Pretentiousness comes from modern art comes from Plato

Standard

Ross James just posted a great essay, Annihilation — on Pretentiousness in Media. I feel like he’s saved me a blog post; I would’ve had to have written something similar eventually.

It’s on his Patreon site, but if I’m reading the tags right, it’s free to read. Some excerpts:

… if being entertaining was the primary objective of media, The Room would be a fantastic movie. We can say that The Room is a terrible movie while also being entertained by it, so we need to understand what other criteria we are thinking about when we call a movie ‘good’ or ‘bad’. … The danger is that when your meaning isn’t clear, when your story isn’t well delivered, the criticism doesn’t get directed at the work. …

A symptom of this is, strangely, a certain style of debate about the analysis of your movie. In a well-constructed movie, ideas about what something means are tied back to elements of the movie as evidence. [Analyzing?] Movies that fall into the pitfall of pretension — or the kind I have roughly laid out in my mind — are more about explaining what a scene had to mean by tying ideas to it. Think about the debate about the spinning top in Inception; they focus on trying to debate what scenes were actually trying to say first before they can work out what they actually meant.

In other words: If you’re spending more effort trying to figure out what the story said than you are re-evaluating your beliefs in light of what the story said, the story may be pretentious. If the story is difficult because the subject matter is difficult, that’s legit, but if it’s difficult because the author didn’t try to make it clear, or deliberately made it unclear, that’s pretentious.

(I’m okay with the spinning top in Inception, because the question left unanswered, as to whether the final world is real or not, is a question the characters are themselves asking. It’s not something you have to answer to interpret the story; it’s part of the story.)

James’ essay elaborates on this. He doesn’t, however, explain where this trend over the past century for “great” art to be pretentious came from. It’s actually deliberate.

Persian Flaws

There’s supposedly an old Persian tradition that every carpet made must have a deliberate flaw in it, because “only Allah makes things perfectly, and therefore to weave a perfect rug or carpet would be an offence to Allah.”

Hopefully you see the flaw in the reasoning: If only Allah makes things perfectly, you don’t have to worry about creating something perfect. This alleged tradition has always struck me as tremendously arrogant–an artist supposing she or he could create a perfect work.

Modern (20th-century) art and literature suffers the same arrogance. We see this first in the great stress that modern artists and modernist writers placed on reminding the viewer or reader that their art was not reality, but just a picture of reality.

Caption: “This is not a pipe”

The most-common justification for this obsession was the idea that art was a tool of the bourgoisie, used to suppress the proletariat by showing them false images of reality. Creating revolutionary consciousness required first making people aware that the paintings they looked at weren’t actually real things, and that the novels they read weren’t true life stories. You can find examples of this argument in Bertolt Brecht’s director’s notes for The Threepenny Opera (1928), in Lennard Davis’ 1987 book Resisting Novels, and an especially paranoid lunatic version of it in Theodor Adorno’s 1944 “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”.

So many modernist writers add deliberate “flaws” to their works, disruptive elements to break the reader’s immersion and keep the reader detached and at a distance.  In The Threepenny Opera, Brecht broke up the play’s continuity and immersiveness by having actors intersperse narration with raised billboards, of the type that separated scenes in silent films, by using these billboards to break dramatic tension by telling the spectator what was going to happen, and by directing the actors to act in a manner meant to break the fourth wall. “In drama, too, we should introduce footnotes and the practice of thumbing through and checking up… Thinking about the flow of the play is more important than thinking from within the flow of the play,” he wrote. “The spectator must not be misled along the path of empathy.”

In other modernist literature, breaking the reader’s immersion is done by breaking up and re-arranging the story in ways that confuse the reader and destroy rather than heighten drama, such as the tedious circling about the actual story, bouncing back and forth between past and future, in Arundhati Roy’s 1997 Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things, or the way David Mitchell split all his stories in two and inserted the pieces inside each other in his critically-acclaimed Cloud Atlas (2004).  You would be hard-pressed to find a critically-acclaimed novel from the past 20 years that told a straightforward story using a traditional structure that was meant to heighten rather than dispel drama. Chapter 1 of Annie Dillard’s 1982 Living By Fiction, “Fiction in Bits”, is about this phenomenon, as is much of “A Reader’s Manifesto” (2001).

One modernist technique for breaking immersion and creating distance is ambiguity.

Ambiguity

I’m not complaining about the kind of ambiguity where you can’t decide whether an artwork’s message is right or wrong, or the kind where the subject is difficult, or the kind where the subject is ambiguity itself. I mean ambiguity that is added to the story to obstruct your attempts to figure it out. That’s the kind of ambiguity Ross James is calling pretentious: ambiguity that makes you argue over what a work of art is trying to say, rather than about the thing it’s saying. The claim that this sort of ambiguity is good comes from modernist philosophy.

The informational content of a work of art, like the information in a sentence, comes more from how its parts are combined than from the meanings of the individual parts, e.g., “the dog bit the man” doesn’t mean the same thing as “the man bit the dog”.

But Modernism is based on ancient Platonist metaphysics, which claims that meaning exists only in the essences of individual things, not in how those things are combined. So modernists have difficulty conceiving of the information content of a representational work of art as being significant. They tend to think the significance of a representation is just the sum of the significances of the things represented. A representational work of art only shows you a collection of things you’ve seen before; therefore, it contains no new essences, and (they would argue) you can learn nothing from it.

This is why modernists imagine they could produce perfect art if they wanted to; they’re blind to the art part of a work of art, and see only the technique. They’re reverting to the medieval and ancient Greek conception of “art”, which meant about the same as our “craft” or “technical skill”. (You can read a post-modernist whining about how the Enlightenment led people to invent the artificial concept of “Art” in Larry Shiner’s 2001 The Invention of Art.)

To make a work challenging or interesting, dedicated modernists believe it must do one of these things:

– It must give us new views of essences.  This means either giving direct access to transcendental essences never perceived before, or depicting essences more truly than they have been depicted before.  Either option requires not using a realistic style. This is the primary purpose of modern art. You can find this spelled out in, for instance, various writings by Cubist painters circa ~1920, e.g. (Gleizes & Metzinger 1912 p. 195).  The description of cubism in ancient and primitive art in (Boas 1927 p. 351) gives the same explanation.

– It must use a new style or technique.

– The challenge can’t lie in the meaning of a work of art, but it can lie in the challenge of discovering that meaning. That is, art can’t lie in the interpretation of a work of art–an interpretation merely spells out what is being represented–but it can lie in the difficulty of discovering an interpretation. Nothing the artist has to say can be very interesting, but figuring out what the artist is saying–or producing your own meaning from a Rorschach-blot-like work of art–can be fun and interesting.

The Alleged Insufficiency of Language

Another theme of modern literature and philosophy is that language is incapable of communicating meaning, and actually serves to mislead people more than to enlighten them. You find this, for example, in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, in which he said that “Language disguises […] thought; so that from the external form of the clothes one cannot infer the form of the thought they clothe, because the external form of the clothes is constructed with quite another object than to let the form of the body be recognized.” You also find it in Derrida’s “infinite chain of deferral of meaning” (Derrida 1967). This belief comes not from any actual failure of language, but, again, from Platonist metaphysics, which says that meaning resides in a transcendent realm which words can never reach.

In modernist literature, this sometimes results in authors trying to prove that language can’t communicate meaning by writing stories which fail to communicate clearly.

William Faulkner is a good example. Just today I heard a lecturer (David Thorburn, Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Literature, lecture 21, “Faulkner’s World–Our Frantic Steeplechase”) say that one of Faulkner’s themes was “the treacherous limitations of language as an instrument for describing and understanding experience.”

But Faulkner never demonstrated this legitimately, by showing a failure of language. He deliberately obscured his meaning, for instance, by using phony stream-of-consciousness in which he imagines that the interior thoughts of a mentally subnormal person, or of a child, are simply the things that person or child might say out loud if asked about his thoughts. Or, in many instances in As I Lay Dying, by again using stream-of-consciousness dishonestly, having a character’s interior monologue not say things that the character already knew–always the most crucial elements in figuring out what that character was thinking about–to give the impression that true inner experience was incommunicable.

