Showing posts with label Dorothy L. Sayers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dorothy L. Sayers. Show all posts

10 January 2019

A Dream of Justice


by Eve Fisher
“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” - G. K. Chesterton
Of course, that was back in the days when dragons were dangerous, fire-snorting monsters who ate everyone who came near them.  When they were evil.  Now, dragons are fun and cuddly and cute and everyone wants one.  Or they're your soul mate and enhance your sex life, as in Anne McCaffrey.

NOTE:  I loved Dragonflight and Dragonquest, so no, I'm not a dragon hater!

But what I want to point out is that you can't understand what Chesterton was talking about if you don't understand that dragons were once a mortal terror.  When dragons were, indeed, a very good analogy for the monsters and terrors that eat through childhood.

And it's not just dragons, it's fairy tales as well.  Revisionist histories of the Wicked Witch or the Evil Stepmother or the Big Bad Wolf as misunderstood victims may be intriguing to adults, but I don't think they're good for children.  Children know there is evil in the world, evil that the adults may or may not be shielding them from, evil that is threatening to their very core, evil that they can't always name (in some families, that's too dangerous) or define (some evil starts before we even have words for it).  And they need - at a young age, before they're old enough to read about Voldemort or Sauron - to have examples of evil being fought and conquered.  I did.  I desperately needed the hope that someday all evil would fall.  I needed justice.  And, imho, without a firm grasp of right and wrong, of goodness and evil, there is no real sense of justice.
“Detective stories contain a dream of justice. They project a vision of a world in which wrongs are righted, and villains are betrayed by clues that they did not know they were leaving. A world in which murderers are caught and hanged, and innocent victims are avenged, and future murder is deterred...  Detective stories keep alive a view of the world which ought to be true. Of course people read them for fun, for diversion, as they do crossword puzzles. But underneath they feed a hunger for justice, and heaven help us if ordinary people cease to feel that.”
Thrones, Dominations - Dorothy L. Sayers & Jill Paton Walsh
In other words, we don't really want a Casablanca where Rick refuses to stick out his neck, and settles down to another bottle while the fascists take Victor Laszlo and Ilsa away to a concentration camp.  Or a Maltese Falcon where Sam Spade goes off with the Fat Man and Cairo to find the loot.    

Black-and-white film screenshot of several people in a nightclub. A man on the far left is wearing a suit and has a woman standing next to him wearing a hat and dress. A man at the center is looking at the man on the left. A man on the far right is wearing a suit and looking to the other people.

Which is why I've been bothered for a long time about the shift from a hunger for justice to a hunger for personal gain.  A great enthusiasm for evading the law.  A grand revival of the seven deadly sins:  pride, envy, greed, gluttony, lust, wrath, and sloth (a/k/a apathy).  A celebration of them.  A sense that everyone does it, you're a fool if you don't, and compassion (for the downtrodden, the victims, the poor conned bastards) is weakness.  That noir - which I admit is entertaining on screen - is a place you'd actually want to live.
This really struck home when I read the SCOTUS blog about Nielsen v. Preap.  This is a case about "whether the federal authorities must detain immigrants who had committed crimes, often minor ones, no matter how long ago they were released from criminal custody... [T]he sticking point appeared to be how to define what would be a reasonable period of time for immigration agents to detain a person whose criminal sentence is completed.”  (Currently waiting on SCOTUS' decision.)  SCOTUS Blog

Now what really interested me about this was reading the comments (on other websites) - always a mistake - where a large number of people stopped at the word "immigrants" (or "aliens", depending on which article you read) and said, "They're illegal - boot them out."  (Cleaned up for extreme profanity, and in some cases, death threats.)  

And by saying that, they missed the most obvious thing in the world:

Everyone has legal rights, and should have legal rights, including an attorney and a hearing after an arrest for one simple reason:  Quid pro quo.  Some day an American citizen might be arrested in a foreign country (it has been known to happen; like in Russia; like right now), and they may model their legal behavior on ours, and deny an American citizen their right to a hearing, whether it's for something as minor as a parking ticket to as major as murder.

