Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Sherlock Holmes

Brexit pursued by a bear

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Over the weekend, my wife and I took our daughter to see Paddington 2, which can accurately be described as the best live-action children’s movie since Paddington. These are charming films, and the worst that can be said of them is that they’re clearly trying hard to be better than they have any right to be. Unlike an artist like Hayao Miyazaki, who constructs stories according to his own secret logic and ends up seizing the imagination of adults and children across the world, director Paul King and his collaborators are more in the tradition of Pixar, which does amazing work and never lets you forget it for a second. (If you want to reach back even further, you could say that these movies split the difference between Babe, a technically phenomenal film that somehow managed to seem effortless, and Babe: Pig in the City, an unquestioned masterpiece that often felt on the verge of flying apart under the pressure of George Miller’s ambitions.) Paddington 2, in particular, is so indebted to the work of Wes Anderson, especially The Grand Budapest Hotel, that it seems less like a pastiche than an unauthorized knockoff. Is it really an act of homage to painstakingly recreate the look of a movie that came out less than four years ago? But it also doesn’t matter. It’s as if King and his collaborators realized that Anderson’s work amounted to an industrial process that was being wasted if it wasn’t being used to make a children’s movie, so they decided to copy it before the patent expired. The result isn’t quite on the level of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a major work of art that also seems to have been made by and for twelve-year-old kids. But it’s more than enough until Anderson finally makes the Encyclopedia Brown adaptation of my dreams.

Paddington 2 also doubles as the best advertisement for Britain in film since the heyday of the Ministry of Information, with a roster of such ringers as Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, and Joanna Lumley, as well as a wonderfully diverse supporting cast. (It also gives Hugh Grant—the quintessential British export of the last quarter of a century—his best role in a long time.) It’s the most loving portrait of London that any movie has provided in years, with a plot driven by an implausible treasure hunt that serves as an excuse to tour such landmarks as Tower Bridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Watching it is almost enough to make you forget the fact that just a few months before production began, the United Kingdom narrowly voted to effectively withdraw from its role as a global power. It might seem like a stretch to see a children’s movie through the lens of Brexit, but nearly every British film of the postwar period can be read as a commentary on the nation’s sometimes painful efforts to redefine itself in a changing world order. Nostalgia is often a strategy for dealing with harsher realities, and escapism can be more revealing than it knows, with even the James Bond series serving as a form of wishful thinking. And America should be paying close attention. A nation on the decline no longer has the luxury of having its movies stand for nothing but themselves, and Britain provides a striking case study for what happens to a culture after its period of ascendancy is over. The United States, like its nearest relation, threw away much of its credibility a year and a half ago in a fit of absentmindedness.

This partially accounts for our sudden fascination with Britain and its royal family, which seems to have risen to levels unseen since the death of Princess Diana. Part of it amounts to an accident of timing—the flurry of celebrations for Queen Elizabeth’s ninetieth birthday and sapphire jubilee generated a flood of content that was more available to American viewers than ever before, and we were unusually primed to receive it. Over the last year or so, my wife and I have watched something like three different documentaries about the Windsors, along with The Crown and The Great British Baking Show, the soothing rhythms of which make Top Chef seem frantic by comparison. Above all else, we’ve followed the saga of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, which has often been mined for clues as to its possible social and political significance. As Rebecca Mead writes in The New Yorker:

This may be because [the engagement is] legit the only bit of non-terrible news that’s happened in the last year. But there’s more to it than that. This is a royal wedding for non-royalists, even for anti-royalists…There is another important way in which Markle’s arrival reconfigures what Prince Philip reportedly calls “the Firm.” Not only is she American, she is also of mixed race: Markle’s mother is African-American, and her father is white…Whatever else Markle brings to the gilded royal table in terms of glamour, intelligence, and charm, her experience of racial prejudice is unprecedented among members of the royal family. At a time when racial bigotry and nativism is on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic, the coming to prominence at the heart of Britain’s First Family of an American woman whose ancestors were enslaved could not be more welcome, or more salutary.

