had a conversation with Bob while Bob was really off murdering his Aunt for the inheritance she was leaving him. Since these sorts of programs can have a history, it could eventually go to some default response like “I’m sorry but I have to concentrate on work. I’ll talk to you in the morning.”

Not foolproof, of course, but that most interesting murders are at least a little bit daring.

I still think that this would be a completely unsatisfying reveal to a modern audience. And yet it would be very directly analogous to, say, the murderer of Roger Ackroyd using a phonograph of the deceased to convince people that the deceased was alive when he was already dead (as happened in the Poirot story, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).

And I maintain, as I did in my previous post on the subject, that it’s because a technological solution is simply not very interesting. We’ve got technology up the wazoo and back out again, these days. What we find very interesting is the human element.

Alibi By Recording

I was recently thinking about the way that the TV version of Poirot sometimes re-sets the stories in the 1920s. (Poirot stories were generally written contemporaneously, spanning the 1920s through the 1960s.) It makes sense on television for a variety of reasons—including that the 1920s were far more visually interesting than most of the decades which followed. That said, it is curious because the sorts of plots one finds change somewhat over the decades.

Nowhere is this so obvious as in the case of murder by ingenious invention. It was a common enough plot in the golden age of mysteries but seems to have fallen out of favor more recently. And a particular kind of ingenious invention has really fallen into disuse these days: the alibi by recording.

In the golden age of fiction it was a not uncommon plot that either the murder’s presence or the victim’s being alive when he was already dead was established on the basis of an overheard conversation which turned out to be a recording. (Both give the murderer an alibi, though in different ways.)

I’m curious why this has fallen out of fashion. (And of course I don’t mean that it never happens—I can think of a few TV mysteries which have employed the murderer using a recording to fake being on a stage giving a presentation when they ducked out for a minute to commit the murder. But I think that’s more properly regarded as a variant of the being-on-stage alibi rather than the recording-alibi.)

There was a certain amount of fascination with the progress of technology which one finds in the 1920s because it was an era of rapid technological progress. But our era is also one of rapid technological progress. More so, in absolute terms.

I think, though, that we’ve become exhausted with technological progress. It’s not merely that we wonder whether all the change is actually for the better—we do, but so did the people in the 1920s. In many ways more than we do, actually, since they had just come off of the horrors of the first world war and its deadly machines and poison gasses. Nuclear annihilation isn’t much of a threat any more, though technically it is still possible.

It’s also not that technology has become the realm of the specialist. It was always the realm of the specialist. It wasn’t ordinary people who invented gadgets, and it took more expensive equipment to record a phonograph in the 1920s than it does to record voice on a cell phone now.

I think it’s rather that we have a sense that life doesn’t change nearly as much as one would think it does. I don’t mean that life is mostly the same minute-by-minute. That would be ridiculous. We do far more driving and far less walking; we are constantly stimulated by electric devices and never has mediocre music been nearly as omni-present. But we remain human beings with much the same problems; our problems are just far more convenient and fast-paced.

Being so inundated by technology, we find it boring. These days (with expensive software) one could edit video to remove somebody from a security camera recording. So what? That’s not an interesting reveal. It’s really no more interesting than a mystery about wizards involving the reveal that the murderer used an invisibility spell.

What’s far more interesting in murder mysteries is the human element.

I should also note that this is probably also partially a result of short stories being mostly dead and gimmics (by which I mean clever murders) being far more the domain of short stories than they are of novels. Not that the murders in novels aren’t clever, only that they’re not generally based on one large reveal. That said, as I’ve argued in the past, structurally speaking, television murder mysteries are much closer to long short stories than they are to novels. So murder mystery short stories have generally moved to television from the written word.

And even there, recordings are not a popular alibi.

Dysfunctional Families in Murder Mysteries

I was recently watching the Murder, She Wrote episode It’s a Dog’s Life with my eldest son and it occurred to just how much dysfunctional wealthy families are a staple of murder mysteries.

It’s not the wealthy part that’s at all surprising—it’s well known that the two most common motives for murder in detective fiction are sex and money—but the dysfunctional part. Or at least that they’re obviously dysfunctional.

