The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, January 27, 2017

The "Villain Protagonist": Richelieu in "The Red Sphinx."

So, I'm slowly reading Alexander Dumas's The Red Sphinx, which is being touted as a sequel to The Three Musketeers. It isn't exactly; it takes place within days of the conclusion to The Three Musketeers, but other than the figures of the court, so far (I'm a quarter of the way through), the only character from Dumas's great classic who reappears is Cardinal Richelieu. And so far, this is Richelieu's novel.

In the earlier novel, Richelieu is ruthless, sometimes outright cruel, but with one great virtue that the narrative (and several of the "white hats") readily grant him: he's the one adult in the room, protecting and fostering the developement of France as a major power. At one point, Louis XIII even rhetorically describes the Cardinal M. De Treville (Captain of the Musketeers), "he who watches while I sleep, who labors while I amuse myself, who conducts everything at home and abroad . . . I speak of the prop of the state, of my only servant, of my only friend--of the cardinal." (Ch. 6). Much of The Three Musketeers is spent in casting Richelieu as both a great man and as a villain. Someone to be opposed, but not always, to be admired, intermittently, but never entirely to be trusted.

In The Red Sphinx, there are two viewpoint characters: the Count de Moret (the illegitimate brother to Louis XIII) and Richelieu himself. Richelieu schemes in this novel, but solely for the good of France, and against the schemers who would weaken the nation to serve their own loyalties: Anne of Austria, Marie de Medici, the King's own mother, and Gaston d'Orleans, his epicene, treacherous, legitimate brother, to name but a few.

In point of fact, I can't help but suspect that the showrunners of the BBC's recent series The Musketeers(2014-2016) were familiar with The Red Sphinx; all of these tropes surface in the series. Richelieu thwarts Marie de Medici's machinations, Gaston sleazes around the palace trying to seize the throne. Richelieu has an intensely romantic, though chaste, relationship with a much younger woman he thinks of as his niece. (Neither chaste nor niece in The Musketeers.) There's even a parallel to the scene I've placed at the top of this post. Richelieu spares a woman sentenced to die, sequestered in a convent, in order to benefit from her knowledge. In The Red Sphinx, though, the Cardinal saves her from the cell in which she is immured, tortured by the nuns and the priests who supervise the convent (who believe her guilty of a terrible crime).

In The Red Sphinx, though, Richelieu saves the woman from degradation (she has been imprisoned for 9 years, her clothes have shredded to rags and not been replaced by her jailers, so she is naked in an unseated cell, summer an winter). And the threats he makes to the Mother Superior of the convent when she tries to resist his orders that the woman be clothed, warmed, and fed--yes, there is a resemblance to his bearing in that scene from The Musketeers. He even thinks to himself that God has never been more with him than at this moment.

Except Richelieu is right. He is serving God and France in this moment. The Master of Realpolitik is moved, though it serves his policy to be.

For Dumas, Richelieu is a complex figure--he is capable of warmth and frigidity, he can be a villain at times, but he serves a higher purpose. Rather like Gene Hackman's Little Bill Daggett in Unforgiven, Richelieu is a character whose heroism (or villainy) is unstable--you can tell either story with Daggett or Richelieu as the hero or the villain; twist the kaleidoscope, and the entire picture, and its meaning, changes.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A Grace Note

Getting on for 14 years ago, in the big Northeastern blackout, I broke the little finger of my right hand. (After a late afternoon and early evening of navigating the City, first up to West 48th Street from lower Manhattan--I needed to pick up two people stranded up there--and then back down when it became clear I could not get more gas (pumps were down), and couldn't try to get out of the City, after finally parking as night fell, I tripped over a tree pit. Awesome!) Anyway, since then, the finger has been curled and stiff, painful and useless. It has also, I suspect, contributed to the pain in that hand that has intensified in the past two years.