The unstated point is that even as the United Kingdom goes through convulsions of its own, at least it gets to have this. And we can’t be blamed for wanting to clutch some of it to ourselves. After quoting Princess Diana’s wish that she become “a queen of people’s hearts,” Mead adds:

For those of us horrified by the President’s imperial, autocratic instincts—by his apparent wish to reinstate a feudal system with himself at its apex, attended by a small court of plutocrats who, like him, have been even further enriched by Republican tax reform—might we not claim Harry and Meghan as the monarchs of our hearts? Might they not serve as paradoxical avatars of our own hopes for a more open, more international, more unified, and fairer world?

It’s hard to quarrel with this basically harmless desire to comfort ourselves with the images of the monarchy, and I’ve been guilty of it myself. The building blocks of so much of my inner life—from the Sherlock Holmes stories to the movies of Powell and Pressburger—reflect a nostalgia for an England, as Vincent Starrett put it, “where it is always 1895.” It’s an impulse as old as Walt Disney, a Chicago child whose studio turned into a propaganda mill in the early sixties for the values of the Edwardian era. (As much as I love Mary Poppins, it’s hard to overlook the fact that it premiered just a few weeks after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and against a backdrop of race riots in Philadelphia.) America has nostalgic myths of its own, but it tends to fall back on its British forebears when it feels particularly insecure about its own legacy. When it becomes too difficult to look at ourselves, we close our eyes and think of England.

The manufacturers of worlds

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For the last few days, as part of a deliberate break from writing, I’ve been browsing contentedly through my favorite book, The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by William S. Baring-Gould. It was meant to be a comforting read that was as far removed from work as possible, but science fiction, unsurprisingly, can’t seem to let me go. Yesterday, I was looking over The Sign of the Four when I noticed a line that I’ve read countless times without really taking note of it. As Holmes leaves Baker Street to pursue a line of the investigation, he says to Watson, who has remained behind: “Let me recommend this book—one of the most remarkable ever penned. It is Winwood Reade’s Martyrdom of Man. I shall be back in an hour.” Toward the end of the novel, speaking of the difficulty in predicting what any given human being will do, Holmes elaborates:

Winwood Reade is good upon the subject…He remarks that, while the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty. You can, for example, never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to. Individuals vary, but percentages remain constant. So says the statistician.

This is remarkably like what Isaac Asimov writes of psychohistory, a sociological version of the ideal gas law that can predict the future based on the existence of a huge number—perhaps in the trillions—of individual lives. And it seemed worth checking to see if this passage could cast any light on the origins of the imaginary science that I’ve spent so much time exploring.

It pains me to say that Holmes himself probably wasn’t a direct influence on the Foundation series. There was a considerable overlap between Sherlockians and science fiction writers—prominent members of both camps included Anthony Boucher, Poul Anderson, Fletcher Pratt, and Manly Wade Wellman—but John W. Campbell wasn’t among them, and Asimov was drafted only reluctantly into the Baker Street Irregulars. (He writes in I. Asimov: “Conan Doyle was a slapdash and sloppy writer…I am not really a Holmes enthusiast.”) For insight, we have to go back to Winwood Reade himself, a British historian, explorer, and correspondent of Charles Darwin whose discussion of the statistical predictability of the human race appears, interestingly, in an argument against the efficacy of prayer. Here’s the full passage from The Martyrdom of Man, which was published in 1872:

All phenomena, physical and moral, are subject to laws as invariable as those which regulate the rising and setting of the sun. It is in reality as foolish to pray for rain or a fair wind as it would be to pray that the sun should set in the middle of the day. It is as foolish to pray for the healing of a disease or for daily bread as it is to pray for rain or a fair wind. It is as foolish to pray for a pure heart or for mental repose as it is to pray for help in sickness or misfortune. All the events which occur upon the earth result from Law: even those actions which are entirely dependent on the caprices of the memory, or the impulse of the passions, are shown by statistics to be, when taken in the gross, entirely independent of the human will. As a single atom, man is an enigma; as a whole, he is a mathematical problem. As an individual, he is a free agent; as a species, the offspring of necessity.

