Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Ideal Detective Story

I pause in the Man Who Was Thursday discussion to bring you this:

Harry Potter Moment: [I have a HUGE, I mean HUMONGOUS announcement to make in connection with Harry Potter and Chesterton. Stay tuned.] Meanwhile, listen to this: Last night, I opened an Illustrated London News at random. And this was God. I know you've done this with the Bible, but do you ever do it with Chesterton? I do. Anyway, listen:
"Nor need there be anything vulgar in the violent and abrupt transition that is the essential of such a tale. The inconsistencies of human nature are indeed terrible and heart-shaking things, to be named with the same note of crisis as the hour of death and the Day of Judgment. They are not all fine shades, but some of them very fearful shadows, made by the primal contrast of darkness and light. Both the crimes and the confessions can be as catastrophic as lightning. Indeed, the Ideal Detective Story might do some good if it brought men back to understanding that the world is not all curves, but that there are some things that are as jagged as the lightning-flash or as straight as the sword.
That lightning-flash scar of Harry's is symbolic, I think, of this "darkness and light" contrast, which Rowling so very aptly writes into her novels. Chesterton isn't saying "The world is not curves, but straight like a sword," he says, "the world is not all curves." I think this is important.


  1. This curve/line kind of geometric analogy of orthodoxy also appears in this form:
    "...there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands."
    [GKC, Orthoddoxy CW1:306]

    That "open a book at random" goes by the name of "Sors Virgiliana; [Latin: the lottery of Virgil] and it is an interesting game, though it (like most human actions) has its "dark side": it has been used as a fortune-telling device, yes, even with the Bible. Here's one of the few GKC references to it:

    ...nobody says that St. Francis was loosening the Christian code, when he was obviously tightening it; like the rope round his friar's frock. Nobody says he merely opened the gates to sceptical science, or sold the pass to heathen humanism, or looked forward only to the Renaissance or met the Rationalists half way. No biographer pretends that St. Francis, when he is reported to have opened the Gospels at random and read the great texts about Poverty, really only opened the Aeneid and practised the Sors Virgiliana out of respect for heathen letters and learning. No historian will pretend that St. Francis wrote The Canticle of the Sun in close imitation of a Homeric Hymn to Apollo or loved birds because he had carefully learned all the tricks of the Roman Augurs.
    [GKC, St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:431-2]

    No, that's not a typo - it is from the chapter on St. Francis, in his biography of St. Thomas Aquinas.

    RE "primal contrast": this is right out of St. John: "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it" [Jn 1:5] And we should continue to ponder GKC's (nearly) last words: "The issue is now quite clear. It is between light and darkness and every one must choose his side."

    I look forward to your HUMONGOUS GKC/HP announcement with great anticipation!

    --Dr. Thursday

    PS: the ILN essay is the one for October 25, 1930 in CW35.

  2. Well don't keep us waiting, Nancy. Spill it! :-)

  3. Yes, the suspense is going to ruin my night.

  4. Here's another Chestertonian reference to the sors virgiliana:

    "The stir of something that had in it the promise of a movement or a mission can first be felt as I have said in the affair of the appeal to the New Testament.

    "It was a sort of sors virgiliana applied to the Bible; a practice not unknown among Protestants though open to their criticism, one would think, as being rather a superstition of pagans. Anyhow it seems almost the opposite of searching the Scriptures to open them up at random; but Saint Francis certainly opened them up at random."

    ~G. K. Chesterton, Saint Francis, Ch. 4


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