This is probably more a staple of modern detective fiction like Murder, She Wrote than it is of golden age detective fiction, I should add, though one can certainly find it in golden age detective fiction too.

The reason I find it a little surprising is, roughly, two-fold:

  1. It’s somewhat at odds with the idea of concealing the murderer
  2. It makes the victim less sympathetic

Curiously, that last part is papered over quite frequently—almost as if the authors don’t notice it. But it’s simply not avoidable. One child turning out badly could be attributable to free will but a parent who badly spoiled all his children is, simply, a bad parent.

You can see this same problem in The Big Sleep. The old man who hires Philip Marlowe was—according to the story, and if I recall correctly, according to the old man himself—a radically selfish man who didn’t actually raise his own children. Granted, in that story the wayward child didn’t kill its father, but still, it made the old man very unsympathetic. It also made Marlowe’s loyalty to him incomprehensible. Why be loyal to a man who’s only reaping the results of his own bad behavior?

The other problem with with this approach is that—however suited it is for coming up with a convincing murder—it makes for unpleasant detection. If everyone is distasteful, the story of finding out which of them committed the crime will be distasteful, too. The solution to this is frequently to have a lone sympathetic character in the story, but this also raises problems.

The first and most obvious is what on earth the sympathetic person is doing in the company of the others. Decent people rarely associate with awful people for the pragmatic reason that awful people try to drag everyone else down with them. There’s also the somewhat more subtle psychological fact that awful people rarely like decent people. And if they’re thrown together by being in the same family, this then requires an explanation of why on earth one turned out differently than the rest. (I think that having different mothers or different fathers is a semi-common solution to this problem, but it introduces real issues of judgment. There’s no judgment call more important than picking a good parent for your children.)

Getting back to the first point, there’s also the issue of creating overly obvious suspects. The wife and child of a rich man are the obvious suspects in a murder mystery under any conditions—the eternal question is cui bono? (Who benefits?) So in a sense making the family dysfunctional is shifting the question from “could it be them” to “is this a head-fake or a double-head-fake?” Which is a legitimate sort of mystery, but it is a bit limiting because it means the story almost certainly will focus on opportunity and alibis. I will grant, however, that it can be a good way of distracting from other people with motives—inheritors are not always the only people who benefit from a rich man’s death.

None of the above is meant to say that this situation cannot be made to work, only that it’s got some inherent difficulties that are often overlooked.

Inherited Guilt

There are various ways of talking about original sin and the fall of man within Christianity. One of the most difficult for modern people to understand is the legalistic language which is quite common amongst Roman Christians. Having recently explained it on Twitter, I’m going to re-present that explanation here, more coherently.

The key to understanding inherited guilt in the legalistic framework is the concept of guilt within the legalistic framework is not identical with the common understanding of guilt one finds today. The problem is that the modern understanding of an individual is as an atom, utterly unconnected from anyone else. Guilt, then, is taken as a moral judgment of the individual more-or-less as a proxy for the final judgment on Judgment Day (at the end of time).

Guilt within the legalistic framework is only concerned with the justice of a punishment. Now, punishment is in all cases some sort of deprivation—whether it’s the imprisonment of a man which deprives him of his freedom or the removal of his hand which deprives him of his hand or the removal of his head which deprives him of his life. But these are all individual punishments, which can only be just when they re-balance some sin of the offender himself.

There are also corporate punishments, which punish groups, but we tend not to be familiar with them because the atomized view of the individual prevents us from recognizing corporate goods. So we have to start there.

Inheritance is the natural order of things; children are supposed to inherit the possessions of their parents. As such, a man does not really own anything himself; it is owned by his family and he keeps it in trust for his descendants. Moderns will rebel against this, but there’s really nothing to be done about that because they are, simply, wrong. Human beings are not merely members of a group, but they are not merely individuals, either. This is just a more extreme but more common form of when people tell police officers that they are sovereign over themselves and not citizens and thus may not be detained by the police. Great theory, just not true.