The last few weeks have been especially bad for that hand, and it had finally reached the point where even I accepted I needed medical care. The little finger had a sick-making feeling of being unattached somewhere, and I was distinctly nervous. As I sat up in the apse today, I became aware of something: my whole hand was flat on the arm of my seat.

Including the little finger.

Astonished, I flexed the hand. Lots of crunchy noises, what I suspect is a nasty case of crepitus. But also my little finger was moving of my volition, responsive again to my impulses, and nearly straight again. After many long years, I am finally healing from an injury from which I long despaired of seeing any improvement.

I still need to see a doctor, of course--the rest of the aches and crepitus is still there, and even the little finger is hurting at the end of the day. But it flexes, grips (weakly, but still), and is back. Even my despair and neglect over that injury couldn't prevent healing, however long it takes.

Even old hurts, long accepted and adjusted to, need not be with us for life.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"My Baker Street Boys": Magical Realism & Sherlock Holmes

"I know you two. And if I'm gone, I know what you could become, because I know who you really are: a junky who solves crimes to get high, and the doctor who never came home from the war. Will you listen to me? Who you really are, it doesn't matter. It's all about the legend, the stories, the adventures. There is a last refuge for the desperate, the unloved, the persecuted. There is a final court of appeal for everyone. When life gets too strange, too impossible, too frightening, there is always one last hope. When all else fails, there are two men sitting arguing in a scruffy flat like they've always been there, and they always will. The best and wisest men I have ever known, the Baker Street boys, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson."


We begin with Vincent Starrett:

Here dwell together still two men of note
Who never lived and so can never die:
How very near they seem, yet how remote
That age before the world went all awry.
But still the game's afoot for those with ears
Attuned to catch the distant view-halloo:
England is England yet, for all our fears—
Only those things the heart believes are true.

A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane
As night descends upon this fabled street:
A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,
The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.
Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always eighteen ninety-five.


From The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes: "But there can be no grave for Sherlock Holmes or Watson … Shall they not always live on Baker Street? Are they not there this instant, as one writes? … Outside, the hansoms rattle through the rain, and Moriarty plans his latest devilry. Within, the sea-coal flames upon the hearth, and Holmes and Watson take their well-won ease … So they still live for all that love them well: in a romantic chamber of the heart: in a nostalgic country of the mind: where it is always 1895."
That's one thread of the closing montage's narration given to the deceased Mary Watson (Amanda Abbington). The other part--Mary's loving characterization of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson as "the best and wisest men I have ever known"--is an expansion of Watson's epitaph of Holmes from Doyle's own The Final Problem.

So we end with a commingling of Doyle's own words with the insight from one of the first great fans, and reach an endpoint. It'd be tempting to reduce that ending to ""Print the legend," but that'd be facile and false. No, it's an acknowledgement that we, as Mary tells us, need the legend, need Sherlock Holmes. Even now, in 2017.

The thing to remember about both Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss is that they are both writers, first and foremost. And geeks, too. Gatiss has written 8 novels and a biography of James Whale; Moffat has written sitcoms, science fiction teleplays and series, and comics. In all of his writing, Moffat has explored the lies we tell ourselves and others, and the importance of what Strindberg called the "life lie."

A common complaint regarding this last (I think) season of Sherlock is put best by Sophie Gilbert in the Atlantic, who wrote that "season four’s three episodes have doubled down, focusing largely on the tribulations of the show’s main characters and nodding only occasionally at intriguing puzzles."

