Pride & Prejudice and Gaudy Night

My favorite novel is Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Among my favorite mysteries is Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. I don’t know how often they are connected in other people’s minds but they are connected strongly in mine, and in case this is not universal, I’d like to explain why. (Spoilers will follow, so if you haven’t read both, go do that now.)

Both novels are, fundamentally, stories of reconciliation. Pride & Prejudice includes the incidents which separate Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, but the real story is that of them coming together. Gaudy Night does include a bit of the strange and strained relationship between Harriet Vane and Lord Peter—and, if one wants to be tedious, a mystery—but it too is a tale of the fixing of a relationship.

But these are not merely reconciliations. Reconciliation can be done in many ways, such as the revelation of information which fixes a mistake, as in the movie Top Hat or the Shakespearean play, Much Ado About Nothing. But both Pride & Prejudice and Gaudy Night are reconciliations in which the characters reconcile with each other by improving themselves.

Also curious about both is that this improvement is effected both through the help of the other, as well as by the help of someone else acting viciously. The improvement thus becomes a push-pull. The protagonists are both pulled toward virtue but also pushed toward it by the bad example of the witness of vice.

It only takes a few sentences but I think it is a very important part of Pride & Prejudice when Elizabeth hears her sister say that Wickham didn’t care two farthings for Miss King—who could about such a nasty little freckled thing, and that though incapable of such coarseness of expression, the coarseness of the sentiment was little other than her own breast had harboured and fancied liberal. This was one of the first moments of true self-knowledge for Elizabeth, though it was led up to, certainly, by previous realizations.

It reminds me very greatly of how Harriet saw a picture of herself in Violet Cattermole’s desire to bite the hand of her friend toward whom she was always having to be grateful. Harriet’s advice in this case was quite interesting and also a piece of self-insight; she advised Violet that if she disliked being grateful she should stop doing things that would require her to be grateful to others.

Harriet’s being tried for murder was in a sense bad luck, but it was bad luck that she had let herself in for by living with the poet on terms other than marriage. Had she done what she ought, she’d never have been tried for murder. Had Violet Cattermole not went out without leave and gotten drunk, she’d not have had to be grateful to her friend for helping her into her room and nursing her. Though Harriet didn’t say it, I think she realized in the moment of giving advice that her own bitterness at gratitude was not, in fact, bitterness at being grateful. It was bitterness at her own misbehavior. Genuine gratitude is a pleasure; what Harriet disliked so much was having to acknowledge her own bad judgment.

There is a curious aspect to repentance: it is difficult not because one must do something differently, but because one must admit that one was formerly wrong. The meaning of hell is that it can be so painful to admit that one was wrong that people can cling to it instead of letting themselves be happy. Curiously, the feeling which attends admitting that one was wrong is a freeing feeling. It’s also, interestingly, freeing in social circumstances. If one announces a mistake oneself, most people don’t care past whatever trouble is now involved in fixing it. It can be amazing how much, if one takes all of the blame one is due, no one else bothers to give it to one. There’s probably something in here related to, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.

Gaudy Night

I recently finished re-reading Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. It is the second to last of her Lord Peter Wimsey novels and, in fiction at any rate, may reasonably be considered her magnum opus. (As a warning, this is not a review but just the jotting down of some thoughts. It is meant for those who have read the book or who don’t mind spoilers. If you’re neither person, you would be best advised to put his post down and go read Gaudy Night. As the standard joke runs: go do it now. I’ll wait.)

Reading Gaudy Night is always a mixed experience for me. On the one hand, it’s a a triumph of a book. It’s got some of the most vivid, living characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. It’s got an excellent plot which is excellent both as a mystery and as a story of the characters who are caught up in the mystery. It has an excellent setting. It is very well told. It has fascinating and important themes. It handles the long-running romance between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane with great skill and brings it to a very satisfying conclusion.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is related to why the atheistic children of atheists can’t tell good stories. This might sound strange to the people who know that Dorothy L. Sayers was a very well educated and intelligent Christian woman. There are better examples of it, but her book The Mind of the Maker, for example, is none the less a good example of the fact.

The problem is that there are limits to how good a story even a Christian can tell with atheistic characters. The atheistic child of atheists is far more limited because he simply has no good stories to tell. Atheism is the supposition that life is not, in fact, a narrative, but merely a meaningless set of coincidences. Such a person can suspend his disbelief, but he will simply have nothing to suspend it for. His parents will not have told him any really human stories, and being an atheist himself he will not have encountered them, either.

A different, but related, problem faces the Christian who is writing a story entirely about atheists. It is that all good stories must flow out of the characters in them. Characters who do not generate the story but to whom the story simply happens are not characters but mere props, possibly of the seen characters and possibly of unseen characters. And the most you can get out of atheistic characters is seeing the problems of life.

