On Wednesday 22nd of January, I went to a seminar by Professor Alex Davis of the UCC School of English. It was about T.S. Eliot’s engagement with detective fiction.
I’ve taken two modules that Alex taught during my BA. The first was in second year. It was called Nineteenth Century Literature. He taught some classes on Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone as an example of Victorian detective literature but also as a sensation novel. i.e. novels to shock and delight their readers by engaging with violence and criminality. In Final Year, I took the module he and Professor Lee Jenkins taught on Modernism ( both of them have written books on Modernism, in collaboration and separately). These were two of my favourite modules from their respective years so I was curious to see him lecture on both of them in tandem. I think he said this is going to be part of a book he’s writing, so I’m certainly looking forward to that.
Unsurprisingly, the seminar did not disappoint. Alex’ slides were made up mostly of images and short quotes, which I always prefer. I’ve never liked it when lecturers make slides which just bullet point what they’re saying. The approach Alex uses is much more effective since they function as an aid without distracting from what I (in my inexperience, I confess) consider the most important part of teaching, the teacher themselves.
Eliot was a puzzle buff and keen cruciverbalist and so he enjoyed detective fiction out of professional and personal interest. He was the rare critic who affected the craft and genre of the material he was reviewing, formulating rules to optimise the stories’ interactivity. He recognised that detective novels and short stories allowed readers to engage actively with the text as if it were a puzzle for them to solve along with or ahead of the detective. I suspect that’s because a detective story is by nature its own incomplete narrative whose details are offered to us out of order and often partially, so the instinct within us to form a narrative or solve a problem drives us to work as sleuths ourselves. Stories with such a fragmentary structure naturally appeal to the Modernists, whose own texts resemble a complex palimpsest of meaning layered together for the reader to reconstruct, even in cases where there are definitive answers.
I’ve always liked the idea of artists who work as critics. I believe that critical work is itself a form of expression akin to creativity and I wish more professional critics, be they tenured academics, newspaper reviewers or YouTube people with a Patreon, had the means to produce creative works. Eliot’s work in each field informed the other and he showed that it’s quite possible to do great work in both disciplines. I find it interesting that authors’ creative work tends to outlast their critical work. There’s a lesson to be learned there, I think.
I seem to recall Alex mentioning the Victorian interest in the occult when he taught me when I was in Second Year (though bear in mind that this was three years ago). He gave lectures on The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, who was indeed a strange man. I remember hearing about his lifestyle, which was alternative, by our standards as well as by the Victorians’. He took a lot of opium to help with his gout and that became an addiction, during which he wrote The Moonstone. He was consequently familiar with altered states of consciousness, which feature prominently. Eliot admired Collins and wrote about him and Dickens. His own works treat of cyclical mythologies, which remind me of Jung’s collective consciousness. The connections between the two are subtle but quite natural. I’m eager to read more work in this vein.
As I hope you can see, I really enjoyed this seminar and I’m really looking forward to the next one!