Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Hercules and the Old Maid

            Thoughts on Chapter 8 of The Artist's Way.  Part eight of twelve on creativity.

            "I hope I shall be able to tell it properly," she said anxiously.  "I fear I am very inclined to become rambling.  One wanders from the point — altogether without knowing that one is doing so.  And it is so hard to remember each fact in its proper order."  - Miss Marple, The Thirteen Problems

            "Oh! you are lying to me — you must be lying...."...
            Poirot came back, sat down in his chair, placed both hands on his knees and stared straight at his hostess.
            "The question is," he said, "can Hercule Poirot possibly be wrong?"
            "No one can always be right," said Mrs. Lorrimer coldly.
            "I am," said Poirot.  "Always I am right.  It is so invariable that it startles me."  - Cards on the Table


            Because I believe myself to be utterly fascinating (and I love to digress), I shall chronicle the contents of my writing desk at this time:
    -  Pyramid Curve Ball Blonde Ale.
    -  Voltaire's Candide, or Optimism.
    -  Simon Glendinning's Very Short Introduction to Derrida.  (The Oxford U Very Short Introduction series kicks ass, by the by.)
    -  The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, by Yukio Mishima.  No idea.  Haven't opened it.
    -  Pencils and pencil sharpener.
    -  Learn Ancient Greek, by Peter Jones.  Perfect.  So completely perfect if you're an incurable nerd with no aspirations of real mastery, such as myself.  Jones likes to make jokes, such as "κανναβις (no idea officer)."  I know!!  So funny!!!
    -  Lots of writing projects from the past year or so.  Mostly crap, but things are starting to look up.
    -  SEP articles on Plato.
    -  Crate & Barrel coupon.
    -  Plato's Theaetetus.  Also haven't opened this one.  We just glare at each other.
    -  List of the next nine movies I want to see.  I always keep this handy, because, as I never pay attention to it when I go to the rental store, I have more reasons to feel sure I am failing at life.  A whole list of them!
    -  Box of notecards and envelopes.
But the REALLY important things on my desk are:
    -  Agatha Christie's A Murder is Announced, The Thirteen Problems, The Mystery of the Blue Train, and Cards on the Table.


            One of these days I will abandon all pretense at being high-brow and dedicate myself exclusively to mystery/spy novels/movies.  The title of this blog hints at it, but my love of mysteries and spy stories often threatens my other interests.  Even my interest in men, which is saying something.
            But somehow this has to do with The Artist's Way?
            The title of Cameron's eighth chapter is "Recovering a Sense of Strength."  The chapter is full of good one-liners.  "Non illegitimi te carborundum" is great.  It's mock Latin for "Don't let the bastards grind you down."
            Also, "Artists and intellectuals are not the same animal."  Which is true, but doesn't say what to do when you are both animals, trapped in a cage together.
            Cameron actually has a lot to say about intellectuals, and she dives into the subject of academia for awhile.  I appreciate this a great deal.  I've touched on it here, but I doubt that academia is where artists belong.  In fact, Nigel Warburton, one of the podcasters responsible for Philosophy Bites, not too long ago came out and openly questioned whether academia is even where philosophers belong.
            So if academia is becoming unfriendly to intellectuals, I'm certainly not going to get on board with it for artists.
            But what is the relationship between artist and intellectual?  I used to be positive they were two entirely different things, and frequently not even on friendly terms with one another.  Are they entirely separate things, and I just have to learn how to live with two different monsters inside my head?  Are they distant cousins both descended from our common ancestors Agriculture and Civilization?  Or two pieces of the same thing?  Our society's over-valuation of intellect, and over-romanticizing of artists, muddies the water considerably.  Because then you have artists with zero intellectual talent trying to pass for smart (probably in order to get one of those respectable academic jobs).  And you have college professors who are just slightly-more-creative-than-the-average-person teachers pretending to be artists and dressing funny to prove it.
            Maybe someday I will arrive in a place where I truly believe that creativity and intellect are two pieces of the same thing.  Even so, I tend to believe that if you can talk about something as two distinct items, something is going on.  Going on enough that they bear discussion.
            Which brings me to Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple.