Except that's never been what drove Sherlock, either Conan Doyle's character or Moffat & Gatiss's revival. Conan Doyle started with a brilliant, compelling teacher, and dropped him into came fiction. But unlike Agatha Christie and her peers, Arthur Conan Doyle had a very limited interest in mysteries, and none in "playing the game" with the reader. Take Doyle's "The Final Problem" itself. There is no mystery or puzzle to solve at all; Holmes tells Watson about the "Napoleon of Crime," informs his friend that he must flee while the police wrap up the case, the two head for the Continent, and Watson is lured away, only to discover that Holmes has killed and been killed by Moriarty. That's it. The whole point of the story is to put Holmes in a no-win scenario, and give him a death worthy of Skarp-hedin. It's about the sensation, the legend, as Mary says, not the mystery. This is more common in the Holmes canon than you might think. Of the 12 stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, three--"A Scandal in Bohemia," "The Speckled Band," and "the Five Orange Pips" come with the antagonist pre-identified--Irene Adler and Dr. Grimebsy Roylott--are identified by the client, and Holmes knows the Ku Klux Klan is the antagonist from the eponymous orange pips. There is no mystery. In at least two of the other stories--"The Man with the Twisted Lip" and "The Beryl Coronet," the mystery is wafer thin, placed for the character beats, and to let Holmes show off. In "The Blue Carbuncle," the main point is to have a Christmas story in which Holmes "compounds a felony" by showing mercy. That's half of one of what are widely considered to be the two best Holmes books.

And you can't complain about Moffat and Gatiss adding action sequences at 221B (The Empty House, anyone?), or at Sherringford, for that matter, unless you want to explain how they're ridiculous, while Holmes and Watson involved in a nighttime boat chase, their guns blazing away at a pigmy whose blowing curare tipped darts out of a blow pipe at them.

You heard me. A sodding blow pipe, with curare tipped darts. That's not an "intriguing puzzle," it's next door to Dr. Evil.

What there is instead is magical reason, a universe in which the extraordinary can break into the ordinary, and Holmes, a rationalistic wizard, alone (well, other than Mycroft. And Irene Adler) can interpret the signs and make sense of it all. The impossible plot twists (pro tip: If you want to kill the woman in the adjoining bedroom, probably sending a snake into the ventilation shaft is not the most efficient plan. Nor is sending a luminescent dog out onto the moors the best way to kill that healthy young baronet.

In Doyle's "Final Problem" and "Scandal in Bohemia," the emotional reality of Holmes's valiant end and his . . . whatever he feels for Irene are the main point. they're arc stories, moving Holmes beyond where we first meet him.

And that's what Moffat and Gatiss go for. The mythological moment. The emotional logic, not the real mundane world of cause and effect. What can force Mycroft to show his love for his brother, and compel Sherlock to deduce it? What can make Sherlock into the good man Greg Lestrade thought he might one day be? Euros; the East Wind, that's what.

I'm not urging you to like it if you don't. Just understand, the link between Doyle and his modern day successors is straighter and more solid than so-called purists might like to admit.

I'll miss Sherlock, if this is indeed goodbye.

Still, over 4 seasons, two talented writers and two talented actors (with able support from an excellent supporting cast) got to play with the legend to see if its mythic qualities could work in our pixel-driven world.

More often than not, they pulled it off.

If it be forever, fare thee well, Sherlock!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

At The Threshold: A Sermon on John 1: 29-42, Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, January 15, 2017

So John the Baptist sees the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove, tells this to the crowd, and then tells them all that Jesus is the lamb of God. The next day, as Jesus walks by him, John calls out “Behold, the lamb of God!” (I know, the NRSV says, “look here is the lamb of God!” but c’mon. If anyone in the whole Bible cries out for the King James treatment, it’s John the Baptist.)

Anyway, John tells everyone who will listen to him that Jesus is the one who was before him, even though he came after him, has had the Holy Spirit descend upon him, and so he—Jesus, that is--baptizes with the Holy Spirit—oh, and that he is the lamb of God.

I mean, have you ever seen anybody with less brand awareness than John the Baptist?

Of course Andrew deserts John for Jesus. Lots of people do. John has rendered himself obsolete.

For those who believed John was a prophet, well, the greater your faith in John, the more imperative it is to ditch John for Jesus. Even if you don’t know what the Lamb of God means exactly, it’s a pretty good bet that it beats hanging around in the desert eating locusts with a side of wild honey.

So they all leave John behind.

Just like that.

In Luke’s Gospel, after John has been imprisoned, Jesus asks the crowd that has left John for him “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” (Lk: 7-24-26). He then tells them that “among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

Well, what does that mean?

