Saturday, July 19, 2014


There’s reality -- so they say -- somewhere out there where we can’t quite get at it.  Too big for the human mind except in pieces.  We call them “metaphors.”  There are many kinds of metaphors, as English teachers used to know but don’t anymore.  The main one in use for religion, for example, is “synecdoche” which means referring to something by using a part to stand for the whole.  

to Neil Gaiman special people might be angels

When sophisticated people talk about the “masks of God,” meaning that whatever the “theos” might be -- presumed to be very much beyond human comprehension -- it can only be considered by some aspect, usually something humans know, like fathers or martyrs or slippery abstracts like justice or love.  Ultimately, unless you settle for a part of the whole that is “reality,” the possibility of really knowing “God” doesn’t exist.  The best we can do is to find the metaphor that really works for us, which might not be the same for all of us.

Even angels die?

So, late at night when the day’s work (or at least the routine) is done, I sit at my screen and watch mysteries.  Life IS a mystery.  Watching mystery films -- okay, MURDER mystery films because survival is the real puzzle of all mysteries and death is the puzzle of survival that no one can solve -- is pleasantly reassuring because they are always solved.  In fact, they are usually pretty predictable because some writing team sat somewhere and followed a formula.  They know what the end will be, because they mostly start at the conclusion and work back, planting clues.

To vary things, I look for the mysteries from different countries.  They aren’t THAT different -- an innovation like “Rashomon” only comes along rarely -- but the backgrounds and the emphasis is different.

Morse and Lewis

Usually my main preference is BBC so I watch the popular ones from them, with particular fondness for “Morse”, his prequel “Endeavor” and his sequel, “Lewis.”  In a mystery there has to be a core set of partners because their dialogue is what supplies the reflection on what the solution might be.  “Sherlock” is also in this mode.  One person is generally a representative of English knowledge and culture, esp. in the stories set in Oxford, and the other person is the practical one who points out the obvious.  Part of the satisfaction comes from knowing the canonical Shakespeare or whatever, recognizing Morse’s favorite music, catching botanical references (in the “girly” versions, like “Rosemary and Thyme,” or in “Cadfael”).  The more one learns along the way, the less one feels as though it's wasting time, but this applies more in books than in movies.

The Aussie mysteries can be much grittier and more vulgar than anything BBC.  “Jack Irish” is a hunter-gatherer whose baseline is the race track, less a matter of chance than one might think, but he’s a posh lawyer who can cope with the out back.  His buddy is a “black,” meaning Aussie aboriginal.  Jack Irish’s refuge is a pub for old codgers who supply memory.  He doesn’t mind flat-chested women.  The victims are often decomposed and fly-ridden, which implies that there must be someone in real life making money as a bug-wrangler.

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” goes entirely the other way.  Clearly comedy but not at all vulgar, Miss Fisher has a team that includes a resourceful butler (a Brit conceit), a female foundling (ditto), and a contact on the police force (more Brit).  This is almost entirely in the city and requires much attention to costume and antique automobiles.

There are also Irish (bitter and vengeful on the waterfront), Welsh (also tough but more compact), and Scots (barren, with many bodies discovered on the high and windy volcanic rim of Edinburgh).  But the toughest and most resourceful detectives are Norwegian.  (“The Killing,” or “The Eagle.”)  All these still echo the World Wars and the subculture of resistance and spying.  Most of all, the French “Spiral” is cynical, black-and-white.  Their system of justice is Napoleonic, which means guilty until cleared.  The judge is an active participant in the investigation and sometimes puts his thumb on the scales, as do the cops themselves.  The kind of underculture that is African American in American and Brit tales, is more usually “arab” in Paris.  The cops and lawyers might be powerful females, willing to sleep around.

"Gran Hotel"

Lately I’ve been watching the Spanish “Gran Hotel” which means there are sub-titles, though my high school Spanish is coming back in spite of the characteristic rapid-fire talk.  Most scenes are confrontations of one sort or another.  This is another period piece, rather like “Downton Abbey” or “Upstairs, Downstairs” with class restrictions and injustice as one of the main motors of action.  The elegant daughter of the hotel-owning family (always in white) and her strict mother (almost always in black) are the central characters, with the men revolving around them.  I just finished the first year, in which all murderers were revealed -- but not caught!

Two series that I only come back to occasionally are “Alias,” with fast action and many special effects that include the various guises of the iconic American woman played by Jennifer Garner.  She’s Nancy Drew on steroids, always verging on the preposterous.  The other one is “House, MD,” in which Hugh Laurie plays an impossible doctor, a miserable human being who deals out trouble while supposedly trying to help patients. 

The above quote from the real-life Laurie goes to my point about synecdoche, each culture choosing parts of life that fit into their pre-existing assumptions.  In America this would be that Alpha males are brilliant, troubled, and effective.  The below quote comes from the anonymous person who wrote the wiki entry.
“Laurie's parents, who were of Scottish descent, attended St. Columba's Presbyterian church in Oxford.  He notes that "belief in God didn't play a large role in my home, but a certain attitude to life and the living of it did".  He followed this by stating, "pleasure was something that was treated with great suspicion, pleasure was something that... I was going to say it had to be earned but even the earning of it didn't really work. It was something to this day, I mean, I carry that with me. I find pleasure a difficult thing; I don't know what you do with it, I don't know where to put it."  He has stated, "I don't believe in God, but I have this idea that if there were a God, or destiny of some kind looking down on us, that if he saw you taking anything for granted he'd take it away".
So this brings us to the real mystery, the religious issue of suffering.  The physician cannot heal himself and must take drugs.  This then raises all the issues of co-dependence, the people around the doc who try to help him.  This is a synecdoche for our globalizing dilemma.  Surely we are more aware of unnecessary human suffering than we have ever been and obviously the Western world tries to address that with modern science.  

The Weeping Buddha, said to take suffering into himself

Some detectives, like Sherlock, are reflecting on every clue and theory they can locate, and others (Watson is a doctor) are looking at the practicalities.  Some are trying to find the molecular cure for AIDS and others are now addressing the long-standing practice in India of defecating openly on “waste ground.”  What both come back to is human behavior, which hinges on what we think reality is.  Is suffering as inevitable as shit?   If so, how should we manage it?

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