Saturday, October 10, 2020

Arthur Conan Doyle, His Last Bow; The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes


Opening Passages: From "The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge", the first tale in His Last Bow

 I find it recorded in my notebook that it was a bleak and windy day towards the end of March in the year 1892. Holmes had received a telegram while we sat at our lunch, and he had scribbled a reply. He made no remark, but the matter remained in his thoughts, for he stood in front of the fire afterwards with a thoughtful face, smoking his pipe, and casting an occasional glance at the message. Suddenly he turned upon me with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

“I suppose, Watson, we must look upon you as a man of letters,” said he. “How do you define the word ‘grotesque’?”

From "The Adventure of the Illustrious Client", the first story in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes

 "It can't hurt now," was Mr. Sherlock Holmes's comment when, for the tenth time in as many years, I asked his leave to reveal the following narrative. So it was that at last I obtained permission to put on record what was, in some ways, the supreme moment of my friend's career.

Summary: In his list of twelve favorite toward the end of his life, Doyle lists only one story from His Last Bow, "The Devil's Foot" (at #9); he does, however, also mention "The Bruce-Partington Plans" as a possible candidate, and that story is probably the one most widely enjoyed by readers. So let's look briefly at both.

In "The Devil's Foot", Holmes and Watson are in Cornwall for a health-vacation, when a case happens to find them. Mortimer Tregennis and the vicar, Mr. Roundhay, come to ask their help with the sudden and mysterious death of Mr. Tregennis's sister and the madness of his two brothers. Tregennis had visited them for a game of whist and then left, but when he returned, he found them sitting exactly where they had been, his sister dead and his brothers singing and laughing, both clearly out of their minds. Things get more complicated when an African explorer and hunter, Leon Sterndale, shows up, demanding answers. This being Cornwall, the locals suspect the Devil; Holmes sets that hypothesis aside and traces the problem to a root called Radix pedis diaboli, the Devil's-Foot Root.

 For an adaptation, I looked at the old 1921 Stoll production silent adaptation of it, which is interestingly very wordy, almost an illustrated text adventure:

This adaptation is really well done, and Eille Norwood, who plays Sherlock Holmes, is very much to be credited for it; he approached the role with die-hard seriousness, and in so doing captured the textual Holmes very well. They simplify the beginning of the story considerably, but despite the fact that the silent adaptation requires a fair amount of further simplification, they manage to keep it quite faithful otherwise.

In "The Bruce-Partington Plans", Holmes is suddenly visited by his brother Mycroft, who, as we all know, never deviates from his routine except for matters of gravest consequence. A man working for the government, Arthur Cadogan West, has been found dead, with seven out of ten pages of a highly confidential document giving the top-secret designs for a new submarine. The other three pages -- the most important pages -- are still missing. Holmes is able, with Mycroft's help, to identify someone who is likely involved, Hugo Oberstein. Holmes and Watson do a bit of burglary (something they do with remarkable frequency in the later stories); this will give Holmes what he needs to set a trap to catch the thieves and murderers and retrieve the missing pages.

When Doyle gave his list of favorite Holmes tales, The Case-Book was still quite new and not everywhere available, so he did not include any stories from it on the list. He did, however, mention two in particular as candidates: "The Lion's Mane" ("the actual plot is among the very best of the whole series") and "The Illustrious Client". Stories from this anthology rarely make it very high on lists of fan favorites ("Thor Bridge" seems to be the one that most consistently does best, and it never does better than middling well). I have elsewhere discussed the infinitely baffling "Lion's Mane", so I will say nothing more about it here, except to point out that Christopher Lee's reading of it is very, very good:



In "The Illustrious Client", Sir James Demery comes to Holmes with a case from an 'illustrious client', who is never named. A young woman, Violent, has fallen in love with the dangerous seducer and possible murderer, Adelbert Gruner. Holmes and Watson work out a plan to prove his wrongdoing to Violet, a plan that nearly goes wrong.