At the end of the book, Reade takes his own principles to their logical conclusion, becoming, in effect, an early writer of science fiction. Its closing section, “Intellect,” sketches out a universal history that anticipates Toynbee, but Reade goes further: “When we understand the laws which regulate the complex phenomena of life, we shall be able to predict the future as we are already able to predict comets and eclipses and planetary movements.” He describes three inventions that he believes will lead to an era of global prosperity:

The first is the discovery of a motive force which will take the place of steam, with its cumbrous fuel of oil or coal; secondly, the invention of aerial locomotion which will transport labour at a trifling cost of money and of time to any part of the planet, and which, by annihilating distance, will speedily extinguish national distinctions; and thirdly, the manufacture of flesh and flour from the elements by a chemical process in the laboratory, similar to that which is now performed within the bodies of the animals and plants.

And after rhapsodizing over the utopian civilization that will result—in which “poetry and the fine arts will take that place in the heart which religion now holds”—he turns his thoughts to the stars:

And then, the earth being small, mankind will migrate into space, and will cross the airless Saharas which separate planet from planet, and sun from sun. The earth will become a Holy Land which will be visited by pilgrims from all the quarters of the universe. Finally, men will master the forces of nature; they will become themselves architects of systems, manufacturers of worlds. Man then will be perfect; he will then be a creator; he will therefore be what the vulgar worship as a god.

Reade was inevitably seen as an atheist, and although he didn’t like the label, he inclined many readers in that direction, as he did in one of the most interesting episodes in this book’s afterlife. The scene is World War II, which tested the idea of psychohistory to its limit, and the speaker is the author of the memoir The Enchanted Places:

The war was on. I was in Italy. From time to time [my father] used to send me parcels of books to read. In one of them were two in the Thinker’s Library series: Renan’s The Life of Jesus and Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man. I started with The Life of Jesus and found it quite interesting; I turned to The Martyrdom and found it enthralling…There was no God. God had not created Man in His own image. It was the other way round: Man had created God. And Man was all there was. But it was enough. It was the answer, and it was both totally convincing and totally satisfying. It convinced and satisfied me as I lay in my tent somewhere on the narrow strip of sand that divides Lake Comacchio from the Adriatic; and it has convinced and satisfied me ever since.

I wrote at once to my father to tell him so and he at once wrote back. And it was then that I learned for the first time that these were his beliefs, too, and that he had always hoped that one day I would come to share them…So he had sent me The Martyrdom. But even then he had wanted to play absolutely fair, and so he had added The Life of Jesus. And then he had been content to leave the verdict to me. Well, he said, the church had done its best. It had had twenty-four years’ start—and it had failed.

The author adds: “If I had to compile a list of books that have influenced my life, high on the list would undoubtedly be Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man. And it would probably be equally high on my father’s list too.” The father in question was A.A. Milne. And the son was named Christopher Robin.

Quote of the Day

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It is one of those cases where the art of the reasoner should be used rather for the sifting of details than for the acquiring of fresh evidence. The tragedy has been so uncommon, so complete and of such personal importance to so many people, that we are suffering from a plethora of surmise, conjecture, and hypothesis. The difficulty is to detach the framework of fact—of absolute undeniable fact—from the embellishments of theorists and reporters. Then, having established ourselves upon this sound basis, it is our duty to see what inferences may be drawn and what are the special points upon which the whole mystery turns.

Arthur Conan Doyle, “Silver Blaze”

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December 6, 2017 at 7:30 am

Solzhenitsyn’s rosary

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Note: I’m taking a few days off for Thanksgiving, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on July 11, 2016.

