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Darkness and Light: Crime, Philosophy and the Search for Truth
St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Weekend, 17 August 2013
I’d like to begin with a quote which I’m sure needs no introduction.
“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.
For me, and for many, this stands as one of the great mission statements of crime writing. What I’d like to do this morning is discuss it in relation to someone who at first has no obvious connection to crime writing, but who – I hope I’ll show – informs and prefigures Chandler’s quote in some interesting ways. And that’s the philosopher Plato, who is also the subject – indeed, the protagonist and narrator – of my most recent book, The Orpheus Descent.
Writing the book, I spent a lot of time with Plato; I grew very fond of him. But even I have to admit, he’s not an obvious inspiration for a crime writer. And it’s got nothing to do with the fact that he lived almost two and a half thousand years ago, in the fourth century BC. The streets of golden age Athens, I suspect, were every bit as mean as the twentieth century Los Angeles. If you visit the site of the Agora in Athens, you can still see remains of the street plan in the foundations of the buildings, how claustrophobic and narrow those streets were. Socrates, the sources tell us, was frequently roughed up in the streets for irritating passers-by with his penetrating questions. Plato himself is reputed to have been a wrestler, good enough to medal (as modern athletes would put it) at the Isthmian games. I like to think he could handle himself.
But, as I say, he’s not an obvious point of reference for a crime writer. If you go back to the ancient world, there are two philosophers who stand head and shoulders above the rest. One is Plato, the other is Aristotle, who was Plato’s student but later broke with him. They’re the Beatles and the Rolling Stones of ancient philosophy, the Prost and Senna. Like any great pair of rivals, they’ve become shorthand for two competing world views. Aristotle: cool, rational, pragmatic; Plato: esoteric, indirect and idealistic. Like all dualities, that over-simplifies it, but most people, I believe, will instinctively feel more kinship with one or the other.
One of them has had a significant influence on the field of crime fiction. It isn’t Plato.
Aristotle is justly famous as the father of many disciplines, including science, logic and deductive reasoning. Plato believed that the physical world we experience is simply a crude representation of a higher reality that exists beyond us; that only by contemplating that higher reality (in ways which are often obscure) can we make wise judgements about the world we see. Aristotle argued, much more in sympathy with modern thought, that higher truths proceed from particular instances; that we learn about the world by analysing it, examining it, and testing it against logical propositions. As such, he’s the direct ancestor of the classic fictional detective, from Sherlock Holmes through the golden age sleuths, right up to the forensic experts of CSI.
And plenty of authors before me have noticed the detective’s debt to Aristotle - noticed it, and worked with it. Most succinctly, you can see this in the title of Margaret Doody’s first novel, Aristotle Detective. This is indeed a book you can judge by its cover, or at least its title. In it, and the following series, Aristotle is portrayed as a sort of consulting detective, using logic and deduction to help a former pupil solve a murder. The connection with golden age crime writing is fairly evident: Margaret Doody is a big fan of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie, and describes her ambition (in an interview with no less an authority than Ayo Onotade) as being, ‘ to write a detective story in which Aristotle was the Sherlock Holmes.’(2)
As an aside, it’s worth mentioning probably the best treatment of Aristotle’s detective prowess, in fiction, comes – unexpectedly, you might think – in medieval Italy, in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. His hero is a friar – Sean Connery, in the film – who applies Aristotle’s precepts to investigating a series of murders in a monastery. And just in case you missed the connection that Eco is making, between Aristotle’s deductive logic and the great detectives of a later age, Eco gives you a sly clue in the name of his hero. He’s William of Baskerville.
