Friday, February 15, 2019

Poem Retrospective XV

Wovoka, also known as Jack Wilson because he was raised by the Wilson family after having been orphaned, became a respected spiritual leader among the Paiute Indians. During the solar eclipse of January 1,1889, he is said to have had a vision about Jesus Christ returning to resurrect the Paiute dead and restore the land to Native Americans. Wovoka, who was a pacifist, thought that this would happen on its own through moral reform and the regular performance of a Circle Dance, but as the news of the vision spread, it changed, as such things do. A couple of Lakota mixed the vision with a belief that shirts properly prepared by the Circle Dance, which they tended to call a Spirit Dance or Ghost Dance, could by spiritual power stop bullets; tensions between the U.S. government and the Sioux had been boiling over again, and the U.S. government was engaging in an active campaign to pacify the Sioux. That the U.S. government had had prior experience of religious movements among the Sioux being preludes to all-out war, did not help matters, so they attempted to arrest on rather flimsy grounds the great Sioux spiritual leader, Sitting Bull, which of course, led to fighting. During this hostile period, the 7th Cavalry happened to run into the Miniconjou Lakota Sioux, who were in the process of moving to the Indian Agency, and, intending to disarm them, escorted them to Wounded Knee Creek. There they began the process of disarmament. What happened next is unknown -- there are quite a few different stories -- but shooting broke out, with the Lakota entirely at a disadvantage. It's thought that more than half the warriors were shot before they even had time to fire any shots at all. What's more, the cavalry had Hotchkiss guns, early machine guns, and turned them on the Sioux camp, killing women and children. It took time for the officers to regain control of their men, and by that time, most of men, women, and children were dead, without only about 50 survivors out of about 350. The Ghost Dance movement continued, clandestinely, for some time afterward, but as a movement largely dwindled out from fear of U.S. retaliation for it. The Ghost Dance is still performed in a number of variations, though.

Ghost Dance

On Milky Way in holy skies
now walk the souls that lived and died;
it bears them to the earth below,
the starlit mountains crowned with snow.
Now Christ has sent the winds of peace!
He bade the war and violence cease;
he brings to morning living rain
and brings the bison to the plain.
He bears the dead to earth below,
from evening stars to mountain snow.

But feel the darkness in the land!
Such venom in the heart of man!
How will the serpent treat the dove
who bears abroad these songs of love?
The prophet dances, agents lie,
in battlefields the people die
with bullets in their hearts and hands,
their blood poured out to wet the lands:
from mountains crowned with shining snow
their spirits flee this earth below.

A prophet once was crucified
and on the tree he bled and died
as jeers beneath the bloody cross
were mocking him for pain and loss.
He was the Christ; the Roman lance
had pierced him for his spirit dance.
There was a people, proud and tall,
with sun-like mien and worthy all;
for dancing in the winter snow
to bring the spirits here below
they fell beneath the flaming guns,
both score by score and one by one.

What thing may live may also die.
What heart may laugh may also cry.
But those who die may also rise
beneath the starlight in the skies
and hunt and dance and play the games
to which their fathers gave the names.
Thus Christ upon a path of light
will come again some starlit night
to bring the dead to earth below
for spirit dances in the snow.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Music on My Mind

Helen Trevillion, "Love Will Never Fade".

Poem Retrospective XIV

A Tiger Pouncing

The light is a tiger pouncing,
a panther pawing, a lion roaring;
like waterfalls in their pouring,
its color thunders, unrelenting.

Rippling in the shadows
like a rumor in the city,
it leaps like glory's coming
in the rainbows of the flood.

The light on the wall is flowing,
shadow-playing, darkness-mousing,
leaping and lightly purring
as it panthers in my room.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Philosophical Fiction

I was thinking today about what I would put on a list of 'Ten Books of Fiction that All Philosophy Majors Should Read', probably because I am currently reading Charles Williams's The Place of the Lion. Here's the list I came up with, at least on a short amount of thought. I confined myself to highly readable works of potentially wide appeal that directly reference or clearly allude to obvious philosophical matters; and obviously, I have to have read it or re-read it recently enough to vouch personally for its meeting these criteria -- a reason why, for instance, an obvious candidate like Camus's The Stranger is not on the list, since I haven't read it since undergrad.