Atheists cannot have answers to any of the problems of life for the very simple reason that atheism does not allow for the possibility of meaning in life. (They will whine to you about “the meaning they give their life”. It is nothing but awkward when an adult tells you about the games of pretend they like to play. I mean that literally, by the way. The meaning an atheist chooses to give to life exists only in his mind and goes away as soon as he stops creating it. This is no different than pretending to ride a giant seagull named Harry.)

All themes raised in a book with only atheistic characters—or where the only non-atheists are fools—can thus never say anything about the themes it brings up except to point out that some false answer or other is not true. This can be valuable but it cannot be satisfying. It’s going to dinner and being told that the ham is poisoned. It’s good to know. One leaves just as hungry as one came, though.

One of the great themes of Gaudy Night is that principles hurt people. But it leaves unexplored—or only implicitly explored—that a lack of principles hurt people even more. And, more to the point, that it is only principles that make living worthwhile in the first place.

For example, when Annie was complaining that the lie her historian husband had told never hurt anyone, no one pointed out to her that the only reason he had even had his job in the first place was because he was trusted to tell the truth. If they were to abandon the principle that the truth mattered, he’d have lost his job, instead of by being the wrong man for the job, but by there being no job at all.

Instead they talked of how the truth is important than personal attachments. And so it is; anyone who loves father and mother more than Christ is not worthy of him. But this is a Christian idea—as is, really, the university. I don’t mean that students coming to wise men to learn is Christian—one obviously finds that throughout time and place. Rather, the idea that all of the truth is sacred is a uniquely Christian attitude. You simply don’t find it outside of Christianity; everyone else takes the far more reasonable position that there are big truths and little truths and the latter are inconsequential compared to the former. Most people hold that here’s one truth of overriding importance and everything else should give way beside it. It is not truth that Christianity elevated. To love some truth is simply to be human. It is the elevation of little truths that is uniquely Christian. Christianity is unique among the religions and philosophies of the world for raising up the lowly. All sane men agree that life is a hierarchy; the unique contribution of Christianity is not that the lower should serve the higher, but the higher should also stoop down to serve the lower. The very strange thing about Christianity is that the son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

And this is what is uniquely Christian about a university. It is the attitude that facts which don’t matter, do matter. Which is why in our own time the universities are disintegrating before our eyes. Some take refuge in engineering; others take refuge in pretending that their incredibly minor disciplines are central to life. Most are simply taking advantage of the shade while the building is still standing. But anyone with eyes can see that the thing won’t be standing for many more decades.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ time the conclusion was not yet so obvious, but the problem was certainly visible. The thing which prevents Gaudy Night from being a completely triumph is that, in the end, no one answered Annie. They didn’t answer Annie because no one had an answer. They didn’t have an answer for her because they didn’t have an answer for anyone. Atheists have no answers. It’s why they always feel so daring when they ask questions. They know, on some level, that merely asking questions will take a sledgehammer to the foundations and it will be discovered that the whole edifice is painted cardboard.

In the end, I think it’s very symbolic that the problem was dealt with “medically”. They had no arguments, they had only force. But they didn’t even have the courage of their convictions to use the force; they had to pay someone else who would soothingly pretend that they weren’t using force.

In a sense this conclusion was merely true to life. The events of the story take place in its year of publication: 1935. World War II was four short years off, but you could hear it coming in Gaudy Night. The project of living a Christian life without being Christian was coming to a close. Which ultimately makes Gaudy Night a book about failure. It’s a very good book, and a very important book. But this limits it. Failure is, in this world, only a prelude. The true story of life is, ultimately, about victory.


If you like Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, consider checking out my own murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

Break a Leg

Through a chain of coincidences not worth mentioning I came across the wikipedia page for the phrase break a leg. It’s got a little actual history, which is interesting. The phrase (used among theater people to wish each other good luck) seems to be fairly recent:

Urbane Irish nationalist Robert Wilson Lynd published an article, “A Defence of Superstition”, in the 1 October 1921 edition of the New Statesman, a British liberal political and cultural magazine. Lynd regarded the theatre as the second-most superstitious institution in England, after horse racing. In horse racing, Lynd asserted, to wish a man luck is considered unlucky, so “You should say something insulting such as, ‘May you break your leg!'”[ Lynd did not attribute the phrase in any way to theatre people, though he was familiar with many of them and frequently mingled with actors backstage. Break a leg is most commonly used to wish an actor in audition to be part of the cast; hence the term “break a leg”.
The earliest known example in print is from Edna Ferber‘s 1939 A Peculiar Treasure in which she writes about the fascination of the theater, “…and all the understudies sitting in the back row politely wishing the various principals would break a leg”.[7] In Bernard Sobel‘s 1948 The Theatre Handbook and Digest of Plays, he writes about theatrical superstitions: “…before a performance actors never wish each other good luck, but say ‘I hope you break a leg.'” There is anecdotal evidence from theatrical memoirs and personal letters as early as the 1920s.

