Thursday, May 17, 2007

Reason, Intuition, and My Plans for This Evening

I volunteered to give a talk tonight at the public library. It's part of a series co-sponsored by the English department and the med school - they take four novels with medical themes and then pair up an English prof with a med-school prof who each give a half-hour talk about the novel. I'm excited about it, not least because I've been paired with the chair of autism research to talk about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. This is the man Bub is on a two-year waiting list to see, and I'm hoping to be able to pick his brains a little bit before the evening is through.

I have a dearth of time for blogging this week, so I thought I'd post my opening remarks.


I have long been a fan of detective fiction, and I’m also a big fan of the vast over-generalization. So I thought I’d start this talk by making a vast over-generalization about detective fiction. Detectives can be divided into two groups: there are detectives who solve crimes by relying on science, and then there are those who rely on intuition. A good example of the latter group is Miss Marple. In Agatha Christie’s novels, physical evidence usually functions as a red herring. Readers are invited to take notice of a footprint, or a strategically placed brooch, and these items distract us from the underlying relationships and psychological dynamics that will turn out to be the key to the mystery. That’s why someone like Miss Marple – who has spent her whole life listening to village gossip – is especially well-positioned to solve these crimes. She is deeply acquainted with the dark recesses of the human heart, and she’s adept at ferreting out the connections and motivations that a more superficial interpreter might miss.

Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, is the forerunner of the scientific detective – he is the one who pioneered the sharp attention to detail that led eventually to the CSI model of detection. Holmes is famous for his powers of deduction and for his sharp eye. He sees things – literal, physical things – that other people miss. In section 107 of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Christopher mentions that The Hound of the Baskervilles is his favourite novel. Christopher goes on to explain the points of resemblance between himself and Holmes: both are capable of emotional detachment, and both are capable of sharp observation.

What Christopher doesn’t realize is that this chapter is not the only reference to Sherlock Holmes in the novel: the title, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, is actually a quote from a story called "The Adventure of Silver Blaze." The title of this novel is one example of our privileged knowledge as readers – Christopher, presumably, has no awareness of the title of the novel of which he is a part (indeed, the words of the title are the only words in the book that Christopher doesn’t control and produce).

As it turns out, "The Adventure of Silver Blaze" is a story that illustrates certain things about the way Christopher perceives the world. In the story, a horse mysteriously disappears from his stable in the middle of the night, and Holmes solves the mystery by observing that a dog who was kept in the stables did not bark at the time the horse went missing. The failure of the dog to bark suggests, of course, that the man who stole the horse must have been someone the dog knew and trusted.

I’ll confess that I didn’t catch the Sherlock Holmes allusion myself: it was pointed out to me in the book Stumbling on Happiness by psychologist Daniel Gilbert. The reason Gilbert mentioned the story was to show how unusual it is for anyone to notice things that fail to happen. Our minds are wired to notice things that do happen: we pick up changes in our environment, but it’s often difficult for us to detect the absence of change. On the whole this is a useful way for our brains to work: we cannot give equal attention to every single bit of physical evidence in front of us: the only way we can make it through life is by rapidly and instinctively sorting out all the sensory input we receive and paying conscious attention only to the things that are most likely to be significant. This is, in fact, precisely Christopher’s problem when he goes someplace new: he is busy processing all the new information – he can’t select just a few bits, but has to notice the exact number of cows and the exact pattern of their spots. Our processes of appraisal allow us to function without shutting down, but they also mean that, unlike Sherlock Holmes, we’re likely to overlook information that may be essential to solving the crime.

In the story of Silver Blaze, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle makes sure we notice how unusual Sherlock Holmes’ powers of detection are by contrasting his observations with those of other, more ordinary persons. In this case, Holmes has a conversation with Colonel Ross (who is investigating the crime). Colonel Ross asks him, "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?" and Holmes replies:

"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
The Colonel is confused. "The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That," Holmes responds, "is the curious incident."

Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant sleuth precisely because he notices things that other people do not – and the point of the story is that his mind works very differently from the way normal minds work. As readers we are invited to share Dr. Watson’s attitude towards Holmes, which is one of awestruck admiration. In The Curious Incident, though, when we recognize the similarities between Holmes and Christopher, our reaction might be a bit more complicated: we experience admiration but also concern, because Christopher is not simply a brilliant detective: he is also a boy with autism. As readers, we have an unusual relationship to Christopher – on the one hand, he has power over us, because he is narrating his own story, but on the other hand, we have an advantage over him because we are supposedly "normal" and he is not. Throughout the novel, Haddon constantly balances our awareness of Christopher's deficits with a growing awareness of our own.


Maybe tomorrow I'll sum up some of my supporting arguments. I'll tell you how it goes.


Luisa Perkins said...

Wow, what a great beginning. And how great that you will be on this particular panel! I wish I could be there to hear the rest.

Synchronicity: I just finished reading Stumbling on Happiness yesterday. I found it fascinating.

Mad Hatter said...

Oh please, please, please include the entire talk even if you have to do it in installments. I have loved the opening sequence and I enjoyed Haddon's book when I read it a few years back.

Good luck tonight.

Mouse said...

You make me want to read (or re-read) everything you've mentioned here! Wish I could hear the rest of your talk.

Bon said...

see, i love you.

because i read this book about five years ago, but have largely forgotten the details.

and my book club (which i joined largely to help me pretend i have a social life) is meeting next Monday to discuss it.

but i no longer own it, and was too cheap to buy it again, and hadn't really sorted out what to do about that little problem.

if i credit you, can i just read your remarks aloud? :)

(and please, please do include the rest of the talk...then i will sound very, very smart)

Lawyer Mama said...