1. John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces. Structured by Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, the comic novel follows Ignatius J. Reilly, a quixotic lover of medieval philosophy -- at least a version of it that he has developed in his head -- who finds himself out of sorts with the modern world, or, as he would say, who finds the modern world out of sorts with theology and geometry.

2. Charles Williams, The Place of the Lion. Two students of philosophy find their world crashing in when representations of Platonic Ideas break out of their own realm and into ours.

3. Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility. Most of Austen's work could count, but this one has some of her most explicit interactions with picturesque theory and Romantic philosophy.

4. Jean Paul Sartre, Nausea. A former adventurer estranged from the world undergoes an existential crisis experienced as a form of nausea.

5. Ayn Rand, Anthem. I always get push-back on Rand from academics, particularly from people trying to convince themselves that she is a horrible novelist, rather than a merely idiosyncratic one, on the apparent belief that it follows from her political views; but every philosophy major should in fact read this work in order to see what the Allegory of the Cave looks like when turned upside down.

6. China Mieville, Embassytown. Mieville's broadly leftist reworking of the Myth of Theuth through the lens of colonial exploitation ends up touching on a very wide variety of philosophical topics.

7. Neal Stephenson, Anathem. Someone once described the central plot point of this exploration of the nature of inquiry and thought as "weaponized Platonic metaphysics".

8. Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose. A mystery story turning entirely on semiotics, this work touches on an astonishing array of topics from medieval, and occasionally modern, philosophy.

9. Edwin Abbott Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. More than merely a mathematical lark, Abbott's little book addresses questions of epistemology.

10. William Golding, Lord of the Flies. Layers of interlocking allegory explore the philosophical foundations of society.

What would you put on the list?

Poem Retrospective XIII

Another walking-at-night poem.

Night Walk

In silent starlight rivers flow,
their waves of moonshine rippling light,
and I am where I do not know
on empty lane in quiet night,
and I am walking, robed with glow,
on pebbled way of gray and white.

The moon above, in dancing mist,
is bright with light no shade can mar
as, bowing down, its beams have kissed
a road that glints like crystal spar;
it lures, and I could not resist
to walk where moonlit visions are.

The stars like song refract a fire.
Their iridescent showers fall
on rivers silver like a wire
and snow the caps of mountains tall;
and as I walk, I never tire,
but stride refreshed by heaven's call.

On night-lit ways my feet have passed;
in shadows I have voyaged far,
on farther lands my fortune cast
with no companion but a star,
and all has led to this at last:
to walk wherever visions are.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Evening Note for Tuesday, February 12

Thought for the Evening: Three Structures of Design Argument

I've previously noted that in the usual division for theistic arguments, still popular due to the influence of Kant, 'ontological argument' is not a very coherent family; they are all a priori in some sense of the term, but not always in the same sense, and arguments that get assigned to the category may diverge from each other in practically every particular. This is less true of 'cosmological arguments' and 'teleological or design arguments', but it is nonetheless true that the tripartite division fails as a clear guide even there. When we talk about design arguments, for instance, a number of structurally very different things can be included. I've mentioned Lewis Ezra Hicks's correct recognition of the important differences between what he calls teleological design arguments and eutaxiological design arguments, which is a good example, but not the only one. There are at least three very different kinds of teleological design argument; they are often mixed together, so it's not surprising that people fail to recognize the differences, but they are not the same.

The first, and most obvious, and most widely recognized due to the fact that it tends to be associated with the discussions of design in Hume and Paley, is concerned with signs of design in an effect; from these signs of design, one concludes that there must be a designer. As Cleanthes puts it in Hume's Dialogues:

The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human designs, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since, therefore, the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble; and that the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he has executed.

