detecting and dying: the need for an artist

Real life is not at all like detective stories. At least, Dorothy L. Sayers says it isn’t, and I can aver the truth of her saying: it is not a matter of clear “problems” and “solutions” which exist in a one-to-one relationship. “We do not . . merely examine the data to disentangle something that was in them already: we use them to construct something that was not there before: neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.” Sayers goes on to say, that

If . . . we are to deal with our ‘problems’ in ‘a creative way,’ we must deal with them along the artist’s lines: not expecting to ‘solve’ them by a detective trick, but to ‘make something of them,’ even when they are, strictly speaking, insoluble.

One of the so-called “problems” which Sayers cites is the problem of death — always neatly handled, in detective stories, with motives and methods and as little of human-feeling as possible. But, Sayers says,

the ‘problem of death’ [the real-life problem, outside detective tales] is not susceptible of detective story solution. The only two things we can do with death are, first: to postpone it, which is only partial solution, and, secondly, to transfer the whole set of values connected with death to another sphere of action–that is, from time to eternity.

I read all of that, all unsuspicious, Monday morning, and Monday afternoon, while I sat in a waiting room digesting a detective story written by Sayers, a nurse came out and asked if we’d heard of the bombings in Boston. We hadn’t. And, since I am not endowed with a smart phone, all I knew was what the nurse said, and I sat there and thought about it.

There was that other morning, more than a decade ago in a house on a Navy base, when the normal routine of a Saxon Algebra lesson poised unfinished and we gathered around a radio — yes, even in twenty-first century America — to hear of airliners flying into buildings, to wonder if our city, too, would be a target; and since that morning, the news of things like what happened in Boston on Monday comes as less of a shock than it might have been.

There are places where news like that news is commonplace, where the question is not how such a horrendous thing might happen, but whether you’ll be there the next time it does happen. Places where bomb-broken glass and blood on the street is a matter of routine, and being on the site of a bomb, helping the victim of a bomb, is no matter of huge heroism. Places where death is not a thing to be calmly postponed by regular medical exams, but a thing liable to spring up or drop down upon you from any point in your daily schedule.

Also on Monday the Supreme Court debated the propriety of issuing patents on human genes: genes have been found signalling hereditary predispositions to breast and ovarian cancers, and one company wishes to monopolize their use. It seems a ludicrous proposition: it’s a question of human lives, I want to say, not dollar profits. But even if they find a cure for cancer, they’ll not find a cure for dying, this capital consequence of being alive.

That debate has fallen out of sight, these last few days, behind the rising count of dead-and-injured in Boston, the eager publishing and recantation of stories about suspects taken into custody, the details of bombs constructed of pressure-cookers. Will anyone go looking for the gene which predisposes people to become terrorists? Will they want a patent on it?

If it were visible, they’d find that predisposition wrapped all around and through every strand of DNA, equally present in all ethnicities, all family groups. Original sin. Study and study, you who suppose that problems and solutions come in matched sets, approaching your work as though you were sorting socks. No amount of detective work can win you this answer, no number of patents can give you a share in the profits.

We expect a Savior who’ll come in with a magnifying glass and the key to put all our socks into pairs, but He asserts that it was never even a question of our feet, much less the things with which we dress them. Faced with our unyielding option–either you keep the law or you die–in a stroke of masterful artistry, He takes the death which neither security guards nor cancer researchers can prevent, and constructs of it something entirely new: a doorway to life like we never dreamed in our endless piles of unmatched socks. So that the whole set of values is transferred to another sphere entirely, from time to eternity.

There isn’t a solution, perfectly matched, to “fix” what happened in Boston on Monday. Catching those responsible won’t reattach limbs, restore life. That’s why we so badly need, not the detective-savior we imagine, but the artist-Savior we possess, who gave Himself up for us, who declares that the old things have passed away and new things have come.

*Quotations from Dorothy L. Sayer’s The Mind of the Maker

©2013 by Stacy Nott

5 thoughts on “detecting and dying: the need for an artist

  1. Mr. Eastman says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. It is time for you to write a book. that succession of ideas was…sublime. If I could internalize what you just said, I feel my life would be much the better for it.


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