Ooh, I'd love to hear the rest of it. Sounds like a great talk and I'd love to hear the doctor's perspective as well.

Can't wait to hear how it went (& whether or not you can sneak up farther on the waiting list!)

Macometer said...


Do you mean checking out this link, its a website for missing toddler Madeleine Mccann. Perhaps you won't mind putting the videos on your blog since so many people visit it daily. Thanks a bunch, its heart wrenching stuff, poor little girl.

nomotherearth said...

Loved the opening comments and would love to hear more. In fact, I'd love to be at the discussion tonight.

My husband really loved this book, but he advised me not to read it - I was pregnant with the Boy and very emotional. He said it would upset me. (Or maybe I'm thinking of a different book? Did one of the character share our sons name?) I think I should read it now.

slouching mom said...

Oh, B&P! I loved this. I wish I could be in the audience tonight. If only most speakers knew what you seem to know instinctively -- how to grab attention, how to maintain it, how NOT to be wordy.

But most especially, I think, you understand and can implement the art of making elegant and clear transitions.

Great stuff. I am really, really impressed.

Mary-LUE said...

Ooo, so much fun! What a great talk. I'm sure the rest of it will be as good the the intro.

I enjoyed this book so much when I read it. It was part of an 7 book, 8 day frenzy during a road trip. This book and Life of Pi were the standout reads of the binge. We had a young boy in our small group from church who had just been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome and this book gave me, I think, an insight into his life, as well as a deeper compassion for his parents.

I will keep my fingers crossed (read: pray) that you will make a good connection with the doc.

Suz said...

This is one of my favorite books and I really enjoyed reading your take on it. I hope that you can include the entire talk at some point!

Jenifer said...

I agree we need to hear the rest! Also, how it goes with the Dr., it would be nice if you could put in a good word.

Good luck with the talk.

Beck said...

And meanwhile, my local library keeps buying romance novels and needlepoint books. Agggggg.

Gwen said...

Thanks for the Sherlock Holmes info. Now please post the rest of your talk so that I can a)pick the book for book club and b) sound SUPER smart when I discuss it. And since I've already read the book it's even better as there are no books I dislike more than the ones I am assigned for book club. How's that for perverse!?

I am also awaiting the YouTube version of your talk. Maybe you can get someone to help us out with that. Isn't it time for the Queen to go viral? I think so.

theflyingmum said...

This was excellent! I look forward to any follow-up you may do. And yes, now I too want to read the book(s). Well done!

bubandpie said...

Nomo - I read the book while I was on mat leave with Bub, so I was a (new) mother, and autism worries were not yet on the horizon. Then, and now, I feel an at times overwhelming maternal protectiveness for the main character.

I would not have been able to handle it if this had been an Oprah-style book the point of which is to plunge a sympathetic and vulnerable character into all kinds of horrible suffering. There are parts of the book that are hard to read, but it's a book that rewards our sympathy for the character instead of using it to torture us.

In short - read the book. It's really, really good.

natalie said...

I feel like my favourite class just got cut off thanks to some yahoo pulling the fire alarm.

I can't wait for you to post the rest of your talk.

And good luck!

Catherine said...

I read this book earlier this year and found it very interesting...well written...profound. I'll enjoy reading more of your talk!

c4cara said...

Now I want to read this book. And like everyone else I want to see the rest of your talk. Thanks. I really want to be reading more, but it's not part of my main to-do list so I miss out.
Oh woe is me...

Terri B. said...

I read this recently and enjoyed it immensely. I was also struck by the character's inability to limit input -- that he noticed absolutely everything. How exhausting. I'd want to shut down too.

Thanks for the pointer to the Sherlock story. I'll need to go look it up and read it tonight when I go home. I bought the 2 volume set of Sherlock stories recently. How fortuitous!

Ruth Dynamite said...

This is fascinating and promises to be an interesting discussion. Wish I could hear your talk coupled with a discussion on autism.

flutter said...

I think I would love to hear this presentation. I am sure you will be smashing

Mimi said...

Ah, you made me laugh right out loud. I read that novel, but didn't catch the allusion.

And how sad that you see the doctor at the library, but have to wait TWO YEARS to see him professionally.

Be charming, bubandpie, be very very charming.

Mayberry said...

I enjoyed that book so much. It gave me more perspective and empathy than anything I've ever read. Do post your whole talk!

mcewen said...

I first read Haddon's book on the plane back to England [the red eye trip] just after my own two boys had been diagnosed with autism. I finished it by the time we landed - 10 hours [it was written for a teenage audience I believe]
I affected me profoundly at the time. I don't know if I'd be brave enough to read it now, but if I did, I think I would have a very different perspective.

bubandpie said...

Mimi - I was charming! That's exactly what I was. I confirmed that he's the one who does the diagnoses and said, "I may be seeing you sometime in November." And he said, "What's your son's name? I'll do my best to get him moved up." You'll just have to imagine all the inner cha-chinging I did then.

Karen said...

I was just on the brink of complete trauma at the thought of Bub on a two year waiting list, but I read your comment - November, Novemeber good, I'm smiling now. Also, your talk sound so good, and reminded me that I am still in love with Lord Peter Wimsey.

wordgirl said...

I adore Sherlock Holmes. The Conan Doyle stories, the PBS episodes and the 14 vintage b&w movies starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. And the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night was fascinating. Both my high school-age sons were quite taken with it as well.

Julie Pippert said...

Oh awesome.

And what I find so intriguing about your over-generalization about the two types of detectives wrt this book is that in the end, the missed intuition was a major clue---in itself a thing that did not happen---and which generated the circuitous route to the truth.

Sorry to be vague...I'm trying to explain what I mean without being a spoiler in case anyone hasn't read this.