Postmodern Mysteries: Hawksmoor Reviewed

Ackroyd, Peter. Hawksmoor. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Where to begin with this one. How about a summary, I can do that:

Around 1711–1715, London architect Nicholas Dyer is building seven churches. The churches are all being built on various ancient sites around London—places where there are plague pits, ancient cemeteries, or the remains of older churches, both Christian and pagan, because in those spots there is “an Assembling of Powers” (p. 23). Dyer follows a sort of pantheistic syncretic religious tradition that, for reasons that aren’t completely revealed, requires someone to die at the site of each of his churches. In one case, the problem is solved by the son of a stonemason falling off the scaffolding; in other cases, Dyer murders someone and buries them on the site or leaves their body there to be found later.

In the twentieth century (no date is given, but it’s presumed to be modern times, i.e. 1985 or so), Nicholas Hawksmoor is investigating a series of murders at a bunch of London churches. All the murder victims have the same names as those killed by Dyer—and that’s not the only similarity. For example, Dyer’s assistant is Walter Pyne and Hawksmoor’s is Walter Payne. Bits of rhymes survive across the centuries to be recollected dimly by various characters. And of course, the places that the characters visit are basically the same—London is, after all, a very old city.

To add somewhat to the confusion, there actually was an eighteenth-century architect named Nicholas Hawksmoor, who worked (as Dyer does) under Sir Christopher Wren and built several (six)[1] churches in London in the early eighteenth century, and his churches were mentioned in From Hell as being symbolic of a weird, pantheistic (in that book, Masonic) tradition.[2]

The book alternates between the first person recounting of Dyer—written in a very credible eighteenth-century English—and a twentieth century omniscient narrator. Thus although the death happens before the end of the first chapter, we don’t actually meet Hawksmoor until almost halfway through, which in a traditional mystery novel would be quite odd. It does make it much easier to sympathize with Dyer as a character over Hawksmoor, who remains aloof.

Hawksmoor has been seen as a postmodern novel by critics (though not specifically by its author, evidently) and has won a lot of awards. The book itself is steeped in symbolism and has attracted a lot of notice from academics. I found it interesting intellectually, but I didn’t feel any real emotional pull. The parallels between the eighteenth century and twentieth century start to make the two parts kind of repetitive and predictable. I enjoyed parts of it, and I like the idea a lot, but I don’t think I really liked the book all that much.

One major theme in the novel is the “battle” between chaos and rationalism, with Dyer and his ilk representing chaos and Sir Christopher Wren and the Royal Society. The 1700s were the beginning of the Enlightenment, and Wren argues that people are beginning to look at the world rationally. Dyer, on the other hand, sees the myriad ways in which people are terrible to each other, wrapped up in superstitions, uneducated, stupid, willfully blind to the truth, and sees the world as being on an unalterable downward spiral. The assumption of the book is that in the twentieth century, Wren’s rationality has won (represented, for example, by Walter Payne’s computerization of police work), but Dyer’s chaos echoes through in the churches (and certainly touches Hawksmoor, who begins to descend into madness during the course of his investigation). I am not sure what the conclusion is, who Ackroyd thinks has won; probably a case could be made for either. For my part, looking at the world today I am pretty sure chaos is winning—people are still controlled by superstitions, which they spend immense amounts of time arguing about and even killing each other over; politicians are controlled by corporations instead of listening to their constituents; we’re unwilling to treat other people like human beings on the most specious of characteristics—race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion or lack thereof—one would think, in a civilized world, we wouldn’t need laws to tell people to treat each other nicely, it should be common sense. Americans are more willing to give up their lives than to admit that global warming is happening and have to give up their lifestyle. In short, things are pretty bleak.[3]

And yet. As much as I am convinced that this is a crappy time of human history to be alive, this book reassures me that between the plague and the London fire, the admission of tourists to see the madmen housed at Bedlam, to say nothing of the French Revolution (not mentioned in the book but a prominent event of the eighteenth century nevertheless), every time of human history has always been a crappy time to be alive.[4]

A slightly more optimistic ending that I wrote and couldn’t decide what to do with:

If you read the footnotes, you’ll see I referenced Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, who was a blood libel martyr—that is, in around 1255 CE, he was found dead in a well, and someone claimed he had been killed by Jews;[5] as a result of this and some other political factors relating to the collection of taxes from Jews, ninety Jews were arrested and eighteen were hanged.