When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned in the Soviet gulag, along with so many other sufferings, he was forced to deal with a challenge that modern writers rarely have to confront—the problem of memorization. He wanted to keep writing poetry, but he was unable to put anything on paper, which would be confiscated and read by the guards. Here’s the solution that he found, as he recounts in The Gulag Archipelago:

I started breaking matches into little pieces and arranging them on my cigarette case in two rows (of ten each, one representing units and the others tens). As I recited the verses to myself, I displaced one bit of broken match from the units row for every line. When I shifted ten units I displaced one of the “tens”…Every fiftieth and every hundredth line I memorized with special care, to help me keep count. Once a month I recited all that I had written. If the wrong line came out in place of one of the hundreds and fifties, I went over it all again and again until I caught the slippery fugitives.

In the Kuibyshev Transit Prison I saw Catholics (Lithuanians) busy making themselves rosaries for prison use…I joined them and said that I, too, wanted to say my prayers with a rosary but that in my particular religion I needed hundred beads in a ring…that every tenth bead must be cubic, not spherical, and that the fiftieth and the hundredth beads must be distinguishable at a touch.

The Lithuanians were impressed, Solzhenitsyn says, by his “religious zeal,” and they agreed to make a rosary to his specifications, fashioning the beads out of pellets of bread and coloring them with burnt rubber, tooth powder, and disinfectant. (Later, when Solzhenitsyn realized that twenty beads were enough, he made them himself out of cork.) He concludes:

I never afterward parted with the marvelous present of theirs; I fingered and counted my beads inside my wide mittens—at work line-up, on the march to and fro from work, at all waiting times; I could do it standing up, and freezing cold was no hindrance. I carried it safely through the search points, in the padding of my mittens, where it could not be felt. The warders found it on various occasions, but supposed that it was for praying and let me keep it. Until the end of my sentence (by which time I had accumulated 12,000 lines) and after that in my places of banishment, this necklace helped me write and remember.

Ever since I first read this story, I’ve been fascinated by it, and I’ve occasionally found myself browsing the rosaries or prayer beads for sale online, wondering if I should get one for myself, just in case—although in case of what, exactly, I don’t know.

Joan Didion

But you don’t need to be in prison to understand the importance of memorization. One of the side effects of our written and interconnected culture is that we’ve lost the ability to hold information in our heads, and this trend has only accelerated as we’ve outsourced more of our inner lives to the Internet. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: there are good reasons for keeping a lot of this material where it can be easily referenced, without feeling the need to remember it all. (As Sherlock Holmes said in A Study in Scarlet: “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose…It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent.” Although given the amount of obscure information that Holmes was able to produce in subsequent stories, it’s possible that he was just kidding.) But there’s also a real loss involved. Oral cultures are marked by a highly developed verbal memory, especially for those whose livelihoods depend on it: a working poet could be expected to know hundreds of songs by heart, and the conventions of poetry itself emerged, in part, as a set of mnemonic devices. Meter, rhyme, and conventional formulas allowed many lines of verse to be recited for a paying audience—or improvised on the spot. An oral poem is a vehicle for the preservation of information, and it takes advantage of the human brain’s ability to retain material in a pattern that hints at what comes next. When we neglect this, we lose touch with some of the reasons that poetry evolved in the first place.

And what makes memorization particularly valuable as a creative tool is the fact that it isn’t quite perfect. When you write something down, it tends to become fixed, both physically and psychologically. (Joan Didion gets at this when she says: “By the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.”) An idea in the brain, by contrast, remains fluid, malleable, and vital. Each time you go back to revisit it, whether using a rosary or some other indexical system, you aren’t just remembering it, but to some extent recreating it, and you’ll never get it exactly right. But just as natural selection exists because of the variations that arise from errors of transcription, a creative method that relies on memory is less accurate but more receptive to happy accidents than one that exists on the page. A line of poetry might change slightly each time we call it up, but the core idea remains, and the words that survive from one iteration to the next have persisted, by definition, because they’re memorable. We find ourselves revising and reworking the result because we have no choice, and in the process, we keep it alive. The danger, of course, is that if we don’t keep notes, any ideas we have are likely to float away without ever being realized—a phenomenon that every writer regards with dread. What we need is a structure that allows us to assign an order to the ideas in our head while preserving their ripe state of unwrittenness. Solzhenitsyn’s rosary, which was forced on him by necessity, was one possible answer, but there are others. Even if we’re diligent about keeping a pencil and paper—or a smartphone—nearby, there will be times when an idea catches us at a moment at which we can’t write it down. And when that happens, we need to be ready.