It’s also why we have:

(1) Diplomatic Immunity – not because their diplomats are so charming, but because we want to protect our own overseas from reprisal (political or otherwise) such as arrests, imprisonment, torture, and "death in custody";
NOTE:  This is also why the case of Jamal Khashoggi was/is important.  A United States resident, brutally murdered by a Saudi Arabian hit squad in the Saudi embassy in Turkey.  So far the main objections to pursuing this from our current administration is money.  As the TV Evangelist Pat Robertson said, "You’ve got $100 billion worth of arms sales...we cannot alienate our biggest player in the Middle East.”  (Citation)  
NOTE 2:  The arms deal is so far only "letters of intent," and a suspiciously timed 100 million dollar payment - not for arms, but "to support U.S. stabilization efforts in northeastern Syria."  Granted, the price has gone up from 30 pieces of silver, but I still object.  
NOTE 3:  And Khashoggi's murder isn't about a journalist, per se. It's about the fact that Saudi Arabia felt free to kill someone in their embassy on foreign soil, in the same way that Russia felt free to kill at least six people on British soil, and both countries are getting away with it.  Murder is murder.  And when it's allowed to happen without consequences - Well, we're going to see more of them. And they will happen here. What will we do when Americans are killed on American soil with nerve agents like A-234 or radioactive polonium?   
(2) The Geneva Conventions for humanitarian treatment of soldiers and other POWs – to protect our own soldiers and civilians. And, BTW, why calling enemy soldiers “unlawful enemy combatants” and thus evading the Geneva Conventions is a very dangerous precedent that will, undoubtedly, come back to haunt us some day.  Which leads directly to


Guantanamo Bay, where the imprisonment of "unlawful enemy combatants" is currently ongoing (40 prisoners are still there, having been imprisoned for 16 years and counting), without trial for years, subject to extraordinary rendition (i.e., transfer to a cooperative foreign country for enhanced interrogation, i.e., torture) - and with no exit in sight for those who remain.  Simply put, precedent is a dangerous thing:  again, some day captured American soldiers and civilians may find themselves on foreign soil in similar prisons.

Humans have worked hard for years, decades, centuries, to create a world in which the weak are protected from the strong, where might does not automatically make right, and where we live under the rule of law.  Where democracies make it possible for everyone to have a say as to how they are governed.  Where civil and human rights are granted to everyone (because otherwise, there are no rights, just privilege, and capricious privilege at that).  Where peace is pursued on a national and international basis.

But maybe it's been too long since World War 1 and World War 2.  Because apparently there's a strong temptation, these days, to Dehiscence.  Deconstruction.  Destruction.  
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity....
   - W. B. Yeats, first stanza of "The Second Coming"
   Donne painted by Isaac Oliver

In other words, every man for himself.  But it's not true.  John Donne had a better take, from a time that was no more war-ridden, and much more plague-ridden, short-lived, and less comfortable than ours: 
"No man is an island, entire of itself; 
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. 
If a clod be washed away by the sea, 
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, 
as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: 
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, 
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
John Donne Meditation XVII



And the best take of all is from 750 BC, from a time of civil war, evil kings, obscene wealth in the midst overwhelming poverty, and a terrible need for social justice:

"But let justice roll down like waters 
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Amos 5:24


NOTE:  For those who are wondering what I'm doing with 2 blog posts in a row, I'm filling in for my old pal Brian Thornton, who's sick with the crud.  GET WELL SOON, BRIAN!!!

09 July 2016

Sayers vs. Aristotle: What's So Funny?


by B.K. Stevens

Poor Aristotle. According to Dorothy L. Sayers, he was born at the wrong time, forced to make do with the likes of Sophocles and Euripides while truly craving, as she puts it, "a Good Detective Story." In "Aristotle on Detective Fiction," a 1935 Oxford lecture, Sayers takes a look at the philosopher's definition of tragedy in the Poetics and decides it fits the modern detective story nicely. If Aristotle had been able to get a copy of Trent's Last Case, maybe he would have skipped all those performances of Oedipus Tyrannus and The Trojan Women.

It doesn't do, of course, to challenge Dorothy Sayers on the nature of the detective story. But her lecture seems more than a little tongue in cheek, and her attempt to equate the detective story with tragedy falls short. At its heart, the detective story is more comic than tragic. And I'm willing to bet Sayers knew it.