A survey of modernist literature would turn up more instances of stories written in a deliberately obscure style specifically to prove that language is incapable of communicating meaning. I’ve given at least one example in a previous blog post, but I don’t remember what it was right now.

Conclusion: Blame Plato

So ambiguity of interpretation–what Ross James calls “pretentiousness”–came to be seen as inherently good, because people can argue over the meaning of an ambiguous work of art, and because ambiguity “proves” that language can’t communicate meaning and that we need to find a transcendent source of meaning. It’s deliberately cultivated by modernists, as a consequence of their belief that representational content is unimportant and the real (physical) world is unimportant, as a consequence of their Platonist metaphysics.


Franz Boas, 1927. Primitive Art. Oslo: H. Aschehoug & Co. Page numbers reported from Dover 1955 reprint.

Bertold Brecht, 1928, transl. Eric Bentley 1949, exigesis Eric Bentley. The Threepenny Opera. First performed in Berlin. New York: Grove Press.

Lennard Davis, 1987. Resisting Novels: Ideology & Fiction. Methuen, Inc., NYC NY.

Jacques Derrida, 1967, transl. 1976. Of Grammatology. Extracts in Leitch 2010 p. 1688-1697.

Annie Dillard, 1982. Living By Fiction. NYC: Harper & Row.

Albert Gleizes & Jean Metzinger, 1912. “Cubism.” In Harrison & Wood 1992, p. 187-196.

Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, eds., 1992. Art in Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Max Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno 1944, transl. 2002. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” In Dialectics of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, Stanford U. Press, 2002.

Vincent Leitch et al., eds. 2nd ed. 2010, The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. New York: Norton.

B. R. Meyers, 2001. “A Reader’s Manifesto”. The Atlantic, July/Aug 2001.

Larry Shiner, 1990. The Invention of Art: A Cultural History. U. of Chicago Press.

Advertisements

Near and Far–Construal and Psychological Distance

Standard

Near and Far

A current area of research in psychology called “construal-level theory” (CLT) is—I promise—relevant to literature.  It talks about a very general phenomenon called “psychological distance”.  In popular accounts, it’s called the “near / far” distinction.  Robin Hanson summarized it on Overcoming Bias.  The more-detailed review (Trope & Liberman 2010) calls these things Near and Far:

Abstraction and idealism appear to make up the dominant dimension:  Far things are more abstract and more idealized.  Distance seems to me peripheral; only near / far in space and in time relate to distance [1].

CLT claims that:

  1. Every object of thought has many different attributes (rows of the table) which distance can be a metaphor for.  Distance itself, of course; and distance in time is similar.  More metaphorical distances include level of familiarity (familiar = near, strange = far) and abstraction (detailed = near, abstract = far).  The distance metaphor has even been stretched to include color (red = near, blue = far) and transactional direction (buy = near, sell = far), though I’m not convinced.
  2. In all [2] experiments reported in (Trope & Liberman 2010), being shown anything from the Near column of the Near / Far table makes people think in Near terms for every other row of the table. Similarly for things from the Far column. For example, subjects asked to mark points far away from each other on a graph, and then asked how close they were to their family, reported being “farther away” socially from their families than subjects who were asked to mark points that were close together on the graph (Trope & Liberman 2010 p. 443).  Many experiments used a Stroop-effect task to show interference (longer reaction time) when the priming attribute was near (far) and the tested attribute was far (near).
  3. Therefore, near / far is, or can be regarded as, a single mode of human thought.  Perceptions of nearness of one attribute are not merely correlated with perceptions of nearness of other object attributes; they cause other attributes to be perceived as near, or to be approached or thought about (construed) in the manner one would if they were near.  Near / far is thus a mode of human thought, and while a person can be in a mode between near and far, a person cannot perceive some attributes of a mental object in far mode, while simultaneously perceiving other attributes or other mental objects in near mode.

Near and Far in Art & Culture

I claim, additionally, that Near and Far characterize not just how individuals think at a given moment, but characterize artistic movements, literary genres, and entire cultures.  These works, artists, genres, and cultures can be classed as usually endorsing or displaying either Near or Far values:

Far: The AeneidBeowulf, Chaucer’s Troilus and CriseydePilgrim’s Progress; John Milton; heroic fantasy, superhero comics; Christianity, Nazism

Near: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; Robert Frost, Raymond Chandler; realist and naturalist novels, hard-boiled detective fiction; empirical science

The history of European art, science, and culture from 1300 up until 1900 was, excepting the 18th century, one of moving gradually from Far to Near mode.  The first-person POV in fictional narrative was (I think) an invention of the 18th century, and the 20th-century dictums “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell” are both commands to write in near rather than far mode.

The novel that began Modernist literature, James Joyce’s Ulysses, is all about confusing the Near and the Far.  It takes a narrative that is very, very Far—an Archaic Greek epic poem about an idealized, overconfident, noble hero—and superimposes it on a protagonist who is very Near—an irreligious Irish Jew whose mundane, pathetic, and comical inner thoughts and bodily functions are described in more detail than anyone had ever described any character’s before.

Near and Far will be important concepts in understanding the history of art and culture.  They are so important that they were discovered independently several times before.

Using Near and Far in Writing

Ursula LeGuin wrote an essay called “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” which I think is pretty awful.  She tried to pin down what made something fantasy rather than ordinary fiction with dragons and swords, and she started out right—

Let us consider Elfland as a great national park, a vast beautiful place where a person goes by himself, on foot, to get in touch with reality in a special, private, profound fashion.

The phrase “get in touch with reality“, used to talk about something that is definitively unreal, is instantly diagnostic of philosophical realism, also called Idealism.  That’s the belief that reality isn’t real, but instead some fantasy world of yours, an imagined ideal world such as Plato’s cave, is real.  Plato, Jesus, Hegel, and Heidegger are probably the most-famous Idealists.

Idealism is indeed the basis of classic heroic fantasy, although now, in the age of democracy, we’ve got hobbits as heroes.  Idealism seems to mean nearly the same thing as Far mode.

However, she goes on to say…

What is it, then, that I believe has gone wrong in the book and the passage quoted from it? I think it is the style.

Not heroism, idealistic principles, or karma in the world, as Tolkien would have said.  No; LeGuin says true fantasy is anything written in a genuine phony archaic style.

I think style is certainly not the causative or definitive feature we want to find, but it is not as useless a conclusion as it first appeared to me. For a style specifies how one approaches the objects one writes about.  Does one describe them concretely or abstractly? Does one focus on the physical details, or on purposes and meanings? Does the wording create distance or intimacy?  All the choices presented in the “Near / Far” table could be called stylistic.  A style, then, positions a text on the Near / Far continuum.

Knowing what is Near and what is Far will therefore help you keep your style more psychologically plausible, by not mixing Near and Far stylistic elements.

(Trope & Liberman 2010) mentioned some research on Near vs. Far style.  Here “dispositional” means saying someone did something because of their character, versus “situational”, which means saying someone did something because of the situation they were in.