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November 23, 2017 at 9:00 am

The weight of lumber

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In my discussion yesterday of huge scholarly projects that expanded to take up the lives of their authors, I deliberately left out one name. Arnold J. Toynbee was a British historian and author of the twelve volumes of A Study of History, the most ambitious attempt to date at a universal theory of the rise and fall of civilizations. Toynbee has intrigued me for as long as I can remember, but he’s a little different from such superficially similar figures as Joseph Needham and Donald Knuth. For one thing, he actually finished his magnum opus, and even though it took decades, he more or less stuck to the plan of the work that he published in the first installment, which was an achievement in itself. He also differed from the other two in reaching a wide popular audience. Thousands of sets of his book were sold, and it became a bestseller in its two-volume abridgment by D.C. Somervell. It inspired countless essays and thick tomes of commentary, argument, and response—and then, strangely, it simply went away. Toynbee’s name has all but disappeared from mainstream and academic consideration, maybe because his ideas were too abstruse for one and too grandiose for the other, and if he’s recognized today at all, it’s probably because of the mysterious Toynbee tiles. (One possible successor is the psychohistory of the Foundation series, which has obvious affinities to his work, although Isaac Asimov played down the connection. He read the first half of A Study of History in 1944, borrowing the volumes one at a time from L. Sprague de Camp, and recalled: “There are some people who, on reading my Foundation series, are sure that it was influenced basically by Toynbee. They are only partly right. The first four stories were written before I had read Toynbee. ‘Dead Hand,’ however, was indeed influenced by it.”)

At the Newberry Library Book Fair last week, I hesitated over buying a complete set of Toynbee, and by the time I made up my mind and went back to get it, it was gone—which is the kind of mistake that can haunt me for the rest of my life. As a practical matter, though, I have all the Toynbee I’ll ever need: I already own the introductory volume of A Study of History and the Somervell abridgment, and it’s frankly hard to imagine reading anything else. But I did pick up the twelfth and last volume, Reconsiderations, published seven years after the rest, which might be the most interesting of them all. It’s basically Toynbee’s reply to his critics in over seven hundred pages of small type, in the hardcover equivalent of a writer responding to all the online comments on his work one by one. Toynbee seems to have read every review of his book, and he sets out to engage them all, including a miscellaneous section of over eighty pages simply called Ad Hominem. It’s a prickly, fascinating work that is probably more interesting than the books that inspired it, and one passage in particular caught my eye:

One of my critics has compared earlier volumes of this book to a “palace” in which “the rooms…are over-furnished to the point of resembling a dealer’s warehouse.” This reviewer must also be a thought-reader; for I have often thought of myself as a man moving old furniture about. For centuries these lovely things had been lying neglected in the lumber-rooms and attics. They had been piled in there higgledy-piggledy, in utter disorder, and had been crammed so tight that nobody could even squeeze his way in to look at them and find out whether they were of any value. In the course of ages they had been accumulating there—unwanted rejects from a score of country houses. This unworthy treatment of these precious pieces came to trouble me more and more; for I knew that they were not really junk; I knew that they were heirlooms, and these so rare and fine that they were not just provincial curiosities; they were the common heritage of anyone who had any capacity for appreciating beauty in Man’s handiwork.