These stories are more experimental than previous tales, and I think it's a very safe opinion to say that the experiments by and large do not work. This is not to say that the tales don't have their moments -- there are some very good passages, and some of the stories are quite interesting on their own. But the best tales in these collections are usually either very similar to much better tales in previous collections ("The Bruce-Partington Plans" is good, and would fit perfectly well into the earlier collections, but "The Naval Treaty" is far better; "The Three Garridebs" has its charms, but the previous tale that it is most like is "The Red-Headed League", which is absolutely and in every way superior), or else they are gimmick-tales ("The Dying Detective", "The Lion's Mane", "The Devil's Root", "The Sussex Vampire", "Thor Bridge") that do well as interesting side-lanes but don't really capture what people have tended to like about Holmes. One of the stories in The Case-Book is just bad: In "The Three Gables", every character seems a caricature and Holmes continually acts in ways that are entirely out of character. Other stories, like "The Creeping Man" or "The Mazarin Stone" aren't so much bad as weird. I think the only experiment that works well as an experiment is "His Last Bow", and that's less because it can stand on its own than because it can serve pretty well as a kind of epilogue to the entire Holmes canon.

The fundamental thing I think missing is fun. None of these stories are really fun in the way earlier ones were, except for "His Last Bow", or even apparently trying to be, except for "The Three Garridebs" and "The Lion's Mane". When Doyle recommended "The Devil's Root", he said it was "grim and new", and that sums up most of the works. I think this is why "The Bruce-Partington Plans" always ends up doing fairly well on fan lists -- the grimness, the relative lack of fun, doesn't hurt it because it's a saving-the-Empire kind of story. The same grimness on a smaller scale makes for tales that are dark and sometimes unpleasant. The crimes are often nastier, the dangers are more sensationalistic, Holmes and Watson break the law more frequently, the solutions less often depend on deduction rather than on other things (perhaps the most egregious example is "The Veiled Lodger", which has an interesting gimmick and starts out with an interesting set-up, and then Holmes and Watson go to visit the lady involved and she tells them the solution). They have their humorous passages, their interesting moments, their points of cleverness, but they don't have them in layers the way the earlier stories often did. It's a curiosity of the Holmes canon that we have its Golden Age, its Silver Age, and its Iron Age all in a series from one single author, and these are very much the Iron Age tales. They are readable, they are interesting, there are often great in parts, and I would even say they still for the most part do very well in comparison to most detective stories ever written. They are not, with the exception of "The Three Gables", usually bad, but they are for the most part a decline. We have gone from great works that exhilarate to minor diversions that provide some interest. 

 Perhaps the last word should be Doyle himself, in a preface from the first edition of The Case-Book:

I fear that Mr. Sherlock Holmes may become like one of those popular tenors who, having outlived their time, are still tempted to make repeated farewell bows to their indulgent audiences. This must cease and he must go the way of all flesh, material or imaginary....

And so, reader, farewell to Sherlock Holmes! I thank you for your past constancy, and can but hope that some return has been made in the shape of that distraction from the worries of life and stimulating change of thought which can only be found in the fairy kingdom of romance.

Favorite Passages: From "His Last Bow", which takes place as the First World War is in the process of beginning:

“There’s an east wind coming, Watson.”

“I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.”

“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared. Start her up, Watson, for it’s time that we were on our way. I have a check for five hundred pounds which should be cashed early, for the drawer is quite capable of stopping it if he can.”

From "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs" in The Case-Book, a passage that, whatever criticisms the later Holmes stories may justly receive, nonetheless almost justifies their existence on its own:

"You're not hurt, Watson? For God's sake, say that you are not hurt!"

It was worth a wound—it was worth many wounds—to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.

"It's nothing, Holmes. It's a mere scratch."

He had ripped up my trousers with his pocket-knife.

"You are right," he cried, with an immense sigh of relief. "It is quite superficial." His face set like flint as he glared at our prisoner, who was sitting up with a dazed face. "By the Lord, it is as well for you. If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive. Now, sir, what have you to say for yourself?"

Recommendation: Recommended. Despite the reasonable criticisms leveled against them, these collections are still well worth reading.

