Detective Stories

Put it in Wilson's head and smoke it.
This is not a pipe.

I can’t help it. I like to ferret out sources/origins/facts about things. I suppose my favorite part of “scholarship” is the chase, the search for the evidence that might support/refute a concept that has popped into my head. One of my first mentors, R. Paul Yoder, told me that he always wanted to teach an introduction to literature class (core for English majors) built around Conan Doyle and the Sherlock Holmes novels: sort of a frame tale where one read detective stories to become a better literary critic/detective. Laurie Anderson’s claim that in detective stories, the hero is already dead in the beginning and human nature is thereby avoided seems counter-intuitive. It can be argued both ways. (How rhetorical!).

I think it’s easy to make the case that mid-century detectives (Marlowe are antiheroes, and the victim (and resultant lust for “justice” in the reader) are indeed the heroes of the tales. The gradual accumulation/revelation of facts is the motive force: human nature, if it intrudes at all, is historical rather than of current importance. This is particularly the case in the CSI-style crime drama, where “science” solves crimes by the incessant (and infallible) revelation of data/facts. It was strange to read the (disputed) Wikipedia page that claims that late-century detective stories are driven by human nature in a way that the early/mid century versions are not (conveniently post-1984, after Laurie Anderson’s observation). The danger of such a claim is that it reeks of a sort of progressivism or evolutionary perspective that usually turns out to be wishful thinking. On the other hand, I find nothing wrong with such a claim when accompanied with evidence— moving it into the realm of historicism.

Of course, I digress. How I got here was a tantalizing moment in Assouline’s HCB biography. He describes Cartier-Bresson at 19 as “a man of principle — but not the same principles as everyone else’s” (23) who failed his baccalaureate exams three times, each time progressively worse, because of poor writing and disinterest in the curriculum. This thwarted his family’s plan for him to join the family business (of thread manufacturing!). Cartier-Bresson preferred contemporary writers, reading them constantly rather than his “proper” studies. His family tried to discourage his literary obsession, but:

It was all in vain, for nothing could keep young Henri from his reading. Family mealtimes were often tense. His father would repeatedly tell him that he must learn to control his impulsive nature, but such reprimands fell on deaf ears. Henri’s instinct always got the better of him, and this was taken for insolence. One day at the table he could no longer contain himself, and dryly responded to his grandfather’s criticism by quoting Hippolyte Taine: ‘One doesn’t ripen, one merely rots away in places.’

The white moustache of the patriarch quivered with rage, but his only reply was to summon the bewhiskered butler: ‘Would you please take Monsieur Henri out of here.’

Pierre Assouline, Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Biography (2005), p. 24

As I find myself in a particularly reflective mood lately, I immediately loved that quote from Hippolyte Taine. I have found myself rotting away in places from time to time. Things that I once knew so solidly slip away. Just who wass Taine and where does this quote come from, I wondered. I never found it, but I found other tantalizing bits reading through some of his books. Turns out Taine was the father of literary historicism. What a delicious contradiction.

Taine’s appraisal of Chaucer is worth considering from his History of English Literature:

Here for the first time appears a superiority of intellect, which at the instant of conception suddenly halts, rises above itself, passes judgment, and says to itself, ‘This phrase tells the same thing as the last—remove it; these two ideas are disjointed—bind them together; this description is feeble—reconsider it.’ When a man can speak thus he has an idea, not learned in the schools, but personal and practical, of the human mind, its process and needs, and of things also, their composition and combinations; he has a style, that is, he is capable of making everything understood and seen by the human mind. He can extract from every object, landscape, situation, character, the special and significant marks, so as to group and arrange them, to compose an artificial work which surpasses the natural work in its purity and completeness. He is capable, as Chaucer was, of seeking out in the old common forest of the middle-ages, stories and legends, to replant them in his own soil, and make them send out new shoots. (130)

. . .