The reason I’m writing about it, though, is that it describes a collection of purported origin stories of the sort that, twenty years ago, used to go around as email forwards. They include:

  • There was a line on the stage, called “the leg”, past which one was visible, and far more actors would show up than would perform and were only paid if they performed. Thus “break the leg” was a wish that they’d get paid.
  • Bowing “broke the leg” in the sense of breaking the line of the leg, and was a wish that the audience would applaud.
  • The mechanical crank for the curtain was called “the leg” and it was a wish that they’d be called back by applause so much the crank would break.
  • In Greek times people stomped their feet instead of clapping and the idea was to wish a performance so good that members of the audience would break their legs stomping so hard.
  • Some ridiculous thing about a yiddish phrase being take to be a german phrase that doesn’t sound all that close but means “neck and leg fracture”, which was used by German WWI pilots to each other.
  • John Wilks Booth broke his leg leaping to the stage in Ford’s Theater after killing Abraham Lincoln, which was his most memorable performance.
  • 18th Century British actor David Garrick became so engrossed in his role as Richard III that he didn’t notice his leg fracture.

They all have a sort of historical plausibility, though my experience of these things is if you try to track them down they often turn out to simply be false. The thing about these explanations I find fascinating is how unpoetic they all are.  Wishing someone, not success, but failure, is obviously a recognition of how often our wishes don’t come true and thus is trying to trick fate by wishing for the opposite of what’s hoped for. School children of my day might respond to someone prophesying their success by saying, “don’t jinx me”, as if the expectation of success would produce failure.

There’s a psychological component behind this, of course; overconfidence tends to lead to under-performance. But much more significant, I think, is the universal human fear of Nemesis. She was the Greek god whose task it was to ensure that mortals who thought too much of themselves were brought low.

All of the explanations proffered on the wikipedia page have in common that they are some form of positive wish. That is, they explain the phrase away. They purport to show that the phrase is not in fact a negative one but a positive one.

I can’t help but see a curious similarity here to internet atheism. There seems to be the appeal of being in the club of those in the know—to be distinguished as superior from the unwashed masses. There is also the appeal of taking a phrase which required a poetic understanding and turning it into something prosaic and insignificant. It makes the world at once easy to understand and not worth understanding.

Where it really fails, of course, is that it’s more significant to understand why a thing has persisted than it is to know where it started. There are phrases which had the origin in misunderstanding or mispronouncing a different phrase, but most of these die out, just as most of everything dies out. When things last, it’s because they tap into something lasting. And that’s the part that’s worth knowing.

Bad Self Defense & Captain Krav Maga

Ramsey Dewey (and friends) can be quite funny when they put their mind to it. This video compares and tries to replicate two self defense videos which teach one how to defend against multiple opponents with guns:

I will say, though, that while the humor is entirely correct, and moreover that fighting multiple opponents with guns is probably not going to end well, there was an interesting point that wasn’t highlighted here. In Ramsey’s reproduction, the gunmen kept a safe distance from Ramsey. There was a curious self-defense video I saw which made the interesting point that while trained people will indeed keep a safe distance when they have guns, trained people rarely rob people with guns. They can make money honestly.

The sort of people who rob others on the street with guns don’t have training, and moreover use the gun primarily to assert their dominance and only secondarily as a weapon. And indeed, security footage does show that criminals often do wave guns right in people’s faces rather than keeping a safe distance. This doesn’t change the right thing to do when threatened with a gun (since the smallest mistake can result in being killed) but it is an interesting point of human psychology.

A Traitor To Dreams

Alex over at Amatopia has just published his first novel, A Traitor To Dreams:

I had the pleasure of reading a draft of the novel. It’s not necessarily easy to characterize; in a way it’s a coming of age story for someone who is also coming to terms with how she should have grown up a long time ago. It blends into this a beautiful and interesting setting and memorable characters.

Check out the book, but to make it easier, here’s the back cover text:

Ideomatic, Inc. has perfected humanity. Their Dream Trashcan can create the ideal you.

Elpida Kallistos has everything she wants . . . almost. There is one unfulfilled dream, one desire standing between her and happiness. Enter the Dream Trashcan from Ideomatic, Inc., guaranteed to eliminate unwanted desires while you sleep. All it takes is the click of a button and the desire is gone, permanently.

And it works! But when Elpida has second thoughts and opens up her Dream Trashcan, she finds more inside than circuitry and wires. She finds a whole other world . . . the Dreamscape, a realm where angelic, winged beings called Stewards hunt down desires made flesh. But her presence makes the Dreamscape unstable, and Ideomatic will do anything to get her out.

Chased by Ideomatic’s minions, Elpida must discover her Steward’s true identity, learn the secrets of the Dream Trashcan, and unravel Ideomatic’s plans . . . before she’s devoured by her own desires.

Elpida’s journey through the Dreamscape begins as The Matrix meets Alice in Wonderland as fantasy and reality collide in A Traitor to Dreams.

The Last Psychiatrist on The Dove Beauty Sketches

If you haven’t read the blog (which, alas, hasn’t been updated in years) of The Last Psychiatrist, you’ve been missing out. I’m going to highlight one of my favorite posts of his: The Dove Beauty Sketches Scam. Just go read it.

