Tag Archives: thoughts

Chesterton and Conrad on Facts

In the last few days, I’ve been perusing two radically different books: G. K. Chesterton’s The Club of Queer Trades (a first-rate audiobook) and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (my beloved publicity copy).  The first is a humorous collection of adventures in Victorian London.  The second is a profound, psychological study set in Africa under British imperialism.  Two books could not be more unlike.  But while I was reviewing some of the more outstanding quotes today, it struck me both books have similar things to say…on the subject of facts.

It’s a weird coincidence.  I have a habit of reading multiple books at once, but between books of different genre, there is rarely such a complete, simultaneous overlap of message/meaning.  If it doesn’t bore you to tears, read the excerpts below and tell me if I’m just seeing things:

   “Facts,” murmured Basil, like one mentioning some strange, far-off animals, “how facts obscure the truth. I may be silly—in fact, I’m off my head—but I never could believe in that man—what’s his name, in those capital stories?—Sherlock Holmes. Every detail points to something, certainly; but generally to the wrong thing. Facts point in all directions, it seems to me, like the thousands of twigs on a tree. It’s only the life of the tree that has unity and goes up—only the green blood that springs, like a fountain, at the stars.”
* * *
    “But, after all,” I said, “this is very fanciful—perfectly absurd. Look at the mere facts. You have never seen the man before, you—”
    “Oh, the mere facts,” he cried out in a kind of despair. “The mere facts! Do you really admit—are you still so sunk in superstitions, so clinging to dim and prehistoric altars, that you believe in facts? Do you not trust an immediate impression?
– Chesterton

   For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of straightforward facts; but the feeling would not last long. Something would turn up to scare it away. Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech — and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives — he called them enemies! — hidden out of sight somewhere.
* * *
I believed it in the same way one of you might believe there are inhabitants in the planet Mars. I knew once a Scotch sailmaker who was certain, dead sure, there were people in Mars. If you asked him for some idea how they looked and behaved, he would get shy and mutter something about ‘walking on all-fours.’ If you as much as smiled, he would — though a man of sixty — offer to fight you. I would not have gone so far as to fight for Kurtz, but I went for him near enough to a lie. You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies — which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world — what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose. Well, I went near enough to it by letting the young fool there believe anything he liked to imagine as to my influence in Europe. I became in an instant as much of a pretence as the rest of the bewitched pilgrims. This simply because I had a notion it somehow would be of help to that Kurtz whom at the time I did not see — you understand. He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything?
– Conrad

Lensky’s Idealism, and Why Onegin Fought a Duel

Yevgeny Onegin by Repin
Last night I finished my first re-reading of Eugene Onegin (Alexander Pushkin).  The plan is to use a different translation for each re-read–this time I used Henry Spalding’s, which you can find at Project Gutenberg.  While I didn’t stumble across any words like zen, I found parts of the translation to read awkwardly, as if a thesaurus had been referenced once too often.  On the positive side, it is overall a very readable translation, and it rhymes. 4.5/5 stars for the Spalding translation.

As for the re-read itself.  Much has been made of Tatyana’s bookish dreams, but I’m convinced now that the poet Lensky is the only idealist, the only dreamer in the whole book.  His last thoughts were what really stood out to me this time.  I understood better where he was coming from, and I actually felt very sorry for him.

(Spoiler alert)
After the ball–where Onegin childishly vents his anger by flirting with Olga–Lensky’s reaction goes from feeling hurt at his girlfriend’s behaviour to feeling determined to defend her from (whom he thinks is) his treacherous best friend.  In other words, his initial shock is riddled with jealousy, but it is actually truer than his second thoughts.  With his second thoughts, he forgives Olga, but romanticizes his situation to great extremes, driving himself unnecessarily to the “point of no return,” and placing his whole self-opinion in the hands of the callous, upper-crust society.  In a kind of poetic madness, Lensky lives his romantic ideals out to the ultimate end, so afraid is he of public humility and of not being taken seriously.  Not a single other character in the book goes that far.

To my mind, then, Lensky’s great faults are one, that he idolizes his own ideals, and two, that he lets public opinion dictate his actions.  But while I do not condone these things, or the action he chose to take, I do think that society was partly responsible for each of them.  In Lensky’s day, society’s shallowness provoked him to turn to his ideals, and an individual’s reputation hinged mercilessly on society’s opinion, which could be so easily altered by rumors.  And regardless if you were an idle “misanthrope” like Onegin or an aspiring artist like Lensky, there was no escape from aristocratic society.  Everybody knew everyone, whether they liked it or not.

So Lensky challenge Onegin to a duel, and we know Onegin accepted the challenge.

But why did he accept, anyway?