It has been shown, for example, that personal memories of behaviors that were recalled from a third-person perspective (e.g., “try to remember your first day at school, as if you are now watching the kid you were”) rather than from a first-person perspective (“try to remember your first day at school, as if you are a kid again”) tended to use dispositional (as opposed to situational) terms (Frank & Gilovich, 1989; Nigro & Neisser, 1983). In a similar vein, Libby and Eibach (2002, Study 4) found that imagining performing an activity (e.g., rock climbing, playing drums) from a third-person perspective produced less vivid and rich reports of the activity than imagining the same activity from a first-person perspective. In terms of CLT, this means that a third-person perspective, which imposes more distance than a first-person perspective, induces a higher level of construal. Indeed, Pronin and Ross (2006) showed that taking a third person perspective rather a first-person perspective on one’s own behavior promoted attribution of the behavior to personality traits rather than to specific situational factors.  — Trope & Liberman 2010 p. 447-8

All this means that your choice of first or third person point of view should take into account the construal mode you want to invoke in your reader.  If you want to work in high fantasy, and have your reader concerned with romantic ideals and to see codes of ethics as absolute and inviolable, you should write in third person.  If you want to confront your reader with unpleasant or messy truths and shake them out of dogmatic complacency, or bring them into close empathy with a unique individual, first-person would do better. This is why Tolkien and LeGuin’s fantasies are in third person, while Glen Cook’s Black Company and Roger Zelazney’s Chronicles of Amber, both subversions of heroic fantasy, are in first person. It’s also why Raymond Chandler’s gritty, cynical detective novels are in first person.

These are not absolutes. Third person is extremely flexible.  Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine is in a third person that is so close-in to the protagonist that it might as well be first-person. Hemingway’s third person is so objective and concrete, and carefully stripped of Far-mode subjective judgments and abstractions, that it probably puts the reader in Near mode rather than Far.


[1] Even many of the experiments that attempted to measure distance also measured familiarity and abstraction, as they contrasted  a nearby, well known place with a distant, unknown place which the subjects could only envision abstractly.  So we should really call this the concrete / abstract dimension.  But near / far is a more concrete way of describing it.

[2] Trope & Liberman report on about 100 experiments, and in every case the results agreed with the predictions. This is literally too good to be true.  Either the authors, the journals, or the reviewers consistently filtered out all adverse results.  One important study has been retracted for being fraudulent.


References

Yaacov Trope & Nira Liberman, 2010. Construal-Level Theory of Psychological DistancePsychological Review117(2): 440 – 463.

On Writing Comedy

Standard

I recently wrote a short story for a writer’s workshop I’m in that was meant to be funny, and that I’m told was, in fact, funny.  The thing is, it didn’t make me laugh.  I don’t think I smiled while writing it.  What was in my head while writing it was a series of calculations along the lines of “HUMANS WILL LAUGH AT THIS WITH PROBABILITY 0.57.”

Partly I felt the story didn’t have enough funny lines–look at a page from Pratchett or Douglas Adams, and you’ll see nearly every paragraph is funny.  Partly I didn’t like the flow / pacing / transitions between topics / lack of story structure.

There are some lines I think I would have laughed at if someone else had written them, but plenty that I don’t know if I would have ever found funny.  I was definitely not consciously writing for myself.

It was a rushed job.  I still find myself not knowing whether it’s not funny, funny but not my thing, funny and my thing but I can’t laugh at it because I wrote it, or funny and my thing but I’m suppressing that knowledge.

But that’s usually how I feel when writing comedy.  Even if something is funny at first, it stops being funny after I’ve read it 10 times.  A stand-up comedian isn’t laughing at his own material; he’s laughing at the game he’s playing with the audience.  Writing comedy is like taping a stand-up comedy routine with no audience.

I felt a little better about this when one of the speakers at the 3 Rivers Screenwriting Conference said that writing comedy was so hard because, unlike all other kinds of writing, you can’t tell from your feelings whether your comedy is any good.  Comedy shows are written in a “writer’s room,” a big room with a round table and several comedy writers throwing lines and ideas at each other.  This speaker said he had never been in a writer’s room for a comedy show where the writers were laughing.

If you write something sad, you know it’s sad if it makes you cry [1].  If you write something uplifting, it makes you feel good.  But comedy relies on surprise, and you’re not surprised after the first moment a joke occurs to you, and the joke isn’t quite right the first moment it occurs to you.  The wording is wrong, the context is wrong, and you have to fiddle with it until it can sound funny, and by then it doesn’t surprise you anymore.

Postscript:

Maybe dividing our feelings into neat categories–comedy, tragedy, romance–is a modern thing.  The separation of reason into the rational and the emotional is a thing that happened at least twice in history, first in Plato, then again in the 18th century.  The Elizabethans, like Shakespeare and the “metaphysical poets” like John Donne, united rationality and feeling in their writing.  The phrase “metaphysical poet” almost means “a poet who uses a precise, scientific metaphor to convey passionate feelings”, as in Donne’s Valediction.

This includes comedy.  Shakespeare wrote a bunch of “problem plays” which people don’t know how to deal with now, because they aren’t strictly comedy or drama.  A few years ago I wrote on this blog that Shakespeare used cheap alternations between the comic and tragic, but that’s not always right.  The gravedigger/Yorick scene in Hamlet, or maybe some scenes with Shylock in Merchant of Venice, are funny, but in an almost cruel or ironic way that we don’t write humor anymore, a way that you might need to be less “Enlightened” to appreciate.


[1]  Not me, of course.  Super villains never cry.  That’s just eye-venom leaking out.

The Principal Dimensions of English

Standard

I want to talk about the principal dimensions of theories of art, but to do that, I must explain what I mean by “principal dimensions”. Besides, you should learn this stuff anyway.

How to Recommend Stories if you’re a computer

Suppose you want to decide, after reading the first thousand words of a story on your kindle, whether to recommend that Bob read it. Also suppose you’re a computer, so you must summarize the story in numbers. You can list some numbers for each story: its number of words, if it’s a series whether it’s complete (1) or incomplete (0), whether it listed in the romance genre, the action/adventure genre, etc., how good the style is on a scale from 0 to 10, and how often the words “kiss”, “snuggle”, “sesquipedalian”, and “bloody” appear.

You end up with tens of thousands of numbers about the story. What do you do with them?

First, you make up terminology. Let N  be the number of numbers (say, 23724). Call each of the things being counted a “dimension”, and the whole set of N numbers a “point” in “N-dimensional space”. (Don’t worry that you can’t picture N-dimensional space. Nobody can.)

Next, you need to get similar sets of N numbers for a bunch of other stories. Then, you need to know which of those stories Bob likes. Then, you recommend Bob read the story if its values for those numbers are similar to those for the stories Bob likes.

But you might only know 100 stories that Bob likes. Hardly enough to determine exactly how he feels about the word “sesquipedalian”.

What you could do is look at the other stories, and group counted things together that seem to go together most of the time. So, you might notice stories that use the word “snuggle” a lot also use “kiss” more than the others, but use “wart” and “angst” less often. So you make a single new, fake dimension, which for the benefit of any humans reading this I will call Kissiness, like this:

Kissiness = 30*Romance – 10*Dark + 3*count(kiss) + 3*count(cuddle) + count(close) + count(smooth) … – count(angst) – 2*count(wart)

You make some other fake dimensions that group together words that seem more or less likely to be found together:

Sexiness = 30*Sex + 10*Mature – 300*Everyone + count(grope) + count(hard) + count(soft) + 3*count(erect) + …

Violence = 10*Gore + 5*Mature + 3*count(bloody) + 5*count(battle) + count(hard) – count(soft) – count(fuzzy)

Second_Person = 10*count(you) + 5*count(your) – 10*count(I)

Superheroics = 5*count(power) + 2*count(mighty) + 3*count(evil) + count(cape) + 3*count(costume) + 2*count(mask)

Obscenity = count(@$!) + 5*count(@#$@#$) – count(fudge) – count(hay)

Bigwordiness = count(assiduous) + count(voracious) + count(punctilious) + …

(I’ve listed several words each, but more realistically there would be hundreds making up each fake dimension.)

Then you can build categories using just the fake dimensions.  In fact, I think this is very similar to what your brain does for you.