In speaking of “lumber-rooms and attics,” Toynbee is harking back to a long literary tradition of comparing the mind itself to a lumber-room, which originally meant a spare room in a house full of unused furniture and other junk. I owe this knowledge to Nicholson Baker’s famous essay “Lumber,” reprinted in his collection The Size of Thoughts, in which he traces the phrase’s rise and fall, in a miniature version of what Toynbee tries to do for entire civilizations. Baker claims to have chosen the word “lumber” essentially at random, writing in his introduction: “Now feels like a good time to pick a word or a phrase, something short, and go after it, using the available equipment of intellectual retrieval, to see where we get…It should be representatively out of the way; it should have seen better days. Once or twice in the past it briefly enjoyed the status of a minor cliché, but now, for one reason or another, it is ignored or forgotten.” This might be a description of A Study of History itself—and yet, remarkably, Baker doesn’t mention the passage that I’ve quoted here. I assume that this is because he wasn’t aware of it, because it fits in beautifully with the rest of his argument. The dread of the mind becoming a lumber-room, crammed with useless odds and ends, is primarily a fear of intellectuals, as expressed by their patron saint Sherlock Holmes:

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic…It is a mistake to think that this little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent.

Baker explains: “This is a form of the great scholarly worry—a worry which hydroptically book-thirsty poets like Donne, Johnson, Gray, Southey, and Coleridge all felt at times—the fear that too much learning will eventually turn even an original mind into a large, putty-colored regional storage facility of mislabeled and leaking chemical drums.”

Toynbee’s solution to the problem of mental lumber, like that of Needham and Knuth, was simply to pull it out of his brain and put it down on paper, even if it took three decades and twelve volumes. It’s hard not to be stirred by his description of his efforts:

At last I found that I could not bear this shocking situation any longer, so I set my own hand to a back-breaking job. I began to drag out the pieces, one by one, and to arrange them in the hall. I could not pretend to form a final judgement on the order in which they should be placed. Indeed, there never could be a final judgement on this, for a number of attractive different orders could be imagined, each of them the right order from some particular point of view. The first thing to be done was to get as many of the pieces as possible out into the open and to assemble them in some order or other. If once I had them parked down in the hall, I could see how they looked and could shift them and re-shift them at my leisure. Perhaps I should not have the leisure; perhaps the preliminary job of extracting these treasures from the lumber-rooms and attics would turn out to be as much as I could manage with my single pair of hands. If so, this would not matter; for there would be plenty of time afterwards for other people to rearrange the pieces, and, no doubt, they would be doing this again and again as they studied them more closely and came to know more about them than would ever be known by me.

It’s through arrangement and publication that lumber becomes precious again, and from personal experience, I know how hard it can be to relinquish information that has been laboriously brought to light. But part of the process is knowing when to stop. As Baker, a less systematic but equally provocative thinker, concludes:

I have poked through verbal burial mounds, I have overemphasized minor borrowings, I have placed myself deep in the debt of every accessible work of reference, and I have overquoted and overquibbled—of course I have: that is what always happens when you pay a visit to the longbeards’ dusty chamber…All the pages I have flipped and copied and underlined will turn gray again and pull back into the shadows, and have no bearing on one another. Lumber becomes treasure only temporarily, through study, and then it lapses into lumber again. Books open, and then they close.

My ten great books #1: The Annotated Sherlock Holmes

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The Annotated Sherlock Holmes

Note: Four years ago, I published a series of posts here about my ten favorite works of fiction. Since then, the list has evolved, as all such rankings do, and this seems like a good time to revisit it. (I’m not including any science fiction, which I hope to cover in a separate feature later this year.) I’ll be treating them in the order of their original publication, but as it happens, we’ll be starting today with the book I love the most.

I first encountered the best book in the world in the library of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. At the time, I was seventeen, and of course I was already in love with Sherlock Holmes—I’d even been exposed to the subculture of obsessive Holmes fans through the wonderful anthology A Baker Street Dozen, which I still think is the most inviting introduction to the subject for the general reader. What I found in The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by William S. Baring-Gould was something much more: an entire universe of speculation, whimsy, and longing grown from the rich soil of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. As the narrator relates in Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”:

Two years before I had discovered…a superficial description of a nonexistent country; now chance afforded me something more precious and arduous. Now I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet’s entire history, with its architecture and its playing cards, with the dread of its mythologies and the murmur of its languages, with its emperors and its seas, with its minerals and its birds and its fish, with its algebra and its fire, with its theological and metaphysical controversy. And all of it articulated, coherent, with no visible doctrinal intent or tone of parody.