In love and satire he has experience, and he invents; in what regards morality and philosophy he has learning, and remembers. For an instant, by a solitary leap, he entered upon the close observation and the genuine study of man; he could not keep his ground, he did not take his seat, he took a poetic excursion; and no one followed him. The level of the century is lower; he is on it himself for the most part. He is in the company ol narrators like Froissart, of elegant speakers like Charles of Orleans, of gossipy and barren verse-writers like Gower, Lydgate, and Occleve. There is no fruit, but frail and fleeting blossom, many useless branches, still more dying or dead branches; such is this literature. And why? Because it had no longer a root; after three centuries of effort, a heavy instrument cut it underground. This instrument was the Scholastic Philosophy.

Beneath every literature there is a philosophy. Beneath every work of art is an idea of nature and of life; this idea leads the poet. Whether the author knows it or not, he writes in order to exhibit it; and the characters which he fashions, like the events which he arranges, only serve to bring to light the dim creative conception which raises and combines them. (132)

So, after all this I began to wonder about the effect of “postmodern” (as if that were a coherent concept) philosophy upon literature. It would tend to explain Laurie Anderson’s conception that the human nature is superflous in modern genres such as the detective story or science fiction. It would also, in my mind, have a certain explanatory power regarding pervasive images of the detective.

The twentieth century (according to Kenneth Burke, at least) is ruled by the trope of irony and the emergence of detective-as-antihero seems to fit that. We aren’t meant to admire/emulate the hard-boiled detective as a chivalrous figure. Our admiration is ironic. And moreover, if we take lessons from deconstruction the best course of action in most cases is to look not for the human narrative, but for the contradictions inherent in them.

The benchmark figure, then, is not Holmes but Columbo. There’s always that one thing that’s bothering him. These contradictions among apparently established facts then frame the narrative’s resolution. We find the answer when we figure out why stories are not perfect. How very postmodern. Nonetheless, posthumanism seems yet a different project.

The thread that holds it together

Corning Museum of Glass

We do not know what the past preserves for us. There are some things that only the man himself knew about his life, and there are certain truths that will forever lie beyond the scope of documents and accounts. That is a good thing, because if everything could be reduced to its logical end there would be no mystery left. Facts that are strung together like pearls are made to fit a rigid pattern at the expense of all poetry, and therefore give a false picture. What is the use of knowing everything if you exclude the unknowable? It often happens that in our understanding of a work of art, it is the indescribable that lifts it beyond the scope of the most convincing analysis. Thus the effect comes from what the image does not reveal, the unseen world implicit in the photograph. Such is the vision of an observer like Cartier-Bresson, who was interested less in the pearls than in the string holding them together. The truth is found not in a comprehensive assortment of facts, but in the spaces in between.

Pierre Assouline, Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Biography (2005), p. 11

The last couple of semesters I taught writing, I began with a basic assignment: introduce the person sitting next to you to the class. I graded this seriously, and aggressively. I told them up front that I was not looking for an inventory of facts, but rather something that would give some idea of who the person next to them was. Few took it seriously; most responses were rote and the reaction the resultant grade was always shock. “I don’t understand what you want!” was the usual protest. Students usually expect (and some claim that they deserve) clearly bounded assignments with well defined criteria for grades. I don’t agree. Life just isn’t like that. We don’t live in a fill-in-the-blanks world, or at least I wouldn’t want to live in one if it existed. Why should school be clear-cut? If instructors make it that way, they reinforce the delusion that life is fair and you always get what you deserve. Not helpful, in my estimation. Encouraging people to take things seriously and deal with ambiguity is what I think teaching is all about.

The look on these same students faces when I pressed them into reading James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men the following week, and more than that to actually try to make sense of it, was similarly confused. The presence of the images by Walker Evans seemed at first to make constructing an image of tenant families easier, but if you confront Agee’s text you are seized by the discrepancies between the black-and-white reality of the images and the poetic descriptions in the prose. Moving from there through Bourke-White and Caldwell’s collaboration, You Have Seen Their Faces and Lange and Taylor’s An American Exodus the brightest in the class would begin to spot the string— I wasn’t trying to give them a history lesson about the depression, but rather to deal with the problem of representing the lives of others. My first assignment wasn’t a rote “introduction” at all, but rather a direct confrontation with the problems of representation.