But if you want to know something about it first, it starts by showing this clip from a movie about a con artist who was approached by a psychologist and is teaching her about con artistry at her request:

Then The Last Psychiatrist asks this question:

Quick test for a con: what questions does it not occur to you to ask?  While you were memorizing the language and the pacing of the scam, you didn’t ask yourself, why didn’t Mantegna take that guy’s money at the end?  Why did he let him off the hook?  “He was just doing it as an example.” Oh, like when a guy says he’ll put in just the tip, “I want to see if it fits”?   It’s not like the psychiatrist doesn’t know he’s a thief– that’s why they were there in the first place.   So he purposely didn’t steal the money to make the psychiatrist feel at ease, feel closer to him.  To earn her confidence by first giving her his.  She’s the mark.  The aborted short con is part of an unseen long con.

The Last Psychiatrist has a very blunt and provocative style, but he uses it to deliver a lot of insight.

Justice and Generosity, Hierarchy and Equality

I recently said, on Twitter:

If you wish to understand how society always organizes itself:

Equals can get along if they have nothing to do with each other or both are generous to each other.

Superior/sub-ordinate can get along if both will be merely just to each other.

There was some interest in this so I’ll explain what I mean and why it is the case.

There are and have been many forms of social organization—democracy, republics monarchies, dictatorships, bureaucracies, clubs, churches, friends, families, neighbors, villages, cities, etc.—but they all share some basic traits because they are organizations of human beings and human nature imposes restrictions upon how human beings can be organized.

In a fallen world, one of the biggest problems which needs to be handled in human relationships is how to handle when two people’s wills diverge. There are only three possible outcomes: both get their way, one gets their way and the other doesn’t, and neither gets their way. I’m going to count compromise as a sub-set of both getting their way so we can disregard the last outcome—neither gets their way—because a situation in which no one ever gets what he wants will not last long.

There are a very limited number of ways in which society can be organized such two people with divergent desires can both have their way. The simplest is for the people to have nothing to do with each other. Neighbors can both do whatever they want in their own homes since it doesn’t get in the way of the other. This is the “good fences make good neighbors” organization of society.

If separation is not possible then the only alternative is for some form of compromise to occur. This requires one or both to give up something for the sake of the other. That is, this requires generosity.

(There is also the case of bargaining but bargaining is only possible where the wills of the two mostly align. The merchant is willing to sell the item for its value plus a profit, the buyer is willing to buy the item for its value plus a profit; the only divergence is on the the size of the profit and possibly their evaluations of the value. This is very different from the buyer being willing to buy the item but his wife wanting him to buy something quite different instead.)

Where there is not separation or generosity, the only possibility left is for one to force their will on the other. This may be done through warfare or through a proxy for warfare such as lawsuits. That is, it will be done by appealing to someone who is superior within the social hierarchy (the court) or to the superior force of arms. If we leave off warfare as being not a social order but the breakdown of social order, this leaves us only with hierarchy.

The court system, however, is very inefficient. Suing or being sued consumes a lot of time and money. If people can’t leave each other alone and people can’t be generous to each other, then sooner or later they will embed hierarchies into social organization for the sake of efficiency.

Social equalities which do not consist of people leaving each other alone, as neighbors mostly do, are themselves quite a lot of work. It is not easy for fallen humanity to be generous to each other indefinitely. This is why modern marriages so often break up. It’s also why high school is so often remembered as hellish.

Hierarchies may not be perfect but they’re vastly less work because they contain within them the mechanism for resolving the conflicts of will which so often come up between fallen creatures. A feature of living within a hierarchy that’s often missed by those who deride hierarchies is that people naturally adapt to reasonable hierarchies. That a reasonable boss imposes limits may be inconvenient but not particularly more so than that the walls impose limits. One may not do what the boss does not permit; one may not walk through the walls. So long as the boss is as predictable as the wall, the human psyche eventually thinks of the limitations of both in roughly the same way—merely part of reality. Even the boss operates in a manner heavily constrained by limits, if merely different limits than the subordinate.

(Where people really come to hate their bosses is when their bosses are unreasonable. An unreasonable boss is unpredictable; one can’t conform to him and get along because he has no definite shape. What he approves of one minute he disapproves of the next, and one must take constant notice of him. They would have the same frustration at walls that reshuffled themselves three times a day.)

But this is also true of social clubs. Clubs which must carry on some definite business will form hierarchies with elected offices because the alternative is so much more work. Even large groups of friends will form hierarchies because group decisions are so painful to accomplish. Where four or five regularly gather together just to enjoy each other’s company you will still see one or two becoming the leaders of the group and carrying out most of the decision making process while two or three simply go along and one or two are more active but willing to defer.

Monasteries which are founded on the principle that all of the monks are brothers will elect a Father Prior or Father Abbot to lead them and make decisions which the rest obey. Nunneries will elect a Mother Abbess or Mother Prioress. If all the farm animals are equal, some animals will become more equal than others. The alternative is just too much work.

