Two Literary Non-Mysteries

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Conan Doyle

Generations of literary students have wondered how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the credulous spiritualist could have created the brilliantly deductive Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was so credulous he actually believed Harry Houdini could dematerialize to escape from confinement and refused to believe Houdini himself when he explained that he used conventional magicians' techniques. Believers in spiritualism and paranormalism have argued that Doyle's creation of Sherlock Holmes demonstrates his rationality so clearly that there must be a rational basis for his belief in spiritualism. We can gain some insight by watching Holmes at work in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. 

From a lost hat, Holmes deduced that the wearer was intelligent, preferred a certain type of hair dressing, had grizzled hair, was once prosperous but had fallen on hard times, had no gas lines in his home, and had marital problems. The inference of intelligence came from the popular 19th century notion that intelligence correlated with brain size, but a large hat may signify nothing more than bushy hair. The inferences about hair style are based on bits of hair and hair cream on the hat. 

The elaborate scenario involving the man's life style was based essentially on the hat being a recent and expensive style but now in poor condition. Holmes never really considered the very real possibilities that the hat might have been stolen, lost and then found by someone else, or given away. The man's marital problems were explained by the hat's poor maintenance. Unless, of course, the man were single.

I have to insert my personal heresy here. I have never been particularly impressed with Sherlock Holmes. Most of the stories I have read involve banal and inconsequential mysteries. Furthermore, the stories are rarely mysteries in the modern sense, where clues are presented that challenge the reader to solve the problem as well. Mostly the evidence appears without warning, Holmes explains what it means, and follows it to a conclusion of Doyle's own choosing while myriad other possible interpretations of the evidence are simply ignored.

Holmes is infallible because Doyle writes him that way. He scans the evidence, zeroes in unerringly on the correct interpretation, and rarely has to revise his hypotheses. That's part of his immense appeal. Holmes invariably arrives at the correct solutions, rarely examines alternative explanations except to dispose of them, never encounters evidence that is so ambiguous it cannot be used, and generally views formulating a plausible hypothesis as the solution to the problem.

Given this essentially mystical view of the scientific method, where intuitive methods are infallible and never need correction, it is no mystery at all how Doyle could be a credulous spiritualist. Holmes embodies Conan Doyle's fantasies of omnipotent scientific intuition, which Doyle acted out himself in his investigations of spiritualism. The contrast between Holmes and Doyle is the contrast between how well this approach works in fantasy versus how well it works in real life.

1984

George Orwell's novel of a totalitarian future, 1984, has been claimed to have over 200 accurate predictions of future events or trends. How was Orwell able to achieve such incredible accuracy?

Simple. Every single correct "prediction" in 1984 describes something that existed in 1948, when the book was written. Some, like thought control, secret police systems, nuclear weapons or television, really existed, others, like two way visual communications devices, were common themes in predictive literature.

Isaac Asimov pointed out some of the holes in 1984. Although the society of 1984 is physically decrepit, the omnipresent view screens of the Thought Police never break down. Now we might expect a totalitarian state to devote more resources to its police system than to quality of life, like the former Soviet Union did, but to expect that kind of perfection is unrealistic. Far more likely to happen is what actually did in the Soviet Union: the system becomes corrupt and inert and eventually crumbles. Furthermore, if everyone is being watched (at least among the upper classes), there have to be as many watchers as people under surveillance, and to guard against fatigue or lapses in attention, they'd have to be replaced frequently. Furthermore, the watchers themselves would have to be watched, lest they collude with the people they are watching or with each other. The vast majority of the population would have to be watching video screens.

Of course, a modern reader objects, computers could do the job far more effectively. Yes, they could. Britain, in particular, is far down the road to having viewers everywhere, monitored by computers that never get tired and never have dubious loyalties. Nothing so completely reveals the myth of Orwell's predictive powers as his utter failure to predict the rise of computers. Julia, the illicit lover of protagonist Winston Smith, worked in a section of the Propaganda Ministry that turned out junk literature for the working class. There were half a dozen or so plot lines, which were rearranged - how? By computer? No, by mechanical rearrangement of blocks of type which were then cleaned up by writers. Orwell utterly and completely failed to foresee word processing. Now fair enough, nobody in the early days of computing foresaw word processing, and that's my point precisely. Orwell showed no more prescience than anyone else in predicting the future.

Nor is there any mention of space flight in 1984. At one point O'Brien, the secret police officer, told Winston that the stars are only a few hundred miles away. We might suspect that space travel was kept secret from the masses, but given that the novel mentions many other kinds of military technology, about which the state was openly boastful, it's hard to believe they would fail to brag about orbiting weapons platforms or spy satellites if they really had them - if Orwell had actually predicted them, that is.

1984, like Animal Farm, was a deep embarrassment to leftists. Orwell, a socialist disgusted and disillusioned by the excesses of Stalin's regime, wrote both works in protest. Despite many attempts to re-spin 1984 as being "really about the alienation in all modern societies," the references to socialism in 1984 are pervasive. Oceania (the Americas and British Empire) is ruled by a system called Ingsoc (English Socialism), and Eurasia (Russia and Europe) is ruled by Neo-Bolshevism. The lessons of 1984 might be applicable to any totalitarian system, but the novel is first, last, and foremost about socialism.


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Created 03 December 2002, Last Update 02 June 2010

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