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Critical Essay by John Wren-Lewis
SOURCE: "Adam, Eve, and Agatha Christie," in The Chesterton Review, Vol. 19, No. 2, May, 1993, pp. 193-99.
In the following essay, Wren-Lewis analyzes what the success of Christie's The Mousetrap reveals about changes in popular perceptions of sin and evil.
The longest-running play in human history is now well into its forty-first year on the London stage. Agatha Christie's detective-thriller The Mousetrap, which celebrated the fortieth anniversary of its opening on November 25th last year, has now become almost a British National Monument. When I went to its opening night, to see the young Richard Attenborough playing the detective, we were still only just emerging from the shadows of World War Two. The possibility that forty years on I'd be in Australia wasn't in my mind then, but even more remote was any thought that the play could still be going near the end of the century. And I don't think the idea crossed anyone else's mind either; Agatha Christie herself, interviewed on the then-phenomenal occasion of the play's tenth anniversary, said she had expected a run of no more than three months and was greatly buoyed by the assurance of impressario Peter (now Sir Peter) Saunders that it was good for at least a year!
In fact the extraordinary success of this rather ordinary well-made play is itself something of a mystery, and the detective in me has been stimulated to investigate the reasons. In doing so, I've been led into some very deep waters of the human psyche, regions where psychology overlaps with anthropology and even theology, and to some insights about the underlying forces that make detective stories so fascinating, particularly, it seems, to people with religious interests. For it's not only English vicars who are notoriously "whodunnit" fans: Jiddu Krishnamurti, who read practically nothing else, delighted in them, and so did Carl Jung, who read almost everything else. Religious thinkers have also been prominent amongst the producers of the genre: G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers and Father Ronald Knox were co-founders, along with Agatha Christie, of London's famous Detection Club in the 1930s. And after Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, probably the most famous of all fictional detectives is a priest—Chesterton's Father Brown, who latterly has been joined on the shelves by several other persons of the cloth, such as Harry Kemmelman's Rabbi Small and Brother William of Baskerville in Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose.
Reflecting on these latter points, I began to scent something more than coincidence in the fact that the "whodunnit" is a fairly new literary phenomenon. Tales of good defeating evil after a struggle are probably as old as humanity, but until the second half of the nineteenth century, the age of Poe, Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle, there were hardly any stories in which the struggle took the form of a mystery, with the unmasking of a hidden villain as the climax. The ascendancy of detective fiction as we know it coincides with the post-Darwinian period when, for the first time in human history, religious belief was declining sharply amongst the literate Western public. The detective emerged as a savior-image as people began to lose faith in those more traditional saviours, the holy man, the righteous ruler, and the knight in shining armor. And stories about evil as a mystery became popular as ancient myths about the so-called "problem of evil" began to seem discredited.
While public debate on "science versus religion" revolved around issues such as the conflict between new discoveries and the literal truth of bible-stories, the real cause, we now know, went deeper. Few serious thinkers in the Judao-Christian-Muslim tradition have ever been over-much concerned with the literal truth of the Adam and Eve story or the six-day timetable for creation, and the same holds for myths of origin in other religious traditions. The primary reference of such ideas has always been to the felt existential human situation, and that was what science in general and Darwinian science in particular seemed to have changed in a radical way, by undermining the notion of harmony as the basic characteristic of reality, for which metaphors such as Tao or Divine Purpose could be appropriate expressions, and replacing it with the principle of "nature red in tooth and claw." Human destructiveness needs no explanation if we are simply children of a universal struggle for survival: the only problem of evil in that case is the practical one of preventing the struggle from making life intolerable, and the best hope for doing that seemed to lie in developing the faculty of intellect, which was apparently where the wish for something better had entered the picture in the first place.
But evidently the feeling of evil as something out of tune with the general nature of things and requiring explanation wouldn't go away, for there grew up in the West this new addiction for stories in which an act of violence shatters a previously harmonious scene, causing waves of conflict and suspicion to spread everywhere until the new-style savior-figure, the detective, brings to bear a special kind of intelligence in ferreting out where the violence came from. Is this just a case of an outdated habit of thought lingering on in the form of popular entertainment, such as the myth of the Evil Demiurge surviving as the Demon King of pantomime? I think there's much more to it than that, for three reasons. In the first place, science itself has now shown from the study of dreams, that while the expression of thoughts and feelings in dramatic from may be an older from of mention than rational analysis, it is in no way outdated; on the contrary, it is the basic mode of all mental activity, underlying rational analysis itself. Thus we are well advised to pay serious attention to its collective manifestations. Secondly, evidence had emerged from biological science during recent decades to indicate that the popular perception of nature as essentially red in tooth and claw was a gross over-reaction to Darwin's discoveries, a failure to see the wood for the trees. And thirdly, there are good philosophical grounds for believing this to have been the case, for if there's no problem about how evil originates, then the human mind's desire for something better than constant struggle-for-survivalitself becomes a problem; where does it come from, if tooth and claw are nature's basic reality?
