The Philosophy of Penny Dreadfuls

February 9, 2011 § 1 Comment


A Philosophical Investigation (Kerr, Philip)

“Detection and philosophy promote the idea that something can be known…”

Since the middle of the 19th century, when penny dreadfuls began to appear on the streets of London, the novel-reading world has been obsessed with crime. Nobody can write a bestseller these days that doesn’t involve a great crime. That, and sex, of course – but then our obsession with sex is much older, more natural. It mirrors our behavior in real life, and so, is understandable to a degree. Why should crime be as popular a topic for a novel as sex?

Do we, perhaps, obtain vicarious pleasure from the commitment of a crime – is it the lure of the exotic, the lust for the non-mundane, a forbidden desire, a guilty pleasure that is denied us by straitlaced society on pain of ostracism and punishment, one that we feel the need to indulge in privately, by ourselves on a cozy sofa, huddled in the dim light of a booklamp? Is there a dark side to every one of us, something fundamentally wicked and perverted that we keep – and should keep – under wraps?

While that is fascinating to contemplate, I believe the real reason, at least for many of us, is to be found elsewhere. I believe it is not the committing of the crime that we take pleasure in, but the solving of it. We view the world of the novel not through the eyes of the perpetrator nor through those of the victim, but through those of the detective. Like the detective, we arrive at the scene of the crime after it has been committed, we are equally puzzled and intrigued , we search for facts and clues in the same places, we put together the pieces of the jigsaw one by one, and with the detective, we finally cry, in triumph, “Here is what happened.”

The philosopher behind the novel (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Our post-modern lives are lived in various shades of gray, and there are no definitive answers to the hundred questions that besiege us every day. We are ripped apart by moral dilemmas, we struggle to distinguish between truth and falsehood; we disagree violently with one another about right and wrong; all we have are conjectures and hypotheses, weak memories and strong superstitions, and out of these, we construct for ourselves a flimsy and precarious model of our world, a model that comes crashing down ever so often, when the wild winds of reality come beating down to contradict our expectations; and then we have to patch up our model with the sticking plaster of rationalization and the tape of hope, and carry on somehow with our lives. Oh for the solidity, the reassuring certainty, of the ending of a crime novel! Here, at least, we know what happened for certain. Here at last, we know who done it, and why. Here, and nowhere else, we can identify and lock away the bad guys, and once we do so, by a simple process of inversion, we have conclusive proof that everyone else, ourselves included, are the good guys. A detective novel is a cathartic thing, it is ultimately a quest for vindication and absolution.

As the professor of philosophy in Kerr’s novel points out to the police detective, this quest for comprehension of a chaotic reality is an ideal that crime detection shares with philosophy:

“Both of us have, at the heart of our respective endeavour, a search for meaning, for a truth, which has, for whatever reason, been concealed. A truth which exists beyond appearances. We seek to penetrate appearances and we call that penetration, knowledge.”

The tussle between our theories and external reality is the main theme of detective novels; it was also the preoccupation of the great 20th century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

The shadow of Wittgenstein looms heavily around Kerr’s book. Every chapter is peppered with Wittgensteinian epigrams and biographical vignettes of the philosopher, and just in case we still didn’t get it, the serial killer is code-named Wittgenstein. The name of the book itself is a lift-off from Wittgenstein’s own posthumously published Philosophical Investigations. But I will remember the book more for the lines quoted above, linking the crime detection genre of literature to philosophy, than for all the Wittgenstein-inspired wit.

Any book that is able to reflect on its own genre, and to cause the reader to reflect as well, cannot be a total loss, and so this book does have its bright moments. It came recommended by a friend whose judgment in these matters I have trusted, and the over-the-top blurbs from TimeOut (“Breathtakingly clever…awesomely ambitious…like Bladerunner rewritten by Borges”) and the Glasgow Herald (“Philip Kerr, like Borges, takes his crime seriously and philosophically…”) piqued my interest as well.

In retrospect, I wish they hadn’t compared him to Borges. Borges took crime fiction to its minimal, most austere limit, stripping it of all but its essentials, and thereby showed us a mirror. While Kerr is undoubtedly clever and well-read, there is a thin but definite line between a polymath who analyzes and plays with forms of art and perception, including detective fiction, and a crime novelist who uses a bit of erudition to make his novel more intellectually appealing. Borges and Kerr are on opposite sides of that line.

In justification, I need only point to the futuristic setting of the novel in a dystopian, crime-ridden, immigrant-infested London. The atmosphere is all Anthony Burgess and Philip K Dick. Even though A Clockwork Orange and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep were products of earlier decades, it was only in the eighties, when Kerr wrote his book, that visions of the future were so uniformly pessimistic, colored by soaring inner-city crime rates, Thatcher and Reagan economics, and overcrowded prisons. Hollywood movies like Escape from New York, Back to the Future II, Terminator I, and Batman recorded the disillusionment for posterity. For good measure,  Kerr adds to the mix the popular paranoia (at the time) of Big Brother-like government agencies keeping tabs on the population in secret databases, identifying genes that cause criminal behavior, and putting convicts into a coma, rather than behind bars. All of this is very distracting, I am afraid. If Kerr wished to write a truly Wittgensteinian detective novel, involving logic and language and how they have an impact on our images of the world, he didn’t need this paraphrenalia.

And was it not Borges, too, who remarked that the most conclusive proof that the Arabian Nights was authored by Arabians was the complete absence of mention in the text, of camels? A non-authentic impostor would undoubtedly have self-consciously peppered the stories with the beast of burden.

“All one needs to make a movie,” announced Godard, famously, “is a girl and a gun.” All one needs for a Wittgensteinian philosophical investigation is a killer, a detective, and some language-games that they play on each other. Too much more, and you have a penny dreadful.

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