Aristotle’s logical, scientific method is bread and butter to the detective. Conversely, it’s hard to think of any crime that was ever solved with reference to Plato’s Theory of Forms. And there’s another reason why any sensible crime writer would prefer Aristotle over Plato. It has to do with their attitudes to writing itself. Both men wrote about poetry, which in their era was the only fiction on offer, either as epic narratives like Homer’s, or as plays, most famously the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides. Aristotle, typically, runs his intellect over the practicalities of story-telling like a latter-day Robert McKee. Drama, he says, is ‘an image of an action’; the pleasure of reading or watching tragedy is experiencing (at a safe distance) the emotions of pity and fear, and the poet has to produce it by a work of imitation – that is, by creating a simulacrum of real life. His Poetics – the parts of it that have survived – read like a How-To manual for writers, discussing plot, character, style etc; and (with typically Aristotelian confidence) putting them in order of importance. Plot is more important than character, style is least important (which is ironic, when you think of the number of times crime fiction has been criticised for prioritising plot over character and “fine” prose).
You can even, I should say, buy a book called Aristotle for Screenwriters, which purports to show how the principles of Aristotle’s Poetics apply to films as improbably diverse as Rocky, The Godfather and Titanic
So Aristotle will give you a masterclass on how to achieve the most satisfying dramatic effect. Plato is having none of it. It’s not that he doesn’t understand the argument. He agrees that a poet, an author, has to produce a work that imitates life, an image of an action, but:
‘The art of imitation is something that has no serious value; and this applies above all to tragic, epic and dramatic poetry. ‘ (3)
You can almost see Plato tearing out his hair, a classical Mary Whitehouse, as he laments the fact that what he calls the ‘recalcitrant element’ in humanity – our base emotions – ‘gives plenty of material for dramatic representations; but the reasonable element and its unvarying calm are’ – sadly – ‘difficult to represent (in drama), and difficult to understand, particularly by the motley audience gathered in a theatre.’ (4) Or, one might presume, the motley audience gathered at a crime writing conference.
Aristotle sees how the business works. Plato does too, and it drives him crazy. ‘The dramatic poet’ – and no doubt the crime writer – ‘will not turn his skills to the reasonable element, or try to please it, if he wants to win a popular reputation; but he’ll find it easy to write a character who is unstable and refractory.’ (5)
In short, says Plato:
‘The only poetry we should allow in our ideal state is hymns to the gods and paeans in praise of good men.’ (6)
It’s not explicit, but I think that pretty much excludes crime writing.
But there’s a caveat. With everything Plato writes, there are layers to unpeel. Aristotle writes treatises; he tells you what’s what. Plato writes dialogues – conversations. There’s a story from antiquity, that Plato began his career aiming to be a playwright, that he burned the plays he’d written when he discovered philosophy because he realised it was a higher calling. It’s a neat story; it may even be true. But, true or not, it gets to the heart of the fact that all his life, Plato was a dramatist. In everything he wrote – and, uniquely, pretty much everything he wrote still survives – there isn’t a single line that tells you what he thinks himself. Every word is put into the mouth of other characters, staged like a play. Sometimes there’s genuine drama and interplay, like in the Symposium; sometimes, all the subsidiary characters do is tee up the main speaker to give a long slab of exposition, as in the Laws – limited to interections like ‘Assuredly so, Socrates.’ But it’s impossible to say what Plato really thought himself, because he never explicitly wrote what he thought. Often, he goes to great lengths to draw attention to the artificiality of his narratives. The Symposium is related third hand, in a double nested framing device which you can never get away from: in the original Greek, every paragraph begins, ‘He said, that he said, that HE said...’ Luckily, translators mostly omit that. Other dialogues offer historical scenarios that are actually impossible: although the Republic takes the form of a conversation between real people at a particular time, any attempt to assign an actual date to it fails, because of ‘jarring anachronisms’ (7) in its internal details.
Plato knows full well that his dialogues are slippery creations, and he wants you to know it too. So when his characters criticise drama for being unrealistic, you have to take it with a pinch of salt, knowing that they are themselves mouthpieces for a master dramatist.
Plato and Marlowe
So how does all this relate to the Chandler quote I read at the beginning? To start with, at the beginning, it hinges on a single word.