Friday, October 09, 2020

Devotion and Dogma

Today is the feast of St. John Henry Newman. From his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (Part I, Chapter 5, Section 1):

People urge that salvation consists, not in believing the propositions that there is a God, that there is a Saviour, that our Lord is God, that there is a Trinity, but in believing in God, in a Saviour, in a Sanctifier; and they object that such propositions are but a formal and human medium destroying all true reception of the Gospel, and making religion a matter of words or of logic, instead of its having its seat in the heart. They are right so far as this, that men can and sometimes do rest in the propositions themselves as expressing intellectual notions; they are wrong, when they maintain that men need do so or always do so. The propositions may and must be used, and can easily be used, as the expression of facts, not notions, and they are necessary to the mind in the same way that language is ever necessary for denoting facts, both for ourselves as individuals, and for our intercourse with others. Again, they are useful in their dogmatic aspect as ascertaining and making clear for us the truths on which the religious imagination has to rest. Knowledge must ever precede the exercise of the affections. We feel gratitude and love, we feel indignation and dislike, when we have the informations actually put before us which are to kindle those several emotions. We love our parents, as our parents, when we know them to be our parents; we must know concerning God, before we can feel love, fear, hope, or trust towards Him. Devotion must have its objects; those objects, as being supernatural, when not represented to our senses by material symbols, must be set before the mind in propositions. The formula, which embodies a dogma for the theologian, readily suggests an object for the worshipper. It seems a truism to say, yet it is all that I have been saying, that in religion the imagination and affections should always be under the control of reason. Theology may stand as a substantive science, though it be without the life of religion; but religion cannot maintain its ground at all without theology. Sentiment, whether imaginative or emotional, falls back upon the intellect for its stay, when sense cannot be called into exercise; and it is in this way that devotion falls back upon dogma.


Roger Penrose won the 2020 Nobel Prize for Physics (with two other people) for the Penrose singularity theorem. I always find it interesting to ask how the idea came to someone, and Penrose has an interview in which he tells us how this one came to him after he had been thinking about how one might give a geometric characterization of singularities:

At that time I was at Birkbeck College, and a friend of mine, Ivor Robinson, who’s an Englishman but he was working in Dallas, Texas at the time, and he was talking to me … I forget what it was … he was a very … he had a wonderful way with words and so he was talking to me, and we got to this crossroad and as we crossed the road he stopped talking as we were watching out for traffic. We got to the other side and then he started talking again. And then when he left I had this strange feeling of elation and I couldn’t quite work out why I was feeling like that. So I went through all the things that had happened to me during the day – you know, what I had for breakfast and goodness knows what – and finally it came to this point when I was crossing the street, and I realised that I had a certain idea, and this idea what the crucial characterisation of when a collapse had reached a point of no return, without assuming any symmetry or anything like that. So this is what I called a trapped surface. And this was the key thing, so I went back to my office and I sketched out a proof of the collapse theorem. The paper I wrote was not that long afterwards, which went to Physical Review Letters, and it was published in 1965 I think.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Scientismagoria of the Scientismists

Maarten Boudry has a really poor discussion of scientism at the APA Blog (although part of the badness is borrowed from the paper by Hietenan et al. that he is looking at in particular). It starts at the very beginning, in explaining the common meaning of the term:

The general gist is that of science overreaching, pushing beyond its proper limits, illegitimately colonizing other fields of inquiry.

No, this is wrong. For one thing 'science' is not a personal agent; it doesn't do any of these things. Scientism is done by actual people, and it is generally regarded by people not as 'science' but as people putting forward claims that on examination are not scientific while pretending that they are scientific, often based on only loose analogies or imaginative associations. People pretend that they are giving scientific conclusions while issuing what are effectively IOUs for things for which they have no scientific demonstrations in hand, in a sort of usury of scientific authority. As I've noted before, a term that would capture more clearly what most people mean by it is 'scientifictionism'. There are, as Boudry notes, attempts to appropriate the term to other, supposedly positive, uses, but these are simply different uses, and one should not muddle them together with the usual use.

In any case, most of Boudry's post is on appropriated usages, looking at the argument of Hietenan et al. The paper of Hietenan et al. is entirely an attempt in redefinition -- it's not a matter of, "Is scientism defensible?" but "Is there a definition of something that could be given the label 'scientism' that is defensible?" This is a trivial question, since of course you can do so, if you are really so committed to the word. You can pick any word you please and redefine it in any way you please for any purpose you please. Of course, what they want is to have their cake and eat it, too: to redefine the word but criticize people for what they said about the previously existing homonym. But there are a few interesting aspects to their paper. They distinguish four kinds of 'scientism' in their sense:

strong, narrow: The natural sciences are the only sources of knowledge, justification, rational beliefs, or the like.
strong, broad: The sciences are the only sources of knowledge, justification, rational beliefs, or the like.
weak, narrow: The natural sciences are the best sources of knowledge, justification, rational beliefs, or the like.
weak, broad: The sciences are the best sources of knowledge, justification, rational beliefs, or the like.