Principle Component Analysis (PCA)

There’s a signal processing technique called Principle Component Analysis (PCA) which is one of the Deep Insights into Everything that philosophy students should study instead of Plato’s forms. It does all this for you automatically, optimally, for any category of things described by points in an N-dimensional space. It looks at a whole bunch of such things, then figures out the one single best fake dimension that gives the data the widest spread [0]. Then it removes that dimension from the data, and does the same thing again, figuring out the second-best summary dimension. Do that 10 times, and you get 10 summary dimensions. Compute the values along those 10 dimensions for all the points in your N-dimensional space, throw away the original points, and you’ll still have most of the information that was in the original N dimensions. [1]

Then, predict that the probability that Bob will like a story is the probability that he likes other stories near it in 10-space.

This is the technique that won over all other approaches in the $1,000,000 Netflix contest, which was probably the biggest experiment in predicting ratings ever. The key innovation in the contest was using a fast way to approximate PCA [2]–a way which, incidentally, can be done by neurons.

Plus, once you’ve got the things you’re dealing with down to 10 dimensions or so, you can use logic or computation on them. You can have complex rules like, “If each line of the story has a similar repeated pattern of stresses, it’s probably poetry” if your analysis has discovered dimensions corresponding to “trochee” and “spondee” [3]. (Which it might, if your training stories had a lot of poetry in them.)

A lot of what cultures do, and what your brain does, is basically PCA followed by categorization and then thinking with those categories. All this crazy high-dimensional stuff happens, and people try to come up with concepts to simplify and explain it. The intermediate-level concepts produced, like “pretty”, “harmonious”, and “cruel”, are not real things. They are fake summary dimensions, each a sum (or function) of lots of real dimensions, that capture a lot of the differences between real things.

Then people build more concepts out of that smaller number of intermediate concepts. Because there are fewer of them, they can use more-powerful ways to combine them, like logical rules or lambda functions, to say whether something is “just”, “virtuous”, “beautiful”, or “sublime”. [4]]

Finding Data Points in the Real World

If you don’t have the N-dimensional data for all your objects, don’t worry. You don’t need it. If you can take any 2 objects and say how similar or different they are, or even just whether they’re similar or different, you can jump straight to the lower-dimensional space that PCA would produce. Call it M-dimensional space, M << N. Here’s how:

Compare a bunch of object pairs.  Say for instance difference(kind, compassionate) = 1, difference(kind, hurtful) = 6. Then use the differences between them as distances in a low-dimensional space. Start each of the objects at a random point in M-dimensional space (a popular choice is to distribute them on the surface of an M-1 dimensional sphere around the origin), then repeatedly push pairs apart if they’re too close, and pull them nearer each other if they’re too far (keeping them on the surface of that sphere if you’re doing it that way), until most pairs are about as far apart in your M-dimensional space as the distance says they should be.

(How do you choose M? You make it up. Everything left over gets mashed together in the Mth dimension, so if you want 10 meaningful dimensions, set M = 11.)

The principal dimensions of English

In fact, we can just do this with the English language, using lists of synonyms and antonyms, and see what our M summary dimensions are. In fact, somebody already did. Given some reasonable assumptions and one particular thesaurus, the 10 most-important dimensions of the English language are, roughly:

1. Good/increase vs. bad/diminish

2. Easy vs. hard

3. Start/open/free vs. finish/close/constrain

4.  Peripheral vs. central

5.  Essential vs. extra

6. Pull vs. push (sort of)

7. Above vs. below

8. Old vs. young

9. Normal vs. strange

10. Specific vs. general

I call these the principal dimensions. If we were doing PCA, we’d call them the principal components. Same thing. [5]

By contrast, if you do the same thing for French with a French thesaurus, these are the first 3 dimensions:

1. Good/increase vs. bad/diminish

2. Easy vs. hard

3. Start/open vs. finish/close

Whoops! Did I say by contrast? They’re the same. Because the dimensions that fall out of this analysis aren’t accidents of language. Languages develop to express how humans think. And that’s how humans think, at least Western Europeans. [6, 7, 8]

…but you said this had something to do with art

Here’s how all this is relevant to art: I want to claim I’ve discovered the first principal dimension of theories of art. I’m going to show (hopefully) that the position of different cultures on this dimension predicts something important about what type of art they value. But you need to understand what I mean by their position on this dimension, and what I mean by a type of art.

A type of art is like a mental disease. You diagnose it by noting that it contains, say, any 5 out of a list of 12 symptoms. The art type, or disease type, is a category. Its “symptoms” are measurements on summary (principal) dimensions. The actual data for a culture are going to be things like the degree to which power and wealth are centralized, the level of external threats, the heterogeneity of social roles, and the education level. [9] The principal dimension I’m going to talk about is not a real thing-in-the-world, though it is real. It’s determined by a statistical correlation between actual things in the world.


[0] Technically, the largest variance.

[1] There are many ways of doing PCA, and many related dimension-reduction techniques like “non-linear PCA” and factor analysis. Backpropagation neural networks are doing non-orthogonal PCA, though this wasn’t realized for many years after their invention.

[2] Except that they didn’t technically do PCA because they didn’t have the N-dimensional points. They assumed that each movie was described by an N-dimensional point, and that each user had an N-dimensional preference vector saying how much he liked high values on each dimension, and that their ratings were the dot products of these two vectors. Then they used singular value decomposition (SVD) to construct low-dimensional approximations to both kinds of vectors. So they ended up with the low-dimensional points without ever knowing the “real” original N-dimensional points. If anyone understands how to do this with PCA, please tell me.

[3] If all you want to do is recommend stories to Bob, it turns out it isn’t helpful for a computer program to construct the final genre categories.  It’s already got the point in N-space for a story; saying which genre that point lies within just throws away information. Just do your PCA and predict whether Bob likes that point in N-space. (Reference: The Netflix contest winners and losers.) But if you want to use logic to reason about genres (say, what themes are common in which genres), then you’ll have to categorize them.

[4] Many of the supposed proofs that meaning cannot be compositional (compositional: a term can be defined without reference to the entire dictionary) stem from the fact that philosophers don’t understand that first-order logic is strictly weaker than a Turing machine (lambda functions). “Logic” is a weak form of reason compared to computation.

[5] The fact that you can reconstruct these dimensions, and will get the same answer every time even with significant changes in the data, refutes the cornerstone of post-modern philosophy, which is that scientific theories, social structures, and especially language, are underdetermined by the world. That is, they claim that any one of an approximately infinite number of other ways of doing things, or categorizing things, or thinking about things, would work equally well, and the real world underlying the things we say can never be known. But in fact, casual experimentation proves that language is astronomically overdetermined. (The number of constraints we get from how linguistic terms relate to each other and to sense data is much larger than the number of degrees of freedom in the system.)

[6] Contrary to what Ferdinand de Saussure said, and post-modern philosophers after him assented to, thought came first, language, second. We can excuse him for making this mistake, because he was writing before Darwin’s theories were well-known, except oops no he wasn’t.

[7] Some “synonyms” are words that are opposite on one dimension, and the same on all the others, allowing people to invert a particular dimension. Examples: challenge / obstacle, abundant / gratuitous (differ on good/bad), tug / yank (on easy/hard, funny / peculiar (on normal/strange).

[8] If you feed the algorithm radically different data, you’ll come up with different dimensions after the first few dimensions, as I suppose they did for French in that study.

So what happens if two people had different life experiences, and their brains came up with different principal dimensions?

It turns out we have a word for this, an old word that predates the math needed to understand it this way: we say they have different paradigms. They classify things in the world using a different set of dimensions. When they think about things, they come up with different answers. When they talk to each other, they each think the other is stupid. This is why political debates rarely change anyone’s mind; the people on opposite sites literally cannot understand each other. Their brains automatically compress their opponents’ statements into dimensions in which the distinctions they’re making are lost.

This is, I think, the correct interpretation of Thomas Kuhn’s observation that scientists using different paradigms can’t seem to communicate with each other.  It doesn’t mean that the choice of paradigm is arbitrary. Different paradigms are better at making distinctions in different data sets. Someone who’s grown up with one data set can’t easily switch to a different one; she would have to re-learn everything. But, given agreement on what the data to explain is, paradigms can be compared objectively.