The rules of the game were simple. Holmes, Watson, Mycroft, and the other vivid figures who populated their slice of London had been real men and women; Conan Doyle had been Watson’s literary agent; and the stories were glimpses into a larger narrative that could be reconstructed with enough patience and ingenuity. Given the scraps of information that they provided, you could figure out which building had been the model for 221B Baker Street; piece together the details of Watson’s military record, the location of his war wound, and the identities of his three, or perhaps four, wives; determine the species of the speckled band and whether “The Adventure of the Three Students” took place at Oxford or Cambridge; and pin down, with considerable accuracy, when and where each of the other adventures took place, even as Watson, or Conan Doyle, tried to divert you with “mistakes” that were deliberate misleads or red herrings.

The result of Baring-Gould’s work, which collects nearly a century’s worth of speculation into one enormous, handsomely illustrated volume, is the first book I’d save if I could own only one, and for years, it’s been living on my desk, both as a source of inspiration and as a convenient laptop stand. (Leslie Klinger’s more recent edition is lovely as well, but Baring-Gould will always be closest to my heart.) And it’s taken me a long time to realize why I care about this book so much, aside from the obvious pleasure it affords. It represents a vision of the world, and of reading, that I find immensely seductive. Each story, and often each sentence, opens onto countless others, and if Conan Doyle didn’t mean for his work to be subjected to this level of scrutiny, that’s even better: it allows us to imagine that we aren’t following a trail of clues that the author meant for us to find, but discovering something that was invisibly there all along. “Never has so much been written by so many for so few,” as the great Sherlockian Christopher Morley once said, and it’s true. All these studies are spectacularly useless, and they’re divorced from any real academic or practical value—aside, of course, from the immense benefit of allowing us to spend more time in this world and in the company of two of the most appealing characters in fiction. It’s a way for the story, and the act of reading, to go on forever, and in the end, it transforms us. In the role of a literary detective, or a tireless reader, you become Holmes, or at least a Watson to more capable investigators, thanks to the beauty of the stories themselves. What more can we ask from reading?

The cliché factory

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A few days ago, Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor of The New Yorker, devoted his weekly email newsletter to the subject of “The Great Clichés.” A cliché, as Mankoff defines it, is a restricted comic situation “that would be incomprehensible if the other versions had not first appeared,” and he provides a list of examples that should ring bells for all readers of the magazine, from the ubiquitous “desert island” to “The-End-Is-Nigh Guy.” Here are a few of my favorites:

Atlas holding up the world; big fish eating little fish; burglars in masks; cave paintings; chalk outline at crime scene; crawling through desert; galley slaves; guru on mountain; mobsters and victim with cement shoes; man in stocks; police lineup; two guys in horse costume.

Inevitably, Mankoff’s list includes a few questionable choices, while also omitting what seem like obvious contenders. (Why “metal detector,” but not “Adam and Eve?”) But it’s still something that writers of all kinds will want to clip and save. Mankoff doesn’t make the point explicitly, but most gag artists probably keep a similar list of clichés as a starting point for ideas, as we read in Mort Gerberg’s excellent book Cartooning:

List familiar situations—clichés. You might break them down into categories, like domestic (couple at breakfast, couple watching television); business (boss berating employee, secretary taking dictation); historic (Paul Revere’s ride, Washington crossing the Delaware); even famous cartoon clichés (the desert island, the Indian snake charmer)…Then change something a little bit.