None of these statements are very clear, and the weak versions are arguably not even well-formed (best for what end? according to what measure? -- when we look at the examples, we have cases like Mizrahi trying to argue that best is what gets most citations, which is absurd in itself and depends on controvertible assumptions about citation networks). All of them are nonstarters as they stand unless there is a relatively noncontroversial solution to the demarcation problem for what counts as a science, which, despite the efforts of Boudry and others, doesn't exist -- most philosophers are still skeptical that there is any solution at all (i.e., they take the boundary between sciences and non-sciences to be very fuzzy and messy), and even those who think they have one can hardly argue that there are no real controversies to be found with regard to it. One could, of course, narrow them -- not this foggy mass 'science' but such-and-such scientific methods, but the more you do that the more obviously stupid the strong versions are and the more obvious it is that whether the weak version is true just depends on what exactly your goals are. There is a reason why the literature focuses on the strong, narrow version: it's the only one that doesn't look like a wax nose.

Nonetheless, it gets worse. Hietenan et al. attempt to tackle the common objections to scientisms. The most obvious one is that scientisms generally seem self-defeating: actual scientific work presupposes things that are not scientific. Hietenan et al. divide these into (a) non-scientific background assumptions and (b) non-scientific sources of belief. With (a), for instance, it is commonly thought that basic assumptions about the existence and nature of the external world have to be presupposed -- indeed, this is a common view even among most physicists, as witnessed by (I think) Dirac's famous opening of a class by saying he was only going to make one philosophical assumption, that there was an external world. Hietenan et al.'s dismissal has to be quoted, because it's an obviously absurd argument:

One does not have to assume that science can achieve knowledge of the external world. Science can merely start with the hypothesis that some kind of knowledge could be achievable. For all practical purposes, this hypothesis would merely state that there are at least some regularities to be found. This hypothesis could be tested by simply attempting to obtain empirical knowledge with scientific means.

Hypotheses, of course, are a particular class of assumption, so this argument amounts to claiming that scientists don't have to assume that they can achieve knowledge of the external world, because all they have to do is to start by assuming it for the purposes of their inquiry. But the primary problem is that even making the hypothesis is already assuming that there is something to make a hypothesis about. Hietenan et al. gloss over this, and in fact do so in such a precise way that it's hard, hard, hard not to see it as a deliberate obfuscation: the hypothesis, they say, would merely state "there are at least some regularities to be found" -- regularities of what? found where? It can, they say, be tested just by attempting to obtain empirical knowledge with scientific means. What scientific means would those be, given that we supposedly aren't assuming that anything outside the mind exists? Apparently we don't have to assume that there exists anything outside the mind, we can just hypothesize that it does and test our hypothesis with tests we merely hypothesize to exist that use means we merely hypothesize to exist. Simple! Apparently Hietenan et al. think that scientists are all the loon from the asylum, creating a warp engine very scientifically with things that don't even need to exist. It is, of course, entirely absurd. You cannot build experimental science entirely out of layers of hypotheses; you need cloud chambers and telescopes and dissections and the like, and they have to be real and distinguishable from things like hallucinations to be of any use.

It is true that scientists can simply take the external world as a postulate -- a more accurate word than 'hypothesis' for what they are describing -- and postulates don't even have to be true to be useful. But the whole point of this exercise is that we are supposed to be talking about science as a 'source of knowing'; if it's based on postulates it can't be such unless we have independent knowledge that lets us say that the postulates are reasonable for their purposes. The view that science can be a source of knowing if based entirely on hoping that you're getting it right is obviously irrational.