Of course I supplemented the primary readings with critical articles about them, particularly the po-mo critique of documentary. I also used documentary films (mostly contemporary) to drive home the fact that switching to multi-modal approaches does not negate the fundamental problems of scarcity and bias in the ways we slice up the world. The average college freshman, in my opinion, is capable of assimilating these issues into simple activities of information gathering and deciding who to trust when gather evidence to build their own cases. Each of the primary sources I used targeted the same problems of poverty and dislocation in 1930s America.1 Almost universally, students tended to trust the photographic interpretations more than the textual accounts— seeing is believing after all. When pressed though, they learn to see each of these sources as rhetorically savvy responses targeted at specific audiences.2

But I think the Assouline quote really cuts to the heart of the matter: noticing the string is the real skill. The mystery implicit in the photograph escapes most viewers who simply glance at them as “evidence” expecting transparency. Fill-in-the-blanks culture makes us all hunters and gatherers of facts; college reinforces this as the necessary skills for survival include critical reporting of booty via essays. Spinning a web of associations, or cultivating and nurturing a vine of connections is a different matter not so easily taught, but essential in the development of higher (perhaps fundamentally agrarian!) culture. I cannot see pastiche/remix culture as a new height; decrying the loss of shiny baubles to string ignores the core of creativity itself. Without the string, things fall apart.

The central problem, for me at least, is: how can we communicate something meaningful about people and worlds outside ourselves? Photographs are at once a problem and a solution.

1If I had more time I might even throw in Sherwood Anderson’s Puzzled America for a more mono-modal approach. Or, there is Anderson’s Home Town edited and designed as a photo-text by Edwin Rosskam, or any of Rosskams other efforts including 12 Million Black Voices by Richard Wright, for a later (1941) glimpse of social problems.— that’s another lost gem from the era.

2Let Us Now Praise Famous Men reached almost no one at the time of publication; it’s impacted audience was a generation of artists/activists in the 1960s. You Have Seen Their Faces‘ audience was the Life magazine bourgeois public and beyond. A tremendous popular favorite denied the scholarly attention it really deserves. Bartholome’s anthology that I used for excerpts from several of these texts fails to include it because Caldwell’s writing is too lowbrow to teach composition from, I suspect. The book spread round the world; my first edition comes from Ireland. Bourke-White mentions signing a copy in South Africa in her autobiography. An American Exodus, though it remains popular for its lyrical Lange photographs, was written by an economist and it sounds like it. It perhaps had more impact on government relief efforts than most of these titles. The take away for composition students: audience, audience, audience.


The view walking away from 4Cs1

I’ve long been resistant to profound declarations about ceasing/rededicating blogging activities. I’ve tended to just let this thing go in fits and jerks. It just doesn’t make much sense to me to talk about issues like “sustainability” anymore. I foolishly tried to raise that issue at the 4Cs conference in 2004 in the “blogging” special interest group, and no one really seemed to care.

It seemed to me then that the “models” for academic blogging available circa 2004 didn’t have much of a chance of continuing. By that, I mean that it seemed unlikely that institutions would embrace casual blog writing as evidence of scholarly worth (the dream at the time). It also seemed to me that the usage of blogs as “social capital” or networking tools was doomed because who really wants to read a stream of constant advertisement and self-promotion? What I didn’t anticipate was the sponsorship of linking/blogging/networking activities by clearly commercial concerns (social media, publishers and journals such as The Chronicle of Higher Education). No matter. It seems that when you try to define social phenomena they are already “over.” It happened with blogging, and then podcasting, and soon it will probably happen with twittering as well. Most of the people I talked to in 2004 were already beginning to think along those lines, scanning the horizon for the next new thing.

The real take away for me in retrospect is that searching for “what’s new” is the cornerstone of unsustainable activity. Someone in the profession remarked that people in rhet/comp discuss the same “problems” for decades of conferences. Seems to me that we’ve been doing that for more than a hundred years, actually. Such pursuits are deliciously sustainable. Does that mean that such problems are unsolvable? I think it’s more likely that they are insoluble— they just don’t ever dissolve and go away. That’s why they are of recurrent interest as pressure points. Jumping tracks back to the problems of blogging, it seems to me that the long tradition of carefully reasoned blogging “sign-offs” is more interesting as a symptom of the difficulties of sustaining writing rather than evidence of the impoverishment of blogging as a social activity. Sustain neither desires nor requires novelty. But the question remains: why have so many of my electronic friends signed off?

Talking to one of the blogging “pioneers” at Cs (who wasn’t among the group from 2004 previously mentioned) he supposed that the main reason why he blogged less that he was investing most of his energy in other writing projects. That makes sense; most of my blogging friends are, after all, writers— and no writer wants to write in the same form forever. There are more productive ways to spend words than scribbling moderate-length missives. Most of the really active bloggers have rechanneled their electronic writing energy into short-form tweeting or facebooking. Most still blog, just not as much. It takes a lot of energy to write fiction or scholarship, and any longer form ideas are better worked out there. But in my case, I think it’s something more fundamental.

I started reading Pierre Assoluline’s introduction to his biography of Henri Cartier-Bresson today (picked up from the wonderful show of his work at the High Museum in Atlanta) and he talks about the problem of disclosure. Describing his first interview with HCB, Assouline says:

At the moment of our parting I was moved by something difficult to describe; I felt frustrated by his reticence when it came to discussing the war. At the risk of offending his modesty, I questioned him again about his years of captivity in Germany, the overcrowded conditions, the failed escapes. He seemed lost in thought for a while, his gaze focused somewhere distant, and then began to talk again. The further he went on the more convinced I became that intimate confidences are most easily addressed to complete strangers. He himself told me that one day in a Parisian taxi he had unveiled to the driver secrets that he had never confided in anyone before, so certain that he would never see this man again

When he recalled the names of the comrades who had been denounced, tortured and shot, his voice choked. And when he murmured their first names, he turned his head away unable to keep back the tears.

I suspect that what has passed in this type of writing is an age of innocence where you never felt the suspicion that you would meet those voices in the dark. After around a decade of doing it now, I have met more than a few of those voices. It becomes much harder to search deeper for those passionate things that once came so easy. And it was those things, revealed perhaps purely because of naivete, that made blogging (as a form of writing) most interesting. It’s hard to continue to write, and even harder to reveal secrets, when you have a clearer conception of just who is reading you.

Perhaps that’s the reason for the goodbye notes that shut the door on so many blogging friends: when you’ve been caught in an embarrassment, or a truth, one feels the need to apologize before walking away.

1 I did not attend the 4Cs conference this year, though I was there in Atlanta when it was going on. I have stepped outside the profession to catch my breath.

Time and the Machine

Time and the Machine by Aldous Huxley (1936)

Time, as we know it, is a very recent invention. The modern time-sense is hardly older than the United States. It is a by-product of industrialism – a sort of psychological analogue of synthetic perfumes and aniline dyes.

Time is our tyrant. We are chronically aware of the moving minute hand, even of the moving second hand. We have to be. There are trains to be caught, clocks to be punched, tasks to be done in specified periods, records to be broken by fractions of a second, machines that set the pace and have to be kept up with. Our consciousness of the smallest units of time is now acute. To us, for example, the moment 8:17 A.M. means something—something very important, if it happens to be the starting time of our daily train. To our ancestors, such an odd eccentric instant was without significance  –  did not even exist. In inventing the locomotive, Watt and Stevenson were part inventors of time.1 [emphasis mine]

Another time-emphasizing entity is the factory and its dependent, the office. Factories exist for the purpose of getting certain quantities of goods made in a certain time. The old artisan worked as it suited him with the result that consumers generally had to wait for the goods they had ordered from him. The factory is a device for making workmen hurry. The machine revolves so often each minute; so many movements have to be made, so many pieces produced each hour. Result: the factory worker (and the same is true, mutatis mutandis, of the office worker) is compelled to know time in its smallest fractions. In the hand-work age there was no such compulsion to be aware of minutes and seconds.

Our awareness of time has reached such a pitch of intensity that we suffer acutely whenever our travels take us into some corner of the world where people are not interested in minutes and seconds. The unpunctuality of the Orient, for example, is appalling to those who come freshly from a land of fixed meal-times and regular train services. For a modern American or Englishman, waiting is a psychological torture. An Indian accepts the blank hours with resignation, even with satisfaction. He has not lost the fine art of doing nothing. Our notion of time as a collection of minutes, each of which must be filled with some business or amusement, is wholly alien to the Oriental, just as it was wholly alien to the Greek. For the man who lives in a pre-industrial world, time moves at a slow and easy pace; he does not care about each minute, for the good reason that he has not been made conscious of the existence of minutes.3

This brings us to a seeming paradox.2 Acutely aware of the smallest constituent particles of time – of time, as measured by clock-work and train arrivals and the revolutions of machines – industrialized man has to a great extent lost the old awareness of time in its larger divisions. The time of which we have knowledge is artificial, machine-made time. Of natural, cosmic time, as it is measured out by sun and moon, we are for the most part almost wholly unconscious. Pre-industrial people know time in its daily, monthly and seasonal rhythms. They are aware of sunrise, noon and sunset, of the full moon and the new; of equinox and solstice; of spring and summer, autumn and winter. All the old religions, including Catholic Christianity, have insisted on this daily and seasonal rhythm. Pre-industrial man was never allowed to forget the majestic movement of cosmic time.

Industrialism and urbanism have changed all this. One can live and work in a town without being aware of the daily march of the sun across the sky; without ever seeing the moon and stars. Broadway and Piccadilly are our Milky Way; out constellations are outlined in neon tubes. Even changes of season affect the townsman very little. He is the inhabitant of an artificial universe that is, to a great extent, walled off from the world of nature. Outside the walls, time is cosmic and moves with the motion of sun and stars. Within, it is an affair of revolving wheels and is measured in seconds and minutes – at its longest, in eight-hour days and six-day weeks. We have a new consciousness; but it has been purchased at the expense of the old consciousness.

1I located this essay through the article on James Watt on Wikipedia, which referenced a magazine article from 1973 which cited the emphasized quote. It turns out that this six paragraph essay was printed in a wide variety of writing text books, including An American Rhetoric by William Whyte Watt. I love this Amazon review of An American Rhetoric:

This book is, unfortunately for the literary world, out of print although it is probably only of interest to ‘true and thoughtful’ followers of English composition and literature. I am interested in the teaching of Mr Watt and also other leaders and instructors who developed the notions of creative and responsible writing that influenced writers of the period from the 1950s through the 1980s, after which, sadly to say, literature seemes to have ‘gone to hell in a handbasket’. I believe it is unfortunate that these fine Professors of detail and research have fallen into disfavor. I purchased the book at a premium price in order to once again enjoy the detailed works and guidance of one of the few who clung to attention and to fact and extactness. [sic]

2  The usage of this essay for evaluation of comprehension has persisted, a evidenced by this notation of the 2002 New York State Regents English Literary Arts Exams:

3. Day Two, Part One: The “Compare and Contrast” Essay: The exam uses the last two paragraphs of a six-paragraph essay by Aldous Huxley, Time and the Machine. The altered passage now begins with the sentence: “This brings us to a seeming paradox.” Students cannot know what “this” refers to, without the preceding paragraphs. Compounding the problem, students are asked to answer a question about what the “paradox” refers to.

3 This paragraph, elaborating on the paradox of the culturally specific creation of time, was perhaps the offending part to the NYS examiners. Huxley’s deployment of cultural difference was not politically correct, but it was hardly racist. These days though, it seems accurate because I suspect no corner of the globe can be characterized as “pre-industrial.” This oversimplified version of culturally relative “time” doesn’t wear well into the twenty-first century. It’s more far more complex than six paragraphs can describe.