She begins her lecture by identifying similarities between detective stories and tragedies. Aristotle says action is primary in tragedies, and that's true of detective stories, too. Keeping a straight face, not acknowledging she's made a tiny change in the original, Sayers quotes the Poetics: "The first essential, the life and soul, so to speak, of the detective story, is the Plot." Aristotle says tragic plots must center on "serious" actions. That's another easy matchup, for "murder," as Sayers observes, "is an action of a tolerably serious nature." According to Aristotle, the action of a tragedy must be "complete in itself," it must avoid the improbable and the coincidental, and its "necessary parts" consist of Reversal of Fortune, Discovery, and Suffering. Sayers has no trouble proving good detective stories adhere to all these principles.

When she comes to Aristotle's discussion of Character, however, Sayers has to stretch things a bit. Referring to perhaps the most familiar passage in the Poetics, Sayers cites Aristotle's contention that the central figure in a tragedy should be, as she puts it, "an intermediate kind of person--a decent man with a bad kink in him." Writers of detective stories, Sayers says, agree: "For the more the villain resembles an ordinary man, the more shall we feel pity and horror at his crime and the greater will be our surprise at his detection."

True enough. The problem is that when Aristotle calls for a character brought low not by "vice or depravity" but by "some error or frailty," he's not describing the villain. To use phrases most of us probably learned in high school, he's describing the "tragic hero" who has a "tragic flaw." So the hero of a tragedy is like the villain of a mystery--hardly proof that tragedy and mystery are essentially the same.

This discrepancy points to the central problem with Sayers's argument, a problem of which she was undoubtedly aware. The principal Reversal of Fortune in a tragedy is from prosperity to adversity--but that's just the first half of a detective story. To find a complete model for the plot of the detective story, we must look not to tragedy but to comedy. (Please note, by the way, that Sayers was talking specifically about detective stories, not about mysteries in general. So am I. Thrillers, noir stories, and other varieties of mysteries may not be comic in the least--including some literary mysteries that borrow a few elements of the detective story but really focus on proving life is wretched and pointless, not on solving a crime.)

Unfortunately, Aristotle doesn't provide a full definition of comedy. Scholars say he did write a treatise on comedy, but it was lost over the centuries. The everyday definition of comedy as "something funny" won't cut it. The Divine Comedy isn't a lot of laughs, but who would dare to say Dante mistitled his masterpiece? Turning again to high-school formulas, we can say the essential characteristic of comedy is the happy ending. As the standard shorthand definition has it, tragedies end with funerals, comedies with weddings.

For a more extended definition of comedy, we can look to Northrup Frye's now-classic Anatomy of Criticism (1957). Comedy, Frye says, typically has a three-part structure: It begins with order, dissolves into disorder, and ends with order restored, often at a higher level. Simultaneously, comedy moves "from illusion to reality." Using a comparison that seems especially apt for detective stories, Frye says the action in comedy "is not unlike the action of a lawsuit, in which plaintiff and defendant construct different versions of the same situation, one finally being judged as real and the other as illusory." Along the way, complications arise, but they get resolved through "scenes of discovery and reconciliation." Often, toward the end, comedies include what Frye terms a "point of ritual death," a moment when the protagonist faces terrible danger. But then, "by a twist in the plot," the comic spirit triumphs. Following a "ritual of expulsion which gets rid of some irreconcilable character," things get better for everyone else.

How well does the detective story fit this comic pattern? Pretty darn well. (Frye himself mentions "the amateur detective of modern fiction" as one variation of a classic comic character.) The detective story usually starts with order, or apparent order--the deceptively harmonious English village, the superficially happy family, the workplace where everyone seems to get along. Then a crime--usually murder--plunges everything into disorder. Complications ensue, conflicts escalate, the wrong people get suspected, dangers threaten to engulf the innocent, the guilty evade punishment, and illusion eclipses reality. But the detective starts to set things right during "scenes of discovery and reconciliation." Often after surviving a "point of ritual death" (which he or she may shrug off as a "close call"), the detective identifies the guilty and clears the innocent. The villain is rendered powerless through a "ritual of expulsion"--arrest, violent death, suicide, or, sometimes, escape. Order is restored, and a happy ending is achieved "by a twist in the plot."