If we look at the heyday of the design argument, however, we find that this is far from being the only approach on the table. For about a fifty-year range in the eighteenth century, one of the most popular (perhaps the most popular) philosophical genres was what we might call physico-theology, after the most influential work in the genre, William Derham's Physico-Theology, published in 1713. While there are physico-theology-like works prior to Derham, Derham's book, and its companion book Astrotheology (1714), touched off something like a craze of little books, all of them concerned to show divine design throughout the natural world. It became especially popular in parts of German Europe, where there was already a high interest in books of natural history. The range of topics is a bit breathtaking. There was, to give just obvious examples that are often listed when historians talk about the topic, Seidel's Bombyco-Theologie (on silkworms, 1718), Menz's Rana-Theologie (on frogs, 1724), Rappold's Locusta-Theologie (on grasshoppers, 1730), Fabricius's Hydrotheologie (on water, 1735), Lesser's Lithotheology (on rocks and minerals, 1735) Lesser's Insecto-Theologia (on insects, 1738), Rohr's Phytotheologie (on plants, 1740), Denso's Chortotheologie (on grasses, 1741), Zorn's Petino-Theologie (on birds, 1742), Ahlwardt's Brontotheologie (on lightning, 1746), Richter's Ichthyotheologie (on fish, 1754). The interest in the subject never quite died out, and the genre always remained popular among readers; you can also find notable late bloomers, like Balfour's Phyto-Theology (on plants, 1851). But the first half of the eighteenth century really is the blossoming of the approach. When scholars talk about them, they often do so either disparagingly or with an amused wink-wink toward the audience at the crazy people who thought grass was an argument for the existence of God. This is entirely unfair, despite weaknesses in the approach. For one thing, even if one considered the arguments absurd, you have only to open them to see on every page more enthusiasm for the scientific study of the world than you can usually ever find in their more cynical disparagers and scoffers. But more than that, the people who wrote in the genre were often active researchers in the fields they were discussing, and physico-theological works were often a context in which their scientific discoveries were made more widely known. Derham, most famous for his excellent work on measuring the speed of sound, wrote his Astrotheology on the basis of his own astronomical observations, and the work contains several new astronomical discoveries. The books also in a real sense constituted the most effective and successful scientific popularization movement in history.

One reason why people might be inclined to depreciate them is over-assimilation to Paley. They are not, however, usually arguing that (say) frogs exhibit signs of design and therefore a divine designer exists. You do occasionally run across an argument of that structure, but it is not very common. The actual arguments are based on (to use one of Derham's favorite terms) manifestation, and the argument runs in the reverse of what people tend to assume. They generally start with God's existence as a hypothesis and ask the question, "Do we find features in the phenomena that can be seen as showing the divine existence hypothesized?" And their idea is that if you find lots of such cases across lots of phenomena, this strengthens the hypothesis, even though it doesn't give a proof of it. (They also see it as showing that scientific study of even little things, like grasshoppers or grasses, touches on matters of great import.)

The third kind is eliminative. It posits that there are can only be three kinds of explanation for phenomena: design by a designer, chance, laws of nature. It then proceeds to argue that chance and laws of nature are inadequate in some particular case, leaving design by a designer as the conclusion to be drawn. This differs from the manifestative argument in that it is not hypothetical, and it differs from the first kind of argument in that it is not a direct causal inference.

If you accept one, nothing really prevents you from accepting the other two, and you do find people who accept one using another occasionally. And there is mutual influence -- for instance, Paley's watch is almost certainly derived from Derham, who wrote an entire treatise on clocks and uses the watch as an example at least once. But they are different arguments. Not only are they structurally different, the possible objections to each are very different. Contrary to popular belief, objections from 'bad design' are practically useless against causal and eliminative arguments; deployed against those arguments they provably commit elementary logical fallacies. Against manifestative design arguments, however, they have some bite, because of the different structural direction of the argument. Arguments that our sense of design is anthropomorphic have potential force against causal design arguments, but are weaker against manifestative arguments and arguably useless against eliminative ones. You could extend the list; there are objection cocktails you could make to deal with all three, just as you could make an argument cocktail using all three, but no specific objection will address all three equally well -- they do not share their primary inferential structures and they introduce design in three different ways.

Various Links of Interest

* Richard Marshall interviews James Orr on Edith Stein, phenomenology, and analytic theology (this interview first started me thinking about the above)

* Daniel Lakens, Does your philosophy of science matter in practice? at "The 20% Statistician".

* Karen Bennett, There is no special problem with metaphysics (PDF)

* Chris Knight discusses laughter from an anthropological perspective.

* David Robson has a nice article on ideophones, one of the most important elements of language.

Currently Reading

Charles Williams, The Place of the Lion
Plotinus, The Enneads
Xiong Shili, New Treatise on the Uniqueness of Consciousness
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Structure of Behavior
Michael Flynn, The January Dancer

Three New Poem Drafts

All three quite rough. A twip is 1/1440 of an inch. The second is part cento, part pastiche, constructed from the phrases and images of verses left out of the Liturgy of Hours (hence 'secret'). The third, of course, is a paraphrase, sometimes closer, sometimes looser, of the Ego Dixi.