Chandler’s line is memorable for many reasons. The one that interests me is his use of hyperbaton, the literary device (coined by the ancient Greeks) where normal word order is subverted for emphasis. Down these mean streets a man must go. A man does not go up these streets, or along or around or through, but down. Putting the word down front and centre in the sentence makes sure you know it.
And Plato does almost exactly the same thing. The first line of the Republic, his key work, begins, ‘I went down to the Piraeus yesterday…’ I found it such a haunting line, its immediacy, its simplicity, that I used it as the first line of my novel. And, as I said, he’s doing exactly the same thing as Chandler. You don’t get the full effect in English, because the word order looks perfectly natural. I went down. Subject, verb, predicate. In ancient Greek, you have a lot of leeway for the order you choose to put your words, and having the verb at the front is not the default option. Plus, what comes out as three words in English – I went down – in Greek is just one word. Katévin. One word which carries not just the concept of down – Kate, right up front, just like Chandler – but the more evocative sense of downward motion.
And if you think I’m reading more into the word order than the authors could possibly have meant, bear in mind the ancient story that when Plato died, his followers found he’d kept a wax tablet with that first line of the Republic written out in every possible permutation of word order. He thought about that line as much as any of us has ever thought about our opening lines. As for Chandler, I wouldn’t dare to suggest that he didn’t place his words with utmost precision. This, after all, is a man who when he split an infinitive, God damn it, split it so it would remain split.
The reason I’m harping on so much about a couple of words is because I think they’re key to unlocking a fundamental aspect of Plato’s ideas, and Chandler’s. The idea of descent is central to Plato’s philosophy, just as much as it is to Chandler, just as it is to most of crime fiction. Crime writing explores the underbelly, the underworld; Plato wants to take you there too. Sometimes literally.
The whole idea that a philosopher has to descend to achieve wisdom is counterintuitive. Philosophers stay high up in ivory towers; they live with their heads in the clouds. And that’s not a modern stereotype. In 423 BC, the comic playwright Aristophanes took aim at Socrates, then a living celebrity, satirising him mercilessly in his comedy The Clouds. The clue here is in the title. In the play, the ridiculous character of Socrates enters suspended in a basket, explaining ‘For accurate discoveries, I had to suspend my mind, to mingle my rarefied thought with its kindred air. If I had been down on the ground, I would have made no discoveries at all.’(8) Plato says, in that passage I quoted before, that he wants poetry to focus on the higher things – gods and good men. But when he lays out his own philosophy, it’s the dark places he wants to take you to. At key moments in Plato’s major dialogues – at the end of the Republic; at the end of the Phaedo (which is his account of Socrates’ death); in the Gorgias – Plato suddenly launches into semi-mythic tales of descents to the underworld, places where the high stakes philosophy plays for are illustrated in the torments, judgements and rewards that dead souls receive there.
Into the Cave
Now, I said that Plato is a dramatist. Nothing underlines that point more than what he’s most famous for: his stories. It’s a supreme irony that the man who condemns story-telling for being fake, is responsible for some of the most enduring myths, metaphors and allegories in western civilisation. It’s almost as if he can’t help himself.
Most obviously, there’s the myth of Atlantis. It’s so pervasive in our culture nowadays, it’s hard to believe that one man could have been singlehandedly responsible. But he was, and it was Plato. Pseudo-historians and conspiracy theorists can argue about whether he was inspired by the tsunami that drowned the city of Helike in 373 BC, or the destruction of the Minoan civilisation on Crete by the Santorini eruption, or if he had secret knowledge of the ancient alien colony that also built the pyramids. But as far as the historical record goes, he seems to have invented Atlantis more or less from whole cloth in his dialogue Timaeus. I think if any author in this room was offered the chance to create a story which would still entrance so many people almost 2500 years after it was written, we’d bite your hand off.