Seven hundred years later, in 1955, the Anglican Church put up a plaque apologizing for the whole thing. While seven hundred years is certainly a long time to wait to issue an apology, it’s a start. I’m still pretty sure we’re doomed, but, eh.

[1] Interestingly, six of the churches named in the book are real and were built by the historical Hawksmoor; the seventh, the church of Little St. Hugh, is named for a blood libel “martyr” (entirely appropriate for this book).

[2] That’s not to cast aspersions of any sort on the real Hawksmoor, just to note that this book was an influence on Alan Moore.

[3] Alternative sound track suggestion.

[4] I hear there were some days in 1962 that were pretty nice (somewhat dependant on where you were living).

[5] Typically, blood libel accusations included Jews killing Christian children and, in an ironic communion-like twist, using their blood to make matzos.

Em oi! #405: Philosophy Ruins Films


Well hello. It has been a while since we had one of these little chats, hasn’t it? I’ve been reading a lot, but not blogging too much beyond book reviews. So you’re probably asking, “Hey Em, how’s it going?”

It has been all right. Not great, not amazing, but also it’s going much better than it was in January. I went through a rough patch between seasonal affective disorder and a leg injury. The first was solved with phototherapy, the second with PT, which is just about finished. PT has been a strange collection of triggerpoint dry needling (which is not super pleasant, and the alcohol wipes are giving me a rash) and various exercises and stretches designed to 1) make you feel inadequate when you realize how many of them you keep forgetting to do and 2) fix whatever imbalance exists in my hip that is hurting my ankle. In the meantime I spent a lot of time swimming in January when I was totally off running, and then running only on the dreadmill and elliptical in February—I’ve been doing about 24 miles on the dreadmill and close to that on the elliptical as well. I’ve also been lifting weights a lot; since early September, B and I have switched to a 5×5 program which is a lot more intense than our previous 3×10-type program. My lifts have gone up a lot, which is very satisfying, but I’ve also put on some pounds of muscle and so my bra no longer fits right.* The best news is that as of tomorrow I am encouraged to try running outside again; if everything goes well, I may be able to show up to race the 50-Furlong World Championship in Paoli on Saturday. I doubt I am in condition to defend my title as 8th fastest woman in the world at that distance, but it would be really nice to race again.

What else have I been doing? Learning to code. As in write computer programs. So far if you want a program that spits out a triangle (right or equilateral) in ASCII or that curses at you in a variable way based on your input, I am your programmer. Actually, I have to admit that this is my second attempt at learning to code. When I was an undergraduate, I took the introduction to programming course the UW offered (which is taught in Java). Now I am learning Caché ObjectScript, which is a much less well-known language, but it is easier in part because B is teaching me, and it turns out that he is a much better teacher than the grad student (who may have been a forestry major?) they had teaching the intro class when I took it. B is a good teacher; it’s also convenient to have my professor on site rather than inaccessible except by email sometimes. I may also be a better student now.

Well let’s not go overboard on that.

I’ve also been learning indexing. And Chinese. And editing a bunch of books (I did three full-length manuscripts, on ancient Athens, moral philosophy, and sociology, from the first week of February until last Friday the 7th of March). In other words I have been busy, not sleeping enough, unable to find time to do the things I enjoy or see my friends much, and basically acting like I’ve not developed any coping skills since college. But things will get better now.

A note on podcasts and the like. A bunch of people gave me recommendations, many of which have been very satisfying. The Hound Tall Podcast (formally The Hound Tall Discussion Series with Moshe Kasher) is very funny and a lot more Jew-y than Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me (I recommend the George Clinton interview if you haven’t heard it yet). Of course the Ultrarunner Podcast is a good way to keep up with a sport that no one follows but me; my new goal is to get interviewed on there, since I’ll probably never get on Fresh Air. Also, the Moth Radio Hour has some very good stories–also some gutting ones, so do be careful. Finally, John Harris’s excellent podcast/audiobook of The Epic of Gilgamesh was both exciting and intellectually stimulating. I may or may not have time to do a whole review, but in the meantime, it’s highly recommended.

I’m filing this comic under PN1995.9 S695 L86 2015, for Drama–Motion pictures–Other special topics, A-Z–Star Wars films.

*If you are reading this and saying, “Wait, you only own one?”, I will tell you: You obviously don’t know me. Ninety percent of the shirts I now own came from races. I am not an enthusiastic shopper.