The Sea of Faith

The sea of faith is vast as space,
ten trillion stars therein;
only the greasy airs of sin
veil from us heaven's face,
and hand-covered eyes by which we hide;
we speak of darkness in our pride,
but the darkling night is filled with light:
there is glory in the skies.
Galaxies even to our naked eye
we can discern, and sight
can catch the hazy nebulae
and beyond, and so beyond all sense,
splendors upon splendors upward pile;
nor ever does creative show relent --
our thought is a twip to endless miles.
Earthbound bodies cannot travel far;
we see, and trust to subtle sight,
but never have we circled other stars
or sailed deep oceans of the night.
But faith is home to love, and love can reach
stars we see, and more, and endless store.
The sea of faith may have no shore,
but love may touch each star, and circle each.
As love pervades the depths of faith,
it makes new stars of hope to show their light;
for greater stars they stand in wait
and build new planets gleaming bright.
And when all faith with love is set aglow,
then faith will cease to be, and we will know.

The Secret Psalm, the Sigh of the Oppressed

Let us not be put to shame, for O Lord, we call on you;
bring shame instead upon the wicked; silence them in deathly realms.
Declare their guilt, O Lord, their their schemes against them;
for their many sins drive them out, for they rebel against you.
For their wicked deeds repay them, for all injustices they do;
render to them their due. As they know no godly works,
the works of the Lord's own hands, he will tear them down.
They will not be rebuilt. May those who sought my life be shamed,
confound the ones who sought my ruin. Let scoffing be shamed to silence.
Turn their own evil against them, by your constancy break them.
May their own table trap them, may their worship ensnare them.
Let their eyes be dim, their backs be weak, as you pour out your breath,,
and in fury overturn them. Let their camp be desolate and empty.
When you wounded, they added wounds; so heap penalties, beyond all vindication.
Blot them from the Book of Life that they not be registered as just.
Pour out your wrath on obtuse nations, on realms that do not call your name,
for their devouring of Jacob, for their wasting of Jacob's towns.
Turn their own insults against them; seven times seven return them.
For their evil, watch them, God; cast the nations down in wrath.
In mercy finish my enemies, the oppressors end, for I serve you,
who judge nations and pile corpses, crushing skulls throughout the earth.
Let the wicked fall into their own nets, and let me pass safely over.
As those who mob me raise their heads, may their own threat overtake them.
Pile burning coals upon their heads, cast them to the devouring abyss.
Liars will no longer strive, the violent will be hunted down.
They conspire against the Lord in vain. Then the just will rejoice in vindication,
bathing their feet in the blood of oppressors. God stands with the lowly,
to save them from their condemners.

Ego Dixi

I said: In my middle days shall I go to the gates of death,
the residue of years lost?

I said: I will not see the Lord, God in the land of the living,
no longer will I look on men, nor on those who dwell in peace.
My flourish fails, my house falls down, like a shepherd-tent it falls.

The weaver severs my life's thread, in my first is found my last.
From morning to night my end comes.

I stayed, hoping for the dawn; like a lion he broke my bones;
morning and night my end comes.

I will cry like the young swallow. I will make plaint like the dove.
My eyes in uplift are made weak. I am burdened, Lord: aid me.

What can I say or He answer? Bitterly I count my years.
If through these things people may live, Lord, correct me: make me live.

In peace, bitterness was my last, but you save my soul from death,
you cast my sins behind your back, for deathly realms do not thank,
for death does not know how to praise, for those who fall to the pit
cannot hope on your steadfastness.

Those who live are those who praise, with living praise, as I may praise,
passing down your steady truth like a father to his children.

O Lord, save, and we will sing. We will surely strike harp and lyre,
sounding for all our life's days in the Temple, the House of God.

