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Monday, September 12, 2011

Beauty's Order, Or, Why LOST Sometimes Was So Frustrating

Beauty—as we discussed last time in our Virtual Summer Circle of Thomistic Studies—has to do with the wholeness of a work of art. What does it mean for a work of art to be “whole.” It means the work has perfectly achieved the end, or aim, for the sake of which it was undertaken.

What, then, about the second feature of beauty that Jacques Maritain, following St. Thomas Aquinas, discusses in Chapter V of Art and Scholasticism: proportion? Maritain says that it is a kind of “fitness” or “harmony” (p. 27*). Maritian also speaks of it as an “order” (p. 24) that comes into being “in relation to the end of the work” (p. 28). Proportion is thus a function of wholeness. In order for the work to achieve its end, its parts must be set in order.  

Let’s once again bring a very abstract concept closer to home by trying to see it in play in a work of art with which we are all familiar: the detective or mystery story. Here’s what one of the genre’s foremost practitioners, G.K. Chesterton, had to say about this genre in his essay, “Errors About Detective Stories”:

there is evidently a very general idea that the object of the detective novelist is to baffle the reader. Now, nothing is easier than baffling the reader, in the sense of disappointing the reader. There are many successful and widely advertised stories of which the principle simply consists in thwarting information by means of incident.

Chesterton negatively describes the end of a detective story: not to baffle the reader by means of useless incident. A little later in the essay he puts the point more positively:

The true object of an intelligent detective story is not to baffle the reader, but to enlighten the reader; but to enlighten him in such a manner that each successive portion of the truth comes as a surprise. In this, as in much nobler types of mystery, the object of the true mystic is not merely to mystify, but to illuminate. The object is not darkness, but light; but light in the form of lightning.

In this paragraph Chesterton refers to both the wholeness and the proportion, or order, of a good detective story. The end is to illuminate, but the illumination must come about in the order due to a detective story, in which “each successive portion of the truth comes as a surprise.”

It is crucial that the sequence of surprising revelations in a mystery possesses an order, and is not just, as Chesterton remarks, the thwarting of information by incident. This was one of the criticisms often made against the television serial, Lost. Surprising incidents were piled up, but without any clear relationship to one another or to the illumination that eventually came in the show’s final episode. Lost, in the view of these critics, lacked order or proportion. About such piling up of sensational but incoherent elements Chesterton goes on: 

Now, it is quite a simple matter to fill several volumes with adventures of this thrilling kind, without permitting the reader to advance a step in the direction of discovery. This is illegitimate, on the fundamental principles of this form of fiction. It is not merely that it is not artistic, or that it is not logical. It is that it is not really exciting. People cannot be excited except about something; and at this stage of ignorance the reader has nothing to be excited about. People are thrilled by knowing something, and on this principle they know nothing.

In saying that people are thrilled by knowing something, I take it that Chesterton means that people are truly thrilled when they realize that a surprising incident is integrally connected to the illumination of the mystery. In the final moments of an episode of Foyle’s War, for example, Detective Chief Superintendant Foyle will typically recap how he came to unravel the mystery, indicating the logical sequence of his deductions, distinguishing what is essential to the solution from what is accidental (the red herrings). Indeed, the last few pages or minutes of a detective story, when the end and the things ordered to the end are laid out for the reader or viewer, provide a case study in how order plays a role within this genre.

* Page numbers refer to Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry, trans Joseph W. Evans (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974).


  1. "In the final moments of an episode of Foyle’s War, for example, Detective Chief Superintendant Foyle will typically recap how he came to unravel the mystery"

    This is one of the things that was always so fantastic (in addition to the hilarious banter) about William Powell's Thin Man movies: there was always this type of scene at the end to pull it all together.

  2. Excellent post, thanks! Foyle's War is a wonderful series! And Lost... no comments.

  3. Lovely post!

    Thank you for putting succinctly what irritated me most about Lost. I was so deeply into the series, but somewhere along the way, I stopped caring. The disconnectedness of the mysteries and the suffocating connectedness of the characters began to wear me down.

    I've had (overly) long conversations with friends about this series and why it did not live up to the promise. Now, I can point them towards this blog post.

    I've just discovered your blog and am bookmarking it to read regularly.


  4. Victoria, so glad to have you aboard! And everyone, please check out Victoria's wonderful blog, His Girl Monday, devoted to creativity and writing.