Warning: Very Snarky

Far be it from me to criticize an article with the intellectual and scholastic chops to use the term “savage” unironically. However, if I was to venture a slight critique of Michael Holquist’s “Whodunit and Other Questions” I would start by noting that it is quite bad and Michael Holquist should feel bad for having ever written it.  

It is nonetheless a fascinating article, as Holquist’s fundamental argument is predicated on a monolithic understanding of various literary and cultural forms. Modernist novels, for him, are defined by a kind of psychological refraction of Western mythology; they “essentially take place in the country of the mind, inside,” (145). It always amazes me that critics turn to Ulysses as an example of a psychological, non-political drama. The book is basically a ransom note of jaggedly cut newspaper articles, tavern ditties, advertising slogans and political fantasies. 

Anyways, this received tidbit of New Critical wisdom would be less egregious if it did not also structure the putative binary between “kitsch” and, in particular, detective fiction. The detective, dating back to Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, is a “metaphor for order” (141), he is resolutely non-psychological, or even anti-psychological to the extent that his spurious rationalizing operates as a narcotic that dulls the mind against “a world that all too often seems impervious to reason,” (143). It is very telling that he has no clue at all what to do with ‘hard-boiled’ detective fiction, other than to place it somewhere higher on the field of literariness than ‘real’ detective fiction.    

In fact, it is his “small digression”, in which he both introduces and dismisses the ‘hard-boiled’ genre, that his project is most nakedly apparent. This project, in essence, is an attempt at literary gatekeeping; post-modernism is the legitimate heir to modernism, and the latter’s perplexing turn towards the genre of detective fiction is largely ironic. The ‘hard-boiled’ genre, which draws its appeal from “mainstream fiction; literature, if you will” (146) cannot act as a bridge between the classic detective story and the post-modern detective story (a thesis that would be problematic in its own right) but is instead “impure- and I mention it only as an exception” (147). Instead, the relation between the detective genre and post-modernism is that of the modernist novel and the pre-Christian mythological; lumps of discursive coal used to fire the engine of white European treatments of the “modern mind”.  

Following up on the thesis of “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (which at least had the decency to be written in the 1930’s) Holquist’s article is a fascinating example of scholastic acrobatics, an anxious attempt to reinscribe literary binaries that are clearly undermined by the actual texts he is referencing.  

The Nation’s Body!

In some follow up research (clicking through Wikipedia drunk) I discovered that, in, the original version of Whose Body?, Peter is quickly able to discern that the corpse in the tub is not Sir Reuben because the corpse is not circumcised. The publisher balked at such a crass reference and so Sayers changed it. What I am interested in is the way in which the body- as mass, as shredded tissue, as flesh evacuated of any agency-gestures towards a post-war understanding of the subject.

I’ll start with Freke’s thesis on the affective/psychological dimensions of humans as being embodied. Anger, fear, even Peter’s post-war trauma could, theoretically, be surgically removed. This thesis isn’t really all that different than the operating logic of the fiction we have read up to this point; namely, that all matters of human experience are more or less observable or, at least, able to be deduced through rational observation. However, to see it articulated as a kind of scientific theory, that to be ‘human’ is to be not much more than a somewhat complicated sack of meat, comes off as macabre. Why?

The novel’s attention to post-war trauma might offer a rubric. The war, we often claim, marks the end of a sentimental/romantic discourse of the self and nation. If this is true, it did so partly through the images and narratives of heaped corpses, bodies riddled with bullets dangling from barbed wire and other horrors that so immediately reminded the viewer of the fleshy materiality of the self. These were bodies thrown at each other for little purpose beyond an imperial/aristocratic pissing competition. Not people, really, but an expendable resource, like ammunition.

Sayers seems to be reckoning the ethical implications of the detective genre in its easy appropriation of the dead body as a vehicle for narrative. Peter’s own ambivalence about his hobby is telling. He likes the hunt as an abstraction, but once consequences come into play he feels uncomfortable. This coheres interestingly to the larger question of the body in the novel. Is there anything more than the clever shuffling of femers and fingernails or is it, as Freke implies, just material, just gross, having no real purpose beyond a kind of corporeal inventorying?

It’s hard to know what to do with Reuben’s corpse (unless, of course, you’re Freke) because he is such a marked figure. New Rich, Capitalist, Jewish- what is the relation between these and his death and dismemberment? My inclination is this: both ‘new rich’ and Jewishness are characterized in popular discourse as a kind of rudeness, of deriving no authority beyond their immediate material situation. The ‘new rich’ have no ‘history’ to fall back on; neither, in a way, do the jews, who are seen to maintain power through canny manipulation of markets and loans. It’s a socio/racial theory not dissimilar to Freke’s. I had a hard time figuring out how Sayers was falling on this: were those signifiers useful for her when cutting him up? Or is it a comment on the way in which ideology itself works onto the body- here, quite literally.