Poem Retrospective XII


No promise are we given
of a gentler time to come;
already in the highlands
can be heard the beating drum.
It calls to war and heartache,
and it calls to beating heart
to rise up, sword uncovered,
to defend the better part.
The smoke on the horizon
with malice darkly grows:
the flames of homes on fire
and of townships that we know
trampled by marauders,
the youths and maidens slain,
the massing of an enemy
across an endless plain.
The world is set against us
but we must rise to fight,
with never hope of winning,
to save our claim and right,
and I must also journey
to march this path of gloom,
our children by our battle
to save from coming doom.
So may I save another
if myself I cannot save!
And when I die with honor,
lay a rose upon my grave.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Wings of the Soul

...[W]e will now consider the reason why the soul loses its wings. It is something like this. The natural function of the wing is to soar upwards and carry that which is heavy up to the place where dwells the race of the gods. More than any other thing that pertains to the body it partakes of the nature of the divine. But the divine is beauty, wisdom, goodness, and all such qualities; by these then the wings of the soul are nourished and grow, but by the opposite qualities, such as vileness and evil, they are wasted away and destroyed.

...[I]t is just that the mind of the philosopher only has wings, for he is always, so far as he is able, in communion through memory with those things the communion with which causes God to be divine. Now a man who employs such memories rightly is always being initiated into perfect mysteries and he alone becomes truly perfect; but since he separates himself from human interests and turns his attention toward the divine, he is rebuked by the vulgar, who consider him mad and do not know that he is inspired.

Phaedrus, 246d-246e; 249c-249d.

Poem Retrospective XI

This is drawn, of course, from Odin's obsessive attempts in Norse mythology to learn as much as he can about the fate of the world, and particularly the fate of the gods: hanging for nine days and nine nights upon the World Ash until he saw the runes on the leaves of it, giving up an eye to drink from Mimir's well, sending his ravens Thought and Memory throughout the realms to bring him intelligence.

All-Father's Knowledge

Weird is the wyrd of man,
and wild,
writ on stars with sacred stile,
carved on ash of ages blessed,
carved on leaves.
The bracts confess truth to those who hang for nine --
nine days,
nine nights,
in death sublime.
Eye then opens --
source of awe --
wise becomes the Hanging God:
wise with lore of ancient runes,
wise in ways of birth and doom.
fresh-drawn from prophet's well
(poets there will drink their fill,
the scops who,
with their eddas,
dream of things to come and things unseen),
will wake from slumber sleeping thoughts --
wise becomes the prophet-God,
who gives an eye to be made wise,
who on the ash of ages dies.
Ravens soar from rainbow-bridge
with piercing eye for all things hid,
go back and forth through all the lands --
of death,
of elf,
of god,
of man;
through all ages restless roam from root to crown to Father's throne,
thought and memory turned to wing,
seeking out all truths unseen.
Nothing is found in town and wild
more strange of fate than human child.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Lion's Mane

"The Adventure of the Lion's Mane" is one of the most baffling of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Doyle himself claimed to like it -- indeed, to regard it as one of his best on the basis of its plot -- but almost no one else really knows what to make of it. The case is undeniably interesting, but Holmes's solution seems not only to be impossible, it seems to be based on a reason that cannot be taken seriously, and, to top it all off, we can't blame it on Watson because it is also weird in being written entirely from Holmes's point of view (Holmes is in retirement, so Watson isn't around to write it).

Holmes is living the quiet life beekeeping in Sussex, at a place near the beach that has regular lagoons form that attract swimmers. July 1907 sees a particularly nice gale that has especially filled the pools, and Holmes is taking a walk along the cliff when he meets up with Harry Stackhurst, who is headmaster of nearby prep school and is heading out for a swim with Fitzroy McPherson, the science teacher, who had already gone ahead. They are suddenly arrested by the sight of McPherson, about fifty yards away, coming up the sole path in the cliffs from the beach, staggering, crying out, and collapsing. They rush forward and discover that he is nearly dead, with "glazed sunken eyes" and "livid cheeks". His last words are (apparently) "the Lion's Mane". He is wearing only his trousers and an overcoat. Around his body is a mesh-like set of lines. They are joined by Ian Murdoch, a maths teacher at the school. They send him to get the police, and Holmes retraces McPherson's steps. McPherson was clearly the only person who had taken the path that morning. McPherson's towel is folded and dry on the rock, "so that it would seem that, after all, he had never entered the water", although bare footprints as well as shoeprints suggest that he had prepared to do so. The beach is deserted "save that two or three dark figures could be seen far away moving towards the village of Fulworth." They seem too far away and on the wrong side of the lagoon to be connected to the crime. There are "two or three fishingboats" that are "at no great distance", who can be questioned later. When he returns, he finds that there is a note from a woman in the dead man's pockets.