To find a specific example, we can turn to Sayers's own detective stories. Gaudy Night makes an especially tempting choice. In the opening chapters, order prevails at quiet Shrewsbury College, and also in the lives of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. He proposes at set intervals, and she finds tactful ways to say no. The serenity on campus, however, is more apparent than real. Beneath the surface, tensions and secrets churn.

Then a series of mysterious events shatters the tranquility, and Harriet and Lord Peter get drawn into the chaos. Incidents become increasingly frightening, tensions soar as suspicion shifts from don to don and from student to student, and truth seems hopelessly elusive. Harriet undergoes a "point of ritual death" when she encounters the malefactor in a dark passageway. But "scenes of discovery and reconciliation" follow as Lord Peter unveils the truth, as relationships strained by suspicion heal. Illusions are dispelled, realities recognized. A "ritual of expulsion"--a gentle one this time--removes the person who caused the disorder. And, in the true, full spirit of comedy, the detective story ends with order restored at a higher level, with the promise of a wedding.

How many detective stories end with weddings, or with promises of weddings, as lovers kept apart by danger and suspicion unite in the final chapter? A number of Agatha Christie's works come to mind, along with legions of recent ones that bring together a police officer (usually male) and an amateur sleuth (usually female). Of course, if the author is writing a series and wants to stretch out the sexual tension, the wedding may be delayed--Sayers herself pioneered this technique. Still, the wedding beckons from novel to novel, enticing us with the prospect of an even happier ending after a dozen or so murders have been solved. Romance isn't a necessary element, either in comedies or in detective stories. But it crops up frequently, for it's compatible with the fundamentally optimistic spirit of both.

Humor, too, is compatible with an optimistic spirit, and it's nearly as common in detective stories as in comedies, from Sherlock Holmes's droll asides straight through to Stephanie Plum's one-liners. To some, it may seem tasteless to crack jokes while there's a corpse in the room. On the whole, though, humor seems consistent with the tough-minded attitude of both comedies and detective stories. Neither hides from life's problems--there could be no story without them--but neither responds with weeping or wringing hands. In both genres, protagonists respond to problems by looking for solutions, sustained by their conviction that problems can in fact be solved. The humor reminds both protagonists and readers that, even in the wake of deaths and other disasters, life isn't utterly bleak. Things can still turn out well.

Some might say the comparison with comedy works only if we stick to what is sometimes called the traditional detective story. Yes, Dupin restores order and preserves the reputation of an exalted personage by finding the purloined letter, and Holmes saves an innocent bride-to-be by solving the mystery of the speckled band. But what of darker detective stories? If we stray too far from the English countryside and venture down the mean streets of the hard-boiled P.I. or big-city cop, what traces of comedy will we find? We'll find wisecracks, sure--but they'll be bitter wisecracks, reflecting the world-weary attitudes of the protagonists. In these stories, little order seems to exist in the first place. So how can it be restored? How can an optimistic view of life be affirmed?

The Maltese Falcon looks like a detective story that could hardly be less comic. The mysterious black figurine turns out to be a fake, Sam Spade hands the woman he might love over to the police, and he doesn't even get to keep the lousy thousand bucks he's extracted as his fee. It's not a jolly way to end.

Even so, in some sense, order is restored. Spade has uncovered the truth. He's made sure the innocent remain free and the guilty get punished. He has acted. As he says, "When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it." Spade has done something.

Maybe, ultimately, that's the defining characteristic of comedy, and of the detective story. Protagonists do something, and endings are happier as a result--maybe not blissfully happy, but more just, more truthful, better. In detective stories, and in comedies, protagonists don't feel so overwhelmed by the unfairness of the universe that they sink into passivity and despair.