Depriving a man of goods—as in, for example, the seizing of land, though even just a fine of money is the same in theory—is a punishment not merely of the man but of all his descendants, too, since taking it from him is also taking it from them. The natural order of inheritance is being broken, and this demands some justification. Why may the descendants be deprived of what is theirs by the natural order of things? By what right does one punish the descendants as well as the wrongdoer?

And this is where the concept of inherited guilt comes into play. If it is just to deprive the descendants of a wrongdoer of some good, it means, by definition, that they are guilty. Recall that the definition of guilt, within a legal framework, is nothing other than the infliction of a punishment being just. If the infliction of a punishment is just, it is, therefore, being guilty (in this sense). And when one asks where the guilt came from, it must have come from the same ancestor who did the wrong; that is, just as one should have inherited the good, one may inherit the guilt which makes the not-inheriting of the good just.

Within the legalistic framework, if the guilt were not inherited it would be unjust to not restore the property to the wrongdoer’s descendants.

It is easy to see where confusion arises in the modern world because people, hearing the word “guilt” cannot help but think this refers to the state of the man’s soul on judgment day. But this is not what is meant; what is meant is what is just to the man here and now.

When Romans, writing legalistic explanations of theology, talk about our inherited guilt from Adam, this is what they are referring to—the justice of our present deprivations.

It should also be noted that this is quite different from mercy, which is giving to a man more than what he justly deserves. This is also a problem in the modern world because moderns are not used to the idea of considering two ideas at once. We have become so accustomed to demanding the bottom line that considering both obligations and generosity is—almost literally—unthinkable.

Paganism on the Rise

I just saw this video from Bishop Barron and Brandon Vogt discussing the rise of paganism:

I can’t help but think of some commentary from G.K. Chesterton (in Orthodoxy) on the relative virtue of paganism:

Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.

All the same, it will be as well if Jones does not worship the sun and moon. If he does, there is a tendency for him to imitate them; to say, that because the sun burns insects alive, he may burn insects alive. He thinks that because the sun gives people sun-stroke, he may give his neighbour measles. He thinks that because the moon is said to drive men mad, he may drive his wife mad. This ugly side of mere external optimism had also shown itself in the ancient world. About the time when the Stoic idealism had begun to show the weaknesses of pessimism, the old nature worship of the ancients had begun to show the enormous weaknesses of optimism. Nature worship is natural enough while the society is young, or, in other words, Pantheism is all right as long as it is the worship of Pan. But Nature has another side which experience and sin are not slow in finding out, and it is no flippancy to say of the god Pan that he soon showed the cloven hoof. The only objection to Natural Religion is that somehow it always becomes unnatural. A man loves Nature in the morning for her innocence and amiability, and at nightfall, if he is loving her still, it is for her darkness and her cruelty. He washes at dawn in clear water as did the Wise Man of the Stoics, yet, somehow at the dark end of the day, he is bathing in hot bull’s blood, as did Julian the Apostate. The mere pursuit of health always leads to something unhealthy. Physical nature must not be made the direct object of obedience; it must be enjoyed, not worshipped. Stars and mountains must not be taken seriously. If they are, we end where the pagan nature worship ended. Because the earth is kind, we can imitate all her cruelties. Because sexuality is sane, we can all go mad about sexuality. Mere optimism had reached its insane and appropriate termination. The theory that everything was good had become an orgy of everything that was bad.

The Entertainer, by Billy Joel

I don’t know how many people remember Billy Joel these days, but among his many great songs is The Entertainer:

The degree of realism in it is fascinating; also the cynicism. Three points of this really stand out to me:

  1. He’s popular now but will be shortly forgotten if he doesn’t stay at the top of his game.
  2. He’s had tons of experiences.
  3. He can’t remember any of them.

That last part is really the most interesting. The lyrics in question are:

I am the entertainer
Been all around the world
I’ve played all kinds of palaces
And laid all kinds of girls
I can’t remember faces
I don’t remember names
Ah, but what the hell
You know it’s just as well
‘Cause after a while and a thousand miles
It all becomes the same

Fun fact: when I was young I thought that the lyrics were “I’m going to hell, you know it’s just as well, ’cause after a while and a thousand miles, it all becomes the same.” It’s both better and worse that way, but doesn’t change things very significantly.

