The Story Behind "A Detective Story"

Here it is, the second episode of The Endless Knot YouTube series, and the second part of the "Ways of Knowing" miniseries that starts off my new channel:

This video has a long history for me. I first wrote this up as a blog post on my old blog -- you can now read it here on my new blog. The text of the video is pretty much the same with only some minor revisions and additions. But the idea started years before that in a course I was teaching aimed at first-year university students which focused on literature in the context of the arts and humanities. (It was intended for students who were not English majors.) I decided to take the approach of trying to demonstrate the cultural network that underlies all of western literature, that nothing existed in a vacuum, and that all of history, art, culture, philosophy, and science are inextricably linked. In order to understand the literary texts in the course, we have to examine the world that produced them in all its interconnected complexity. As it turns out, two of the works I decided to include in this course were the 14th century Arthurian romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Sherlock Holmes short story “A Scandal in Bohemia”. In my final, half-improvised lecture to my students, I outlined this connection, which touched on several of the texts and historical contexts we had examined in the course. The point was (and is) that all these things are connected one way or another and to study any one of them inevitably leads to an unending trail of connections.

For those unfamiliar with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain is one of the knight's of King Arthur's Round Table, and also Arthur's nephew. While Gawain was one of the most important knight's and instrumental in the denouement of the Arthurian story, this particular poem was, as far as we know, obscure in its own day, existing in only one manuscript, and only came to wider attention in more recent times. It's now highly celebrated as one of the finest Arthurian poems of its kind.

In any case, it's from this Gawain connection that I get that I get the name the Endless Knot, and the image I use in the logo. I saw this endless knot image from Gawain as an idea expression of the interconnectedness of things, and it was also a nice parallel with heptagram which which shows the interconnected elements of cognitive science:

Transient
Transient


I liked this idea of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a detective story (not original to me), and wanted to push it to its limits, and furthermore try and connect it with Sherlock Holmes, who is also notable for his interconnected thinking. Here's the fuller passage from the story "A Scandal in Bohemia" which I quote at the beginning of the video:

"Wedlock suits you," he remarked. "I think, Watson, that you have put on seven and a half pounds since I saw you."
"Seven!" I answered.
"Indeed, I should have thought a little more. Just a trifle more, I fancy, Watson. And in practice again, I observe. You did not tell me that you intended to go into harness."
"Then, how do you know?"
"I see it, I deduce it. How do I know that you have been getting yourself very wet lately, and that you have a most clumsy and careless servant girl?"
"My dear Holmes," said I, "this is too much. You would certainly have been burned, had you lived a few centuries ago. It is true that I had a country walk on Thursday and came home in a dreadful mess, but as I have changed my clothes I can't imagine how you deduce it. As to Mary Jane, she is incorrigible, and my wife has given her notice, but there, again, I fail to see how you work it out."
He chuckled to himself and rubbed his long, nervous hands together.
"It is simplicity itself," said he; "my eyes tell me that on the inside of your left shoe, just where the firelight strikes it, the leather is scored by six almost parallel cuts. Obviously they have been caused by someone who has very carelessly scraped round the edges of the sole in order to remove crusted mud from it. Hence, you see, my double deduction that you had been out in vile weather, and that you had a particularly malignant bootslitting specimen of the London slavey. As to your practice, if a gentleman walks into my rooms smelling of iodoform, with a black mark of nitrate of silver upon his right forefinger, and a bulge on the right side of his top-hat to show where he has secreted his stethoscope, I must be dull, indeed, if I do not pronounce him to be an active member of the medical profession."
I could not help laughing at the ease with which he explained his process of deduction. "When I hear you give your reasons," I remarked, "the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours."
"Quite so," he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. "You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room."
"Frequently."
"How often?"
"Well, some hundreds of times."
"Then how many are there?"
"How many? I don't know."
"Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed."

With only the start and end point it's hard to see the connections, which was the effect I was trying to create here. The other element of Sherlockian thinking that underlies all this is the mind palace technique, or as Holmes himself calls it the "brain-attic", a well-ordered mental storehouse. The recent BBC adaptation Sherlock makes much of this, with a visually compelling representation on screen.

Transient

This originally comes from an ancient Greek and Roman idea, also important during the middle ages, and is also known as the memory theatre or method of loci. Basically the idea is you associate the new things you want to remember with a place you already know well, such as your house. As you move through the familiar space in your mind's eye, you remember the associations more easily. You use your spatial cognition, which is a very fundamental human faculty, to help you think about more abstract and unfamiliar things. And that's also kind of what's going on here with this web of connections I've laid out in the video. For more on this sort of thing, have a look at Maria Konnikova's book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, which explores various aspects of Holmes's though process and psychology, or my own brief comments on the "doorway effect" on memory.

Here are a last few links for further reading if you feel so inclined. You can read Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" here, or better yet you can listen to a wax cylinder recording of the poet himself reading it here. Amazing that we have a recording of Tennyson himself! You can read the Mary Seacole references from Punch magazine, including the poem "A Stir for Seacole" (to be sung to the tune of "Old King Cole"), here, and you can read Seacole's own autobiography here.

Comments and questions are most welcome and appreciated.