You can even see this in YouTube communities which form; it’s not hard to pick out the leaders who set the tone for their respective communities. They change over time, of course, because nothing in a fallen world is stable. But communities of equal are vastly less stable than are hierarchies.

Human beings are made for more than mere justice, so we have a natural distaste for hierarchies. We chafe under them. And yet, we tend to be happier within a hierarchy because all that’s required of us is mere justice. Our superiors have certain rights over us, so if we discharge our duties to them we need do no more and all is well. We have certain obligations to our inferiors but if we discharge them we need do no more and all is well. Our inferiors owe us certain obligations, but as long as they discharge those obligations to us we are satisfied and all is well. It may not be perfect, but it’s easy.

Unlike electricity human beings do not always take the path of least resistance. We just mostly take the path of least resistance. This is why you will find hierarchies developing everywhere and why social organizations which purport to finally achieve equality are guaranteed to fail.

Now, it should be noted that it’s not necessarily a problem that something is guaranteed to fail. Everything in a fallen world is. The real question that needs to be asked is whether it’s going to fail gracefully or spectacularly. When the social order fails, will it result only in somewhat elevated levels of injustice or will it end in mass executions?

Because nothing in a fallen world ends well.

That’s what the next world is for.

Half-Swording

I first discovered Skallagrim through this video in which he demonstrated that half-swording is real:

One of the things I really liked about it is that it’s in the genre one might call proving that history is real. There’s a type of skeptic who likes to assume that everything outside of his experience is fake. Why such skeptics do this is a whole long topic for another day. But for the moment it suffices that it’s always fun to see the debunkers debunked.

As a small side-node, this is why I could never be very into myth-busters when they weren’t confirming a myth. They often did a half-assed or quarter-assed job. It just isn’t fun to watch people generalize from their own incompetence. There’s an awful lot of that, though, especially when it comes to online atheism.

Which is why it’s so fun to see a competent person demonstrate what skill can do.

The Totally Phantom Menace

Not recent, but so much fun:

For those interested in good fight choreographies, here’s Jet Li fighting an entire room of police officers who were just in martial arts training:

You’ll note that there is the use of space and blocking to generally force his opponents to attack him one-on-one. Moreover he moves so fast that the time between attacks is much shorter; in some cases the two opponents attacking in series is basically them attacking at the same time just not in perfect unison.

It’s still a choreography, of course, and not realistic. But it’s a choreography done with a lot of skill and in general an eye for detail. Even when you pause it and look carefully about the only major criticism you could level is that the opponents almost invariably go for big swinging strikes and never use jabs. That said, at least their big swinging strikes are fast. Oh, and Jet Li turns not because it’s pretty but because there are people behind him.

The Disclaimer on Gaudy Night

Most every work of fiction has at the beginning a disclaimer that it is a work of fiction and should not be read as being about any real person. This is primarily for legal reasons since most fools and all non-fools can figure out that a work of fiction is fictive. However, sometimes a work of fiction touches on real things and this is when the disclaimers can become interesting.

My favorite disclaimer is at the beginning of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. So you can see what I mean, I’m going to reproduce it interspersed with my commentary:

It would be idle to deny that the City and University of Oxford (in aeternum floreant) do actually exist, and contain a number of colleges and other buildings, some of which are mentioned by name in this book. It is therefore the more necessary to affirm emphatically that none of the characters which I have placed upon this public stage has any counterpart in real life. In particular, Shrewsbury College, with its dons, students and scouts, is entirely imaginary; nor are the distressing events described as taking place within its walls founded upon any events that have ever occurred anywhere. Detective-story writers are obliged by their disagreeable profession to invent startling and unpleasant incidents and people, and are (I presume) at liberty to imagine what might happen if such incidents and people were to intrude upon the life of an innocent and well-ordered community; but in so doing they must not be supposed to suggest that any such disturbance ever has occurred or is ever likely to occur in any community in real life.

I really love the first sentence. Sometimes one can invent whole universities and cities, as I did in The Dean Died Over Winter Break, but even when one does it can be necessary to put them inside of larger places that are real.

It’s a delicate balance but intruding somewhat upon real places can be extremely interesting. I think that Ms. Sayers is quite right that murder mysteries are especially interesting when examining murders in places that they shouldn’t be. Technically that’s everywhere, but there are places that are, in this fallen world, more conducive to murder than others. And it’s the places which are least conducive to it that can be the most interesting.

Certain apologies are, however, due from me: first, to the University of Oxford, for having presented it with a Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor of my own manufacture and with a college of 150 women students, in excess of the limit ordained by statute. Next, and with deep humility, to Balliol College—not only for having saddled it with so wayward an alumnus as Peter Wimsey, but also for my monstrous impertinence in having erected Shrewsbury College upon its spacious and sacred cricket-ground. To New College, also to Christ Church, and especially to Queen’s, I apologize for the follies of certain young gentlemen, to Brasenose for the facetiousness of a middle-aged one, and to Magdalen for the embarrassing situation in which I have placed an imaginary pro-Proctor. The Corporation Dump, on the other hand, is, or was, a fact, and no apology for it is due from me.