Maybe that's the real thesis of  "Aristotle on Detective Fiction." In some ways, Sayers's playful comparison of tragedies and detective stories seems unconvincing. Probably, though, her real purpose isn't to argue that the detective story is tragedy rather than comedy. Probably, her purpose is to enlist Aristotle as an ally against what she describes as "that school of thought for which the best kind of play or story is that in which nothing particular happens from beginning to end." That school of thought remains powerful today, praising literary fiction in which helpless, hopeless characters meander morosely through a miserable, meaningless morass, unable to act decisively. Sayers takes a stand for action, for saying the things human beings do make a difference, for saying we are not just victims. Both comedy and the detective story could not agree more.




23 March 2015

The Detective Doctor


by Melissa Yi

"You see, doctors are detectives, are they not, Rra? You look for clues. I do too.”
--Mma Ramotswe, proprietrix of the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. "Doctors, detectives, and common sense," by Alexander McCall Smith

Mystery readers are clever, so you may have deduced that your newest SleuthSayer (moi) is also an emergency physician. I consider this great training for my detective alter ego, Dr. Hope Sze, because medicine trains you to…


1. Talk to people.


On a vacation in Hawaii, I met a 29-year-old who’d been retired for a year. Who does that? I set about quizzing him. How did he do it? Why was he so eager to make bank? I could tell he wasn’t crazy about answering me, so I explained, “I’m an emergency doctor! My job is to extract the most amount of information in the least amount of time.”

Granted, a detective may be more tactful than me. But we both have to learn how to ask intelligent questions, listen to the answers, and throw out the B.S.


Ancient Hawaiian justice system: if you broke a kapu (sacred law),
your only hope was to swim to a sacred place of refuge
like this one at Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park.

2. Learn patience.

You know how long doctors slog in school? I spent 25 years of my life from kindergarten until my emergency fellowship. And I’m not, say, a vascular surgeon with seven years of residency under my belt. Plus they estimate that doctors spend 50 percent of their time doing paperwork. You never see ER, Nurse Jackie,and Grey’s Anatomy spending half their waking hours on forms.

As for detectives, the New York Times recently published the provocatively-titiled essay, The Boring Life of a Private Investigator.

For both of us, TV cuts out the dull bits and maximizes the drama. Wise move.

3. Use your powers of observation as well as technology.

Once my senior resident told me, “The more I practice, the more I realize that the history and physical exam don’t matter. It’s all the tests you order, like the ultrasound or CT.”

Within the hour, the attending staff asked me, “Did you see bed 4?”

“Yes.”

“Did you notice anything unusual on the physical exam?”

“I noticed a systolic murmur.”

“That senior resident [a year above you] missed a grade III aortic stenosis murmur. You could feel the delayed upstroke during systole.”

Which may sound like jibber-jabber to people outside the trade, but what it means is, even in the age of technology, you should use your brain at all times. The imaging and other technology will help you, so you may end up doing the right thing, but you can look like an idiot.

Or, to quote Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes."

At the moment, I’m enjoying both medicine and writing. As Dorothy L. Sayers’ detective said in Whose Body?: “It is full of variety and it forces one to keep up to the mark and not get slack. And there's a future to it. Yes, I like it. Why?"

So if you’d like to follow how my fictional medical resident became a detective in her spare time, take a gander at Dr. Hope Sze.

Or if you can take medical stories straight up, for the next week, I’ll also post a free excerpt from my book, Fifty Shades of Grey’s Anatomy.

What do you think? Does medicine train you for detective work? Or is another profession better? Let me know in the comments.

And tune in on April 6th, when I plan to talk about book trailers.

18 July 2013

The Road to Damascus - or Somewhere...


by Eve Fisher

Brian Thornton blogged a couple of weeks ago about the importance of both a strong plot and well-written characters.  Now I like certain characters straight up and traditional - Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Nero Wolfe, etc.  You learn more about them - Holmes' brother, Nero's daughter, Miss Marple's flirtation so deftly nipped in the bud by her mother - but the characters are there, fixed, sure and solid.  The down side is that they are done growing.  Luckily, I never tire of them as they are. 

But I also honor the authors who manage to transform their characters over time - who change and grow into something different than the person we first met.  They mature.  Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane both changed over the course of the 8 novels and 2 short stories Miss Sayers wrote.  The posh, flighty eccentric with a taste for flagrantly expensive, professionally beautiful women and old books became a man who wrestled - through his avocation - with his own PTSD and fell passionately in love with an intelligent woman whose main beauty was her voice.  And Harriet discovered self-esteem and freedom from her fear of a cage - both in marriage and in prison.