There’s a very interesting tie-in with the poem The Aristocrat by G.K. Chesterton:

O blind your eyes and break your heart and hack your hand away,
And lose your love and shave your head; but do not go to stay
At the little place in What’sitsname where folks are rich and clever;
The golden and the goodly house, where things grow worse for ever;
There are things you need not know of, though you live and die in vain,
There are souls more sick of pleasure than you are sick of pain;
There is a game of April Fool that’s played behind its door,
Where the fool remains for ever and the April comes no more,
Where the splendour of the daylight grows drearier than the dark,
And life droops like a vulture that once was such a lark:
And that is the Blue Devil that once was the Blue Bird;
For the Devil is a gentleman, and doesn’t keep his word.

That weariness is fascinating; it is really the sign of sin. Bishop Barron talked about this in some interview, I forget exactly which one, but he mentioned how one of the curious things about the early Christians was the explosive energy they had. They’d just keep going until you fed them to the lions and even then they might well sing hymns of praise to God until the lions actually gulped them down and they could no longer sing.

The problem with being popular is how many people it puts you into contact with. People take energy, and that energy requirement goes up exponentially when the people want conflicting things from you. The more people you know the more conflicting things people want from you.

Also a problem is that the more people you know the more people will misunderstand you—and the less time you will have time to explain what you meant. This too is exhausting.

It takes something quite unusual to be able to be popular and not drop from exhaustion. Doing the right thing is a source of energy to survive it. “Not me but Christ in me” isn’t just humility; it’s a survival strategy.

For man, it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.

Crowdsourcing the Superego

In a blog post entitled Infidelity and Other Taboos, Media Style, The Last Psychiatriast introduces a concept he calls crowdsourcing the superego.

The post is about the story of two people who left their spouses to marry each other:

Two people, a man who looks suspiciously like Julian Assange, and a TV reporter who looks exactly like every MILF porn actress working today, divorce their spouses and get married. 

The original couples were friends, and the two met at their kids’ elementary school.  There are five kids between them, and, you know, whatever.

The twist is that they announced their marriage in the Style section of the New York Times, because, of course, they hooked up in style.  The further twist is that they semi-shamelessly recount in the Times how they fell in love while they were still married to other people.

It then gets to why their story was written up in the New York Times Style section:

It’s a mantra: narcissists don’t feel guilt, only shame.  Well, it’s not completely true, sometimes they do feel guilt, but you have to be hitting on a taboo to feel it.

Even the most hardened narcissist feels some passing guilt when their spouse is sobbing on the kitchen floor.  How do you get over that?  (Pills won’t help, but psychiatry is happy to tell you they might.)

This is how narcissism eradicates guilt: it rewrites the story, or as the po-mo mofos say, “offer a competing narrative.”

He then gives another example with different people publicly airing their transgressions, and gets to the crucial insight:

But what you need to get out of these stories is how this generation and forwards will deal with guilt: externalizing it, converting it to shame, and then taking solace in the pockets of support that inevitably arise.   Everyone is famous to 15 people, and that’s just enough people to help you sleep at night.  

As the saying goes, read the whole thing.

What’s so crucial about this insight is that it describes a coping mechanism for guilt that’s an alternative to repentance and even to admitting the guilt at all. Repentance works, of course, especially within Christianity where God is actually filling the gaps created by the defects of sin so that reparation of the damage done by sin is actually possible. Repentance outside of Christianity is possible, but it’s incomplete because satisfaction is not possible. It is possible to balance things out—at least minor things—but not do actually repair the damage. That is more than human beings can do.

However, where repentance is not considered an option, the guilt must still be dealt with. One traditional approach is the scapegoat. This was originally a form of animal sacrifice where the sins of the group where placed onto a goat and it was then killed.

(For those unfamiliar with ritual, it’s not that the sins could actually be placed on the goat or that the killing of the goat actually destroyed the sins, but that the ritual gave people a line across which they could disregard past sins and consider them over. In more modern (i.e. inadequate) terms, it provided closure.)