I can relate to the initial apology since in the course of writing my own mysteries I’ve had to saddle certain diocese with Bishops of my own manufacture. It’s all in good fun and I think that everyone understands the unreality of the thing, but I also understand the impulse to apologize. There is a certain reality, however thin, to the characters in novels. There’s a tension, there, which I think cannot be fully resolved and is just one of the penalties of living in a fallen world.

To the Principal and Fellows of my own college of Somerville, I tender my thanks for help generously given in questions of proctorial rules and general college discipline—though they are not to be held responsible for details of my discipline in Shrewsbury College, many of which I have invented to suit my own purpose.

This is a real advantage to making up a place, even when modeled on a real place—it is so much more convenient to be able to make up details to suit one’s story. On the other hand there’s great value in getting things right where one can.

As I’ve been working on Wedding Flowers Will Do for a Funeral, I’ve been asking some priests and religious questions about religious life (especially with regard to the Liturgy of the Hours (Divine Office, or the prayers priests and religious say throughout the day).  There’s a real pleasure—at least I find as a reader—to being able to learn real things in the course of having fun. (Though, of course, one must be careful because the novelist never labels which things are real and which changed to suit the story; however, it’s often a good starting point for further research and a decent novelist will be careful to change things in ways that at least preserve the spirit if not the details of the thing he’s changed.)

Persons curious in chronology may, if they like, work out from what they already know of the Wimsey family that the action of the book takes place in 1935; but if they do, they must not be querulously indignant because the King’s Jubilee is not mentioned, or because I have arranged the weather and the moon’s changes to suit my own fancy. For, however realistic the background, the novelist’s only native country is Cloud-Cuckooland, where they do but jest, poison in jest: no offence in the world.

I find this entire section quite interesting. Consulting detectives, such as Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, or my own Brother Thomas, are unrealistic. For reasons I think largely owing to the limited creativity of murderers, they simply don’t exist in practice. They exist, then in a world much like ours but a little different. It is, in a sense, a world where creative people are less timid. But it is not this world. It follows, then, that one would arrange things such as the weather, the changes of the moon, and even some current events to suit one’s story. It does, after all, take place in a different world.

The final line is very curious. It’s borrowed from Hamlet, prince of the Danes, in the second scene of the third act of the Shakespearean play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. It’s something that Hamlet says in response to the King asking, “Have you heard the argument? Is there no offense in ’t?” Hamlet replies, “No, no, they do but jest. Poison in jest. No offense i’ th’ world.”

It’s a great line, and I assume that Ms. Sayers was changing the meaning when she borrowed the line. But it is very curious that in the original this was a lie that Hamlet told the King, his uncle who replaced his father as king after secretly murdering him, because the play was designed to cause great offense to the King and his wife, Hamlet’s mother. In fact, it was intended to cause them to reveal their guilt.

But it does ring quite true that the novelist’s only native country is Cloud-Cuckooland. Coordinating events affected by many living people is too complicated for a mere mortal.

Only tangentially related to the last line but interesting: it’s a few lines later that the King asks Hamlet what he calls the play and Hamlet replies, “The Mousetrap”. That’s the name of the murder mystery play written by Agatha Christie which opened 1952 and has been running continuously to this day. It is by far the longest initial run of any play in history, with over 25,000 performances in the same theater.

Final Fantasy Victory Theme With Lyrics

Warning: mild adult lyrics.

Once one is done laughing, I will note it’s strange how some moderns are all but allergic to the concept of self defense. Or possibly the concept of an in-game story which gives the characters motivations different from the player’s motivations.

In Final Fantasy it wasn’t the party which attacked the woodland creatures but the woodland creatures who attacked the party. The main characters are celebrating at the end of it because the attempt to murder them failed. That’s a thing worth celebrating.

I’ve really never understood this blind spot moderns have. Granted, they’re not great at telling the difference between justified killing in self defense in real life and murder, but I think in video games they simply can’t get past the fact that the player was looking for combat. This suggests that the problem might be a lack of imagination—that they’re incapable of playing pretend for the sake of a game.

No, Not All Are Welcome

I was recently reminded of a rather bad hymn that seems to be standard in american Catholic hymnals: All Are Welcome.

Let us build a house where love can dwell
and all can safely live,
a place where saints and children tell
how hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions,
rock of faith and vault of grace;
here the love of Christ shall end divisions.
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.

Granted it suffers from the problem that many hymns written in the post-war period suffer from: it’s really about man, not about God. However, that’s not why I despise it. I despise it because it’s a lie.

All are most certainly not welcome in the place that hymn is sung. The only place in the world of which that’s true is prison. Everywhere else has membership requirements. Whatever they sang, the hippy-dippy hippies who sang this with all of the enthusiasm they could muster would ask the chainsaw-wielding man covered in filth and screaming obscenity-laced death threats to come back some other time.

