Thursday, January 10, 2013

Dorothy Sayers on Why Life Is Not a Detective Story

I've just finished reading The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers, a fascinating book on how the concept of the Trinity reflects and is reflected in the creative process. It's an unusual thesis, but one she develops well. If you want to read a lengthy discussion on the whole book, go see Cindy at Ordo Amoris, who's doing a whole series, chapter-by-chapter. If you want miscellaneous rambles on the last chapter because that's what I feel like writing about, well, here you are.

In the last chapter, Sayers looks at people--not just writers or painters, but everybody--as essentially creative, as being made in the image of God the creator. Thus, we act most in accordance with our natures when we approach life creatively. The modern tendency (and it hasn't gotten better in the last 80 years), though, is to look at life primarily not through a creative lens, but through an analytic lens. Life, social structures, events, are a set of problems, for which we seek a solution. If we just find the right solution we will solve the problem and all will be well.

In short, we treat life as if it were a mathematical equation, or a mystery novel. In a mystery novel (as Sayers, who wrote some of the best of them, knows full well), the author has already carefully taken all the untidiness out. There is a definite, ascertainable answer. All the data necessary to determine the answer are present. Any question that cannot be answered is never asked in the first place. There is one, and only one, right answer; all others are wrong.

All of this is fine as light entertainment. But it is not the way the real world works. Yet it is reflected in how we approach life; if we are ill, there must be a proper medicine or dietary adjustment to solve the problem. If there is a conflict between individuals, then there must be a procedure to resolve it. If a disaster occurs, there must be a way to prevent all future similar disasters, and we must find it.

But no one has gone through the universe for us, tidying it up so we can find a definite, right answer for each and every identified "problem." And when we look at life as a series of problems, we gain only frustration as we find solutions ever elude us. Public policy and personal choices become disjointed, slapping down one patch on top of another.

It doesn't work because it's not the way we were made; we were made to approach the world as creators. The stuff of life, good, bad, and indifferent, are the paint and canvas we have to work with. In our personal lives we have not a set of problems we will someday get through and all will be well, but today's set of raw materials to make of what we will. In public discourse we have, not a set of social problems to which we must find solutions, but the need to establish social structures that reflect a dynamic balance between competing ideals like liberty and order, justice and equality. 

It's not that it's wrong to ever identify a problem and find a solution--analytical thinking is part of human nature, too. It's just that we must constantly keep in mind that in doing so we have simplified matters nearly to the point of absurdity. In a real-life detective's life, every passing comment is not actually a key to the current mystery. Or in the mathematical context, it reminds me of the one about the mathematicians trying to resolve a question about a chicken eventually coming up with the formula, "Assuming a spherical chicken . . . "

We are the authors of our lives, not the readers. And when we realize that, we no longer need to gripe about the plot holes. Or ignore the shape of real chickens. We can take the raw material we are handed and make of it something, not perfect or final or settled, but beautiful.


Diary of an Autodidact said...

Good review. I love Sayers, so I will put this book on my list.

I would be curious to know your thoughts on the way this modern tendency has infected the ultra-conservative home schooling movement...

Silvia said...

I need to read D.S, now it is Cindy, Brandy, you... I will try a Sayers book, and this one looks like a great one to start.

Thanks for the review. I enjoyed it. I also love Cindy's writings, but I never followed this one because I was not reading it.

Queen of Carrots said...

Autodidact, of course they are as guilty of this as anybody--they just have a different set of identified problems and identified solutions. Made worse by claiming holy authority for their problem/solution sets. Yet another example of how even when we think we are standing contrary to the spirit of the age, we are far more like it than we can realize.

Perhaps an even better question to explore--because it affects a much wider swath of people--is the significance of approaching the Bible as a set of problems and solutions.

Diary of an Autodidact said...

I like your thinking. You absolutely should do a post on this.