I have a theory that Onegin did it for Lensky’s sake.  Think about it.  We know that Lensky doesn’t really hate Onegin.  We also know that Onegin felt apologetic before the duel.  Furthermore he was psychologically tortured by its results.  He has also given up his social life, so while he might be partially interested in maintaining his honor and reputation, it couldn’t be the bulk of his reason for duelling his only friend.

One of Lensky’s fears was that Onegin would treat the duel as a joke, and I think Onegin knew that.  It seems strange to us modern-day readers, but I think Onegin, in a certain sense, was trying to make amends for his unkindness.  As he saw it, he could not apologize–that would be crushing to Lenksy’s pride and his own pride.  Instead, he agreed to the duel, as a way of saying “You were right, I was wrong, and I take you perfectly seriously.”  Probably Onegin, a believer in fate, even expected Lensky’s bullet to hit its target.

What Onegin didn’t factor-in was that, even if he were indifferent about dying, Lensky was not. Nor was Onegin prepared to be the one who killed him.

"’Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,’ said Stamford, introducing us."

“Who is Sherlock Holmes?”

    Few people ask this question, because almost anyone could give an answer to it.  Sherlock Holmes is one of those unusual literary characters who lives outside of his stories; ask that question, and most people will be able to tell you that he’s a detective, distinguishable from other detectives due to the accessories of a magnifying glass, deerstalker hat, and pipe.  He is as well-known by name as Santa Claus, Frankenstein, or Dracula.  He is, as others have put it, “the world’s most famous detective”; he’s the detective to whom nearly all other fictional detectives are compared.  Before we ever “meet” Sherlock Holmes in the books, we have an idea of who he is.  But does this idea truly answer the question?
   Interestingly, we’re not the only ones who think we know Holmes before we’ve met him.  In the very first chapter of A Study in Scarlet, Dr John H. Watson is a wounded soldier just returned to England; and, by chance, he hears of Sherlock Holmes through an old acquaintance, Stamford.  Contrary to what you’d expect, Watson does not ask “Who is Sherlock Holmes?”  Instead, he assumes he already knows what kind of person Holmes is (“‘A medical student, I suppose?'”), and he would probably have stuck to these assumptions, were it not for Stamford’s apprehensions (“‘You don’t know Sherlock Holmes yet'”).  When later he finally meets Sherlock Holmes himself, Watson learns that Holmes is far from being the quiet medical student he expected him to be.

* * *

   The entrance of any great character is usually a turning-point in the story, and often a representation of who the character is or what they do.  On the surface, there is something surprisingly un-Sherlockian about Watson’s meeting Holmes; and yet, simultaneously, there are elements in this introduction which are definitive of Holmes’s character, as well as of Watson’s role as friend and biographer.  One of these elements is the subject of Holmes’s “first lines”, as it were.

   “‘You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.'”

This sentence is often thought of as Holmes’s first line in the series; however, it is really his third.  His first line happens to be “‘I’ve found it!  I’ve found it'”.  These words are significant in many ways, but most especially interesting is the parallel (intentional or unintentional, I don’t know) between Holmes and Archimedes–the mathematician who is famous for supposedly having cried “Eureka!” after finding “a method for determining the volume of an object with an irregular shape(Wikipedia)Eureka translates to “I have found it” (Wikipedia).  This is the first of at least three comparisons between Holmes and geniuses of Ancient Greece.  Later on, in Chapter 2, Holmes is compared to Euclid, and again in Chapter 1 of The Sign of Four.  Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that these parallels are made in the first two books of a very long series, before Holmes is shown to be a genius at solving numerous cases.  And yet he lives up to it.  He is a character who enters the story with perfect self-confidence, independent of Watson or the readers’ approval.

   Holmes’s second line is very simple, and one which does not instantly seem important:  “‘How are you?’ he said cordially”.  Its importance is, however, underlined by the fact that Holmes almost instantly resumes his previous exclamations regarding his chemistry experiment and discovery.  In a way, one wonders why eccentric Holmes bothered with this formality at all, when he was in the middle of a momentous experiment and the deduction about Watson having been an army doctor.  But was it just a formality?  After all, judging from other stories, “How are you?” is not a typical greeting from Holmes.  I can’t help but wonder if, maybe, he really meant it, knowing as he did (via his deductions) that Watson was in poor health.  If so, this would be the first of countless instances in which we see Holmes’s philanthropic side, that part of his personality and principles which proves that we can’t think of him as just being a cold, scientific “machine”.  Nor is he constantly depressed or stoic, either:

“‘Ha! ha!’ he cried, clapping his hands, and looking as delighted as a child with a new toy. ‘What do you think of that?'”

[The Holmes book quotes are from A Study in Scarlet