Scapegoating works—to a lesser degree than repentance—but it still requires admitting one’s guilt. The modern world, having worked itself up into a frenzy of stupidity (that is, of being wrong about everything at once), results in people who feel their guilt (since they are still human) but cannot admit it. This produces an enormous problem because one cannot deal with what one is pretending does not exist. And here’s where crowdsourcing the superego comes in. Guilt cannot be recognized by the modern mind, but shame can. So the modern can turn the guilt which he cannot recognize and cannot, therefore, deal with, into shame which he can recognize and can, therefore, deal with.

He will deal with it badly, of course, because realism is a precondition of success. Still, it allows him to do something about the guilt. And doing something, even if completely ineffective, still feels better than doing nothing.

It distracts from the problem, at the very least. And, more or less, at most.

The PETA Ad That Encapsulates Modernity

It is, unfortunately, not really safe for work, or for children, and in a more extended sense, for people with eyes. And yet anyone who lives in the modern world will probably see worse on a frequent basis. Accordingly I’ll put it in the “click to read more” section so that only those who think it wise will look at it.

The text of the tweet presenting the add is:

“Traditional” masculinity is DEAD. The secret to male sexual stamina is veggies. 😉

The ad itself shows a number of men with large vegetables tied to their crotches in ways that visually suggest part of the male anatomy normally hidden beneath clothing. The first guy looks remarkably like a stereotypical rapist, there are one or two more men I’d never be willing to associate with and would strongly suggest any woman I know avoid too; there are also some normal-looking men, even a few over 50. They are mostly gyrating their crotches to make the tied-on vegetables swing around in ways that suggest that incarceration for public indecency is imminent.

Technically the idea that traditional masculinity is dead comes from the tweet rather than the ad, which limits itself to promoting vegetables for sexual stamina. That said, it’s a great symptom of modernity that “traditional masculinity” is equated, not with character traits such as strength, endurance, competence, loyalty, bravery, and so forth, but only with the procreative act (which one assumes will generally be neutered so as to avoid the actual procreation). It does follow, though, that when a man is nothing but a passive receptacle for sensations he will be conceptually reduced to his most sensitive body parts.

(As a side note, the ad is fascinating in that it’s theoretically promoting vegetables but is so creepy that it would be more effectively pro-vegetarian if it was nominally promoting meat.)

Probably the most notable aspect to it is that the general taboos against showing hardcore pornography in most public places keep the ad from simulating with vegetables the theoretical benefit being proposed. In consequence the attempt to suggest the proposed benefit is forced to become a solitary activity. This makes it not only creepier, but also a great symbol for modernity—it is a video of men celebrating themselves for things which are naturally ordered toward community. In modernity the individual becomes atomized and alone. As such, he becomes entirely sterile.

He can create nothing. All he can do is long for past glory and pretend that he has it.

Continue reading “The PETA Ad That Encapsulates Modernity”

Art & Architecture: Jonathan Pageau & Andrew Gould

A really interesting interview of Andrew Gould by Jonathan Pageau

The whole thing is interesting but the last ten minutes when they discuss a beer shop which Andrew designed are especially interesting.

The part which really caught my attention was when Andrew explained how it was he came to design the building the way he did—the owner gave him carte blanche to design something beautiful because, owning a number of other properties in the area, he wanted to try to raise the standard in the neighborhood.

This touches a really interesting point, both about architecture but about the wider social phenomenon of imitation. People like excellence and will try to imitate it. But the phenomenon requires someone who is willing to be better than he needs to be. People who merely get along don’t inspire anyone. There’s a curious problem embedded in that—once the person who was better than he has to be inspires others, the standard will be raised and he will not be only as good as he needs to be to keep up with the people he inspired. There is, however, also a countervailing force of people wanting to be more lax than they are; these two forces form a cyclical pattern of improvement and degradation which is readily observable in history. (How the strict Victorian period followed the lax Georgian period, only to be followed by the lax roaring twenties, for example.)