[9] Yes, it turns out I’m a literary Marxist. Sorry.

Writer’s Block

Standard

What I mean by “writer’s block” is when someone stares at the paper / screen & can’t think of what happens next.  This should never happen.

If you’re ever reduced down to just one interesting thing that could happen next, it means you’ve written your story onto train tracks, and your story is now boring, because only one interesting thing could happen next.

If you’re down to zero interesting things, that means you didn’t stop when you had just one interesting thing.  You need to back up at least to the last point where you had to choose between two interesting things that could happen next, because everything after that point is no good.

But even focusing on what happens next is weird.  Why are you staring at the last word on your page?  What about the setting of scene two–should it move to a different location to symbolize progress from scene one?  Is the level of omniscience you gave character A in scene 3 inconsistent with her puzzlement in scene 1?  If your story isn’t finished and you don’t still have a dozen different issues to reconsider, something has gone wrong.  Either your story is too simple, or you’re an incomparable genius, or you’re not being demanding enough.  Stories don’t drip out of the pen in an ordered, final state.  It just can’t happen that you’re stuck on the last word you wrote, yet have no questions about anything that came before or will come after it.  There should always be problems throughout the story all shouting for your attention.  The particular point in the story where you last stopped writing should not be so prominent in your mind.

Why are you writing the story from start to finish?  Seriously–why would anybody do that?  Do you not know how it’s going to end?  That means you’re not writing a story, because you don’t yet have a story idea.  A scenario is not a story.  If you don’t know which direction to go in because you don’t know where you’re going, I don’t think we should dignify that with the term “writer’s block”, as if it were an aberration rather than exactly what you’d expect to happen.

The normal state of writing is not staring at the last word on the paper and wondering what could happen next, but thinking about the entire story, the entire set of possible stories, characters, and events you considered while writing it, and choosing where to strike next, what to change, and which alternative to use, to hammer the thing into one unified story.  The normal state is to have too many possibilities, not too few.

If I have a dozen scenes that need to take place then I should be able to work on them in any order.  I could have written scenes 2, 6, and 1, in that order, because those are the longest scenes, (and it’s easier to start with scenes that have some meat to them.)  Even then I might have a lot of issues up in the air:  How much should Character A know about what’s going on?  How much humor do I get from her being oblivious versus being sweetly nefarious?  Same question for Character B.  Should Character C appear in the scene related to her interests, or should Character B stand in for her?  Have I got too many people in scene 1?  I have a weak transition marked in the middle of scene 1, around a joke that doesn’t really work.  Can I punch it up and make it funnier, or rip it out?  Can I substitute a similar joke?  Can I delete the entire opening and so not need that transition?  Is scene 6 too long — it should be picking up steam as we head into the final scene, not dragging out its joke.  Etc.

My point is that even though this hypothetical story is a very short one, I could easily reel off twenty issues in the first 2,000 words demanding my attention.  Issues that any story is going to have and any writer should be thinking about.  If I were stuck, I’d start working on these 20 issues, and I guarantee that at least one of them would open up a path forward where I was stuck.  To get writer’s block, first I’d have to resolve all these issues to my satisfaction, and that never happens.

There are always dozens of issues that could go another way in a story, even when it’s “done”.  If you’re staring at the screen and don’t have even one issue demanding your attention, something went badly wrong long before you got to that point.

Most likely, the problem is either

(A) you don’t know how the story ends, or

(B) you’ve eliminated tension by closing off too many possibilities earlier in the story, or

(C) you haven’t got enough awareness of craft, technical issues, and how life works to detect the problems in what you’ve already written, and to focus your attention on what the unwritten sections of the story need to accomplish and to avoid.

Brooks & Warren, The Scope of Fiction

Standard

Remember when I plugged one of Brooks & Warren’s books about what stories do & how they work, Understanding Fiction?

Last week I discovered they published a condensed version in 1960 called The Scope of Fiction.  This is based on the 2nd (1959) edition of Understanding Fiction.  The chapter list below has stars next to the ones included in The Scope of Fiction.  Each chapter has about 2/3 of the stories given in that chapter in the bigger book.  It includes the opening commentary for each chapter, which are all slightly different than in the 3rd edition.

   1. Intentions & elements of fiction

* 2. What plot reveals

* 3. What character reveals

* 4. What theme reveals

5. The new fiction (metafiction)

6. Fiction & human experience (writers write about how they developed their stories)

7. Stories for reading (great stories without comments)

IMHO the only important stuff missing from The Scope of Fiction is chapters 1 & 6.  Chapter 1 is more basic than 2-4, so you can probably do without that, too.  Chapter 6 was in the 2nd but not the 1st edition, which had “Special Problems” and “Technical Problems & Principles in the Composition of Fiction” instead.

Best of all, right now Amazon has 34 used copies for 1 cent plus $3.99 shipping!  There are also 37 copies of the full Understanding Fiction, 3rd edition for $3.70 right now.

The Mystery of Mysteries, part 2: Famous fictional detectives

Standard

(This continues from The Mystery of Mysteries, part 1: Core narratives of genres.)

Famous Fictional Mysteries

The earliest mysteries (ignoring some stories by Voltaire) are usually said to be Edgar Allen Poe’s stories starring his detective Auguste Dupin: “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1842), and “The Purloined Letter” (1844). (Although the word “detective” didn’t yet exist.) Dupin has super-human powers of observation, concentration, and analysis, but explains his deductions as being simple and obvious.  This is from the first scene written of Dupin (I have edited some of it out):

We were strolling one night down a long dirty street in the vicinity of the Palais Royal. Being both, apparently, occupied with thought, neither of us had spoken a syllable for fifteen minutes at least. All at once Dupin broke forth with these words:

“He is a very little fellow, that’s true, and would do better for the Theatre des Varieties.”

“There can be no doubt of that,” I replied unwittingly, absorbed in reflection. In an instant I recollected myself. “Tell me, for Heaven’s sake,” I exclaimed, “the method—if method there is—by which you have fathomed my soul in this matter.”

“I will explain,” he said. “The larger links of the chain run thus—Chantilly, Orion, Dr. Nichols, Epicurus, Stereotomy, the street stones, the fruiterer.  After leaving the Rue C ——, a fruiterer, with a large basket upon his head, brushing quickly past us, thrust you upon a pile of paving stones collected at a spot where the causeway is undergoing repair. You slipped upon one of the loose fragments, slightly strained your ankle, muttered a few words, turned to look at the pile, and then proceeded in silence…. You kept your eyes upon the ground—glancing, with a petulant expression, at the holes and ruts in the pavement, (so that I saw you were still thinking of the stones,) until we reached the little alley called Lamartine, which has been paved with overlapping and riveted blocks. Here your countenance brightened up, and, perceiving your lips move, I could not doubt that you murmured the word ‘stereotomy,’ a term applied to this species of pavement. I knew that you could not say to yourself ‘stereotomy’ without being brought to think of atomies, and thus of the theories of Epicurus; and since, when we discussed this subject not long ago, I mentioned to you how singularly the vague guesses of that noble Greek had met with confirmation in the late nebular cosmogony, I felt that you could not avoid casting your eyes upward to the great nebula in Orion. You did look up; and I was now assured that I had correctly followed your steps. But in that bitter tirade upon Chantilly, which appeared in yesterday’s ‘Musae,’ the satirist, making some disgraceful allusions to the cobbler’s change of name upon assuming the buskin, quoted a Latin line about which we have often conversed. I mean the line

Perdidit antiquum litera sonum.

“I had told you that this was in reference to Orion, formerly written Urion. It was clear, therefore, that you would combine the two ideas of Orion and Chantilly. That you did combine them I saw by the character of the smile which passed over your lips. You thought of the poor cobbler’s immolation. So far, you had been stooping in your gait; but now I saw you draw yourself up to your full height. I was then sure that you reflected upon the diminutive figure of Chantilly. At this point I interrupted your meditations to remark that as, in fact, he was a very little fellow—that Chantilly—he would do better at the Theatre des Varietes.”