With respect to (b), non-scientific sources of belief, Hietenen et al. criticize the critics for not understanding scientific practice, but they seem not to understand everyday sensation by pretending that it involves no error correction. In fact, error correction is pervasive. If you think you see someone in the shadows, you look again. If you feel a pain, you look at the painful spot. To make sure you are seeing something right, you stare at it to make sure it wasn't a transient appearance. Etc., etc. This isn't 'scientific practice' unless you are just playing with words and trying to turn everything into 'science' when it suits you (something of which scientism has regularly been accused, as it happens). It's the usual sleight of hand. When scientists check their measurements, they are doing science; but they are doing it by things like 'looking at a dial to get the number' and 'comparing two columns to make sure they are equal' and 'double-checking that the color is what it appeared to be'. These are only useful for scientific work if they are examples of things that are useful much more broadly. Looking at a dial is useful for precisely the same reason that looking at the calendar is useful. Using a clock to measure something in an experiment and using a clock to determine how long you have to wait until dinner are in the same genus of activity, and are both useful because they may be accurate measures for their purposes, but you are not engaging in 'scientific practice' just because you are measuring something. And what counts as best for knowing what you want to know just depends on what you are doing: an experiment may absolutely require an atomic clock, but trying to work with that degree of precision may be useless or even harmful to planning dinner. The sleight of hand, of course, is trying to pretend that entirely common cognitive abilities and means of interacting with the world are really scientific practice when in fact they are just things that scientists can sometimes use -- if they already presuppose that they work.

They also consider a further self-defeat objection, but their argument fares no better there, either. They hold that weak scientism can reject the claim that "It is rational to accept scientism only if scientism is justified on the basis of scientific research and nothing else." But in fact, if it does so, weak scientism as they have defined it defeats itself: if scientism is not established only on the basis of scientific research and nothing else, then science is not in fact the best source of justification, etc., if you are interested in scientism. Of course, this goes back to their failure to consider the question, "Best for what?"

Boudry is interesting, because he keeps tripping over the obvious problems with this entire argument while obstinately refusing to consider them problems. For instance, he says,

Second, does the fact that scientists rely on their sense organs invalidate scientism? No. If that constituted a “limit” to science, the question of scientism would become completely trivial. Of course science relies on information acquired through our human senses. In fact, it could not even get off the ground without it.

Yes, Maarten, this is why most people would consider the positions above described as the different forms of scientism to be stupid, because it is obvious that scientific work has to rely on information acquired through our human senses, which doesn't originate from scientific practice. You don't have to do work in a laboratory to learn by looking and hearing; you do have to start learning by looking, hearing, etc., to do work in a laboratory. The fact that scientists continue to refine this doesn't remotely change the fact that it proves the strong forms of scientism trivially false. And as the refinements work only for what scientists are doing with them, they don't apply to what everyone else is doing with them, which for the weak forms get us back to the question, "Best for what?" What is the best source for a particular conclusion is not the same as what is the best source for starting the entire process rolling.

Boudry makes it worse by saying:

All these arguments about science being “based” on some extra-scientific assumption or source of knowledge are guilty of what I call the “foundationalist fallacy”. The mistake is to think that knowledge is something that needs to be “grounded” in some solid foundation, and that if this foundation is not completely secure, the whole edifice will collapse. But this metaphor of human knowledge is deeply misguided, and it inevitably leads to infinite regress. Whatever ultimate foundation you come up with, you can always ask the question: what is that foundation based on? It cannot be self-evident, floating in mid-air.

No, no, no. First, it can be self-evident. Second, it doesn't have to be self-evident, it can just be evident (as from careful experience). Third, in epistemology 'foundation' by definition means there is no infinite regress, because you trace it back to something that is self-evident or evident. That's the whole point of foundationalism; and the standard argument that you need a foundation is an argument that if you don't have one, you get an infinite regress. Fourth, weak scientismists, by his own previous argument and by the way their position is defined, are not committed to rejecting some foundation prior to scientific inquiry. Fifth, Boudry himself just used the metaphor that without the senses science "could not even get off the ground", so he has no ground to stand on for criticizing the foundation metaphor. He continues:

A better metaphor of human knowledge is that of a large web with many interconnected strands that mutually reinforce each other. The more connections, the more reliable our knowledge.