            Poirot and Marple are Agatha Christie's two most famous detectives.  Which is to say, they solve problems.  They answer questions no one else can answer.  They disclose mysteries to their baffled communities, and in so doing, model two very different intellectual systems.
            Hercule Poirot is a former Belgian police detective forced to flee the continent by World War I.  He is short, dark, round of body, and his well-waxed moustaches proclaim his foreignness to the still mostly homogenous British world he inhabits.  He is fond of sweet liqueurs and rich French food, and on sunny days he is likely to be found wearing heavy wool overcoats, while his British friends, dogs in tow, go for long walks to "take the air".  (Monsieur Poirot practically gags at discussions of fresh air.)  Hercule Poirot is "other," though as a man I suppose it would be most accurate to say he has one foot in, one foot out.
            Which bears some resemblance to Jane Marple, the absolutely-beyond-question-most-Englishest character ever.  One foot in.  She is, however, a woman, and an old maid at that.  One foot out.  Her being an old maid makes her susceptible to being presumed either a harmless fool (at best), or an irrational witchy type (at worst).  Either way, her venerable-but-virginal status makes her potentially easy to ignore when important things come up.  She spends most of her time pottering about her ancestral village, St. Mary Mead, running errands, gossiping* a bit here and there, and knitting.
            Though Christie heaps silly characteristics upon them, neither Marple nor Poirot can be dismissed as fools, though Poirot attempts to ward off impressions of ridiculousness more assertively than Marple does.  But then, what could be more ridiculous than for a short, portly man, with a French accent no less, to be named after the half-god Hercules?  I suspect, on the one hand, that Christie meant the name in just such a joking manner.  But it is also clear from her portrayal of Poirot that she means to poke fun at the xenophobia that sees him as the fool when he is so potently intelligent and logical.  Poirot makes it a point of pride to not exert himself very much physically.  "The little gray cells," he says, do all the work.  And they do.  Poirot's little gray cells are brilliant and, of course, see what the bumbling British police miss.  Poirot is powerful, in the world Christie has crafted for him.
            While Poirot exerts himself as little as possible physically, and yet formidably in an intellectual sphere, Miss Marple spends copious amounts of time visiting friends for tea, knitting, and quietly poking around for gossip, and far less time thinking and "solving problems."  Marple consistently demonstrates that she is far sharper and more brutally rational than anyone around her, but her methods of detection are peculiar.  If Poirot is something of a computer processor, Marple seems like more of a chemical catalyst for those around her.  When the mystery has been opened up, more often than not the police detectives involved will be shown to have substantively contributed, rather than just being the heavy-footed laborers to Poirot's virtuosic genius.  Marple prods, and greases the wheels, but she herself often needs (and asks for) help in bringing about the final moment of disclosure.


            I don't want to say, "So, who are you?  Poirot or Marple?"  We could have some fun personal conversations about that, but I have been thinking of Poirot and Marple more as modes.  I go into one and out of the other, sometimes with no intention of doing so, sometimes at the behest of my current activity.
            I've started taking piano lessons, and something about reading, playing, and singing music feels like a distinctly Marple activity.  While I sing or (attempt to) sight read at the piano, I feel like my brain cells mingle in a sort of diffuse way.  And certainly singing changes my relationship to language.  I'm only sort of joking, when I say that when I talk about God, I am almost inevitably in an atheistic/nihilistic despair by the end of the conversation.  When I sing God — either to or about, whatever either of those could possibly mean when singing — the entire universe makes so much sense, I feel frightened to stop and face the world of speech.  When I try to pin down my little spoken language brain cells down and ask them a question like, "What key is this song in?", I fall apart.  If I just look at the markings on the page, though, connections almost seem to form of their own accord between my eyes and fingers.  What I'm trying to convey is that it feels like my mind is being sociable within itself.  It's not answering questions, and it's not solving problems.  How could it, when it's busy chatting amongst itself?
            When my head is working with music, or meandering through a geography of questions, or wondering in a barely-focused sort of way...  This feels very Marple to me.  It also sort of reminds me of some of the better conversations that happen in my philosophy group, although in that case the group itself is functioning as a sort of mind/brain, which ties into the essentially social quality of Marple's methods.  Whatever circle Marple finds herself in, she drinks tea and chats and listens carefully and prods those surrounding her into becoming the mind that will answer the question.
            Poirot is much different, and while it may be obvious that I have a personal bias towards Marplean methods, Poirot's are not only impressive but needed for certain kinds of questions.  (This is why Christie, like any good mystery writer, doesn't give Marple a Poirot mystery, or vice versa.)  Poirot is famous for his ability to solve a crime with almost no clues to speak of.  He relies far more on psychology than the British detectives ever feel comfortable doing, and it is here that he most reminds me of Plato's ideal philosopher:  standing alone, thinking, and thinking, and thinking, carefully shifting one piece here, then there, until we arrive at the right answer.  While I critiqued this so-called Cartesian method last month, sometimes a person can do massive amounts of work all on their lonesome by simply sitting alone and concentrating.  After all, as I'm sure we're all well aware, the world is replete with people a thousand times dumber than the worst of the detectives Poirot has to work with.  And as an intellectual, you sometimes need a certain degree of fuck-everyone to disentangle you from the foolishness called humanity.  I myself am terrible at concentrating (witness the list of my desk's contents), but I know people who are fantastic at it and accomplish things I consider nigh-on miraculous doing it.
            So go forth!  Go forth and poirot, go forth and marple, and when you've not only given both a try, but mastered the ability to switch at will between the two modes, you should let me know how it goes.  By then this blog will probably have become exclusively devoted to Lord Wimsey and James Bond because really, isn't that where my life's been headed since day one?

*  I shall note here that I don't like the word "gossip."  Its connotations are almost exclusively negative.  I'm quite certain that well over half of my conversations would fall into the gossip category (certainly most of the interesting ones), and I'm not sure how humans are supposed to learn how to be human without talking about other humans, including their successes and failures.


  1. Ah, so much goodness here, I may have to comment more than once.

    So, having accepted that, let me say that I find the contents of your desk to be quite lovely. That list made me smile many warm smiles in your specific direction.

    On the rest, more later.

  2. And here I am again, to comment on your wonderful observations on the different effects of words on music. I have had similar thoughts, once expressed publicly a few years ago here:

    But this: "When I sing God — either to or about, whatever either of those could possibly mean when singing — the entire universe makes so much sense, I feel frightened to stop and face the world of speech."

    Oh my God, yes! We are in a different brain space (dare I say, a soul space?) with music. It is our connection to another reality, another truth. It is the purer language. If we ever lose it, we will lose our truest selves.