Literary Lack of Logic


THERE is something quite striking in the occasional lapses of correct reasoning on the part of writers of no mean ability. At certain points the power of clear perception has apparently for a moment forsaken them. This may happen from various causes. It may come from carelessness. It may come from possible ignorance. It may come from sheer willfulness. What is here meant is best shown by examples.

In Mr. Reade’s novel of Foul Play the shipwrecked heroine, after her long abode on the desert island, comes bounding down to the shore to greet her father, who has arrived to rescue her, in her clean white dress. A lady friend of the contributor’s who was reading this story quietly looked up at this place and remarked, “ I wonder who her laundress was ! ” This was carelessness on Mr. Reade’s part. It was a lapse of the same kind when Coleridge wrote, —

“ The horned moon with one bright star
Within the nether tip.”

It was carelessness which made Poe cast the shadow of his raven on the floor, when the raven was sitting on the bust of Pallas just above the parlor door. Even the suggestion of a kindly critic that there was a transom and a hall-lamp in the second story will not overcome the optical difficulty.

It was probably ignorance when Poe in his Murders in the Rue Morgue made a point in the story turn upon the falling of a window-sash into place where it appears to he secured by a nail, the head of which is in fact broken off at the neck. The unraveler of the mystery dwells on the inefficiency of the police in overlooking this, thus emphasizing the point. Poe could not have known that such a window as he describes was not to be found in all Paris, or for that matter in all France. But it was a direct failure of the logical faculty, the more remarkable in a story of acute and wonderful analysis, when he represented the owner of the homicidal ape as looking in at the window from the point on a line with it where he hung on a lightning-rod. It is distinctly stated that the distance from the rod to the window-sill was too great for the sailor to reach from one to the other. The ape gained access to the room by swinging on a shutter, a Venetian blind, which he left standing out at a right angle to the wall. A moment’s thought, at least a moment’s experiment, will show the utter impossibility of looking into a room under such circumstances. The Sailor is too far at one side to reach the window by stretching out from the rod. He could only bend away from the wall at arm’s length. His head is at one angle of a right-angled triangle, of which the base represents his distance from the plane of the window, in which runs the perpendicular of the triangle, at least double in length to the base. In that case the hypothenuse will barely clear the sides of the window, and if, as in Paris is the case, the wall is a foot or more in thickness, will not enter the room at all. The interposing Venetian blind would also cut off the view if there were any.

To illustrate the share which willfulness has, one can hardly do better than to touch upon the anachronisms of Scott. These cannot he set down to ignorance of dates. Thus The Abbot is at least ten years beyond its real historical distance from the dates of The Monastery. If this concerned the hero alone it would not much matter, but it requires the advancement to middle life of Sir Halbert Glendinning, of Mary Avenel, of Edward, and of the Regent Murray. Murray was not forty at the date of his assassination. He appears at the head of the Scottish armies when Halbert is introduced to his notice and when the latter rescues the infant babe of Julian Avenel. This was after the Queen’s return to Scotland in ’61. For Murray to become the patron of Roland Avenel, when that youth could not well be less than eighteen, would bring Murray to an age at least ten years after the bullet of Bothwellhaugh had ended his career. Since Sir Walter was familiar with the dates of Scottish history, as his Tales of a Grandfather show, tins can only be set down to willfulness. Quite in keeping with this is the treatment of history in Ivanhoe. The clerk of Copmanhurst sings his jolly ballad in praise of the barefooted friar at a date when St. Francis of Assisi was just founding his order, and one must come down to the days of Chaucer to find any likeness to the picture in the ballad.

It may be said that fiction and poetry are not bound by the laws of logic. Nevertheless, it is not the modern style to be caught tripping. Perhaps, however, it is in grave history that the lapse of this faculty is most evident. No critic was more merciless to the fallacies of an opponent than Lord Macaulay, yet in spite of his omnivorous reading and magnificent memory he was not always sure. He sometimes let a safe general conclusion hurry him into false inferences in the details. He was probably right in considering Marlborough as a lover of money to a great and even criminal degree. That such was Churchill’s reputation in his own day is shown by the wellknown mot of Peterborough, when the mob, misled by the similarity of the coronets, attacked his carriage. “ My good fellows,” said he, “ I am not my Lord Marlborough, and I can prove it, to you in a moment. I have only five guineas, and here they are at your service.” The cheer of the crowd bore witness to the popular estimate.