But in terms of philosophy, the most significant story Plato tells is the so-called Allegory Of The Cave. (9) Perhaps you know it. Plato imagines a place like a sort of proto-movie theatre, a darkened cave where people sit facing a blank wall. They watch images projected on the wall which are – because this is BC technology – shadows of puppets cast by a big fire behind them. Where this diverges from the modern moviegoing experience is that the audience are chained down, with their heads locked in collars that will only let them look straight forward. The only thing they’ve ever seen are the shadows on the wall. They assume it’s the only reality, because they’ve never known anything else.
Then one of the prisoners is released from his chains. He turns around. At first, he’s blinded by the fire that’s casting the shadows. Then, as his eyes adjust, he makes out the puppets and realises everything he’s ever thought was real was simply shadows of these real things. But he goes further. He pushes on up the tunnel – actually, he’s taken there, because in fact he doesn’t want to be stripped of his illusions; the fire hurts his eyes – and the guards drag him up the steep and rugged slope and out into the sunlight. And at first all he can bear to look at is the shadows of the things that are up there – trees, rocks, animals and so on – and their reflections in water, before his eyes have adjusted enough to look at the real objects. And when he looks up, he starts by looking at the dim light of the stars and the moon. And finally – and this is where you feel compelled to add some health and safety warning, like ‘Use those special eclipse viewing glasses!’ – he looks directly at the sun. Which, for Plato, is the absolute truth.
If this allegory was all Plato had ever written, I’d argue, it would still be worth crime writers paying attention to him. As a metaphor for the process of peeling back the layers of untruth, from the shadows of puppet effigies to the bright shining truth of the sun, it maps perfectly onto the structure of any decent crime novel, with its complex layers of lies, misdirection, and progressive revelations. The psychological element rings as true today as it did then: people don’t want to know the truth; they have to be forced to confront it. You get no thanks for trying to point out their errors: Plato knew that if our hero went back down, the other prisoners would mock him, would claim that the ascent had ruined his sight (because he no longer sees what they see) and say he should never have gone up. ‘And if anyone tried to release them,’ Plato says, ‘and lead them up, they would kill him if they could lay hands on him.’ A feeling, I think, that would be familiar to Philip Marlowe, given the gratitude most of his clients show him.
But there’s more. The key to the Cave is not that the philosopher escapes it. It’s that he goes back down.
‘You must,’ says Plato, ‘descend again and live with your fellows in the cave and get used to seeing in the dark; once you get used to it you will see a thousand times better than they do and will distinguish the various shadows, and know what they are shadows of, because you have seen the truth about things admirable, just and good.’ (10)
The philosopher can’t stay in the sunlit uplands, any more than Chandler’s hero can stay off the mean streets. He must go down. He’s obliged. Plato’s philosopher loves wisdom and truth for its own sake, but there’s a moral obligation on him to use it for the benefit of society. The over-arching point of Plato’s masterwork is to imagine a perfect state – the eponymous republic – which is, as Chandler might put it, a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in. And the way you achieve it – though Plato is realistic enough to recognise this is largely hypothetical – is to have a world patrolled by philosopher guardians, people who’ve escaped from the cave and learned to appreciate truth and come back down to use that insight for the common good.
The Philosopher Private Dick
Midway through the Republic, Plato sets out the characteristics that will be required for his philosopher guardian. (11) For a start:
‘He has no touch of meanness or pettiness of mind. He won’t think death anything to be afraid of.’
Compare that with Chandler’s hero: he ‘is not himself mean, [he] is neither tarnished nor afraid… He has a disgust for sham, a contempt for pettiness.’
Plato’s philosopher, ‘ loves truth, hates untruth; He has a full apprehension of reality.’
Chandler’s hero, ‘Has a range of awareness that startles you.’
Plato’s philosopher: ‘Will be self-controlled, not grasping for money.’
Chandler’s hero: ‘Will take no man’s money dishonestly.’