Darwin was not, after all, the first to observe the ubiquity of conflict and violence in the organic world—it was every bit as obvious to anyone with half an eye in earlier cultures as it is to us today, and probably more so, since urban life has never been really sheltered from nature until quite recently. When earlier cultures assumed that there was a harmony underlying the conflict, and expressed that assumption in various kinds of theistic image, it was because elementary logic dictates that unless something like this were the case, nothing would ever survive at all—and Darwin as a naturalist took this as much for granted as any theologian, even if he was a little more tentative about the use of theistic imagery. In fact it would be fair to say that biological science has provided massive confirmation for what was earlier just a common sense assumption, by using microscopes and, in more recent times, cine-cameras and a plethora of other instruments, to uncover in minute detail the astonishing built-in mechanisms which limit the expression of competitive and destructive urges throughout the sub-human biosphere, curbing them so that they are always ultimately contained by harmony. And the specific contribution of evolutionary theory, of which Darwin is the archetypical representative, has actually been to extend our understanding of this principle into the time-dimension, by showing how conflict and competition serve development by selecting the strongest and most flexible strains for breeding. In the years since World War II biologists themselves in growing numbers have begun to articulate this thought, a notable example being the work here in Australia of Professor Charles Birch, which recently won him the prestigious Templeton Prize and is very clearly set out in his excellent book On Purpose.
Now this means there's something very odd, almost un-natural, about our human species, where aggression and competitive greed continually shatter harmony, between individuals, between tribes and nations, and between us and the rest of the biosphere. Something has been going wrong throughout recorded history, so that the best efforts of holy men, of well-meaning rulers and of knights in shining armor to contain the destructive urges always come unstuck. To paraphrase a famous declaration of St. Paul, the human mind dreams of harmonies more wonderful—more gentle and loving—than the rough but powerful balances of the animal kingdom; yet, in practice, human intelligence again and again finds itself side-tracked into the service of greed, of aggression and even of cruelty, such as would shame any animal. And here too, science has served to make explicit something which formerly could only be intuited in a general way; the "unnaturalness" of human nature, which was formerly expressed in stories about a primordial Fall, has today become inescapable, as the cumulative results of our intelligence threaten to destroy our species altogether, and maybe even the whole planet.
When I was young, and the nuclear arms race was just beginning to make these dangers apparent, most scientists and most religious folk alike thought in terms of humanity's "higher ideals" battling against "lower animal instincts"; but we know now that if our instincts were really animal, the drives towards harmony would always contain the destructive ones. It is at the level of mind or of spirit itself that something goes wrong, and I believe that it's a gut realization of this fact that finds expression in the popularity of detective fiction, where in all the best stories the harmony-shattering act of violence is tracked down to a source quite unsuspected by the society concerned; the hidden villain turns out to be someone who, until the denouement, is considered beyond suspicion. True, in the very early days of the genre, this feature was by no means universal: in fact one famous classic, Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue, is a perfect expression of the belief that our troubles spring from animal instincts getting out of rational control—the murders are eventually traced to an escaped savage ape! But as the art-form developed, the main focus came to be on the author's skill in finding ingenious ways to keep the villain above suspicion until the end, and the Detection Club even drew up rules about it. On the hypothesis I have been developing here, this can be seen as something more than a need to tickle the reader's crossword-solving faculty: it was also the refinement of a new mythological form relevant to our modern understanding of humanity's great existential problem.
And against this background, the extraordinary success of The Mousetrap would imply that it contains some particularly acute, nerve-touching insight about the origin of evil in the human psyche, and I believe this to be indeed the case. For the play gives a very special twist to the "least likely suspect" theme, a twist anticipated occasionally in earlier stories (for example, in more than one by G. K. Chesterton), but never (to my knowledge) before put into drama-form, the mode which appeals most directly to the mythopoetic imagination. After all these years of exposure on the London stage, I don't think I shall be giving away any secret by mentioning what that twist is (and anyway, the characteristic of a really significant mythic theme, as I believe this to be, is that it retains its appeal even when the "plot" is common knowledge.) At the end of The Mousetrap, the detective himself, the young policeman who appears as the protector of the innocent and as the guardian of law and order, turns out to be the murderer. And here I find a clear echo of a theme expressed in different ways in many of the world's ancient stories about the Fall, but most clearly in the one which, more than any other, has exercised emotional appeal across many different cultures, the biblical story in which the Loss of Eden comes about because of a "snaky" temptation to assume a divine role of moral guardianship, "knowing good and evil."