Poe was capable of great feats of logic himself. In his article “The Philosophy of Composition”, which I highly recommend, Poe describes the astonishingly logical process by which he wrote “The Raven”, emphasizing that there was no “inspiration” involved, only intelligence, knowledge, and logic. So he knew that logic doesn’t work this way, and could have constructed a feasible feat of logic if he had wanted to. Instead of logical, Dupin’s ability is magical.  We’ll see this again and again in other detectives.

Dupin has an odd detachment from humanity which manifests in his voluntary seclusion, his preference for leaving his home only at night, his lack of interest in being recognized for his accomplishments, and his boasting that “most men, in respect to himself, wore windows in their bosoms.” He disquiets his unnamed Watson, who describes Dupin as having a “diseased intelligence”, by responding to the gruesome murder of a mother and daughter by saying, “An inquiry will afford us amusement.” He is active, bold, and delights in laughing at the police and in concealing how far he has gotten in order to make a sudden dramatic revelation. In short, he is the model for Sherlock Holmes. Jean-Claude Milner claimed that Dupin is the brother of the genius villain D___ in “The Purloined Letter”.

 

Sherlock Holmes appeared in stories written from 1887-1927, and is based on Dupin, as evidenced by many similarities between them, and by Conan Doyle’s citing Poe’s stories as a model. In the first Holmes story, Holmes resented being compared to Dupin and immediately claimed differences between them which did not, in fact, exist, and in “The Cardboard Box”, after Watson remarks on the implausibility of the scene with Dupin quoted above, Holmes replicates Dupin’s feat for Watson.

Holmes is super-humanly observant and intelligent, arrogant, detached from humanity, never visibly emotional, and seemingly unwilling or unable to fall in love. He has no respect for conventional thought or morals, and sometimes lets criminals escape when he judges their crimes justifiable. Between cases he often descends into depression and drug abuse. His lifetime adversary, Professor Moriarty, is a sort of evil Holmes.

Holmes is misogynistic, and not by accident on the author’s part. From The Sign of the Four, chapter 9:

“I would not tell them too much,” said Holmes. “Women are never to be entirely trusted—not the best of them.”

I did not pause to argue over this atrocious sentiment.

Holmes stories have a moral stance that Dupin stories did not, frequently showing crime as a result of moral weakness.

 

G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown (1910-1936) is a humble, unimpressive priest who solves mysteries. In many stories, some other characters laughs at the little priest’s plain appearance, jokes about the priest’s presumed simplicity and superstition, concludes the mystery has a supernatural explanation, and is then humiliated when the priest reveals a natural explanation. Unlike Holmes, who uses reason guided solely by empirical observation, Father Brown uses reason guided by observation but also by intuition, a reflection of medieval scholasticism.

Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot (1920-1975) is a physically unimpressive old Belgian exile in England, introduced as “a small man muffled up to the ears of whom nothing was visible but a pink-tipped nose and the two points of an upward-curled moustache.” He speaks apologetically yet impudently, is neurotically fastidious about his appearance and the shine on his shoes, and tries to always keep a bank balance of 444 pounds, 4 shillings, and 4 pence. One of his techniques is to make people dislike and underestimate him:

It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say – a foreigner – he can’t even speak English properly…. Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, “A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much.” … And so, you see, I put people off their guard.

He sometimes lets criminals escape, or to be punished extra-judicially. In 1960, Christie, probably a little tired of him, called him a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep”. I haven’t read these stories.

 

Sam Spade, the semi-hero of The Maltese Falcon (1929 novel, 1941 film), was the original hard-boiled noir detective. It is to the usual detective story as a story in which the hero fails to change is to stories in which the hero changes. This is symbolized by the fact that, though Spade unravels the murders that happen, he never solves the original mystery—he never finds the real falcon.

Wikipedia says, “Sam Spade combined several features of previous detectives, most notably his cold detachment, keen eye for detail, and unflinching determination to achieve his own justice.” Sam gives his view of the world towards the end of the novel:

“Now on the other side we’ve got what? All we’ve got is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.”

“You know,” she whispered, “whether you do or not.”

“I don’t. It’s easy enough to be nuts about you.” He looked hungrily from her hair to her feet and up to her eyes again. “But I don’t know what that amounts to. Does anybody ever? But suppose I do? What of it? Maybe next month I won’t. I’ve been through it before–when it lasted that long. Then what? Then I’ll think I played the sap. And if I did it and got sent over then I’d be sure I was the sap. Well, if I send you over I’ll be sorry as hell–I’ll have some rotten nights–but that’ll pass.”

        Sam does not love her, and she doesn’t love him, not in any sense that wouldn’t degrade the word. But his debate with himself shows that he thinks maybe he does love her, because what he feels for her is the closest he can think of as to what “love” might mean.

The novel keeps going after it wraps up the mystery, and ends on a note of psychological horror: Sam tries to flirt with his secretary Effie, teasing her a little cruelly for her innocence, but she shrinks from him in revulsion at—what? What he did? What he is? Or that he can do such things and not be broken by them? Sam turns pale on seeing the distance between them, and turns instead to his dead partner’s wife, Iva. He doesn’t like her very much but has been banging her since before his partner’s death. He realizes, at that moment, that that’s all he’ll ever know of love.

The girl’s brown eyes were peculiarly enlarged and there was a queer twist to her mouth. She stood beside him, staring down at him.

He raised his head, grinned, and said mockingly: “So much for your woman’s intuition.”

Her voice was queer as the expression on her face. “You did that, Sam, to her?”

He nodded. “Your Sam’s a detective.” He looked sharply at her. He put his arm around her waist, his hand on her hip. “She did kill Miles, angel,” he said gently, “offhand, like that.” He snapped the fingers of his other hand.

She escaped from his arm as if it had hurt her. “Don’t, please, don’t touch me,” she said brokenly. “I know—I know you’re right. You’re right. But don’t touch me now—not now.”

Spade’s face became pale as his collar.

The corridor-door’s knob rattled. Effie Perine turned quickly and went into the outer office, shutting time door behind her. When she came in again she shut it behind her.

She said in a small flat voice: “Iva is here.”

Spade, looking down at his desk, nodded almost imperceptibly. “Yes,” he said, and shivered. “Well, send her in.”

THE END

If the story is about finding the Maltese Falcon, why does it end with that scene?

 

Philip Marlowe is Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective, who appeared first in The Big Sleep (1939). He’s outwardly similar to Sam Spade, but rather than being corrupt himself, he’s incorruptible.  Chandler described his philosophy in creating Marlowe in “The Simple Art of Murder” (The Atlantic Monthly, Nov. 1945):

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor — by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

Marlowe is a different kind of loner. He’s the one virtuous man surrounded by filth. Chandler’s black-and-white puritanism made Marlowe repulsive to me—he hates gays, gamblers, drug users, rich people, and women, in a world in which the first four are always moral degenerates, and all beautiful women throw themselves at him, usually literally, begging for dirty, vulgar sex, and he slaps them aside, sometimes literally, in contempt.

I pushed her to one side and put the key in the door and opened it and pushed her in through it. I shut the door again and stood there sniffing. The place was horrible by daylight. The Chinese junk on the walls, the rug, the fussy lamps, the teakwood stuff, the sticky riot of colors, the totem pole, the flagon of ether and laudanum–all this in the daytime had a stealthy nastiness, like a fag party.

The girl and I stood looking at each other…. The smile would wash off like water off sand and her pale skin had a harsh granular texture under the stunned and stupid blankness of her eyes. A whitish tongue licked at the corners of her mouth. A pretty, spoiled and not very bright little girl who had gone very, very wrong, and nobody was doing anything about it. To hell with the rich. They made me sick.

