2 September 2012

On the Doctrine of Silly Questions

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 11:31 am

Why, in Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944), does the door to Walter Neff’s (Fred MacMurray) apartment open outwards? One answer is that, for some reason, the building was eccentrically designed. An entirely different kind of answer says that Wilder needed to place it that way so that Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) could not be seen in the corridor by Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), and he needed to bring this about for dramatic effect. Seeking an answer of the first kind — an answer given from the internal perspective — we are asking what Kendall Walton calls a ‘silly question’. On the doctrine of silly questions, we ought not to seek an internal explanation when to do so would require us to elaborate improbable scenarios that distract us from the work’s real qualities and purpose, and where there is some evident external explanation, like the one just offered. Sometimes the identification of a question as ‘silly’ indicates, not so much a good dramatic reason, but an authorial intervention designed merely to raise our awareness of the artifice involved in narrative composition. Ivy Compton-Burnett gets rid of one set of characters by having them fall down a ravine — an intrinsically improbable event in the Home Counties, as Hilary Spurling observed. Compton-Burnett could have achieved the same effect in various, less-improbable ways, and chose this one, presumably, as a means of defying naturalistic technique. In such cases as these we are not to deny that the door opens outwards or that the characters fell down a ravine — we just should not expend energy on thinking about how, within the world of the story, this came about.

– Gregory Currie, Narratives & Narrators: A Philosophy of Stories (2010)



  1. Ivy Compton-Burnett discarded the usual routes to verisimilitude; voice, plot and so on. Other writers like Joyce wanted to place their fiction in a ‘real’ world. Edward G. Robinson’s suspicions are alerted by the odd method of suicide, irrealism in that would be genre defying. In general I feel that one should not trifle with the suspension of disbelief.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 3 September 2012 @ 5:25 am

  2. I disagree with Currie: it’s not a “silly” question about Double Indemnity. Barbara is standing outside Fred’s door just as Edward G is leaving, so she stands behind the door where Edward G can’t see her. I confess that when watching the movie I didn’t notice the “error” of the outward-opening door. It’s conceivable that when Billy Wilder had the apartment set built no one gave any thought to the fact that apartment doors always swing inward so as not to whack some unsuspecting person walking down the corridor. That doesn’t seem likely. Plus we also have Raymond Chandler as scriptwriter — would he have let this gaffe go without commenting? I don’t recall the parallel scene in the novel, but I seriously doubt that James Cain would have set it up with a wrong-swinging door. Despite the implausibility of his plot contortions, he played within the framework of ordinary material reality. This is a noir caper: the challenge is for Fred the unlikely mastermind to contrive a scheme that works within the rigorous constraints built into the world for the express purpose of limiting the ordinary Joe’s freedom to operate. Fred was working the angles; he wasn’t reversing the hinges.

    Edward G. isn’t just an ordinary co-worker: he’s the insurer’s chief investigator. It’s his job to notice the little inconsistencies and anomalies that might be hiding some sort of criminality. Wouldn’t Edward G have noticed that Fred’s door was backward? Might he have inferred that maybe straight-ahead Fred swung the wrong way? Maybe Billy Wilder is trying to tip Edward G off: look at this door, now look behind the door. Or was Wilder demonstrating that trust is a dangerous thing, causing Edward G to relax his customary professional vigilance when dealing with his friend? Or maybe Wilder is fucking with the audience: you’re so intent on the plot as I’ve framed it, so clever at figuring everything out, that you’ve lost sight of the tricks I’m playing on you. It’s like Wilder is playing Fred to his sophisticated but gullible audience’s Edward G.


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 September 2012 @ 5:26 am

  3. When I first put up my comment it appeared at 5:26 am, the same time stamp as yours, Michael, but apparently a few seconds earlier, since my comment showed up before his on the thread. That sequence I thought gave a misleading impression that your brief remark about Double Indemnity was a response to my much longer-winded engagement, even though you hadn’t actually seen my comment. So I tinkered with time: I edited my comment so that it appeared to have been posted a minute later, just after yours instead of just before it. And no one would have been the wiser: I could have gotten away with it if I hadn’t fessed up.

    I recall your having written about Compton-Burnett on your blog so I included that part too in the excerpt even though I’ve never read any of her work. It seems that you agree with Currie’s contention that throwing her characters down the ravine was an intentional act of “defying naturalistic technique.” Again, it’s not a silly question to ask why. The improbability of the scene could lead the reader to pay closer attention to the author’s hidden and perhaps unconscious intent, like a psychoanalyst paying closer attention to the slip of the tongue.