Ah, yes, the magical spiderweb that connects to nothing but itself. But in any case, it doesn't actually solve the problem: all the arguments remain exactly as they are. If you are a strong scientismist, you have to say that the entire web is science, which is trivially false; if you are a weak scientismist, you have to say that science is the most reinforced part of the web (but for what purpose?), and we are still having the same argument. We can make up metaphors all day. Perhaps a better metaphor for human knowledge is an ecology, hyperdiverse and mutually interacting, not a bland homogenous web. Perhaps a better metaphor for human knowledge is a metropolis. Or perhaps a better metaphor is a gurgling stomach or an old shoe, who knows? Changing the metaphor doesn't change anything because people aren't arguing the metaphors but using the metaphors to express succinctly other things about which they are arguing, which don't all change just because you change how you talk about them.

But the best part is the end, when Boudry gives his definition of scientism:

In short, the definition of “scientism” that I would endorse is the following: there are no other ways of knowing apart from those used by the sciences (broadly construed, including history and the humanities).

Ah, yes, of course, there are no ways of knowing except those that are not separated from everything we think about. Scientism!

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

The Narrative Chronology of the Holmes Canon

Since I've been reading the last of the Holmes canon, I've been looking at questions of the narrative chronology of the Holmes cases -- a very notoriously tangled part of Sherlockiana. A Basic Timeline of Terra 221B by Brad Keefauver is a very good resource, identifying from each case the specific time indicators and giving his own assessment (while comparing it to two more widely recognized assessments). Some of the dates, of course, are quite sure -- Watson explicitly states that "The Illustrious Client" began on September 3, 1902, for instance -- and others have to be pieced together from more fragmentary comments, and yet others are highly speculative, since there is often not much for a chronology to be built on. My favorite of these latter is his attempt to pin down a year for "Silver Blaze" based on the names of the horses, probably closely followed by the even more ingenious (although perhaps a little more convincing) use of Holmes's different attitudes to Turkish baths to fix the relative order of "The Illustrious Client" and "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax".

And, of course, there are the definite problem cases. The most notorious is that of "Wisteria Lodge", in which Watson quite explicitly says that it occurred toward the end of March, 1892. The problem is that Holmes had apparently been killed by Moriarty in "The Final Problem" the year before and Watson doesn't learn he is still alive until "The Empty House" in the spring of 1894. The usual chronologies treat this as a slip of the pen; Keefauver just gives up and suggests that Watson hallucinated the case, although during the time he claimed. Another is "Charles Augustus Milverton", where Watson states that he is concealing the date; yet another is "The Man with the Twisted Lip", in which Watson gets into an argument with someone high on opium about what the date is, and the man with the opium seems to know what he's talking about more than Watson does.

I always find this kind of thing fascinating, providing very interesting examples of how causal reasoning works.

A Poem Draft


I. Fire Sermon
Of earth, which slides toward hell

Beneath the wisdom tree,
made free,
we see the final victory;
alas, the world is gone
if we move on!
Without the piety of dawn,
alas the world is gone!
Proclaim it and convey it
in its pure and spotless form;
all who go forth to meet it
are rescued from the storm:
All is burning, burning,
everything is burning,
all things in fire turning
as ember in the flame.
The eye is burning, burning,
its vision consumed the same.
With craving and aversion,
with the darkened mind's delusion,
the eye is burning, burning,
an ashen end is earning.
The ear is burning, burning,
the nose to flame is turning,
the tongue its fire earning,
body and mind are burning.
The noble seeker tires
of his senses with their fires,
and casts aside all craving,
all aversion with its raving,
his mind from delusion saving,
and is made truly free.
For beyond rebirth is victory,
the victory of sanctity,
in sanctity the ecstasy
of all fulfilled and done.

II. Raja-Yoga
Of purgatory, which stills all desire

Work, devotion, insight grow,
an intermingled fire-glow,
into a kingly lore,
growing more and ever more
in light that purges every sin,
purifies the hearts of men,
with inner splendor shining,
every glory intertwining.
The world of flesh is ever-changed,
battered, moved, by force deranged,
but it cannot enchain the light
unmoved to fear or flight,
unchanged above the fight.
Those who tread the holy course
come to rest in purest source,
which is both psalm and sacrifice,
which is both priest and priest's device,
the ever-burning fire
that quenches all desire,
the candle, offering, and adored,
the Prayer, Priest, and holy Lord,
the baptizing font of eternity
beyond and more than victory!
Who will in hope of heart convert
will to heaven's Lord revert,
no matter sin, no matter shame,
return again to holy name.
Fix heart and thought on what endures,
the being, thought, and bliss most pure!