This assurance of the general fact trapped Macaulay into unwary generalizing. Marlborough, he tells us, kept hoards of guineas in his drawers, which he was fond of counting and displaying. For this he gives a reference which I was led to look up. I found that the duke did once show to an acquaintance some twenty or thirty guineas put away in a writing-table, and said, “ I keep this sum just as it is, for it was the first money I ever earned.” If anything could redeem Marlborough’s reputation it would be this story. It proves that in one instance the duke was ready to sacrifice a considerable sum of money to a sentiment. The guineas ceased to be money. Since he would not spend them or part with them, they became a souvenir. Macaulay’s usually clear intellect missed a very plain distinction. Marlborough was avaricious, but not miserly. He would do much for money that better men would have turned from. But he was as far from the madness of men like Elwes and Dancer as he was in his military methods from the temper of Frederick William of Prussia, who hoarded up his high-priced battalion of giants, and shuddered at the thought of war. Marlborough did not hesitate to put troops into the field when a battle was to be won. And so, with an adequate end in view, thousands of gold pieces would have been spent with the same freedom as that with which he hurled his troopers upon the lines of Blenheim, or rallied them amid the deadly fire of Malplaquet.

There is another field wherein this failure of the logical faculty is even more frequent. It is doubtless because the feelings are more ardent, and foregone conclusions more prevailing. It is the field of Biblical criticism. It is a matter of conscience to sustain or to overthrow certain writings, and the fervor of conviction is often in ludicrous contrast to the poverty of proof. Dr. Schwegeler, the Tübingen critic, devised a neat and symmetrical theory of the origin of the New Testament writing. In dealing with the Pauline Epistles this forced him to reject that to the Lphesians, and he gives as a very Convincing reason that it was impossible for St. Paul after his long and loving service at Ephesus to write to that city without many personal greetings. This has weight to a modern scholar and divine who feels that he would surely have closed his letter with abundant messages of affection. But an examination of the whole body of the Pauline Epistles, and especially of those conceded as genuine by every critic, will show that the only cases where personal greetings are used are in letters to churches which St. Paul had never visited. The greatest number of these greetings is in the Epistle to the Romans, and there was a church to which St. Paul was personally a stranger, and where for him to write at all was a very daring venture. The inference then is that these greetings are not tokens of friendship, but are credentials. How they were to serve this end does not matter, since our knowledge of early Christian life is very meagre ; but one point is sure, and that is, they were not tokens of personal affection. St. Paul was equally dear to the churches at Corinth, at Philippi, and at Thessalonica, but there is no trace of these greetings in his letters to them.

While on this topic it is impossible to pass by the quaint explanation (in the interests of St. Peter’s primacy) of the presiding by St. James in the first General Council — the synod of Jerusalem. “ I suppose,” said the good brother, “ that Peter wanted to make a speech and so got James to take the chair.” It is refreshing to think that Cushing’s Manual, or at least the principles thereof, can boast so early and so honorable an origin.

Because of the failure of the logical faculty, a metaphor or simile will sometimes suggest the opposite of the intended meaning. Thus Longfellow’s

“ The day is done, and the darkness
Falls from the wings of night,
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight,”

almost impertinently thrusts upon one the sense of night’s flying away and leaving the darkness behind it, to the exclusion of the real thought, the descending, fluttering, feather-like fall of the evening gloom. So, too, in another charming lyric where he wrote, —

“ The past and present here unite
Beneath time’s flowing tide,
Like footsteps hidden by a brook,
But seen from either side.”

There is a suggestive beauty in the imagery which might almost condone the misapplication. But logic is pitiless, that the footsteps instead of being hidden are the one visible token that the pathway has come to the spot and gone further on. The associations and memories called up are vivid here at the scone, and fade away into dimness as one recedes. The imagery would befit a slumber or a trance which breaks the continuity of life, but here is just the opposite.

Neither Emerson, Whittier, nor Lowell would have written thus, though one may name other poems of Longfellow which not one of them could have written. The reason for this was, I think, that Longfellow was more exclusively and entirely literary, and that there is something in the pursuit of literature apart from other ends which is unfavorable to the logical faculty. Literature for itself alone to literature for a purpose is as composing a picture to the copying of nature. The artist who does the latter serves truth ; the one who attempts the former bids truth serve him. When he gets what he wants he is ever tempted to say, “ Go ! I don’t want you any longer.”