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 September 2012 @ 5:40 am

  4. The odd thing is that there is a ravine in that book that I wrote about Manservant and Maidservant (aka Bullivant and the Lambs in U.S.) but no one falls down it. The Mighty and their Fall may be the book Currie has in mind. I haven’t read it so I can’t be sure whether the ravine is a guillotine for characters that have outstayed their usefullness. Ivy C-B. is at the extreme end of the irrealism scale almost in a separate universe of her own. Everybody including the Butler and the Housekeeper speaks like a Cambridge don stricken by terminal precision.

    Bullivant the Butler is accused of causing the smoking chimney by stuffing a jackdaw up it.
    He demurs thus:

    “So far am I, sir, from being connected with the presence of the fowl, that I was not confident, when I took matters into my own hands, of any outcome. I merely hoped that my intervention might lead to some result.”

    There’s a convention operating here which can be seen in the Jeeves and Wooster series, The Admirable Crichton and Monty Python. The comedic aspect is well established but what is unique in I. C-B’s work is the psychological pathos that survives. Here is the ultimate in polished rationalising along with psychic pain and cruelty.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 3 September 2012 @ 7:30 am

  5. “speaks like a Cambridge don stricken by terminal precision”

    Here’s the beginning of Currie’s next paragraph, immediately following the one I quoted:

    Other cases are different; Walton gives the example of Othello, bluff man of war, who produces, spontaneously and apparently without effort, poetic statements of surpassing beauty. The question ‘how is it that Othello is so poetically talented?’ may be silly, but…

    As you observe, there are conventions operating, as well as conventions playing off of those conventions. I just finished a novel in which one character shoots another in the head. There is a motive for the killing, but the method seems out of keeping with the shrewd and devious character who’s been established up to this point. In this story throwing the guy down a ravine would fit better than pulling out a pistol and blowing him away. The bullet hole seems like a plot hole. But by this point I’ve come to trust the shrewd and devious character of the author, so now I have to ask myself what Currie would deem the silly question: what motive might the author have for the shooting? And I think there are some good candidates to consider.


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 September 2012 @ 8:10 am

  6. In this same chapter Currie includes a subsection entitled “Telling the Time in Marienbad,” leading me to expect some sort of interpretation of the time stamps assigned to various scenes. But no. All Currie gives us is this:

    Last Year in Marienbad, with its pervasive ambiguities and contradictions in the representations of space, time, and causality, as well as perception and memory, is often said to represent the breakdown of narrative. I am more inclined to say that the work exhibits the coming apart of the two aspects I have considered are determinants of narrativity: representation of story features and expression of authorial focus. For example, while the work expresses (partly through voiced commentary) an interest in time amounting almost to obsession, there is very little we can identify which represents temporal relations between events in the story. This is not, therefore, a work that is straightforwardly low in narrativity. Rather, it is a work that undermines the conventional assumption that, when we are judging degree of narrativity by reference to temporal information, we are to focus on story content. That general assumption cannot, I have argued, be correct, since lack of specificity about time in the story is compensatable by features expressive of a concern for time. The problem with Marienbad is the degree of trade-off it demands; we can think of it as high in narrativity if we are willing to shift the burden of temporality almost entirely from what is represented concerning the story to what is expressed concerning the intentions behind the story. There may be nothing in our concept of narrativity which determines whether there is a legitimate trade-off or not. In that case, Marienbad is not low in narrativity; it is simply indeterminate where it stands in that regard.

    And that’s all he has to say about Marienbad in this section. “It is simply indeterminate” — well it is indeterminate but not simply so. And if the viewer can’t readily parse the time lines of the story, why does he think he can infer authorial intent behind this temporal indeterminacy? Still, the confusions regarding when the events are happening do force the viewer either to pay closer attention to the puzzle-solving aspect or to just go with the story as presented, indeterminacy and all.


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 September 2012 @ 9:06 am

  7. John,
    I think you are perfectly correct about the door hanging. Either it was a mistake on the part of the carpenters or a mistake on the part of the writer who could not think of some other way to achieve his end. In that sort of story everything matters, all facts are connected. In the nouvelle vague film with surrealist context and conventions we allow for odd lapses in time and character. Magic realism where the transitions are disjunctive is unsatisfying. I consider that particular form the most difficult to accomplish without fracturing the story.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 3 September 2012 @ 4:51 pm

  8. “In Ulysses, James Joyce has Stephen Daedelus discuss Shakespeare, about whom he says: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” But writers need not be geniuses. For all of us, an imperfect draft or a piece that did not come out right can be a portal of discovery.

    – Keith Oatley, Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction, 2011


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 September 2012 @ 6:38 pm

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