And then there are those who pull a 180, changing to their exact opposite to the point that it's unbelievable.  Except in real life, it happens all the time.

There are the obvious religious transformations, i.e., the roads to Damascus - Paul, Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Abba Moses (old black guy, used to be a professional thief/murderer, became a hermit monk in the Wadi Natrun back 150 CE), etc. 

There are those who were knocked sideways by sorrow:

File:Ary Scheffer - Franz Liszt.jpg
Young Liszt, Brooding and Burning
File:Franz Liszt 1858.jpg
Liszt, Older and Mourning

Franz Liszt (1811-1886), the famous composer and pianist, and a formidable womanizer, lost his son and one of his daughters (by the Countess d'Agoult) in 1859 and 1862, respectively.  (NOTE:  His surviving daughter, Cosima, a musician in her own right, would marry first Hans von Bulow- does anyone know if he's an ancestor of Claus? - and then Richard Wagner.) He became a Franciscan, received the tonsure, took the four minor orders porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte, and from then on was known as Abbe Liszt.  His whole life style calmed down considerably, and he spent much of his time, outside of playing, in solitude and prayer.  

File:Liane de Pougy postcard.jpgLiane de Pougy (1869-1950) - infamous courtesan of La Belle Epoque, she ran through men at a merry clip, accumulating massive wealth and dominating the gossip columns along with her co-courtesans, La Belle Otero, et al.  She married the Romanian Prince Georges Ghika in 1910 and settled down.  But her son by a much earlier marriage(?) was killed in WWI, and she became a Dominican tertiary, devoting herself to the Asylum of Saint Agnes, which took care of children with birth defects.  A recent French biography of her has the subtitle "Courtesan, princess, saint..."  The last might be extravagant - I haven't read the biography - but her life definitely took a different turn.

Speaking of courtesans and such, there are many throughout history who decided that repentance became them.  Among my favorites are the rivals Louise de La Valliere and Francoise-Athenais, Marquise de Montespan:

File:Lely-Vallière-et-ses-enfants-Rennes.jpgFile:Francois-Athenais de Rochechouart.jpg
Louise de la Valliere and children on left; Athenais de Montespan on right

Louise was the first "maitresse en titre" of Louis XIV, bearing him four children, which was part of the problem.  Childbirth changed her fragile beauty and she was succeeded by her supposed best friend, Athenais, who held on to Louis' attention through seven pregnancies and innumerable side affairs (Louis never met a woman he didn't want to have, and, as king, he had most of them).  She was finally ousted from the royal bed by the combination of a huge scandal involving multiple poisonings - next time's blog alert! - and her own governess for HER royal bastards, Madame de Maintenon, who was trying to use God to embarrass the king into morality.  Louise retired to a strict Caremlite convent early in the game.  (My favorite part is that the abbess of this extremely strict convent agreed that Louise had already done much of her penance in court).  Interestingly, and entirely out of character, in old age, the almost heathen Athenais also turned to strict penance.  Louis and Maintenon were morganatically married, and Louis remained reasonably faithful (by now he was forty-five which, at the time, was definitely middle-aged) and, as always, convinced that he was God's favorite son.  (Louis would NOT be on the list of people who change over time.) 

There are also those who, apparently, get a burr in their butt, such as the Wanli Emperor (1563-1620).

File:明神宗.jpgThe Wanli Emperor came to the Dragon throne near the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).  He was 9 years old, but had an excellent chief minister who trained him well before dying when Wanli was 19.  The next 20 years were a golden age for China - Wanli was a vigorous, active, hands-on emperor who stopped attempted invasions by the Mongols, an attempt by Japan (under Hideyoshi) to take Korea, and a major internal rebellion.  China prospered.  And then - one day he stopped doing anything.  No meetings, no memorials, no signing things, nothing.  Government came to an absolute standstill until the day he died.  Why?  We don't know.  There are two possibilities given by most historians:
(1) he decided to spend the rest of his reign building up his wealth and his tomb, thus he had no time for work.
(2) he was angry because he wanted one of his sons by his concubine, Lady Zheng, to be the next crown prince, and strict court etiquette demanded that the office be passed to his son by his Empress (the future Taiching Emperor), thus bringing government to a halt was his revenge. 
Personally, I don't know that either of these pass muster.  I mean, for a while, but for 20 years?  What would explain something like that?  Depression?  Addiction?  A combination of both?  In any case, with government at a standstill, China floundered, and the last few emperors couldn't get it back.  The Wanli Emperor's dereliction of duty was one of the major reasons why the Ming Dynasty fell 24 years later to the Manchus. 

