Imagine a reinvented canon of fine arts: Sculpture; film; photography; literature; murder. That is the premise of this very amusing essay from 1827; appearing in Blackwood’s Magazine, an anonymous source is attempting to expose, by making their annual lecture public, a secret society whose aim and ambition is the appreciation of fine murders throughout history. The speaker is a self-confessed ‘interested amateur’.
I raced through this witty little pamphlet. Like Swift’s A Modest Proposal or a genuine Orwellian doublethink expert, it works by compounding masterfully backwards logic. Of course, so the speaker says, any philosopher worth their salt should have an attempt made on their life, and so therefore “against Locke’s philosophy I think it an unanswerable objection that, although he carried his throat about with him for seventy-two years, no one ever condescended to cut it”. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, and within the first few pages white is black and black is white.
My favourite part of ‘On murder’ was the speaker’s justification for contemplating murder as a fine art.
“Everything in this world has two handles. Murder, for instance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle, (as it generally is in the pulpit, or the Old Bailey;) and that, I confess, is it’s weak side; or it may be treated aesthetically, as the Germans call it, that is, in relation to good taste.”
Essentially, he says, now it’s done don’t worry about it. Instead “make the best of a bad matter” and consider if it was a ‘good one’.
In fact, a good murder is, the lecturer suggests, deeply kathartic; “the final purpose of murder, considered as a fine art, is precisely the same as that of Tragedy, in Aristotle’s account of it, viz ‘to cleanse the heart by means of pity and terror’.”
This amusing tone, nicely balanced between earnestness and self-awareness, continues throughout. In describing the first murder, Cain’s of Abel with a stone, he notes how Milton improved on it aesthetically in his later retelling (see Paradise Lost, book XI): “the rudeness of the weapon, unless raised and enriched by a warm sanguinary colouring, has too much of the naked air of the savage school.”
There are also little asides throughout, keeping the audience’s reaction in view – “(Here there was a general buzz, which at length broke out into open applause; upon which the lecturer blushed, and went on with much earnestness.)” – which break up the lecturer’s monologue.
Further, being purportedly an academic lecture, the (real) author (Thomas de Quincey) has filled it to the brim with citations and classical references. The lecture closes with a reference to Horace, the lecturer emphasising his amateur, facilitative attitude to murder:
fungar vice cotis, acutum / Reddere quae ferrum valet, exsors ipsa secandi. [‘I’ll play the part of a whetstone, which sharpens iron, but is itself unable to cut.’]
That this cross-referencing is done slightly to excess should be no surprise, and adds to the comedy.
If I have one slight criticism, the joke doesn’t quite have the legs to fill the space allotted to it. I was hoping for, and expecting, some properly in-depth analysis of what makes a really excellent murder, and instead we only get a brief description of the best kind of person to murder. This section slightly slips over into the obvious, barbarous territory you’d expect from a lecture on this subject. For example it is apparently better, though not essential, if the murdered person has a whole family of dependants. The rest of the lecture avoids this but it rather spoils the irony.
In fact, this is an area of the pamphlet where one would expect to find the most carefully thought-out arguments, underpinned by a mainstream, if exaggerated, political philosophy. Instead the lecture focuses more about witty skirmishes and half-told stories; without the weight of a strong underpinning value set; it ultimately feels a tad superficial.
PS A more sustained satire which springs to mind is the incredible Postmodern Pooh by Frederick Crews. Each chapter is given by a fictional academic, a specialist in a certain field of literary theory (feminism, postmodernism etc), who ingeneously and hilariously turns the characters of Winnie the Pooh to their own ideological ends.
PPS This is the fourth in my series of reviews and reflections on the Penguin Little Black Classics series. Each week I read a new one and post my thoughts on this blog. For the full list of posts, please click here.