III. The Most Songly Song
Of heaven, which is the saint in God

May he kiss --
       -- your love more sweet than wine,
the very bliss beyond all fruit of vine --
       -- the incense fair, a holy name,
all things, all things love you, who are one and same;
as king into the inmost place,
loving lure and loving chase --
       -- all wealth is as if nothing next to you --
       -- like crocus I am overflowing dew,
more pure than all, my love is lily-true.
He is an apple tree, freshly sweet;
beneath his shade I take my seat.
Refreshed with apples, drunk with love,
may his hand be underneath me, he above,
like gazelle leaping upon the hill,
a splendor that my eyes would fill --
       -- the flowers bloom; in spring is heard
the singing of the gentle bird;
arise, my love, come away,
my love unveil your splendid ray:
let loose your voice, unhide your face --
       -- with him do I find my place,
thought and thought intertwine,
for I am his and he is mine.
O north-wind rise, upon this garden blow;
O come, my love, as breeze-held spices flow! --
       -- I come into my garden, O bride most fair and mine,
and gather myrrh, taste honey, and drink my wine --
       -- a mansion of riches is my beloved, marble and gold to his feet,
altogether lovely and mouth most lovely sweet --
      -- my pure, my dove, is one and only one,
joysome as dawn, fair as moon, clear as sun;
I went down to the garden to see the earth bloom bright
and I was made a king by the sight --
       -- I am my beloved's, his love is for me;
let us go down to the garden, the blooming to see --
       -- set me as a seal upon your heart, forever same,
for love is strong as death and (I dare to speak the Name),
it is God-flame,
unquenched by any water's flood,
ever-resting, ever-acting, ever good.

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

The Lion's Mane (Re-Post)

This is a lightly revised version of a post from 2019.

"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 (it's one of the handful of Holmes stories still under copyright in the United States). 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 (and if Stackhurst's testimony is right, it can't have taken much time); if McPherson had been in the water, Holmes 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 the same 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 of 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 emphasizes, and the other of which he strangely leaves out. The one he emphasizes 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 a little odd to put the solution to the mystery in the title of the mystery, although perhaps not unheard of.

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 known 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 have had to have been in the water. Unless he somehow arranged to use the jellyfish filaments to sting himself; McPherson is also 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 when he deliberately flags down Holmes, 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 we 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 due to 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, a 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. Perhaps Holmes really did do it, and this is one score for Sherlockistic heretics like Charles Williams who hold that the post-Return Holmes is actually a criminal pretending to be the famous detective. But, of course, one can make up stories all day; the difficulty is making them all fit properly with what we know.

Monday, October 05, 2020

Whit's End

Joel Cuthbertson, Radio Theatre and the Problem of Evangelical Art, has a very interesting discussion of Adventures in Odyssey, the foremost radio artwork of our time:

Insisting on “peak” Odyssey, however, isn’t an accident. To praise Evangelical audio drama, with however many qualifications, means praising the artists behind its narrow success. Hal Smith as Whit, Katie Leigh as Connie Kendall, Will Ryan as Eugene (as well as dozens of others), and Alan Young as Jack Allen are essential to Odyssey’s best outings. But to praise Christian audio drama, including and beyond the scope of Odyssey, is to insist on Paul McCusker as one of the most important Christian writers of the last thirty years. He’s not only penned the most Odyssey episodes to date and served as Producer and Executive Producer for its best years, but in the late 1990s he also helped create Focus on the Family’s Radio Theatre. His legacy is diffused by radio’s collaborative nature, to say nothing of the missteps all popular writers produce, but in an age of resurgent audio excellence, his status as a forerunner extraordinaire shouldn’t be ignored.