You can read the summary of the rest of the story at Wikipedia, if you don't have access to the story itself. Suffice it to say that the evidence points to Murdoch until Holmes argues, on the basis of a book, that McPherson was actually killed by a Lion's Mane jellyfish, and they do indeed find one hiding in the lagoon. Holmes ends the story criticizing himself for being misled by the dry towel.

So far, so good; one can see how this would make the structure of a mystery story. But nothing in it actually adds up. A few of the more obvious points:

* The Lion's Mane is a large jellyfish; McPherson can't have had the serious wounds he had unless he had been in the water where the jellyfish could reach him. (When Murdoch is later stung by it, he was well in the water and had to swim to shore.) But Holmes concludes that the dry towel shows that McPherson never entered the water; this is what he claims misled him. But Holmes was there when McPherson had died, just coming up from the lagoon; if McPherson had been in the water, he would have already known it from McPherson's body. The stings were not on McPherson's legs, as if he had dipped just part of himself in; they were on his torso. Sherlock Holmes does not need to find an indirect clue in order to tell whether a man he was with had just been in the water or not. This point is particularly salient given that at one point, Holmes describes the situation as, "he had returned without bathing, or at any rate without drying himself." That would be a very curious thing to say if you already knew that the man was dry.

* When Holmes first sees the fishing boats, he says they were "at no great distance" and they can examine them later. They never examine them. When the inspector mentions them later as a possible consideration, Holmes says, "No, no, they were too far out." Perhaps the fishing boat matter came up in the briefly mentioned inquest -- but the inspector would certainly have been aware of it, if they had. It's technically possible, I suppose, for boats to be "at no great distance" and "too far out" at the same time; but it's curious for one person to say both without any further explanation.

* The solution to the mystery lies in a book called Out of Doors, by John George Wood. It's a real book, and Wood does discuss his encounters with the Lion's Mane jellyfish. Holmes's summary if it in the story is accurate. But there are two features of Wood's story that are strange for our purposes; one of them Holmes not only mentions but arguably emphasizes, and the other of which he strangely leaves out. The one he mentions is that Wood says that his face at the end of the ordeal was "all white, wrinkled, and shrivelled, with cold perspiration standing in large drops over the surface". McPherson before he died is said to have had "glazed sunken eyes and dreadful livid cheeks". 'Livid' is the opposite of 'white'.

* The second puzzling thing is that Wood says, "The slightest touch of the clothes was agony". McPherson's wounding seems to be more serious than Wood's, but he is wearing an overcoat. What is more, the overcoat is just around his shoulders (it falls off on its own when Holmes and Stackhurst are examining him), despite the fact that he has been scrambling up a path in extraordinary agony. So you are attacked by a jellyfish and are in extraordinary agony; you take the time to put your overcoat on, despite the fact that it makes the agony even worse, and you keep it on while you scramble up the hill, occasionally falling. Maybe, but it seems a stretch.

* Murdoch once threw McPherson's dog through a window -- not out the window, literally through the plate-glass -- in a dispute; they then later became friends, as if a man is ever going to become genuine friends with someone who deliberately tried to kill his dog. This is all the more strange given that there is an entire portion of the story about the dog, in which we learn how loyal and faithful the dog is, which suggests that McPherson and his dog were quite close. And, of course, it gets even stranger given that McPherson and Murdoch were both interested in the same woman. And, moreover, despite the fact that everyone ends up insisting on it, the first description of Murdoch is that he was "so taciturn and aloof that none can be said to have been his friend". Yet three people -- Stackhurst, Maud Bellamy, and Ian Murdoch -- go out of their way to insist that Murdoch and McPherson were friends.

This is enough to be going on with for the moment. The difficulty of all of this is further compounded by the fact that mystery stories are not written on the principle of Chekhov's gun -- that's a rule for drama, and is only applicable to the story to the extent it approximates stage-drama -- but on the principle of misdirection. There are always misleading details, so it's a question of which strange details are really important. We could accept the explanation in the story without any question, despite many other oddities, if it weren't for the key point that Holmes goes out of his way multiple times to emphasize -- the water. If you assumed that a jellyfish in the water could attack a man out of the water, and do so on such a scale as McPherson is attacked, you could certainly swallow everything else. An advantage is that McPherson's death is explained; and if you pick anyone else as responsible, the jellyfish either has to be the weapon (which seems unreliable) or was used to cover the actual reason for McPherson's death (which seems rather complicated). But there are so many oddities to swallow, and there seems no way that McPherson could have been stung by the jellyfish and not obviously have been in the water.

