Thursday, June 24, 2004

Justification for a Favorite Pastime

"When I needed money, it justified itself. It was a job of work, and I did it as well as I could, and that was that. That was enough. But now, you see, it has no necessity except itself. And, of course, it's hard; it's always been hard, and it's getting harder. So when I'm stuck, I think, this isn't my livelihood, and it isn't great art, its' only detective stories. You read and write them for fun.'

'You underestimate yourself, Harriet. I never thought to hear you do that.'

'Normally I have the pride of the devil, you mean?'

'The pride of the craftsman, yes.'

'There can be intricate and admirable craft in entirely frivolous objects, Peter,' she said. 'Like those cufflinks, for instance.'

He was wearing jade cufflinks carved intaglio with the Wimsey mice. 'Frivoligy can give a good deal of pleasure,' he said, mildly. 'but I don't like to hear you call detective stories frivolous.'

'But aren't they? Compared to the real thing?'

'What do you call the real thing?'

'Great literature; Paradise Lost; novels like Great Expectations, or Crime and Punishment or War and Peace. Or on the other hand real detection with real crimes.

'You seem not to appreciate the importance of your special form,' he said. 'Detective stories contain a dream of justice. They project a vision of a world in which wrongs are righted, and villains are betrayed by clues that they did not know they were leaving. A world in which murderers are caught and hanged, and innocent victimes are avenged, and future murder is deterred.'

'But it is just a vision, Peter. The world we live in is not like that.'

'It sometimes is,' he said. 'Besides hasn't it occurred to you that to be beneficent, a vision does not have to be true?'

'What benefits could be conferred by falsehood?' she asked.

'Not falsehood, Harriet; idealism. Detective stories keep alive a view of the world which ought to be true. Of course people read them for fun, for diversion, as they do crossword puzzles. But underneath they feed a hunger for justice, and heaven help us if ordinary people cease to feel that.'

'You mean perhaps they work as fairy tales work, to caution stemothers against being wicked, and to comfort Cinderellas everywhere?'...

...'You have rather an exalted view of it, Peter.'

'I suppose very clever people can get their visions of justice from Dostoyevsky,' he said. 'But there aren't enough of them to make a climate of opinion. Ordinary people in large numbers read what you write.'

'But not for enlightenment. They are at their slackest. They only want a good story with a few thrills and reversals along the way.'

'You get under their guard,' he said. 'If they thought they were being preached at they would stop their ears. If they thought you were bent on improving their minds they would probably never pick up the book. But you offer to divert them, and you show them by stealth the orderly world in which we should all try to be living.'

'But are you serious?' she asked.

'Never more so, Domina. Your vocation seems no more frivolous to me than mine does to you. We are each, it seems, more weighty in each other's eyes than in our own. It's probably rather a good formula: self-respect without vanity.'

'Frivolity for ever?'

'For as long as possible.' he said, suddenly somber. 'I rather wish the Germans were addicted to your kind of light reading."

Excerpted from Thrones, Dominations by Dorothy L. Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh

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