And there are those who appear to really grow and CHANGE:

File:NathanBedfordForrest.jpg
Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877) enlisted in the Civil War as a private and rose through the ranks to become a field commander.  And he was brilliant.  My favorite story is from the Battle of Parker's Cross Roads, 12/31/1862, when he was surprised by a Union brigade attacking his rear.  Trapped between two Union forces, he told his troops "Charge 'em both ways!" - and they did, and he won.  It seems like every Civil War historian is fascinated by this military genius who never attended West Point or took any military classes.  But what makes Forrest fascinating to me is that he was an antebellum slave trader and millionaire, who in the 1860's was one of the founders (perhaps the first Grand Wizard) of the KKK.  But barely ten years later he repudiated the Klan, and went around giving speeches advocating reconciliation between the races to both white and black organizations.  In one of them, before a black organization, he said, "Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I'll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand."  Yes, it sounds a little condescending to modern ears - but this is the sound of a man who had changed profoundly...

09 July 2013

Tether's End


by Terence Faherty

In a review of J.K. Rowling's recent book, The Casual Vacancy, I came across the following haunting quote by Flannery O'Connor, the Southern novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

Flannery O'Connor
"The writer can chose what he writes about, but not what he can bring to life."

The book reviewer (whose name I forgot to note when I was recording the O'Connor quote in my journal) was making the point that Rowling had breathed life into a series of books about an improbable boy wizard but had fallen short with a realistic novel about a contemporary English town.  I have no idea whether this was a valid criticism of The Casual Vacancy, but it got me thinking about some favorite mystery writers and about writing in general.

The first writer who came to mind was the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wanted badly to be Sir Walter Scott, creator of Ivanhoe.  Doyle chose to spend a great deal of his time not writing about Sherlock Holmes--even famously killing him off and one point--or any other detective and he certainly wrote many successful non-mystery tales.  But Holmes and Watson remained the characters Doyle truly brought to life, along with their fogbound, gas-lit world.

Another example is Dorothy L. Sayers.  She drew herself back from the brink of failure and poverty by creating a fantastically wealthy sleuth who never failed, Lord Peter Wimsey.  She wrote a series of increasingly literary novels about Wimsey before finally breaking out of the Wimsey chrysalis--as she saw it--to write religious plays and translate Dante's Inferno.   But neither of these efforts cast the long shadow of Lord Peter, as improbable a character as Harry Potter and yet just as lively.

Then there are other favorites of mine like Margery Allingham, who lent me a title for these musings, and Raymond Chandler.  They established successful realms in crime fiction and never strayed far from them.  Were they less adventurous than Doyle and Sayers, more certain of the value of their work, or more conscious of that invisible tether of which O'Connor hinted?

Naturally, I also thought of my own writing, of the years I spent writing in the voice of Owen Keane, my failed seminarian and mystery addict, and the years I spent trying to find other voices.  Also about my faithfulness to mystery writing in general.  Does that fidelity reflect a conscious choice or an unseen tether?  And if it's a tether, who's holding the other end?

I find something else O'Connor said about writing more hopeful:  "The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet.  His job is to find that location."

The implication, unstated, is that every successful fiction writer will find a different crossroads, due to the variables of time and space.  The hope, also unstated, is that the writer will recognize that crossroads when he or she finds it, like an Allingham or a Chandler.  The historical record suggests that this isn't always the case, but also that it might not matter, that a Doyle or a Sayers might be writing for the ages whether or not he or she suspects it.

Good luck finding your own crossroads.  When you do, write your heart out.