I would translate this idea as a diagnosis that the responsibility for humanity's unnatural destructiveness lies with the very element in the psyche that purports to aim at harmony, the moral impulse—not that it is too weak, as conventional social wisdom assumes, but that it usurps power and tries to control all other impulses by judging and repressing. It was an insight central to William Blake's attempts to uncover the true essence of Christianity in his mythic epics: "The punisher alone is the criminal of Providence." And this too is surely something we are in a better position to understand today than any earlier generation, thanks to the detailed investigations of psychologists and sociologists. There is now ample evidence that behind all really violent and destructive human behaviour, whether it be the ridiculously excessive ambitions of the military conqueror or the empire-building of the capitalist, or the sadism of tyrants great or small, or the insatiable violence of the rapist, or the blind destructiveness of the hoodlum or child-batterer, there lies a screaming protest on the part of some much more limited desire that has been repressed by an overweening morality, in society, in the family, or in the individual psyche itself. And on the other, outer side of the coin, egoistic and aggressive urges become really dangerous and outrageous precisely when they are moralized and amplified by righteous indignation. The Inquisition really did think that they were saving souls, and while mere greed or ambition would never lead any sane person to plunge the world into nuclear winter, a holy war might easily do so, on the judgment that it is better to be dead than red or, in more topical terms, better to have a nuclear holocaust than to submit to the Great Satan of American Capitalism.
"Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven" were words which Milton put into the mouth of Satan himself. His poem followed much Christian tradition in linking the Biblical story of Paradise Lost with another ancient tale, giving it, in the process, a definite "whodunnit" flavor of its own, by suggesting than the serpent was just a disguise for the cosmic Mr. Big—Lucifer, the Archangel of Light, who subverts humanity in the course of trying to usurp the role of God. The moral impulse, or "conscience," could indeed be described as the angel (the messenger) of light in the human psyche, and this story unmasks its constant tendency to get above itself and rule the roost instead of simply serving life. Thus a vicious circle is created, because repression and moralization exaggerate the very impulses they claim to control, and thereby give "conscience" the excuse for attempting still more repressive measures and expressing still more moral outrage against others. This was why Blake went beyond Milton's interpretation of the story and represented Satan as having to all intents and purposes already taken over the place of God in most religions by making them agents of repressive moralizing, rather than of salvation. That, he argued, was why Jesus of Nazareth "died as a reprobate … punished as a transgressor"—because he had seen what was going on in the world and tried to reverse the process by urging "mutual forgiveness of each vice," only to have his name and image taken over in turn in the service of repression and indignation.
The Mousetrap doesn't attempt to pursue the story into those depths: its villain simply gets killed at the end, much as in most other "whodunits." But Chesterton did try to take that extra step: Father Brown never sought punishment or death for his villains, but unmasked them only as a first step in trying to redeem them. And for Blake that was the ultimate goal both in society and in the psyche itself, to "have pity on the Punisher" and restore the moral sense to its proper role as servant of life, by subordinating its judgments to forgiveness. He had the mystic vision that while no individual can hope to make more than a small impact on the destructive patterns of society by pursuing this goal, determined exposure of satanic judgementalism within the psyche will open up direct experience of eternity even in the midst of the world's still-unresolved conflicts. He identified this as "the Everlasting Gospel of Jesus"; yet he also insisted that "All Religions are One" prior to satanic perversion—and in our own day his insight, expressed in different terms, has been the core "gospel" of Krishnamurti, who stood apart from all formal religion: he urged the regular practice of "non-judgmental choiceless awareness" as the way of opening to the eternal. Maybe he wasn't a detective-story buff for nothing.
The ending of any detective-story after the unmasking of the villain is inevitably something of an anticlimax (a post-climax, perhaps?), and in my view one of Blake's most profound insights was that the unmasking of the Great Originator of Sin in human life brings something of the same feeling. Like the Wizard of Oz, pretension is the essence of Lucifer's power in the world and in the psyche: unmasked, he becomes something of a joke:
Truly, My Satan, thou art but a Dunce,
And dost not know the Garment from the man.
Perhaps that was what Chesterton was getting at, in a different idiom, when he said that if humanity were to be suddenly struck with a sense of humor, we would find ourselves automatically fulfilling the Sermon on the Mount. And perhaps, too, this is why the motivation of the crime in The Name of the Rose is the suppression of humor. So do join me as a detection buff, for the sheer fun of it, and go and see The Mousetrap if you're in London—it's fun even if you do know the ending.
This section contains 3,009 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)