Some will object that they mean that the man is welcome once he puts away his chainsaw, takes a bath, and speaks politely. So what? It’s not a meaningful sort of inclusiveness to say that one will accept anyone who conforms to the group’s demands. What’s special about that? Everyone will accept those who make themselves acceptable.

Of course, the example I gave, while sufficient to prove the theoretical point, is not realistic. And it’s precisely the realistic extreme example which sheds a lot of light on the theme of that time and the very contrasting theme of our time.

The realistic example is the man in the sweater vest who is openly fornicating and openly saying blasphemies in a normal speaking voice. And the hippy-dippy hippies who sang All Are Welcome did, in fact, let him stay.

There is, of course, a parallel in secular culture. The flagrantly fornicating man who “flirted” with all of the women at the office was welcome too. Modern mythology holds that this was the norm throughout history until fifteen minutes ago but even a cursory familiarity with movies and television from the 1950s and before would tell one that a man who talked openly of sex in the workplace, not just in front of women, but to them, would never have been tolerated.

This is, after all, the repression which the 1970s loved to criticize. Today we call it sexual harassment rather than impropriety but apart from the language a man being fired for “being too free with the ladies” differs only in terminology. But in the 1970s all were welcome, even the sexual harassers.

Our society prefers to call “polite society” by the name “safe spaces” but the thing to which the name refers is the same. There are places and times when people must restrain their impulses and behave in a way that makes everyone comfortable. The idea that everyone should become comfortable with everything simply doesn’t work.

At the same time we see secular culture clawing its way back to propriety in public places we see religious culture clawing its way back to the idea of sacred spaces. Sacred means “set apart” and a thing is set apart not by having walls and doors but by what is and is not done in them. That first part is as important as the second; when it comes to the sacred sins of omission are the equals of sins of commission.

I do not yet know what it was that animated the spirit of the 1960s and 1970s—what it was that made the hippies so dippy that they thought that if they broke down all barriers everyone would somehow get along. (The obvious guess is the devastation of the first two world wars, especially in Europe, and those combined with the trauma of racism in the United States.)

It had the very curious property that it sounded Godly but was actually diabolic—I mean in the original sense of the Greek “diabolein”: to scatter. The diabolic scatters man from man and prevents unity. So surely getting everyone together should be the opposite?

But this is a fallen world and men will not all get along. If you try to force them to all that will happen is that you will break down true friendship and camaraderie. Those need safe spaces in which to grow.

If you let the heretics into church they will not worship God with you. They will only keep you from worshiping God. It is no accident that Christ said:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.

An even more apt quotation would be what the angels said at the birth of Christ. Curiously, the version most people are familiar with, which comes from the King James translation of the bible, is very badly translated:

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Bu when it is translated more accurately, you get something like (this one is from the Revised Standard Version):

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.

Just so you can see the main idea in the variety, here’s an alternative translation which is also faithful to the original text (The New Jerusalem Bible):

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace for those He favours.

Peace is the ordering of the world to the good. That is, it is a rational ordering of the world according to its nature. But a rational ordering must be in a mind and for it to be a property of the world and not merely imposed on the world it must be in the mind of the world’s maker.

Peace is the ordering of the world according to God’s will. Peace is only possible, therefore, among those who do his will. Those who do only their own will can never be at peace with God or each other. 

Which is why people must set themselves apart so that they can get along.

The age of universal peace is finally over. We can now get back to the business of getting along with each other.

Novel Writers Should Read Novels?

Part of the advice one commonly sees about writing novels is that anyone who wants to write a novel should constantly read novels. The advice comes in many forms, some of them badly overstated, but there are some good reasons for at least a moderate version of this.

(To give some context, one of the problems which I have at present is that with three little children, I have very little time for reading and am largely coasting on the reading I did before having multiple children. This is not inherent to having children so much as a trade-off for also going productive work like writing novels, blog posts, having a YouTube channel, programming projects, etc. There are only so many hours in a day and one does need to sleep.)

One of the benefits of reading is that it can show you how wrong the critics are. Or to be more fair to the critics, how narrow (as opposed to universal) their criticism is.

This came up for me recently as I’ve been writing Wedding Flowers Will Do for a Funeral and it occurred to me that there’s very little action—thirty thousand words in and it’s almost all interviewing people. And of course in my mind I can hear the critics saying that there needs to be action. That this is inherently dull. And so forth.

So I went to the library and skimmed over Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs. (I’d only seen the David Suchet TV adaptation but it was quite faithful to the book.) It’s an interesting story. The setup is that the daughter of a woman who was, sixteen years ago, convicted of murdering her husband asks Poirot to investigate the crime and prove her innocent.

It’s a good, interesting story. And it’s almost entirely Poirot interviewing people. There is some variety—there’s the section where each wrote down their recollection of what happened. But the setup of the crime being sixteen years previous makes it pretty much impossible for there to be action.

And yet it’s a good story. So if I want to write a story in which most of the action is people talking to each other, I can do that too.

