Two Literary Non-Mysteries

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

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

From alost hat, Holmes deduced that the wearer was intelligent, preferred a certaintype of hair dressing, had grizzled hair, was once prosperous but had fallen onhard times, had no gas lines in his home, and had marital problems. Theinference of intelligence came from the popular 19th century notion thatintelligence correlated with brain size, but a large hat may signify nothingmore than bushy hair. The inferences about hair style are based on bits of hairand hair cream on the hat. 

The elaborate scenario involving the man's life stylewas based essentially on the hat being a recent and expensive style but now inpoor condition. Holmes never really considered the very real possibilities that thehat 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.

Ihave to insert my personal heresy here. I have never been particularly impressedwith Sherlock Holmes. Most of the stories I have read involve banal andinconsequential mysteries. Furthermore, the stories are rarely mysteries in themodern sense, where clues are presented that challenge the reader to solve theproblem as well. Mostly the evidence appears without warning, Holmes explainswhat it means, and follows it to a conclusion of Doyle's own choosing whilemyriad other possible interpretations of the evidence are simply ignored.

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

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


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

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

Isaac Asimov pointed out some of the holes in 1984.Although the society of 1984 is physically decrepit, the omnipresent viewscreens of the Thought Police never break down. Now we might expect atotalitarian state to devote more resources to its police system than to qualityof life, like the former Soviet Union did, but to expect that kind of perfectionis unrealistic. Far more likely to happen is what actually did in the SovietUnion: 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 guardagainst fatigue or lapses in attention, they'd have to be replaced frequently.Furthermore, the watchers themselves would have to be watched, lest they colludewith the people they are watching or with each other. The vast majority of thepopulation would have to be watching video screens.

Of course, a modern reader objects, computers could do the job far moreeffectively. 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'spredictive powers as his utter failure to predict the rise of computers.Julia, the illicit lover of protagonist Winston Smith, worked in a section of thePropaganda Ministry that turned out junk literature for the working class. Therewere half a dozen or so plot lines, which were rearranged - how? By computer? No, bymechanical rearrangement of blocks of type which were then cleaned up bywriters. Orwell utterly and completely failed to foresee word processing. Nowfair enough, nobody in the early days of computing foresaw wordprocessing, and that's my point precisely. Orwell showed no more prescience thananyone else in predicting the future.

Nor is there any mention of space flight in 1984. At one pointO'Brien, the secret police officer, told Winston that the stars are only a fewhundred miles away. We might suspect that space travel was kept secret from themasses, but given that the novel mentions many other kinds of militarytechnology, about which the state was openly boastful, it's hard to believe theywould fail to brag about orbiting weapons platforms or spy satellites if theyreally 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'sregime, wrote both works in protest. Despite many attempts to re-spin 1984 asbeing "really about the alienation in all modern societies," thereferences to socialism in 1984 are pervasive. Oceania (the Americas andBritish Empire) is ruled by a system called Ingsoc (English Socialism), andEurasia (Russia and Europe) is ruled by Neo-Bolshevism. The lessons of 1984might 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 15 January 2020

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