And it's so odd to put the solution to the mystery in the title of the mystery. It's as if "The Adventure of Silver Blaze" were instead called "The Adventure of the Horse's Trainer". (I once had an idea for a story called, "The Butler Did It", in which it is obvious from the beginning that the butler did it and the problem is just proving it, but that's half a joke.)

If you don't accept the explanation in the story, we have to play the Great Game, and there are two paths to take. The explanation could be exoteric, drawing solely on the characters in the story and what we are told about them, or esoteric, and move more widely, and more wildly, through the canon and related history. Exoterically, the culprit(s) can only be significant characters actually on the stage in the story, and there are only a limited number of possibilities. Who is responsible for the death of Fitzroy McPherson?

(1) Fitzroy McPherson. It seems a baroque, agonizing, and unreliable way to commit suicide (if that was the intent), but McPherson is the only one who is known for sure to have been on the scene. He also knew what killed him; since he's a science teacher, he could well have know it just by sight. Holmes suggests that McPherson knew it was a Lion's Mane because he saw it floating on the water, but if he did that before being stung, he wouldn't have drawn close enough to be stung so badly. If it was afterward, though, he would still had to have been in the water. Unless he arranged to use the jellyfish filaments to sting himself; McPherson is the only one who could certainly have gotten himself stung without getting very wet.

(2) Harry Stackhurst. Our entire timetable depends from the beginning on Stackhurst; he is, he says, going to meet McPherson for a swim, McPherson having gone ahead. McPherson never confirms this because he is dead, but the rest of the reasoning depends on there having been very little time because McPherson was only a bit ahead of Stackhurst. The primary difficulty with Stackhurst being the principal suspect is that Holmes is clear that only McPherson had been up or down the only path. But if one took Stackhurst to be an accomplice, some possibilities open up. The dark figures on the beach and the fishing boats are ruled out because they are too far. 'Too far' is not a matter of distance but of time. Different timeline, different possibilities. You could imagine him accosting Holmes in the attempt to make sure he wasn't going down to the lagoon, and being shocked when, instead of already being dead, McPherson comes clambering up the path. Stackhurst is alone with McPherson's body for an extended period of time, when Murdoch is sent to the police and Holmes is investigating the scene; Holmes only finds the note from Maud in the pockets after he returns. Stackhurst is strangely irate at finding Murdoch hanging around Maud Bellamy's house. A number of oddities in the story are due to Stackhurst. But it's hard to make anything definite cohere around him.

(3) Ian Murdoch. Everything points originally to Murdoch, so he's the easy case. What's more, not much actually rules him out as responsible. Suspicion moves from him when Holmes convinces everyone that the weapon that killed McPherson was the living Lion's Mane -- and that's about it. The reason he wasn't arrested immediately was timeline issues -- he was supposedly keeping students late. Stackhurst establishes that element of the timeline, as well; Murdoch tells us no more than that he was late and not on the beach. Nobody seems to have checked the alibi. When Holmes is convincing the inspector of the futility of arresting Murdoch, he says, "he can surely prove an alibi", which is an odd thing to say if it were already obvious that he had one. When Stackhurst notes that it was mere chance that there weren't any students with McPherson, Holmes asks the interesting question, "Was it mere chance?" and then Stackhurst tells us why Murdoch was late. It's weird that Murdoch goes swimming in the same lagoon in which both McPherson and McPherson's dog had already died. We have only the word of Ian and Maud that Ian was OK with Maud being McPherson's fiancee.

(4) Maud Bellamy. I've always thought interesting that Maud knows Holmes by sight despite the fact that they had never met, a fact that Holmes notes explicitly. It's Maud who tells us that she was engaged to McPherson, although this appears to be confirmed by a comment made by Ian in passing; the engagement was a secret -- we are told. The difficulty with Maud as a suspect is that we have relatively little to work with; most of what we know about her is indirect.