— The Big Sleep, chapter 12

I took plenty of the punch. It was meant to be a hard one, but a pansy [gay] has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like.

— The Big Sleep, chapter 17

The bed was down. Something in it giggled…. Carmen Sternwood on her back, in my bed, giggling at me…. Her slate eyes peered at me and had the effect, as usual, of peering from behind a barrel. She smiled. Her small sharp teeth glinted.

“Cute, aren’t I?” she said.

I said harshly: “Cute as a Filipino on Saturday night.”

I went over to a floor lamp and pulled the switch, went back to put off the ceiling light, and went across the room again to the chessboard on a card table under the lamp. There was a problem laid out on the board, a six-mover. I couldn’t solve it, like a lot of my problems. I reached down and moved a knight, then pulled my hat and coat off and threw them somewhere. All this time the soft giggling went on from the bed, that sound that made me think of rats behind a wainscoting in an old house.

“You’re cute.” She rolled her head a little, kittenishly. Then she took her left hand from under her head and took hold of the covers, paused dramatically, and swept them aside. She was undressed all right. She lay there on the bed in the lamplight, as naked and glistening as a pearl. The Sternwood girls were giving me both barrels that night.

I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.

I looked at her again. She lay still now, her face pale against the pillow, her eyes large and dark and empty as rain barrels in a drought…. There was a vague glimmer of doubt starting to get born in her somewhere. She didn’t know about it yet. It’s so hard for women–even nice women–to realize that their bodies are not irresistible.

I said carefully: “I’ll give you three minutes to get dressed and out of here. If you’re not out by then, I’ll throw you out–by force. Just the way you are, naked. And I’ll throw your clothes after you into the hall. Now–get started.”

… She stood there for a moment and hissed at me, her face still like scraped bone, her eyes still empty and yet full of some jungle emotion. Then she walked quickly to the door and opened it and went out, without speaking, without looking back….

I walked to the windows and pulled the shades up and opened the windows wide. The night air came drifting in with a kind of stale sweetness that still remembered automobile exhausts and the streets of the city. I reached for my drink and drank it slowly…. I went back to the bed and looked down at it. The imprint of her head was still in the pillow, of her small corrupt body still on the sheets.

I put my empty glass down and tore the bed to pieces savagely.

It was raining again the next morning, a slanting gray rain like a swung curtain of crystal beads…. I went out to the kitchenette and drank two cups of black coffee. You can have a hangover from other things than alcohol. I had one from women. Women made me sick.

— The Big Sleep, chapters 24-25

James Ellroy explained why Hammett was a better writer than Chandler like this:

Chandler wrote the man he wanted to be – gallant [and strong, and sexy] and with a lively satirist’s wit. Hammett wrote the man he feared he might be – tenuous and sceptical in all human dealings, corruptible and addicted to violent intrigue.

Marlowe doesn’t appear magical on the surface (except in his ability to be knocked out repeatedly without suffering permanent damage), but he is magically lucky. He’s another brilliant detective who does incredibly stupid things. He’s savvy and street-smart, yet like clockwork, he does the street-dumb thing: he finds murdered bodies or witnesses murders, and instead of informing the police, steals evidence from the scene and leaves his fingerprints behind; he hides murder case evidence from the police based on nothing but a hunch; he goes into potentially lethal encounters for clients he hates and refuses to charge them more than his expenses; he incriminates himself to protect people he doesn’t know from being suspected of crimes they might have committed… the list goes on and on.  Every novel has scenes with him privately meditating on the unjustness of the world, yet Chandler’s world must have some pretty strict karmic laws for him to follow his moral code of hunches and poverty and always get away with it.

 

Isaac Asimov wrote a series of detective stories and novels (1953-1986) starring Elijah Bayley, a human, and R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot, in a world in which robots have no freedom or rights. The robopsychologist Susan Calvin, a human who identifies with robots, also appears in some stories. The plots usually turn on questions of how to interpret Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, while their themes often deal with human prejudice against robots, and the philosophy of good and evil.

 

Dr. Who (1963-today) is called science fiction, but the plot is often a mystery: The Doctor appears someplace and sometime where things are not as they at first appear, and he must puzzle out what is happening, and prevent some bad thing from happening. The Doctor’s character is a warmer, fuzzier Sherlock Holmes, who travels with one or more semi-disposable Watsons and finds humans silly but endearing rather than tiresome. (That photo is of Tom Baker playing Dr. Who playing Sherlock Holmes.)

Dr. Who is presented as a genius, yet the Doctor is not rational. He never plans anything; he rushes into traps unarmed and trusts that he’ll come up with something. He refuses to carry a weapon despite having run into hundreds of situations where a weapon would have been helpful. He solves problems with sudden inspiration or intuition rather than logic. He refuses to use consequentialist ethics; he won’t harm a Dalek or an insane Time Lord bent on destroying humanity.  Again, he uses magic, or luck, not logic.

 

The Pink Panther’s Jacques Clouseau (1964-2009) is a bumbling idiot who solves cases mostly by accident. Yet he’s also dedicated, energetic, and creative (witness his elaborate training methods). Much of the humor comes from Clouseau misunderstanding everything that he sees and, far from being a detached observer, managing to remain all the time in his own fantasy world. He is magically lucky:

        Including The Pink Panther here is like including Spaceballs in an analysis of high fantasy. I don’t expect it to match thematically, since it’s a parody, but it will share some attributes.

 

The Great Brain (1967-1976) is a series of children’s detectivish novels whose child protagonist, Tom Fitzgerald, alternates between solving crimes and committing them. He cheats his neighbors so often that the other kids eventually kidnap him and put him on trial in The Great Brain Reforms. His younger brother J.D. is his Watson. The stories often contrast Tom’s intelligence but lack of empathy with J.D.’s lesser intelligence but greater humanity, and show Tom mastering the world intellectually, but not really understanding how to relate to it.  Tom is noteworthy for having a great but merely realistic intelligence, and for making money from his great brain.

 

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse (books 1975-1999, TV series 1987-2000) is a lonely, secretive, bachelor detective chief, at least in the one book I read (The Dead of Jericho). To quote Wikipedia, and I agree, “He claims that his approach to crime-solving is deductive, and one of his key tenets is that “there is a 50 per cent chance that the last person to see the victim alive was the murderer”. In reality, it is the pathologists who deduce. Morse uses immense intuition and his fantastic memory to get to the killer.”  Rather like Sherlock Holmes, he claims to use logic but actually uses intuition and magic.

After finishing The Dead of Jericho, I went back to check whether it was solvable. Technically, the reader had enough information to solve it before the reveal, but some of the crucial details appeared trivial in context, and I think it was not designed to be solvable, but for the reader to be able to recall all the necessary details after the reveal, and think it was solvable.

 

Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee (1970-2006) solve crimes on a Navajo reservation. I haven’t read any of them. I’ve read that they’re usually about conflicts between Indian and white culture, religion and materialism, and rich and poor. They’re written in third-person interior (basically first-person written in third-person grammar).

 

Stephanie Plum is the detective in Janet Evanovich’s novels (1995-present). I learned about her when I read Evanovich’s book on writing. I noticed that

– Janet Evanovich didn’t know anything useful about writing,

– half of the book was Evanovich reading scenes from her books, and

– all of the scenes she chose to read, in her book about writing, were dreck.

Stephanie Plum is an “unSue”, who gets all the benefits of being a Mary Sue while being below average in looks and intelligence. She’s pursued by all the hot sexy bad boys even though her most-described physical attribute is how overweight she is. They are  okay with her banging all of them, though she can’t stand it if they “cheat” on her. It sounds from summaries I’ve read like the crimes are partly an excuse for Stephanie to have emotional drama and shift up her rotation of men. They’re supposed to be romantic comedies, except the romance is unconnected to the comedy.