Attach the Stone of Triumph

This post is going to be about the false freedom which is won by rejecting God. However, the title is a reference to an early Simpsons episode, so in case you’ve never seen the Stonecutters episode (one of the best), here’s the relevant part:

Human beings have a nature which we did not make, for the very simple reason that we did not make ourselves. This is, properly understood, the source of all of our power to do anything, but since we are finite beings it does come with limitations. And those limitations irk people, sometimes.

The right response to being irked by this is self-examination. If a man is depressed because he cannot fly like a bird, he should figure out what’s wrong with him that he does not appreciate walking like a man. Alas, another response is to try to become a bird. It’s not possible, but every project starts with step 1 so it’s possible to ignore that step 3 is impossible while one is working on step 1.

In this case the first step is to get rid of God from whom our limits come because He’s from whom our nature comes. The problem is that, once God is gone, so is meaning. If there is no God we have no constraints and so anything is possible. The only problem is that nothing is worth the effort.

Suppose you attain enough power to smash planets. Well, so what?

You will of course find those who will say, “then life will have the meaning that I give it!” I tend to assume that they don’t mean this because they’ve clearly never thought about it for even five seconds together. Apart from this just being (by definition) make-believe, if life has the meaning you give it, why not give it a more convenient meaning?

Sure, it’s possible to give life the leaning that after years of work to attain the power, smashing planets makes you great. But as long as you’re the one making up the meaning why not give sitting on the couch drinking beer and watching re-runs of Friends the meaning that you’re great? They’re equally valid.

In short, there’s a reason why, at first, the meaning which atheists choose to give life is always suspiciously close to the meaning which God gives it. But atheism is a degenerative disease. Sooner or later the atheist will notice that this is a lot of work. And it won’t be long before he notices that it’s completely unnecessary work. And at some point he’s going to notice that no work is really necessary, at least if he’s at all wealthy.

He’ll have succeeded in getting rid of the stone of shame. The problem is that he’s exchanged it for the stone of triumph.

And only God is powerful enough to lift a rock that big.

Power Sets and God

A friend recently posed this question:

Anyone willing to help me answer a Fedora Tipper on this? I’m not an expert on Set Theory.


“Consider the set of all of the things God knows; we’ll call it A. The power set, P(A), of A, the set of all subsets of A, has a higher cardinality than A [this is a theorem of set theory]. Now, consider the set B = {“x is a subset of A”|x∈P(A)}. There exists an obvious [bi]jection between the set of propositions in B and the elements of P(A). Thus, P(A) and B have the same cardinality. So, there exists a set B of truths containing infinitely more truths than the set of all truths known by God”


They assert over and over that this is a “proof against God”.

This argument deserves more to be laughed at than answered. That said,, here is an answer.

The powerset of a set is merely the set of all subsets of that set. So for the set {a} the powerset is {{}, {a}}, i.e. the set containing both the empty set and the set containing a. (Set theory is really hard to say. This helps it to sound more impressive than it is.) You can also write this as {∅, {a}}. It means the same thing.

Now, to see why the Fedora Tipper’s argument is ridiculous (apart from his defining B to be identical to the powerset of A and pretending he did something), let’s consider an example of a finite set of knowledge. Finite sets are easier to work with than infinite sets and the principles are the same. We’ll keep it simple and use a set containing 3 pieces of knowledge: {“11 > 4”, “Beavers mate for life”, “pie is round” }. Now let’s look at its powerset. For clarity (hah!) I’ll offset it:

{∅, {“11 > 4”}, {“Beavers mate for life”}, {“pie is round” }, {“11 > 4”, “Beavers mate for life”} , {“Beavers mate for life”, “pie is round”}, {“11 > 4”, “pie is round”}, {“11 > 4”, “Beavers mate for life”, “pie is round” }}

Now, obviously there are more elements in the powerset than in the original set. For finite sets, it’s actually 2^n elements, in this case 2^3=8. And it’s true that for infinite sets you get a different cardinality than the original set (“a higher order of infinity”). But this is completely irrelevant to the question of knowledge. Let’s go back to our example.

Suppose that we said that some man, call him George, knows the set above mentioned, i.e. he knows that 11 > 4, beavers mate for life, and pie is round. It would be ridiculous to say:

“Ha ha! But George doesn’t know that 11 > 4 and that beavers mate for life! He only knows that 11 > 4, beavers mate for life, and pie is round! The ignorant fool!”

Which is what the Fedora Tipper above is trying to say. This disproves God about as much as it proves that George knows nothing about beavers. I.e. not in the slightest.

The moral of the story is that powersets are mathematical constructs, not real things. They don’t change reality. If you take a balding man and consider the powerset of his remaining hair, he doesn’t gain a full head of hair. There’s no more hair in the powerset of his hair then in the set of his hair; there are just a lot more ways to consider the little hair he has left.

Or, to invoke an old trope, you can’t use powersets to make a rock so big that God can’t lift it.