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« A History of Violence | Main | Blok, "Так. Буря этих лет прошла" »
Tuesday
Apr302013

The Insoluble Problem

The heat and weight and obscurity of the thunderous sky seemed to be pressing yet more closely on the landscape; the clouds had conquered the sun which, above, in a narrowing clearance, stood up paler than the moon. There was a thrill of thunder in the air, but now no more stirring of wind or breeze; and even the colours of the garden seemed only like richer shades of darkness. But one colour still glowed with a certain dusky vividness; and that was the red hair of the woman of that house, who was standing with a sort of rigidity, staring, with her hands thrust up into her hair. That scene of eclipse, with something deeper in his own doubts about its significance, brought to the surface the memory of haunting and mystical lines; and he found himself murmuring: ‘A secret spot, as savage and enchanted as e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted by woman wailing for her demon lover.’ 

What is an insoluble problem? Philosophers – that is to say, wisdom-lovers, not those whose idea of philosophy comprises cigarettes, pretty women, and anarchical manifestoes – will affirm that the grandest problems do not really have any solutions, that is why they have remained both grand and problems. Some, far wiser than any philosopher, will acknowledge that there is only One problem, and that this One is, in fact, no problem at all. We cannot convince everyone of such a view, nor should we: uniformity breeds as much contempt as familiarity. But perhaps, during the long course of a bright summer's eve, we can admit that there do exist puzzles, wonders, and riddles that merit our distraction. And as any Romantic poet might tell you, few bedevilments are of greater charm than the literary mystery. Which brings us to this well-known tale.

Our hero you will know by his cassock, his assistant by his gargantuan shadow. Their assignment will be bland in comparison to what Flambeau would prefer to do, namely track down a notorious jewel thief thought to be amidst a most daring plan. Instead of that adventure, one of mortal danger and little philosophical interest (notorious jewel thieves tend to be kleptomatons), the sleuths are summoned to the Green Dragon, "a certain hotel ... some forty-five miles on the road to a neighbouring cathedral town." As they progress "through a densely wooded but sparsely inhabited landscape, in which inns and all other buildings seemed to grow rarer and rarer," they note that they have arrived at a special time:

The daylight began to take on the character of a stormy twilight even in the heat of noon; and dark purple clouds gathered over dark grey forests. As is common under the lurid quietude of that kind of light, what colour there was in the landscape gained a sort of secretive glow which is not found in objects under the full sunlight; and ragged red leaves or golden or orange fungi seemed to burn with a dark fire of their own.

What happens in "that kind of light"? We may survey various languages for their expressions of dusk and find a collection of doubts and suspicions, half-lit and half-formed, although the old Latin chestnut inter canem et lupum might still be the finest (I also nurture a personal fondness for "gloaming"). But we are only at dusk morally – the cloak of shadows conspiring in crime time  not physically. It is then perhaps appropriate that, after meeting the red-haired "woman of the house," as mentioned in the quote that begins this review, they next encounter someone out of the corner of their joint memory:

Both Flambeau and Father Brown felt that they had hardly ever clapped eyes on a man who was so difficult to place. He was not what is called a gentleman; yet he had something of the dusty refinement of a scholar; there was something faintly disreputable or déclassé about him; and yet the smell of him was rather bookish than Bohemian. He was thin and pale, with a pointed nose and a dark pointed beard; his brow was bald, but his hair behind long and lank and stringy; and the expression of his eyes was almost entirely masked by a pair of blue spectacles. Father Brown felt that he had met something of the sort somewhere, and a long time ago; but he could no longer put a name to it. The lumber he sat among was largely literary lumber; especially bundles of seventeenth-century pamphlets.

A ghost, or simply another shadow? A wolf or a dog? O, the questions we could ask ourselves were it not for the corpse hanging on the tree outside, the beloved old man of the house (and grandfather of the woman of the house), the "sacrilege" of having a body already dead before it is hanged and impaled! You will be relieved to learn, dear reader, that this crime sounds as putrid to our detectives as a faint whiff of it smells to us. More importantly, it also sounds ridiculous and trivial (earlier, "the telephone seemed to be possessed of a demon of triviality"), an aspect explained in satisfactory detail as the sun finally sets, both morally and physically, on the Green Dragon inn.

Those who love wisdom should undoubtedly love Chesterton: in the English language at least, no author is as consistently and profoundly correct. And while one need not adhere to his system of beliefs to appreciate the breadth of his genius, a fair and open mind regardless of creed will be necessary. What Father Brown has given literature cannot be quantified simply because he, this fictive monk, has never sought renown or repute. He would have been more than happy to submit the solution on a small and anonymous leaflet, which in our skeptical times might recur to the image of a fortune cookie (those who seek guidance inside a vanilla cracker will likely not have made it this far down the page). But what then of the very scenic scene of the crime itself?

The garden bed was dotted with tulips that looked like drops of dark blood, and some of which one might have sworn were truly black; and the line ended appropriately with a tulip tree, which Father Brown was disposed, if partly by some confused memory, to identify with what is commonly called the Judas tree. What assisted the association was the fact that there was hanging from one of the branches, like a dried fruit, the dry, thin body of an old man, with a long beard that wagged grotesquely in the wind. There lay on it something more than the horror of darkness, the horror of sunlight; for the fitful sun painted tree and man in gay colours like a stage property.

We may dread the casualness of such an image, even if experience has taught us not to mock death in its endless manifestations. Yet blood-like tulips bespeak an alternative to our expectations, even if experience has taught us not to mock flowers, blood-like or otherwise. And who or what, then, is Tiger Tyrone? O powerful love that, in some respects, makes a beast a man, in some other, a man a beast.  

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