All characters in the scenes I’ve read act unlike humans, or animals, or even robots. Even when they’re dead, they fail to act like dead people. Exhibit 1: Plum and her sidekick are trailing a truck on the highway, following a truck. A corpse suddenly falls off of the truck and manages (being an athletic yet insubstantial corpse) to hit their windshield, then bounce off, without damaging it.

Are they startled? Do they stop the car to find out who it is? Do they phone the police? No; they crack a joke, laugh, and keep driving. They aren’t humans; they’re Evanovichoids.

In the first novel, Plum doesn’t so much solve the crime as flail about stupidly and somehow not get herself killed until the crime solves itself. She “solves crimes” by incompetence, amazing luck, and being rescued by sexy men. For this, Evanovich gets  called “one of the best and most inventive writers of “Strong Woman” mysteries.” (By herself, apparently.) I do not have the patience to review these books further without exploding into a fireball of indignant rage at their commercial success.

 

Mma Precious Ramotswe is the detective in Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998-2015). She’s a woman who was educated in Mochudi, the 10th largest city in Botswana, then moved to a very small village, where she decided to set up a detective agency (which is seen as a strange thing for a woman to do). She believes she values Botswana’s traditional ways more than the modern white ways, yet her independence, modern upbringing, and dislike of marriage bring her repeatedly into conflict with the village’s strongly patriarchal and family-oriented attitudes. She feels more than the usual amount of sympathy for the victims of wrong-doing, and this seems to be what drives her to solve a case once she has gotten into it. The novels are in third-person interior with head-hopping. If you’re gonna read just one detective novel, I’d suggest one of these.

 

Adrian Monk is the consulting detective in the TV series Monk (2002-2009), whose obsessive-compulsive behavior causes him to be unable to hold down a job or function in society, but also makes him aware of tiny details that help him solve cases. Much of the humor of the series is that crimes that are impossible for most people to solve are easy for Monk, yet everyday tasks that most people consider trivial are impossible for Monk.

 

House, a TV series from 2004 to 2012, stars Dr. House as a sociopathic but brilliant surgeon who is basically an even less-lovable Sherlock Holmes.

 

Dexter is the forensic expert / detective / serial killer star of eight novels (2004-2015) and a TV series (2006-2013). His father taught him to use his uncontrollable homicidal urges for good, by killing very bad people. He must solve crimes faster than the police to find enough bad people to kill.

 

There’s a mystery book club at my town’s library, which is composed entirely of retired women, who read nothing but mysteries about cooking, tea, sewing, and cats. It turns out each of these (cooking, tea, sewing, cats) is now a recognized sub-sub-genre of a huge new sub-genre of mysteries called “cozy mysteries”. Mostmysteries published today may be cozy mysteries. They were apparently spawned by Murder, She Wrote. The sleuth is a woman who is not a detective but has a friend or husband who is, or is at least a cop. The town isn’t corrupt and the murders aren’t violent. She solves cases by talking to everyone in town, then putting together pieces of information.

I haven’t read very many mysteries, so please add your own summaries of mystery series or detectives in the comments if you can, before we go to part 3 (Conclusions)!

A Mystery is About the Detective

Why was it so natural to organize famous mysteries by detective? Why do mysteries always have just one or two detectives? Why don’t we see great mysteries in which a team or a town cooperates to solve a mystery, like on CSI, or Scooby Doo?

If mysteries are whodunits, why are the detectives in great mysteries so eccentric and so finely-detailed?

Because the central narrative of the mystery isn’t about the mystery. It’s about the detective.

Let’s look at the commonalities among our detectives.  I’ll enumerate my major summaries of the data with capital letters, and my main conclusions with numbers.

A. The most notable trait of a detective in a mystery is not intelligence. It’s that the detective is a misfit.

Usually either the detective laughs at or scorns the follies of the world (Dupin, Holmes, Spade, Marlowe, The Great Brain, Dr. Who, House), or the world laughs at the detective (Father Brown, Poirot, Clouseau, Ramotswe, Monk). The detective is superior to the others in the story (Dupin, Holmes, Father Brown, Marlowe, Great Brain, Dr. Who, House), even while the clients or criminals consider themselves superior to the detective (Holmes, Father Brown, Poirot, Marlowe, Columbo, Monk, Ramotswe).

The directionality of who laughs at whom might not matter. The point is that the detective is a stranger in a strange land who sees its inhabitants more clearly and objectively than they see themselves. Yet, despite this–or because of it–he can’t establish normal emotional connections with them. He is single, and has only one close friend, or none at all.

The detective often seems driven to action to delay some terrible ennui, or feels his isolation from society painful, and the reader is asked whether the detective’s uniqueness is a blessing or a curse (Holmes, Spade, Marlowe, Daneel Olivaw, The Great Brain, Monk, House).

Detectives are Misfits

Auguste Dupin: Exiled from the aristocracy, lives in seclusion, only comes out at night, sees humans as a source of amusement. Single.

Sherlock Holmes: Prefers anonymity, scorns emotions, emotionally crippled, dangerously depressed and bored with humanity. Single, misogynistic.

Father Brown: A deliberate misfit, he dismisses the world’s values and represents Catholic values in contrast to it. Single and celibate.

Hercules Poirot: An oddball foreigner who does not care whether people like him. Single.

Sam Spade: An almost nihilistic mercenary whose crucial strength turns out to be his cold, unemotional self-interest. Single.

Philip Marlowe: The one virtuous man in the valley of filth. The one man all women want, and the one man who won’t have any of them. Neurotically misogynistic.

R. Daneel Olivaw: Literally inhuman. Single. Also a misfit among robots, due to his android appearance.

Dr. Who: Literally an alien. Single, except for whatever he’s got going with River. I haven’t kept up.

Jacques Clouseau: Lives in his own fantasy world. Single.

The Great Brain: Verges on sociopathic; unable to make friends.

Inspector Morse: Single and unhappy about it, private, and sullen, but not neurotically so.

Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee: Living between and mediating between the Indian and the American, the religious and the secular, the rich and the poor. Joe: Married for one book, widowed for eleven. Jim: Single and dating for 11 books, married for one.

Mma Precious Ramotswe: A fiercely independent woman trying to do a “man’s job” and refusing (for several novels) marriage offers; a city person in a small African village; a traditionalist who isn’t traditional. Single; later marries.

Adrian Monk: Freakishly weird; unable to cope with even simple social interactions. Widowed.

Dr. House: A sociopath with a live-in prostitute.

Dexter: A homicidal psychopath. Single; dates. Should be faking his feelings, but the show never had the nerve to portray psychopathology honestly.

B. Detectives claim to use logic, but their deductions are more like magic or luck.

Magically logical, intuitive, or lucky detectives include Dupin, Holmes, Marlowe, Dr. Who, Clouseau, Morse, and Stephanie Plum.

C. The detective stands outside or above the law and conventional morality.

He may consider his own justice (Sherlock Holmes, Hercules Poirot, Dr. Who), or his tradition of justice (Father Brown, Philip Marlowe), superior to conventional morality or the law. He may solve crimes for entertainment or revenge that other people would solve out of moral outrage or patriotism (Dupin). He may be a part-time criminal, con-man, or otherwise sometimes commit crimes himself (Sam Spade, The Great Brain, House, Dexter). He may not be recognized as a person under the law (Daneel Olivaw). If there is a criminal mastermind, the detective will have more in common with that mastermind than with other people (Sherlock & Moriarty, Auguste Dupin & D___, Dr. Who and his two great enemies, The Master and Dr. Who).

D. A detective story is seldom written from the first-person or third-person interior point of view of the detective, and is often written from the first-person point of view of the detective’s companion. (Dupin, Holmes, The Great Brain, Nero Wolfe)

The Watson allows the detective to conceal his suspicions from the reader until it’s time for a dramatic revelation. It was pointed out to me that he doesn’t only preserve the mystery; he also preserves the mystery of the detective’s character.

Coming soon:  The Sub-Genres of Mystery, and Conclusions!

P.S.– Instead of complaining that I left out your favorite detective, write your own summary!