While excellent, I think the essay concedes far too much to a certain kind of noxious critic: " represents almost too well the parasitic mindset of the Evangelical marketplace: a wholesome alternative, not an original endeavor....[A]t least one reading of Whit’s End betrays Evangelical desire for retreat as too often an Evangelical desire for comfort". This is a childish worry, too often indulged in our era, and itself makes several false assumptions about the nature of art -- that originality is a primary rather than a secondary end of art, that adapting art for one's community, however badly, is "parasitic" (it is in fact just part of the ordinary process of art-making) and focused on "comfort" (it is no more so than any other form of entertainment), that failing to highlight everything is somehow a flaw in art. All of these, I think, stem from the unhealthy worry, common among religious groups these days (and especially among Evangelicals, who have a tendency to measure their devotion by their impact on the world around them), of being caught in a 'cultural ghetto'. Such things are really just community-building, which is one way you build up the practices, techniques, and expertise that is required eventually to start producing something great. The only genuinely artistic problems that arise from such things are if artists are deliberately penalized for going beyond the confines of the niche in artistic terms.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Families of Artistic Effect

Francis Hutcheson, in his An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue and elsewhere, identified a number of internal senses, where sense means a way in which our ideas originate: sense of beauty, sense of harmony, sense of order, sense of the ridiculous, consciousness (which is something like a sense of self), public sense (which gives us pleasure at the happiness of others and pains us when they are miserable), sense of honour (which gives us pleasure at others being approving of or grateful to us), moral sense (which gives us recognition of virtue and vice). He's probably not intending to be exhaustive. Alexander Gerard, in his Essay on Taste, suggested the following senses, which he takes all internal senses, or at least those concerned with aesthetics, to be reducible to: sense of novelty, sense of sublimity, sense of beauty, sense of imitation, sense of harmony, sense of riducule, sense of virtue. So let's take the Gerardian list, with minor modification for perspicacity. Then we have the following aesthetic qualities:

the novel/new
the sublime
the beautiful
the imitative
the harmonious
the humorous
the moral

(That the moral is an aesthetic effect can be seen easily in the portrayal of heroes and villains in literature; the moral sense is what distinguishes the two, and we all recognize that failing actually to convey the heroism of the hero or the villainy of the villain is an artistic flaw.) But it seems reasonable to say that we can combine these in one; some things, for instance, are such that we 'sense' them as new and as beautiful, for instance. Then we get the following combinations of two:

novel sublime
novel beautiful
novel imitative
novel harmonious
novel humorous
novel moral
sublime beautiful
sublime imitative
sublime harmonious
sublime humorous
sublime moral
beautiful imitative
beautiful harmonious
beautiful humorous
beautiful moral
imitative harmonious
imitative humorous
imitative moral
harmonious humorous
harmonious moral
humorous moral

These are different families of artistic effect, deliberately cultivated. Many of the families are quite interesting. For instance [imitative moral] is something you see deliberately developed in hagiography -- indeed, hagiography is specifically focused on the [sublime imitative moral], since saints are supposed to be morally recognized, are supposed to be recognizable as imitations of Christ, and thus to open up on the divine infinite. Some effects are clearly very, very difficult to achieve -- [sublime humorous] is perhaps the most obvious. If we accept the theory of Jean Paul, the humorous is the inverted sublime, which makes the category appear an oxymoron and perhaps a contradiction. But there are other accounts of humor in which this problem might not exist. And, while not easy, there are cases where the difficult union of the humorous (even in its form of the ridiculous) and the sublime seems achieved -- G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday is arguably an example. Another apparent paradox is the [novel imitative] -- but I think it is quite a common aim of acting to achieve it.

The [harmonious] families are also somewhat tricky; harmony is a matter of sound, and thus the conditions for combining with the others have to be just right. We do get them in poetry, where sound can and often does matter, and of course in sung poetry. But we also have other situations in which they can occur without words: [harmonious humorous] is not common in pure music, but, for instance Haydn was famous for his musical jokes: the Surprise Symphony (no. 94), the Clock Symphony (no. 101), the Joke Quartet (Op. 33, no. 2). Beethoven's Eroica Symphony (no. 3) is a famous example of [sublime harmonious]. Interestingly, [beautiful harmonious], [sublime harmonious], and [novel harmonious] are associated with (although not completely definitive of) three major approaches to music, the classical, romantic, and avant-garde respectively.

The Royal Game of Ur

How to play the Royal Game of Ur, the oldest known boardgame in the world, much older than chess and probably a distant ancestor of backgammon: