28 February 2009

Book clubs

I really should be writing up our trip to Barcelona (to cement it in my own memory not anyone else's), but with guests arriving for a selection of Spanish cheeses and hams in half an hour, I'll fall back on my vast store of archived delights. Here's one of my favo(u)rites. I especially like #2. Tim Dowling is an expat American journalist married to a British bookstore owner.

'Is the world like a big, slightly boring book we never quite finish reading?'

Tim Dowling
Saturday October 20, 2007
The Guardian

Book Group Help Page
Suggested Generic Discussion Questions

1) This novel is filled with intriguing characters. Which character do you most identify with, and why? Can you remember his or her name? Perhaps you should just let someone else go first.

2) What are some of the more appealing qualities of the main character? Do you share any of those qualities? What are some interesting things about you that having nothing to do with the book? What, for example, did you do yesterday?

3) In the picnic scene, the heroine reveals a dark secret about her past that sets in motion a train of events. Or did this happen only in the movie? Be careful: don't blurt out anything. There's no harm in mentioning the film, but since you saw it only once on a plane three years ago, you're not exactly an expert on that, either. Just preface your comment with the words, "I'm always reminded of that pivotal moment when Meryl Streep...", and hope that someone interrupts.

4) What point do you think the author is trying to make about the nature and limitations of human knowledge? Is he or she saying that the world is like a big, complicated, slightly boring book that we never quite finish reading? Do you think anybody else in the room feels this way?

5) How do the events in Chapter 2 foreshadow the novel's startling conclusion? Given that you read only up to chapter 2, how can you be certain? Discuss the cover art and offer the opinion that the paperback is actually much more appealing.

6) In the end, what do Richard and Judy really know about literature, anyway? Is it safe to say something such as this out loud? Don't forget that Richard and Judy have their spies everywhere.

7) Remember when she jumped out of the bath with the knife right at the end, when everyone thought she was dead? That was hilarious. No, wait, that wasn't Meryl Streep - that was what's her name. Meryl Streep was the one who was like, "A dingo stole my baby!" That was hilarious, too.

8) What has everyone been talking about for the past 10 minutes? Why weren't you paying attention? What the hell does "litotes" mean?

9) What are some acceptable reasons for not finishing a book? Is it sufficient to say, "I thought it sucked", or is it necessary to elaborate? Which pre-conditions of suckiness did it fulfil? Could it have sucked any worse?

10) How does the book compare with other books that you haven't read? Try characterising the story in terms of previous book group selections - for example "Angela's Ashes meets The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency" or "We Need To Talk About Kevin, But With a Whale" - and see where that gets you.

11) The white wine has run out. Is your host going to get another bottle, or is she going to keep going on and on about the symbolism of the frigging wind chimes? There's plenty of red left. Should you switch to red?

12) You might now wish to pre-empt further discussion by suggesting a book for the next meeting. Pick something you have read already - that way, you get a freebie. Then perhaps you could memorise a few phrases from that essay you plagiarised at university. It's probably what everyone else does, anyway.

13) Are there any nuts in a bowl nearby? Try some and then stand up and shout, "Oh my God, I forgot I was completely allergic to nuts!" With any luck you'll be home in time to catch the last half of CSI.

22 February 2009

Make my bed and light the light . . . .

As we've hit the grand old ages of 62 and (on Wednesday) 61, Michael and I come more and more to resemble one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons--which I can't find via google. A little old man and little old lady are protesting vehemently that they have excitement in their lives. They once had two library books overdue....AT THE SAME TIME!!!

This is unfair to Michael, actually, since he's still keen to embark on geological adventures. But our excursion to leafy Acton last night was a big change from toddling off to an early bed after our usual dinner at the coffee table while watching a DVD. It was a tribute to great food, wine, and conversation that we didn't get home until after 2 a.m.

We knew we'd have a fabulous time, as guests always do at Geoff and Nora's dinner parties. Otherwise, my husband would have been even grumpier as our tube journey from Southwark to Ealing Common racked up one after another unforeseen delay. We figured 45 minutes would do it, allowed ourselves an hour, and arrived at Twyford Avenue over 90 minutes after locking our front door. Once again mobile phones justified their existence: we could let our hosts know that we--and more importantly the bread and cheese from Borough Market--were making our way there in fits and starts.

Champagne and foie gras awaited us in the kitchen. And if ever a to-die-for cooking area justified the indulgence, it's this one. Our first course was foie gras, truffle, and cream soup, which Geoff topped at the last minute with a spoonful of foam; manzanilla sherry filled the first of about five glasses at each place. Red and white wines started appearing nonstop (an adjective that also applies to the seven-way conversation), culminating in a Pomerol before the 1980 Mas Amiel vin doux with dessert. Fish course was pasta with crab, onions, and peppers in a miso sauce; the main course was partridge with delectably crunchy potato rosti and carrots & green beans. Then came Eccles cakes with various cheeses, followed by the best bread and butter pudding I've ever eaten: a raisin-studded cloud. Geoff's secret is to stir brioche--and not much of it--instead of bread into the egg, cream, butter, crème pâtissière, and Drambuie mixture.

I won't need to tell friends and family who know what a reluctant cook I am these days that (a) this was an extraordinary treat and (b) we'll be taking Geoff and Nora out for a meal rather than subjecting them to cuisine chez nous.

We should, of course, have walked off the wine and rich food, but since we wouldn't have arrived home until dawn had broken, all five guests piled into a taxi to head first to Chelsea (and, yes, Bob, I haven't forgotten you paid far too much of the fare) and then to Southwark.

But the evening still wasn't over. As I left, Nora had tucked a birthday card and gift into my bag. Our kitchen is now redolent of clementine from the aromatic tapers. Even the box the tapers and perfumed oil came in was typically Nora (just like the vanilla white orchid liquid handsoap in the slate bathroom)--white with a burgundy flocked floral design that belongs on the walls of a very elegant drawing room.

And the card was typically Nora too . . . .

21 February 2009

A viral e-mail worth preserving

This also arrived recently from Shirley in Nice. I've been sent the list a couple of times before by other friends but am amused whenever I look through it. For some reason I know exactly with what intonation to read each word or phrase. My sigh is quite good too.


(1) Fine : This is the word women use to end an argument when they are right and you need to shut up.

(2) Five minutes : If she is getting dressed, this means a half an hour. Five minutes is only five minutes if you have just been given five more minutes to watch the game before helping around the house.

(3) Nothing : This is the calm before the storm. This means something, and you should be on your toes. Arguments that begin with nothing usually end in "fine."

(4) Go ahead : This is a dare, not permission. Don't Do It!

(5) Loud sigh : This is not actually a word, but is a non-verbal statement often misunderstood by men. A loud sigh means she thinks you are an idiot and wonders why she is wasting her time standing here and arguing with you about nothing. (Refer back to # 3 for the meaning of "nothing.")

(6) That's okay : This is one of the most dangerous statements a women can make to a man. "That's okay" means she wants to think long and hard before deciding how and when you will pay for your mistake.

(7) Thanks : A woman is thanking you, do not question, or faint. Just say you're welcome. (I want to add in a clause here - This is true, unless she says 'Thanks a lot" - that is PURE sarcasm and she is not thanking you at all. DO NOT say "you're welcome." That will bring on a "whatever.")

(8) Whatever : Is a woman's way of saying F--- YOU!

(9) Don't worry about it, I've got it : Another dangerous statement, meaning this is something that a woman has told a man to do several times, but is now doing herself. This will later result in a man asking "What's wrong?" For the woman's response, refer to #3.

20 February 2009

Plight of the navigator

Such a good title, I thought in bed last night when the idea for this entry occurred to me. Only our kids might get the reference to one of their favorite childhood movies, but why not? Then I remembered an article I had read in the paper the other day about stand-up comics who think they've invented a joke only to find it's been used before. And indeed, a quick google showed how common the substitution of "plight" for "flight" is.

Regardless. Today I'm not launching into an embarrassing description of my own failings in the navigation department, but celebrating a genuinely original phrase our good friend and former next-door neighbor in Evergreen, Colorado, came up with when he and his wife were visiting us in deepest darkest Dorset.

The shout-it-from-the-rooftops news arrived yesterday that Frank has come out of six-hour heart surgery with flying colors. Thinking fondly back on all the good times the Ws and Gs have shared, I smiled again as I remembered our excursion into the winding lanes between Nether Compton and the coast. I had happily relinquished the front seat, the map, and the stress to Frank so that I could chat with Marge in the back. But even savvy Mr G, confronted with matching the tortuous narrow white maplines to the local geography, finally shook his head and simply said, "We're in the spaghetti now."

My problem is that I'm in the spaghetti even when the roads I'm looking at on the map are thick red and green.

PS I've never forgotten as well, Frank, how over twenty years ago you rescued my enormous paella with your acetylene torch.

19 February 2009

As New Year's resolutions fade

From a Guardian entry in my last commonplace book, written by a 52-year-old woman:

I would love to have stayed two sizes smaller and am always on a diet, but it is apparently not in my destiny to succeed in taking up less space.

Let's see if I can copy in the photos titled "Three Ages of Women" sent the other day by my Canadian friend in Nice. They say it all.

[Click to enlarge]

18 February 2009

How motivational techniques have changed

Frederick the Great (Friedrich der Grosse, 1712-1786) urging his battle-shy troops forward:

Kerls/Hunde/Racker*, wollt ihr ewig leben

Wretches/Dogs/Rascals--would you live forever?

*As so often, there are variants of his reported words. They were supposedly spoken--shouted??-- at the Battle of Kolin in 1757, during the Seven Years' War, where the Austrians routed Frederick's Prussian troops, his first defeat in this conflict. Around 23,000 soldiers lost their lives at Kolin, 14,000 of them Prussian, contributing to the estimated million deaths in battle between1756 and1763. Churchill referred to this as the first true world war. It was fought around the globe, in the North American sector as the French and Indian War.

The British aligned themselves with the Prussians, the two dominant players in what turned out to be the winning team. For the Pennsylvanians reading this, King of Prussia, home to our favorite mall, was named in honor of Friedrich der Grosse, whose personal bravery can't be faulted: in the course of a bellicose lifetime, he had six horses shot from under him.

Thank you, Google, for the refresher course in high school history. I started out with only the (make that "an") English translation of the opening quotation.

17 February 2009

They are different from you and me. . . .

Given that few of us feel very sanguine about the economic forecast for at least the next year, I thought I'd paste in a few quotations from those who would qualify as F. Scott Fitzgerald's "the very rich."

[By the way, the "different from you and me" quotation appeared in FSF's 1926 short story, "The Rich Boy." And the famous putdown, "The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money," was actually addressed to Hemingway over lunch by the Irish-American critic Mary Colum and recyled by the novelist to belittle his friend/rival in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (Fitzgerald was named in the original Esquire version, but later the reference was changed to "Julian").]

This morning, as I was chatting about next week's rendezvous in Barcelona and the usual hundred other things with my sister Cheri, she mentioned this remark by John Paul Getty (1892-1976):

If you owe the bank $100, that's your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that's the bank's problem.

While checking on the exact wording, I came across three other Getty quotations that I had heard before but forgotten:

The meek shall inherit the earth, but not the mineral rights.

Money is like manure. You have to spread it around or it smells.

Formula for success: Rise early, work hard, strike oil.

And one I hadn't come across:

Going to work for a large company is like getting on a train. Are you going sixty miles an hour or is the train going sixty miles an hour and you're just sitting still?

Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836, who made a killing on the London stock market by using couriers/carrier pigeons/semaphores to be the first to know the result of the Battle of Waterloo):

I care not what puppet is placed on the throne of England to rule the Empire on which the sun never sets. The man that controls Britain's money supply controls the British Empire. And I control the money supply.

Sam Walton (founder of Walmart, 1918-1992):

There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.

Now it's the turn of the most quotable of all, Warren Buffet (1930-):

I buy expensive suits. They just look cheap on me.

It's far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price.

If past history was all there was to the game, the richest people would be librarians.

Only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked.

We simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful.

Wide diversification is only required when investors do not understand what they are doing.

You only have to do a very few things right in your life so long as you don't do too many things wrong.

A very rich person should leave his kids enough to do anything but not enough to do nothing.

16 February 2009

A little knowledge

Sometimes things just come together the way you want them to. On BBC4's The Book Quiz last week, Wendy Holden had one of those wonderful moments. This was very unlike Will Self's extraordinary display on the previous episode, when he answered almost every semi-cryptic title question with dazzling speed (this reminded me of watching Kate play solitaire on the computer; she shifts all the cards before I've even registered what's showing). Ms Holden triumphed when the category of train poems appeared as an option--one I wouldn't touch with the proverbial barge pole. After a quick consultation, her teammate Jake Arnott simply sat back and let her tackle the subject: instant identification of each poem and author. It turns out her young son is a train enthusiast and she has been entertaining him with poems on the subject. Synchronicity!

On a more modest scale, I was very pleased yesterday to make a connection highly unlikely for someone of my fiction-oriented reading tastes. Last week I had finished Richard Fortey's Dry Store Room No. 1, a tour behind the scenes at London's Natural History Museum. Carrying his vast learning lightly, Richard is an amazingly entertaining guide, with tales of venerable taxonomists who privately collected string (including a box of pieces "too small to be of use") or the pubic hair of sexual partners, meticulously catalogued. There's a lot of serious science, too, of course, as our good friend demonstrates why the work done at natural history museums is critical to understanding--and interacting with--the world we live in.

One of the most vividly memorable chapters is "Multum in parvo," which looks at entomology. After a description of the sort of maggots we're all familiar with, Richard writes, "If feeding on decaying flesh is a good option, evolutionarily speaking, because flesh is nutritious stuff, it is only a small step to cut out the middleman -- death. Feeding on living flesh is a logical progression in the dipteran way of doing things." Enter the screw worm fly, whose larvae "can reduce a cow to a pulp" and, relevant to my story, the rather less dire Cameroonian tumbu fly.

Consider the Cameroonian tumbu fly (Cordylobia anthropophaga). The species name alone may furnish a clue. This unpleasant creature lays its eggs in places where it can smell the merest hint of urine. The larvae form 'warbles' in the flesh of the victim in the most sensitive parts of the body. For some time humans were infected by way of eggs laid on the gussets of knickers hanging out to dry -- providing direct delivery to the right kind of protected habitat. When the little beasts got to feeding, the pain and embarrassment can be readily imagined. Modern hot steam irons applied to the garments in the right place have helped to see off this intimate curse.

So . . . imagine my surprise when I read the following on www.zambiaexpress.com. My identification of the pest may be wrong, but its behavior certainly sounds suspiciously similar--as, fortunately, is the precautionary measure our friends are taking:

Never done so much ironing in my life. Even clothes you’d have thought too small or too big to bother with are being steamed into shape. There’s some nasty bug that lives in damp clothes and which lays its babies under your skin, and it’s a right palaver to get it out.

My advice, Jo and Kieron: if you decide not to continue "mopping and ironing [y]our guilt away," make sure whoever takes over the laundry is as committed as you are to that hot steam.

14 February 2009

The esteemed Mr Timis

Those of you who remember Michael's brief stint with Regal Petroleum in Cairo, before he and the rest of the geotechnical team felt compelled to quit when Frank Timis returned to the fold, will find this brief item in the most recent issue of Private Eye illuminating.

13 February 2009

From Lost in Showbiz, Guardian G2 section

You never know where you'll find gold. This nugget appeared today in an article on the Osbourne family's new television show. Every journalist at the Guardian must be thinking in evolutionary terms this week.

Occasionally in interviews, Sir David Attenborough is moved to address the vicious hate mail he receives from creationists for not crediting the organisms in his documentaries to an infinitely merciful God.

"I always reply by saying I think of a little child in East Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball," the legendary broadcaster muses. "The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator."

Thank you, Marina Hyde. And thank you, Sir David. The next time my Jehovah's Witness correspondent asks me how I can possibly believe that a Grand Designer was not actively involved in every aspect of Earth's splendor, I'm going to quote this.

12 February 2009

Happy birthday, Charles, Abraham, and Shane

Shane, who has just deployed to Iraq after post-Annapolis marine training, is the baby here. Charles and Abraham are celebrating a joint 200th birthday -- C. Darwin and A. Lincoln.

Google.co.uk sports vegetation with finches today; thus far google.com has no acknowledgment of either bicentenary. Hmmm -- surely Sergey Brin et al. aren't intimidated by creationists? With Obama's election and the resurgence of interest in Team of Rivals as a book and a concept, they could at least put a stovepipe hat on the letter G. No controversy there....

Being a geologist, my husband has devoted a week of blogs to Darwin and his rock hammer. In the course of his research, he came across this delightful letter that Charles wrote to his betrothed, Emma Wedgwood (also his cousin), the week before they were married. It's long, so I'll put a few (turned out to be several) particularly endearing passages in bold.

Here, then, is Darwin in love, January 1839, well before On the Origin of Species -- and ten children.

My dear Emma
I suspect I have to thank you, that I am living man, for if you had not given me the sandwiches I should have died from starvation in one of the rail road carriages. We only got to Birmingham, five minutes before the London train started, so that by the time I had got my luggage all safe & a ticket, the bell rung to be off.— I drank a glass of water preparatory & eat my luncheon in the coach: nevertheless I was awesomely hungry by 9 oclock when, I reached home, good dear home in Gower Stt.— There is something good in all bad things: in the first place I had no dinner to pay for; the doing of which to the amount of half a crown had considerably ruffled my companion's temper without apparently having filled his stomach; & secondly they had no time to weigh my luggage, which they did at Whitmore & made me pay three shillings for.— I vow, during our journeys to & fro, we will buy a basket & take dinner with us, & a bottle of water; my inward man shall not be so maltreated another time.—
I have no very particular news to tell you, as you will guess by my having written so full an account of my stomachic disasters Yesterday I had several notes & much scrattle, which kept me till one oclock at home. I then paid Erasmus a visit, comforted him greatly by telling him he would not be wanted, left my parcels for Fanny who was expected there in the evening on her passage to Woolwich, or on Monday, & then sallied forth with Erasmus to do a little shopping.— We went to the Baker St bazaar, & bought several articles of coarse furniture, which the servants were in immediate want of,—ordered the clock home, & paid a shop a visit to order some fire irons, for the bed room, which greatly tempted me to buy lamps, all sorts of nice pots, pans, urns &c &c.— But I vow I wont go in any more shops, till you come up & take final charge of me.— Thank Providence I shall not be a free agent much longer,—you madam, shall have a deal of responsibility on your own dear shoulders,—so prepare to be very strict.—
I canot tell you how much I enjoyed my Maer visit,—I felt in anticipation my future tranquil life: how I do hope you may be as happy as I know I shall be: but it frightens me, as often as I think of what a family you have been one of.— But I was thinking this morning how on earth it came, that I, who am fond of talking & am scarcely ever out of spirits, should so entirely rest my notions of happiness on quietness & a good deal of solitude; but I believe the explanation is very simple, & I mention it, because it will give you hopes, that I shall gradually grow less of a brute, —it is that during the five years of my voyage (& indeed I may add these two last) which from the active manner in which they have been passed, may be said to be the commencement of my real life, the whole of my pleasure was derived, from what passed in my mind, whilst admiring views by myself, travelling across the wild desserts or glorious forests, or pacing the deck of the poor little Beagle at night.— Excuse this much egotism,— I give it you, because, I think you will humanize me, & soon teach me there is greater happiness, than building theories, & accumulating facts in silence & solitude. My own dearest Emma, I earnestly pray, you may never regret the great, & I will add very good, deed, you are to perform on the Tuesday: my own dear future wife, God bless you.ill not be solemn any more, but will tell you, of an addition to our plate room, which is to astonish all Gower Stt.— my good old friend Herbert, sent me a very nice little note, with a a massive silver weapon, which he called a Forficula, (the Latin for an earwig) & which I thought was to catch hold of soles & flounders, but Erasmus tells me, is for Asparagus,—so that two dishes are settled for our first dinner,—namely soup & Asparagus.—
The Lyells called on me to day after church; as Lyell was so full of Geology, he was obliged to disgorge,—& I dine there on Tuesday, for an especial conference.— I was quite ashamed of myself to day; for we talked for half an hour, unsophisticated geology, with poor Mrs Lyell sitting by, a monument of patience.— I want practice in illtreating the female sex.— I did not observe Lyell had any compunction: I hope to harden my conscience in time: few husbands seem to find it difficult to effect this.—
Since my return I have taken several looks, as you will readily believe, into the drawing room, & I suppose my taste of harmonious colours is already deteriorated, for I declare the room begins to look less ugly— I take so much pleasure in the house, I declare I am just like a great overgrown child with a new toy; but then not like a real child I long to have a copartner & possessor.—
I made a very stupid mistake yesterday.— I was to have dined with the Horners, & I utterly forgot the invitation & kept the whole party waiting whilst I was quietly at dinner here.— I had to send a very humble note this morning, & backed it by calling, & had a very pleasant sit, with the Mrs., Leonora & Johanna.— The latter, I can see, long to look at their old house.
It is no use my writing any more, for you will never be able to decipher this crossed letter, though you told me to do so,—so I will conclude.—
Do write me a line by return of post, & then I shall get it on Thursday,—or you may direct to Shrewsbury, to which place I shall proceed on Friday.— I must have one more letter signed Emma Wedgwood, for ever after it will be Emma D. I wont forget the ring, & do not you forget to keep a bed for me, or lose the Licence.—
Good Bye | My own dear Emma | Chas Darwin


For Darwin's 1838 list of the pros and cons of marriage, see

11 February 2009

Eluana Englaro, may she rest in peace

The dignity of this woman's family, who have watched over their daughter, in either a persistent or permanent vegetative state since a car accident seventeen years ago, is in stark contrast to the grandstanding of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. I am still dumbfounded by his comment that she should not be allowed to die because she was "in the condition to have babies." And then, of course, there is, as always in Italy, the Vatican. . . .

Here is the response from my good friend in Milan to the first Guardian article hyperlinked below. As you read, remember English is her third language, after Italian and French.

She died last night... Let's hope there is some peace now for her and her family.

Out of respect for his daughter (he wanted her to be remembered the way she looked when she was really alive), Beppino Englaro stubbornly refused to show photos of how devastated Eluana actually looked now, after 17 years of coma. Had he done so, the public would not have been so irrational about the woman's right to die. We all saw pictures of this gorgeous 20-year-old girl... This morning I read on the Corriere that she had become a devastated 40-kg body, with bed sores even on her face.

I'm horrified by the violence of the media, politicians and members of the general public who created this case.

Let's hope that there will at least be a positive consequence to all this horror: the legalization of Living Wills ("testamento biologico" in Italian) which is still far from being accepted as a possibility both by Theo-Cons (religious right) and Theo-Dems (religious left). Left, right or middle -- there seems to be no limit to the scandalous interference of the Vatican into Italian politics.

Berlusconi has now announced that Eluana Englaro was "killed" and blames Italy's president for permitting this to happen.
The prime minister's political opportunism readily discounts her anaesthetist's belief that "Eluana died 17 years ago."

Final word(s) c/o Mary Warnock:

And the sanctity of life is seldom invoked except in cases when shortening a pitiful life is contemplated. Roman Catholics believe that the life of every embryo is sacred from the moment of its conception, but they do not believe that the principle should entail that just wars may not be fought, in which many human lives will be lost. If human life were really sacred it would be at least doubtful whether one might properly kill someone in fear that you would yourself be killed. Such exceptions to the sanctity principle have long been allowed by the church. It is not then held that since life was a gift from God, it is for God alone to take it away. And if that were an absolute principle, what would be the morality of prolonging a human life by medical intervention, when God had visited the human being with a heart attack or an infection that would once have been fatal?



http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/feb/08/pope-assisted-suicide-eluana-englaro [Mary Warnock on issue]


10 February 2009

Cimex lectularius

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." Unlike the second Mrs de Winter, I went to bed yesterday expecting a very different sort of dream after reading an article in the G2 section of the Guardian that had me itching all over again.

In 2004, Michael and I spent Christmas in St Petersburg, a fabulous trip stuffed full of cultural nuggets. Unfortunately, however, my mattress in our minimalist Soviet-style hotel was also stuffed full of bedbugs. The sleeping arrangement was twin, so either Michael was one of those lucky folk that don't react to bedbug bites or he wasn't sharing his bedding with tiny critters.

There were a couple of doctors in the group we were with, who at Christmas Day breakfast immediately diagnosed the rash around my wrists and ankles. And sure enough, as they predicted, my sheets were dotted top and bottom with drops of blood. I took a bath (warm--not, it turned out, the best idea), we changed rooms, and that seemed to be that in the St Petersburg cold. It wasn't until I was sitting in my seat on the flight home, several days later, that the allergic reaction set in. My neck began to itch and I could feel lumps forming under the skin. Back in the flat that night, I woke up, put my hands to my face and--quelle horreur!--the lumps were spreading. By the time I got to a doctor, I was hiding under a scarf so that I didn't frighten little kids. Here's a photo of my neck, before the center of activity traveled to my arms:

After a couple weeks of shots and pills, the bumps disappeared and I wasn't left with the scars I had feared. Googling revealed that I couldn't blame the bites on a no-star hotel; Cimex lectularius is just as happy to visit five-star premises. Eventually I stopped thinking that I might have imported a few specimens in my clothes or luggage; I pretty well put the experience out of my mind.

Until yesterday. Apparently in the last decade there has been a threefold rise in London's bedbug numbers, the result of--what else?--globalization. As the author of the piece, Michael Hann, says in describing his family's current infestation: "It has all seemed a bit 14th century this past month." Shudder. We were so lucky that whatever bedbugs I might have carried must have fallen off before I entered the flat. Perhaps onto the airplane seat? The microbiologist/exterminator Hann interviews advises London commuters, "Don't sit on public transport." Too bad I've reached an age where younger passengers often chivalrously offer me their seats. On the plus side, though, the last bedbug bullet point reads, "Don't panic. Bedbugs don't carry diseases, and their presence does not make you unclean."

The St Petersburg incident wasn't our first exposure to bedbugs. After the fact, I'd realized in my twenties that all the bites that showed up each morning in Vrinaina, Greece, were probably from bedbugs. And we callously forced our eight-year-old daughter back into her guesthouse bed in the Puncak, Indonesia, only to find her sporting about fifty nips on her legs the next morning. Sorry, Kate! Perhaps you'd like to comment on this parental negligence???


09 February 2009

Mencken & Bruce

H L Mencken (1880-1956):

People say we need religion, and what they really mean is that we need police.

Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.

For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong.

Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

Lenny Bruce (1925-1966):

If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.

If you’re from New York and you’re Catholic, you’re still Jewish. If you’re from Butte, Montana, and you’re Jewish, you’re still goyisch. The Air Force is Jewish, the Marine Corps dangerous goyisch. Rye bread is Jewish, instant potatoes, scary goyisch.

I won’t say ours was a tough school, but we had our own coroner. We used to write essays like: What I’m going to be if I grow up.

I'll also throw in one more American quip from my commonplace book, quoted by Richard Dawkins.

The comedian Cathy Ladman, soon to appear in "Does This Show Make Me Look Fat?"-- All religions are the same: religion is basically guilt, with different holidays.

08 February 2009

James Thurber on Henry James

Instead of simply telling what occurred when two persons came together, he would have presented it through the consciousness of a Worcester, Massachusetts, lawyer who got it from the proprietor of a café who had overheard two people at a table piecing together a story they had listened in on at a large and crowded party.

Sounds about right. And Thurber was an admirer of James.

In direct contrast to Jamesian complexity--Hemingway once said that his own greatest accomplishment was a short story only six words long:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

07 February 2009

Quick comebacks

Another entry that I'll be adding to over time. Let's see. I'll start with two of the most famous, both from British politicians.

Disraeli, when Gladstone had intoned, "I predict, sir, that you will die either by hanging or of some vile disease."

"That all depends, sir, upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress."

Churchill, not at his most chivalrous, when a woman (possibly the formidable Labour politician Bessie Braddock) had accused him of being drunk:

“Madam, you are ugly. In the morning, I shall be sober.”

Another of Churchill's quips, this time to a famous beauty, Nancy Astor, who had told him,
"If I were your wife, I'd poison your coffee."

"If I were your husband, madam, I would drink it."

In reply to a reporter who asked what he thought of Western Civilization, Gandhi (whom Churchill had once described as a "seditious Middle Temple lawyer of the type well-known in the East, now posing as a fakir, striding half naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace") retorted, "I think it would be a good idea!"

Asked by an interviewer how many husbands she had had, the famously promiscuous and sharp-witted Peggy Guggenheim replied, "Do you mean mine, or other people's?"

On one of the many occasions when I was urging my daughter to keep a journal so that she could eventually write up her hugely entertaining but often frustrating experiences as a sound engineer in the rock music industry, she commented that at the beginning of any memoir she'd have to post a disclaimer: The names have been changed to protect the useless.

06 February 2009

T-shirt slogans

I'll keep adding to this one:

A well-rounded person is . . . pointless.

And from my own chest of drawers:

Life is uncertain . . . eat dessert first.

If a man speaks in the forest and there is no woman to hear him, is he still wrong?

05 February 2009

Jan Morris

Two tidbits from a Guardian review by Jan Morris of Simon Jenkins's book on Welsh buildings:

All is vigour, all is insatiable interest. Do you know why a medieval lavatory was called a garderobe? Because clothes were placed above it in the belief that stinks were fatal to fleas. For that matter, do you know how Catherine Zeta Jones got her middle name? Because her shipowning forebear named his ships after the Greek letters of the alphabet.


Best line from the 2008 presidential campaign

Surprisingly perhaps, the prize goes to Joe Biden for his comment during the Democratic debate in Philadelphia:

Rudy Giuliani. There's only three things he mentions in a sentence -- a noun, a verb, and 9/11. There's nothing else!

03 February 2009

Brit-think/Ameri-think #1

I've stolen the title of this entry from a book by Jane Walmsley. My copy--location unknown, no surprise--must be twenty years old by now. There's a new title in the same vein, The Anglo Files by Sarah Lyall, waiting in my Amazon shopping cart until it's available in the UK in August.

This is a subject that I'll return to as new items appear for inclusion. For starters, though, here are the results of a survey in yesterday's Guardian that I was delighted to see. I'm so used to hanging my head in shame as yet another study comes out revealing American beliefs in creationism, angels, alien abduction, etc., that it's a great relief to discover periodically that the Brits aren't all that different.

This poll was published by the Rescuing Darwin project, scheduled to coincide with 2009's double anniversary: 200 years after Darwin's birth and 150 after the publication of On the Origin of Species.

Choice facts:

Half of British adults do not believe in evolution, with at least 22% preferring the theories of creationism or intelligent design to explain how the world came about, according to a survey.

The poll found that 25% of Britons believe Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is "definitely true", with another quarter saying it is "probably true". Half of the 2,060 people questioned were either strongly opposed to the theory or confused about it.

10% of people chose young Earth creationism – the belief that God created the world some time in the last 10,000 years – over evolution.

About 12% preferred intelligent design, the idea that evolution alone is not enough to explain the structures of living organisms. The remainder were unsure, often mixing evolution, intelligent design and creationism together.


02 February 2009

P.D. James and W.H. Auden

My good friend in Montreal is finally enjoying a few days' break from an intensive project for the Quebec school board. Despite a lifetime of what I would call aspirational reading, she has retreated to her beautiful country house in the Eastern Townships with a few books guaranteed to provide the diversion she's looking for: genre fiction--and her escapist genre of choice, like mine, is the detective novel.

An excerpt from Myrna's last e-mail:

Yesterday was the first day of my holiday. I read the new PD James. Now, there is someone who has all her marbles at 89! Maybe you have to use it or lose it. She certainly wound up Dalgleish's career and private life well in this one, possibly because she may not write another one. I thought I also detected some of her own philosophy -- the mellowing view of life that comes to the very old. Quite enjoyed it. I woke up at 3:30 am and finished reading it at 5:30 am. Then I dozed off until 8:30 am. The luxury of semi-retirement! Now, I have to decide whether to read the new Kate Atkinson or the new John LeCarre, while catching up with my life in a desultory fashion.

Yes, passing the age sixty milestone does have its recompenses.

Since we share a February birth month, and in fact celebrated our 60ths together last year, I've bought us both a book I came across when looking for Auden's justification of reading detective novels, February House by Sherrill Tippins. Don't look it up on Amazon, Myrna, if you read this before the parcel arrives. I want you to be surprised and am 99.99% confident you'll be delighted by the author's very clever choice of subject.

I can't find--as usual--the Auden quotation I'm looking for in my commonplace books. It was something to do with indulging in the genre for the pleasure of seeing order imposed on chaos. In the course of trying to google the exact words, however, I came across this delightful essay that Auden wrote in 1948. It's long, so if you get tired of reading, skip ahead to the two poems he wrote on the same topic.

From: http://www.harpers.org/archive/1948/05/0033206

The guilty vicarage:
Notes on the detective story, by an addict

By W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden

A Confession

For me, as for many others, the reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol. The symptoms of this are: Firstly, the intensity of the craving–if I have any work to do, I must be careful not to get hold of a detective story for, once I begin one, I cannot work or sleep till I have finished it. Secondly, its specificity–the story must conform to certain formulas (I find it very difficult, for example, to read one that is not set in rural England). And, thirdly, its immediacy. I forget the story as soon as I have finished it, and have no wish to read it again. If, as sometimes happens, I start reading one and find after a few pages that I have read it before, I cannot go on.

Such reactions convince me that, in my case at least, detective stories have nothing to do with works of art. It is possible, however, that an analysis of the detective story, i.e., of the kind of detective story I enjoy, may throw light, not only on its magical function, but also, by contrast, on the function of art.


The vulgar definition, “a Whodunit,” is correct. The basic formula is this: a murder occurs; many are suspected; all but one suspect, who is the murderer, are eliminated; the murderer is arrested or dies.

This definition excludes:

(1) studies of murderers whose guilt is known, e.g., Malice Aforethought. There are borderline cases in which the murderer is known and there are no false suspects, but the proof is lacking, e.g., many of the stories of Freeman Wills Crofts. Most of these are permissible.

(2) thrillers, spy stories, stories of master crooks, etc., when the identification of the criminal is subordinate to the defeat of his criminal designs.

The interest in the thriller is the ethical and eristic conflict between good and evil, between Us and Them. The interest in the study of a murderer is the observation, by the innocent many, of the sufferings of the guilty one. The interest in the detective story is the dialectic of innocence and guilt.

As in the Aristotelian description of tragedy, there is Concealment (the innocent seem guilty and the guilty seem innocent) and Manifestation (the real guilt is brought to consciousness). There is also peripeteia, in this case not a reversal of fortune but a double reversal from apparent guilt to innocence and from apparent innocence to guilt. The formula may be diagrammed as follows.

Peaceful state before murderFalse innocence
MurderRevelation of presence of guilt
False clues, secondary murder, etc.False location of guilt
SolutionLocation of real guilt
Arrest of murdererCatharsis
Peaceful state after arrest True innocence

In Greek tragedy the audience knows the truth; the actors do not, but discover or bring to pass the inevitable. In modern, e.g., Elizabethan, tragedy the audience knows neither less nor more than the most knowing of the actors. In the detective story the audience does not know the truth at all; one of the actors–the murderer–does; and the detective, of his own free will, discovers and reveals what the murderer, of his own free will, tries to conceal.

Greek tragedy and the detective story have one characteristic in common, in which they both differ from modern tragedy, namely, the characters are not changed in or by their actions: in Greek tragedy because their actions are fated, in the detective story because the decisive event, the murder, has already occurred. Time and space therefore are simply the when and where of revealing either what has to happen or what has actually happened. In consequence, the detective story probably should, and usually does, obey the classical unities, whereas modern tragedy in which the characters develop with time can only do so by a technical tour de force; and the thriller, like the picaresque novel, even demands frequent changes of time and place.

Why Murder?

There are three classes of crime: (a) offenses against God and one’s neighbor or neighbors; (b) offenses against God and society; (c) offenses against God. (All crimes, of course, are offenses against oneself.)

Murder is a member and the only member of Class B. The character common to all crimes in Class A is that it is possible, at least theoretically, either that restitution can be made to the injured party (e.g., stolen goods can be returned), or that the injured party can forgive the criminal (e.g., in the case of rape). Consequently, society as a whole is only indirectly involved; directly, its representatives (the police, etc.) act in the interests of the injured party.

Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand restitution or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest.

Many detective stories begin with a death that appears to be suicide and is later discovered to have been murder. Suicide is a crime belonging to Class C in which neither the criminal’s neighbors nor society has any interest, direct or indirect. As long as a death is believed to be suicide, even private curiosity is improper; as soon as it is proved to be murder, public inquiry becomes a duty.

The detective story has five elements–the milieu, the victim, the murderer, the suspects, the detectives.

The Milieu (Human)

The detective story requires: (1) A closed society so that the possibility of an outside murderer (and hence of the society being totally innocent) is excluded; and a closely related society so that all its members are potentially suspect (cf. the thriller, which requires an open society in which any stranger may be a friend or enemy in disguise).

Such conditions are met by: (a) the group of blood relatives (the Christmas dinner in the country house); (b) the closely knit geographical group (the old world village); (c) the occupational group (the theatrical company); (d) the group isolated by the neutral place (the Pullman car).

In this last type the concealment-manifestation formula applies not only to the murder but also to the relations between the members of the group who first appear to be strangers to each other, but are later found to be related.

(2) It must appear to be an innocent society in a state of grace, i.e., a society where there is no need of the law, no contradiction between the aesthetic individual and the ethical universal, and where murder, therefore, is the unheard-of act which precipitates a crisis (for it reveals that some member has fallen and is no longer in a state of grace). The law becomes a reality and for a time all must live in its shadow, till the fallen one is identified. With his arrest, innocence is restored, and the law retires forever.

The characters in a detective story should, therefore, be eccentric (aesthetically interesting individuals) and good (instinctively ethical)–good, that is, either in appearance, later shown to be false, or in reality, first concealed by an appearance of bad.

It is a sound instinct that has made so many detective-story writers choose a college as a setting. The ruling passion of the ideal professor is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake so that he is related to other human beings only indirectly through their common relation to the truth; and those passions, like lust and avarice and envy, which relate individuals directly and may lead to murder are, in his case, ideally excluded. If a murder occurs in a college, therefore, it is a sign that some colleague is not only a bad man but also a bad professor. Further, as the basic premise of academic life is that truth is universal and to be shared with all, the gnosis of a concrete crime and the gnosis of abstract ideas nicely parallel and parody each other.

(The even more ideal contradiction of a murder in a monastery is excluded by the fact that monks go regularly to confession and, while the murderer might well not confess his crime, the suspects who are innocent of murder but guilty of lesser sins cannot be supposed to conceal them without making the monastery absurd. Incidentally, is it an accident that the detective story has flourished most in predominantly Protestant countries?)

The detective story writer is also wise to choose a society with an elaborate ritual and to describe this in detail. A ritual is a sign of harmony between the aesthetic and the ethical in which body and mind, individual will and general laws, are not in conflict. The murderer uses his knowledge of the ritual to commit the crime and can be caught only by someone who acquires an equal or superior familiarity with it.

The Milieu (Natural)

In the detective story, as in its mirror image, the Quest for the Grail, maps (the ritual of space) and timetables (the ritual of time) are desirable. Nature should reflect its human inhabitants, i.e., it should be the Great Good Place; for the more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of murder. The country is preferable to the town, a well-to-do neighborhood (but not too well-to-do-or there will be a suspicion of ill-gotten gains) better than a slum. The corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse but also because, even for a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing room carpet.

Mr. Raymond Chandler has written that he intends to take the body out of the vicarage garden and give murder back to those who are good at it. If he wishes to write detective stories, i.e., stories where the reader’s principal interest is to learn who did it, he could not be more mistaken; for in a society of professional criminals, the only possible motives for desiring to identify the murderer are blackmail or revenge, which both apply to individuals, not to the group as a whole, and can equally well inspire murder. Actually, whatever he may say, I think Mr. Chandler is interested in writing, not detective stories, but serious studies of a criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place, and his powerful but extremely depressing hooks should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art.