As a parenthesis, I’m conscious that this all sounds very masculine. Lots of ‘He’, lots of ‘man.’ Partially, that’s because I’m quoting Chandler, and when Chandler says, ‘Down these mean streets a man must go,’ I have a strong feeling – God damn it – he means a man. Most of Plato’s work, too, assumes the philosopher will be a man and defaults to male prepositions. But it’s worth pointing out that Plato – radically, for a classical author, and quite progressive even now, when national politicians still think women can’t play bridge – explicitly includes women to be the philosopher guardians of his idealised state: men and women, he says, ‘have the same natural capacity’, and ‘need the same education.’ In fact, he says, ‘A good many women are better than a good many men at a good many things.’ (12)
Looking to the future, crime writing will always need its Aristotelian bread and butter: logic, analysis, breathtaking feats of deduction. It’s our stock in trade, and one of the great pleasures of the genre. If we’re going to write about the darker sides of life, we have to approach it with a certain Aristotelian pragmatism: taking the world as it is, not shutting our eyes to reality.
But I would suggest that if we’re going to stay relevant, we need that Platonic edge too. We need heroes who strive for a deeper truth, who want more than just the facts. As authors, we can take strength from NOT accepting the world as it is, but using our fiction to imagine how it could be better. If you look at the moral outrage at violence against women that fires Stieg Larsson; the anger at injustice that animates Henning Mankell; the social commentary underlying Roslund and Hellström – and I have no idea why all the examples that came to my mind are Scandinavian – it elevates what they write.
And, to end where I began, Chandler thought so too. In the essay where the famous ‘mean streets’ line appears, The Simple Art of Murder, he rages against the staples of detective fiction in terms that are straight out of Plato’s cave: characters who are ‘puppets and cardboard lovers and papier mâché villains and detectives of exquisite and impossible gentility.’ ‘What really gets me down,’ he says, are, ‘the ladies and gentlemen of the golden age of detective fiction’; stories ‘perfected, polished and sold to the world as’ Aristotelian – my interpolation – ‘problems of logic and deduction.’
The whole essay, as you may know, is a battle cry for crime fiction to move away from artificial intellectual games, into what Chandler hails as ‘the realistic style’. From the cave into the sunlight – or at least into the neon glare of a rain-drenched street. Chandler knows it isn’t easy. He recognises how hard it is, ‘to bridge the chasm that lies between what a writer would like to be able to say and what he actually knows how to say’ – just as Plato, despite his protestations against artifice, keeps falling back on stories and allegories, because he’s trying to express truths that go beyond reason and beyond words.
But – down these mean streets a man – or woman – must go. Into the cave of shadow-puppets and illusions, tearing down the lies and unreality. Someone who is a philosopher, or at least philosophical. Someone who knows right from wrong, however hard it is to see the line, and applies that knowledge to make the world a safer place to live in.
And ‘the story,’ says Chandler, ‘is his adventure in search of a hidden truth.’
That’s a story, I think, even Plato might be tempted to read.
1) This famous description comes from the essay The Simple Art of Murder, published in the book of the same name (1950) and available online at: http://www.en.utexas.edu/amlit/amlitprivate/scans/chandlerart.html
2) Interview with Shots magazine, available at: http://www.shotsmag.co.uk/interview_view.aspx?interview_id=135
3) Plato, Republic, p344/602b. This and all the other Republic quotes are taken (with some minor alterations) from the Penguin Classics paperback edition, translated by Desmond Lee.
4) Republic, p348/604e
5) Republic , p348/605a
6) Republic , p351/607a
7) Debra Nails, The Dramatic Date of Plato’s Republic in The Classical Journal, No. 93 vol. 4. Available at: http://www.thoughtscapes.net/pmwiki100/uploads/Spring2011/Nails-Dramatic_Date_of_the_Republic.pdf
8) Aristophanes, Clouds. Translated by Debra Nails in The People of Plato (Hackett: 2002).
9) Republic , p241/514a ff
10) Republic , p247/520c
11) Republic, p205/485a ff
12) Republic , p165/455d ff