It means that John is a liminal figure—a man who stands between what is, and what is to be. A liminal person is someone on the threshold, not fully part of the past or of the future. The Jesus Movement that John points to is not what he expects. Jesus is surprising; as Matthew Moretz reminded us just a few weeks ago, “John began with God’s judgment and then proclaimed God’s mercy. This is a great start, but Jesus goes directly to the love of God.”

Jesus surpasses John, displaying more compassion than his stern predecessor, more love, and the world has never been the same.

Thing is, John saw it coming.

Oh, not the details. He didn’t know what was coming, just that something big was coming, and that his part in it was to stand on the threshold and open the door to it.

But John is not of the Jesus Movement. He doesn’t follow Jesus, he points to him, and then he fades from history. He is imprisoned, he is put to death. But even before those things happen, he travels about, pointing to his successor, “Behold the lamb of God!” Opening the door to the new thing is worth John’s life.

John’s entire ministry is about making himself obsolete. He points beyond himself to Jesus. He points to the man who takes his good idea—helping people to accept the forgiveness of God by acknowledging their guilt and symbolically washing away their sins—and transforms it into something far more real and life changing.

John points away from himself. But today I think we could use another look at him. Because we are in a time of transition ourselves.
Transitions are hard. We see it all around us. Transitions bring to light divisions that have been papered over for a long time—don’t tell anyone, but I kinda still miss the pews.

But transitions also can reveal to us that our ideas, our ways of seeing the world, don’t describe it in a meaningful way anymore.

It doesn’t mean that they were wrong when we first found them. Dean William Inge once wrote that “It is the tendency of all symbols to petrify or evaporate, and either process is fatal to them.”[1]

A symbol—or a word—petrifies when we begin to confuse the image with the greater reality it stands for. So we begin by using a metaphor to capture an experience, or an insight, but then we begin to treat the metaphor as fact, not an image. As Inge says, “when we think of time as a piece cut off from the beginning of eternity, so that eternity is only in the future and not in the present; when we think of heaven as a place somewhere else, and therefore not here; when we think of an upper ideal world which has sucked all the life out of this, so that we now walk in a vain shadow,—then we are paying the penalty for our symbolical representative methods of thought.”[2]

A symbol evaporates when the common experience the symbol is based on no longer makes sense to us. Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan needs to be explained, because we don’t live in a culture where we all can just know that a Samaritan must be despicable. If anything, the parable is so well known that we start off already liking the Samaritan.

Or think of Jesus describing the Last Judgment as God separating the sheep from the goats. What’s so bad about the poor old goats, anyway?

Ideas are like symbols. They can petrify or evaporate. They can become so familiar that they lose their resonance. People have heard them so often that they become meaningless.

Or the messengers have been caught not living up to their ideals so often that the ideals are dismissed as hypocrisy. And trust dies. Anger builds.

We’re in a time where faith in just about all of our institutions is falling.[3] We’ve just come through a bitter election, and are about to enter a new political era. I think it’s fair to say that the tensions revealed by the election have not been eased.

Belief in religious institutions of all kinds is is falling.[4] And we Episcopalians have heard all too often that the path of our church is a spiral of terminal decline.

Yet here we all are, worshipping God in community together.

And I’m going to suggest to you that right there, that is a hint to us in how to react to our times.

Right now, we are living through a liminal time.

We’re waiting at the end of a comfortable phase in the history of the Church, wondering what comes next.

We’re waiting for the next thing in our culture, in our society, wondering what comes next.

Will our institutions—spiritual, cultural, political—regain the trust they have lost?

What comes next?

I don’t know, and, frankly, I don’t think anyone does know.

There’s a lot of talk among traditionalist Christians of The Benedict Option". The idea, named after St. Benedict of Nursia, who founded the Benedictine order, is that modern society and culture are so contrary to the good life as envisioned in Christian tradition that Christians need to intentionally build communities in which the values we hold dear, the traditions that shape us, are shared and practiced.