The Victim

The victim has to try to satisfy two contradictory requirements. He has to involve everyone in suspicion, which requires that he be a bad character; and he has to make everyone feel guilty, which requires that he be a good character. He cannot be a criminal because he could then be dealt with by the law and murder would be unnecessary. (Blackmail is the only exception.) The more general the temptation to murder he arouses, the better; e.g., the desire for freedom is a better motive than money alone or sex alone. On the whole, the best victim is the negative Father or Mother Image.

If there is more than one murder, the subsequent victims should be more innocent than the initial victim, i.e., the murderer should start with a real grievance and, as a consequence of righting it by illegitimate means, be forced to murder against his will where he has no grievance but his own guilt.

The Murderer

Murder is negative creation, and every murderer is therefore the rebel who claims the right to be omnipotent. His pathos is his refusal to suffer. The problem for the writer is to conceal his demonic pride from the other characters and from the reader, since, if a person has this pride, it tends to appear in everything he says and does. To surprise the reader when the identity of the murderer is revealed, yet at the same time to convince him that everything he has previously been told about the murderer is consistent with his being a murderer, is the test of a good detective story.

As to the murderer’s end, of the three alternatives–execution, suicide, and madness–the first is preferable; for if he commits suicide he refuses to repent, and if he goes mad he cannot repent, but if he does not repent society cannot forgive. Execution, on the other hand, is the act of atonement, by which the murderer is forgiven by society.

(A suggestion for Mr. Chandler: Among a group of efficient professional killers who murder for strictly professional reasons, there is one to whom, like Leopold and Loeb, murder is an acte gratuite. Presently murders begin to occur which have not been commissioned. The group is morally outraged and bewildered; it has to call in the police to detect the amateur murderer and rescue the professionals from a mutual suspicion which threatens to disrupt their organization and to injure their capacity to murder.)

The Suspects

The detective-story society is a society consisting of apparently innocent individuals, i.e., their aesthetic interest as individuals does not conflict with their ethical obligations to the universal. The murder is the act of disruption by which innocence is lost, and the individual and the law become opposed to each other. In the case of the murderer this opposition is completely real (till he is arrested and consents to be punished); in the case of the suspects it is mostly apparent.

But in order for the appearance to exist, there must be some element of reality; e.g., it is unsatisfactory if the suspicion is caused by chance or the murderer’s malice alone. The suspects must be guilty of something, because, now that the aesthetic and the ethical are in opposition, if they are completely innocent (obedient to the ethical) they lose their aesthetic interest and the reader will ignore them.

For suspects, the principal causes of guilt are:

(1) the wish or even the intention to murder;

(2) crimes of Class A or vices of Class C (e.g., illicit amours) which the suspect is afraid or ashamed to reveal (see Why Murder?);

(3) a hubris of intellect which tries to solve the crime itself and despises the official police (assertion of the supremacy of the aesthetic over the ethical). If great enough, this hubris leads to its subject getting murdered;

(4) a hubris of innocence which refuses to co-operate with the investigation;

(5) a lack of faith in another loved suspect, which leads its subject to hide or confuse clues.

The Detective

Completely satisfactory detectives are extremely rare. Indeed, I only know of three: Sherlock Holmes (Conan Doyle), Inspector French (Freeman Wills Crofts), and Father Brown (Chesterton). The job of the detective is to restore the state of grace in which the aesthetic and the ethical are as one. Since the murderer who caused their disjunction is the aesthetically defiant individual, his opponent, the detective, must be either the official representative of the ethical or the exceptional individual who is himself in a state of grace. If he is the former, he is a professional; if he is the latter, he is an amateur. In either case, the detective must be the total stranger who cannot possibly be involved in the crime; this excludes the local police and should, I think, exclude the detective who is a friend of one of the suspects. The professional detective has the advantage that, since he is not an individual but a representative of the ethical, he does not need a motive for investigating the crime; but for the same reason he has the disadvantage of being unable to overlook the minor ethical violations of the suspects, and therefore it is harder for him to gain their confidence.

Most amateur detectives, on the other hand, are failures either because they are priggish supermen, like Lord Peter Wimsey and Philo Vance, who have no motive for being detectives except caprice, or because, like the detectives of the hard-boiled school, they are motivated by avarice or ambition and might just as well be murderers.

The amateur detective genius may have weaknesses to give him aesthetic interest, but they must not be of a kind which outrage ethics. The most satisfactory weaknesses are the solitary oral vices of eating and drinking or childish boasting. In his sexual life, the detective must be either celibate or happily married.

Between the amateur detective and the professional policeman stands the criminal lawyer whose telos is, not to discover who is guilty, but to prove that his client is innocent. His ethical justification is that human law is ethically imperfect, i.e., not an absolute manifestation of the universal and divine, and subject to chance aesthetic limitations, e.g., the intelligence or stupidity of individual policemen and juries (in consequence of which an innocent man may sometimes be judged guilty).

To correct this imperfection, the decision is arrived at through an aesthetic combat, i.e., the intellectual gifts of the defense versus those of the prosecution, just as in earlier days doubtful cases were solved by physical combat between the accused and the accuser.

The lawyer-detective (e.g., Joshua Clunk) is never quite satisfactory, therefore, because his interest in the truth or in all the innocent is subordinate to his interest in his client, whom he cannot desert, even if he should really be the guilty party, without ceasing to be a lawyer.

Sherlock Holmes

Holmes is the exceptional individual who is in a state of grace because he is a genius in whom scientific curiosity is raised to the status of a heroic passion. He is erudite but his knowledge is absolutely specialized (e.g., his ignorance of the Copernican system); he is in all matters outside his field as helpless as a child (e.g., his untidiness), and he pays the price for his scientific detachment (his neglect of feeling) by being the victim of melancholia which attacks him whenever he is unoccupied with a case (e.g., his violin playing and cocaine taking).

His motive for being a detective is, positively, a love of the neutral truth (he has no interest in the feelings of the guilty or the innocent), and, negatively, a need: to escape from his own feelings of melancholy. His attitude toward people and his technique of observation and deduction are those of the chemist or physicist. If he chooses human beings rather than inanimate matter as his material, it is because investigating the inanimate is unheroically easy since it cannot tell lies, which human beings can and do, so that in dealing with them, observation must be twice as sharp and logic twice as rigorous.