As it happened, when I saw Mankoff’s newsletter, I had already been thinking about a far more harmful kind of comedy cliché. Last week, Kal Penn went on Twitter to post some of the scripts from his years auditioning as a struggling actor, and they amount to an alternative list of clichés kept by bad comedy writers, consciously or otherwise: “Gandhi lookalike,” “snake charmer,” “foreign student.” One character has a “slight Hindi accent,” another is a “Pakistani computer geek who dresses like Beck and is in a perpetual state of perspiration,” while a third delivers dialogue that is “peppered with Indian cultural references…[His] idiomatic conversation is hit and miss.” A typical one-liner: “We are propagating like flies on elephant dung.” One script describes a South Asian character’s “spastic techno pop moves,” with Penn adding that “the big joke was an accent and too much cologne.” (It recalls the Morrissey song “Bengali in Platforms,” which included the notorious line: “Life is hard enough when you belong here.” You could amend it to read: “Being a comedy writer is hard enough when you belong here.”) Penn closes by praising shows with writers “who didn’t have to use external things to mask subpar writing,” which cuts to the real issue here. The real person in “a perpetual state of perspiration” isn’t the character, but the scriptwriter. Reading the teleplay for an awful sitcom is a deadening experience in itself, but it’s even more depressing to realize that in most cases, the writer is falling back on a stereotype to cover up the desperate unfunniness of the writing. When Penn once asked if he could play a role without an accent, in order to “make it funny on the merits,” he was told that he couldn’t, probably because everybody else knew that the merits were nonexistent.

So why is one list harmless and the other one toxic? In part, it’s because we’ve caught them at different stages of evolution. The list of comedy conventions that we find acceptable is constantly being culled and refined, and certain art forms are slightly in advance of the others. Because of its cultural position, The New Yorker is particularly subject to outside pressures, as it learned a decade ago with its Obama terrorist cover—which demonstrated that there are jokes and images that aren’t acceptable even if the magazine’s attitude is clear. Turn back the clock, and Mankoff’s list would include conventions that probably wouldn’t fly today. Gerberg’s list, like Penn’s, includes “snake charmer,” which Mankoff omits, and he leaves out “Cowboys and Indians,” a cartoon perennial that seems to be disappearing. And it can be hard to reconstruct this history, because the offenders tend to be consigned to the memory hole. When you read a lot of old magazine fiction, as I do, you inevitably find racist stereotypes that would be utterly unthinkable today, but most of the stories in which they appear have long since been forgotten. (One exception, unfortunately, is the Sherlock Holmes short story “The Adventure of the Three Gables,” which opens with a horrifying racial caricature that most Holmes fans must wish didn’t exist.) If we don’t see such figures as often today, it isn’t necessarily because we’ve become more enlightened, but because we’ve collectively agreed to remove certain figures from the catalog of stock comedy characters, while papering over their use in the past. A list of clichés is a snapshot of a culture’s inner life, and we don’t always like what it says. The demeaning parts still offered to Penn and actors of similar backgrounds have survived for longer than they should have, but sitcoms that trade in such stereotypes will be unwatchable in a decade or two, if they haven’t already been consigned to oblivion.

Of course, most comedy writers aren’t thinking in terms of decades, but about getting through the next five minutes. And these stereotypes endure precisely because they’re seen as useful, in a shallow, short-term kind of way. There’s a reason why such caricatures are more visible in comedy than in drama: comedy is simply harder to write, but we always want more of it, so it’s inevitable that writers on a deadline will fall back on lazy conventions. The really insidious thing about these clichés is that they sort of work, at least to the extent of being approved by a producer without raising any red flags. Any laughter that they inspire is the equivalent of empty calories, but they persist because they fill a cynical need. As Penn points out, most writers wouldn’t bother with them at all if they could come up with something better. Stereotypes, like all clichés, are a kind of fallback option, a cheap trick that you deploy if you need a laugh and can’t think of another way to get one. Clichés can be a precious commodity, and all writers resort to them occasionally. They’re particularly valuable for gag cartoonists, who can’t rely on a good idea from last week to fill the blank space on the page—they’ve got to produce, and sometimes that means yet another variation on an old theme. But there’s a big difference between “Two guys in a horse costume” and “Gandhi lookalike.” Being able to make that distinction isn’t a matter of political correctness, but of craft. The real solution is to teach people to be better writers, so that they won’t even be tempted to resort to such tired solutions. This might seem like a daunting task, but in fact, it happens all the time. A cliché factory operates on the principle of supply and demand. And it shuts down as soon as people no longer find it funny.

Written by nevalalee

March 20, 2017 at 11:18 am

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