(5) Tom and William Bellamy. We don't know much about father or son, but we do know a few things of interest. Tom Bellamy is a former fisherman, so he could handle a boat. William Bellamy is very strong, and fact that is potentially significant given that it is emphasized that, despite his bad heart, McPherson was so strong that "No single person could ever have inflicted such an outrage upon him" (according to Maud) and that it is impossible that Ian "could single-handed have inflicted this outrage upon a man quite as strong as himself" (Holmes). If any of the Bellamys are responsible, however, it seems that they cannot be the only ones involved.

There is one more.

(6) Sherlock Holmes. It seems a cheat even to suggest. But this story is unusual in that Holmes himself is telling it. Holmes was in the vicinity. Holmes alone is the reason why we think nobody else was on the path that morning. Holmes already knew about the Lion's Mane. When McPherson is indistinctly slurring words it is Holmes, and Holmes alone, who insists that he said "Lion's Mane". He does a great deal to convince everyone that Murdoch didn't do it. There are inconsistencies in Holmes's comments and behavior that could raise questions. And if he did do it, the interaction with the inspector at the end of the story could very well be read as ironic.

If we take the esoteric path, on the other hand, the sky is the limit. One could well imagine that Holmes is hinting at something he can't actually say -- that perhaps he saves Murdoch in order to save someone else, or perhaps there is something more sinister going on, in which he needs to quell the suspicions of those really responsible. But, of course, one can make up stories all day; the difficulty is making them all fit properly with what we know.

Poem Retrospective X

Somewhere or other I came across a writing exercise for building a (prose) story opening, and thought that it would make an interesting structure for a poem, which led to this. It does end up having a nice overall structure, and I don't really know what else I'd do with it, so there's no foreseeable changes for it.


She caught,
with casual raise of the hand,
the zephyr-breeze running through the green field --

tiny stars of daisies spangled the earth;
dew was still on their petals,
and they clustered around her feet --

the birds in the distance discoursed with angels,
who were shining like undying candles,
and she caught another breeze --

And she asked,
"Where is the flower that grants youth without end?"--

"In the gardens of Tapio,
which no mortal may ever see"--

"In the body,
you mean,
but my heart has seen it in dreams"--

"Not even in dreams,
for dreams are reflections in the Sorrowful Lake,
and nothing more"--

She bent down to pluck a shining daisy --

the old man,
with thought-like suddenness,
rose into the sky,
the sun gleaming on his ebon wings,
a raven.

Saturday, February 09, 2019

The 90s Internet

I'm not expecting the Captain Marvel movie to be particularly great, but some of the marketing for it is pretty impressive. The movie takes place in the 1990s, so for the movie website, they did a 90s-style website, which is hilarious. It is so very, very true to what the internet was in the 90s, when design options were limited, websites were set up as if they were bulletin boards with effects, and everybody was just making things up as they went along....

Poem Retrospective IX

The Blue Flower is found in Novalis's Heinrich von Ofterdingen, one of the central works of German Romanticism:

"It is not the treasures," said he to himself, "that have awakened in me such unutterable longings. Far from me is all avarice; but I long to behold the blue flower. It is constantly in my mind, and I can think and compose of nothing else. I have never been in such a mood. It seems as if I had hitherto been dreaming, or slumbering into another world; for in the world, in which hitherto I have lived, who would trouble himself about a flower?--I never have heard of such a strange passion for a flower here. I wonder, too, whence the stranger comes? None of our people have ever seen his like; still I know not why I should be so fascinated by his conversation. Others have listened to it, but none are moved by it as I am. Would that I could explain my feelings in words! I am often full of rapture, and it is only when the blue flower is out of my mind, that this deep, heart-felt longing overwhelms me...."

It came to symbolize a kind of longing for the infinite or the beyond, the point where ideal and real are no longer separate, that is most naturally expressed in poetic speech, and yet in some way also exceeds even such expression. Tapio is the old Finnish forest spirit; he is, through his wife Mielikki associated with bears (mead-paws).


The blue flower grows in the realm of Tapio,
where tree-roots deeper than any mountain's grow,
where forest-tops are marching like the sea,
an endless and everlasting sea,
and mead-paws dance in fields untouched by snow
where blossoms flourish whose names nobody knows
on a hill whose name nobody knows.