Inspector French

His class and culture are the natural ones for a Scotland Yard inspector. (The old Oxonian Inspector is insufferable.) His motive is love of duty. Holmes detects for his own sake and shows the maximum indifference to all feelings except a negative fear of his own. French detects for the sake of the innocent members of society, and is indifferent only to his own feelings and those of the murderer. (He would much rather stay at home with his wife.) He is exceptional only in his exceptional love of duty which makes him take exceptional pains; he does only what all could do as well if they had the same patient industry (his checking of alibis for tiny flaws which careless hurry had missed). He outwits the murderer, partly because the latter is not quite so painstaking as he, and partly because the murderer must act alone, while he has the help of all the innocent people in the world who are doing their duty (e.g., the post- men, railway clerks, milkmen, etc., who become, accidentally, witnesses to the truth).

Father Brown

Like Holmes, an amateur; yet, like French, not an individual genius. His activities as a detective are an incidental part of his activities as a priest who cares for souls. His prime motive is compassion, of which the guilty are in greater need than the innocent, and he investigates murders, not for his own sake, nor even for the sake of the innocent, but for the sake of the murderer who can save his soul if he will confess and repent. He solves his cases, not by approaching them objectively like a scientist or a policeman, but by subjectively imagining himself to be the murderer, a process which is good not only for the murderer but for Father Brown himself because, as he says, “it gives a man his remorse beforehand.”

Holmes and French can only help the murderer as teachers, i.e., they can teach him that murder will out and does not pay. More they cannot do since neither is tempted to murder; Holmes is too gifted, French too well trained in the habit of virtue. Father Brown can go further and help the murderer as an example, i.e., as a man who is also tempted to murder, but is able by faith to resist temptation.

The Reader

The most curious fact about the detective story is that it makes its greatest appeal precisely to those classes of people who are most immune to other forms of daydream literature. The typical detective story addict is a doctor or clergyman or scientist or artist, i.e., a fairly suecessful professional man with intellectual interests and well-read in his own field, who could never stomach the Saturday Evening Post or True Confessions or movie magazines or comics. If I ask myself why I cannot enjoy stories about strong silent men and lovely girls who make love in a beautiful landscape and come into millions of dollars, I cannot answer that I have no phantasies of being handsome and loved and rich, because of course I have (though my life is, perhaps, sufficiently fortunate to make me less envious in a naïve way than some). No, I can only say that I am too conscious of the absurdity and evil of such wishes to enjoy seeing them reflected in print.

I can, to some degree, resist yielding to these or similar desires which tempt me, but I cannot prevent myself from having them to resist; and it is the fact that I have them which makes me feel guilty, so that instead of dreaming about indulging my desires, I dream about the removal of the guilt which I feel at their existence. This I still do, and must do, because guilt is a subjective feeling where any further step is only a reduplication–feeling guilty about my guilt. I suspect that the typical reader of detective stories is, like myself, a person who suffers from a sense of sin. From the point of view of ethics, desires and acts are good or bad, and I must choose the good and reject the bad, but the I which makes this choice is ethically neutral; it only becomes good or bad in its choice. To have a sense of sin means to feel guilty at there being an ethical choice to make, a guilt which, however “good” I may become, remains unchanged. As St. Paul says: “Except I had known the law, I had not known sin.”

It is sometimes said that detective stories are read by respectable law-abiding citizens in order to gratify in phantasy the violent or murderous wishes they dare not, or are ashamed to, translate into action. This may be true for the reader of thrillers (which I rarely enjoy), but it is quite false for the reader of detective stories. On the contrary, the magical satisfaction the latter provide (which makes them escape literature not works of art) is the illusion of being dissociated from the murderer.

The magic formula is an innocence which is discovered to contain guilt; then a suspicion of being the guilty one; and finally a real innocence from which the guilty other has been expelled, a cure effected, not by me or my neighbors, but by the miraculous intervention of a genius from outside who removes guilt by giving knowledge of guilt. (The detective story subscribes, in fact, to the Socratic daydream: “Sin is ignorance.”)

If one thinks of a work of art which deals with murder, Crime and Punishment for example, its effect on the reader is to compel an identification with the murderer which he would prefer not to recognize. The identification of phantasy is always an attempt to avoid one’s own suffering: the identification of art is a compelled sharing in the suffering of another. Kafka’s The Trial is another instructive example of the difference between a work of art and the detective story. In the latter it is certain that a crime has been committed and, temporarily, uncertain to whom the guilt should be attached; as soon as this is known, the innocence of everyone else is certain. (Should it turn out that after all no crime has been committed, then all would be innocent.) In The Trial, on the other hand, it is the guilt that is certain and the crime that is uncertain; the aim of the hero’s investigation is, not to prove his innocence (which would be impossible for he knows he is guilty), but to discover what, if anything, he has done to make himself guilty. K, the hero, is, in fact, a portrait of the kind of person who reads detective stories for escape.

The phantasy, then, which the detective story addict indulges is the phantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence, where he may know love as love and not as the law. The driving force behind this daydream is the feeling of guilt, the cause of which is unknown to the dreamer. The phantasy of escape is the same, whether one explains the guilt in Christian, Freudian, or any other terms. One’s way of trying to face the reality, on the other hand, will, of course, depend very much on one’s creed.

Pasted below are two entertaining Auden poems lifted from http://www.uwo.ca/english/canadianpoetry/cpjrn/vol32/diemert.htm and http://www.librarything.com/topic/33245

Detective Story

For who is ever quite without his landscape,
The straggling village street, the house in trees,
All near the church, or else the gloomy town house,
The one with the Corinthian pillars, or
The tiny workmanlike flat: in any case
A home, the centre where the three or four things
That happen to a man do happen? Yes,
Who cannot draw the map of his life, shade in
The little station where he meets his loves
And says good-bye continually, and mark the spot
Where the body of his happiness was first discovered?

An unknown tramp? A rich man? An enigma always
And with a buried pastbut when the truth,
The truth about our happiness comes out
How much it owed to blackmail and philandering.

The rest's traditional. All goes to plan:
The feud between the local common sense
And that exasperating brilliant intuition
That's always on the spot by chance before us;
All goes to plan, both lying and confession,
Down to the thrilling final chase, the kill.

Yet on the last page just a lingering doubt:
That verdict, was it just? The judge's nerves,
That clue, that protestation from the gallows,
And our own smile . . . why yes . . .
But time is always killed. Someone must pay for
Our loss of happiness, our happiness itself.

At Last the Secret Is Out

At last the secret is out, as it always must come in the end,
The delicious story is ripe to tell to the intimate friend;
Over the tea-cups and in the square the tongue has its desire;
Still waters run deep, my dear, there's never smoke without fire.

Behind the corpse in the reservoir, behind the ghost on the links,
Behind the lady who dances and the man who madly drinks,
Under the look of fatigue, the attack of migraine and the sigh
There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.

For the clear voice suddenly singing, high up in the convent wall,
The scent of the elder bushes, the sporting prints in the hall,
The croquet matches in summer, the handshake, the cough, the kiss,
There is always a wicked secret, a private reason for this.