I’m not ashamed to borrow a good idea from our more conservative brothers and sisters. But frankly, it sounds a bit like the St. Barts Option to me. The Eucharist and Evening Prayer are available throughout the week, Morning Prayer on Saturday, Bible study, and adult education offerings. We have active children, youth and family ministries, too.

My point is not to give a St. Barts infomercial, but to suggest that the Benedict Option is an intentional way of being the Church in the modern world. Like John the Baptist, we need to take the next right step. We gather together every week. We pray. We learn, we encourage each other.

And that it’s a good part of an answer to times of transition and uncertainty.

But not the whole answer.

We act. We can give of our time and treasure to our best to serve those Jesus called us to serve: The poor, the hungry, the persecuted. The stranger.

In our daily lives, we often get in a rut. I can’t help but think of Anne Herbert who urged people to “practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty" in the 1980s. I can think of worse things to do in a liminal time.

All of that sounds like I’m saying “keep on keeping on.” And, yes, that’s a big part of what I am saying. But there’s one last piece.

Yes, the world is scary and unsettled.

No, we don’t know what’s coming next.

But listen for what’s coming. New, fresh symbols will replace the dead ones. New, fresh ideas will replace the petrified ones. As a mentor of mine likes to paraphrase St. Ignatius, every time of desolation is followed by one of consolation. We’re just in the middle times, on the threshold.

But as one phase of the dance to the music of time ends, another begins. God is with us always, not just yesterday, but today, and, even more importantly, tomorrow. If we listen, if we keep our hearts calm and receptive, when the next phase of the dance, we’ll hear the music change.

And then we can say, “yes.”

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.



[1] W.R. Inge, Christian Mysticism (1899), at p. 5
[2] Id.
[3]Gallup, “Confidence in Institutions,” June 2016, archived at
[4]Pew Research Center, Nov. 3, 2015, “U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious,” archived at

Thursday, January 12, 2017

One Last Time...

So President Obama had one last Presidential Medal of Freedom to bestow. It does my heart good to see that it went to Vice President Joe Biden. Aside from inspiring the Onion's single best meme, Biden has a decency and an openness that actually drew people into the Obama coalition. My mother--no Democrat--voted for Obama in '08 because Biden's presence on the ticket convinced her that Obama would surround himself with good people.

Seriously, Biden has been a consequential Vice President, but even more, he has been the uncle America needed through this tough, divisive time.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A Note on The Lying Detective

I confess that I loved it, in a way I didn't love The Six Thatchers The plot's a bit ropey, but Moffatt quite cleverly used it to excavate the characters' being forced to confront their own inner demons. Sherlock as addict worked for me here, even as he gave himself over to his addiction to pay some of his debt to Mary (and let go of his sobriety at the same time).

Some of the ropiness is, I think, the fact that this season instead of subverting the Conan Doyle stories, they're using them as frames, but telling them straight--not true in prior series, where die hard Holmesians get jiu-jitsued by Moffatt and Gatiss using our knowledge of the stories against us. But this retelling of The Dying Detective is actually pretty close to the original.

What makes it worthwhile are the beats between John and Sherlock, especially after Culverton Smith begins his interminable confession. John's passionate anger at Sherlock refusing to accept and act on his attraction to Irene Adler, swiftly followed by John's confession to Sherlock and Mary of his faithlessness to Mary (Amanda Abbingdon plays Mary's response perfectly), and then Sherlock's embrace of John--it's as close as this show comes to Holmes's reaction to Watson's getting shot in The Three Garridebs:
You're not hurt, Watson? For God's sake, say that you are not hurt!'

It was worth a wound -- it was worth many wounds -- to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain.
And, just as Gatiss's script from the Hounds of Baskerville was an improved version of his PROBE script Unnatural Selection (no, really) so too in the cliffhanger, Moffatt here reworks his cliffhanger ending from Jekyll.