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I'm writing this review with mixed feelings, not because I can't make up my mind if this book is good or not, it is in fact quite good. Instead the contents of this work of descriptive history needs to be evaluated against modern approaches to teaching history. I'm going to try to explain what I mean by that.

When you're writing a novel you want to begin with a bang, you want to make the reader interested. It's a modern approach to fiction writing we can trace back to Goethe and his short novel: The Suffering of Young Werther. That novel starts with: I'm so glad I don't ever have to be here again. It puts you right in the scene and sets up the mood of everything that follows. Later on novelists and especially screenwriters have picked this up and refined it to an art. E.g. if you can't engage a movie audience in the first 10 minutes you've lost them.

In this book about Sir Walter Ralegh, by Anna Beer, the same approach is used. We immediately learn in graphic detail how the protagonist meets his ending. So the question is: does the effect of starting with a bang work for non-fiction as well? I think it does, even though I don't like that it does. Chances are I'm too old and set in my ways to appreciate what this format can do for learning about historical facts, but it felt too forced, too on the nose. It does work though, it does get you engaged and connected to a human being who lived a very long time ago in a period where daily life was a lot more brutal to say the least.

Ironically the author goes against the 'novel' approach of the book by adding lots of detail that gets in the way and doesn't add to our knowledge of who this person Ralegh was. This could easily have been fixed by using footnotes and end notes. Providing a listing of names who were involved in certain event in Ralegh's life, although historically relevant, gets in the way of following the narrative. At some point you simply read over it because trying to remember all those names simply doesn't work and doesn't help.

Overall I appreciated the human aspects and approach. This otherwise abstract from long ago became a crisp clear individual in my mind. As such I think some of the extrapolations and interpretations the author makes are fully warranted. More so because they are noted and indicated.

We're living in an age where the skill of writing is applied to otherwise dry subjects like history. I wish all high school history books were written in the same style and manner as this biography.
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Master Dismas is a relic trader, an honest one, or so he thinks. Because of one small misstep, instigated by his close friend Albrecht (Nars) Durher, his life spins out of control. Such is the basic premise of The Relic Master without giving away much else of the plot.

There are two completely different sides to this inventive novel by Christopher Buckley. The first one is that this is a carefully plotted romp through the renaissance full of colorful and outlandish characters we shouldn't take that seriously. The other perspective you can take is that this is a well developed critique of the Catholic Church and its practices in placed in the proper context and time. If this book were just a good yarn nobody would go to the deeper side of its telling. However, there is an aroma of something more, something more elaborate and well crafted. Some other reviewers have hinted to this duality in the novel but have used it against it, not altogether unjustly. The novel sometimes reads like an Umberto Eco work written by Dan Brown and Christopher Moore.

Throughout the novel such an enormous amount of historical detail is given that you can't help but wonder how the author meant the book to be read. Why so much research for a novel which is at it's core a medieval adventure about abbots and tarts. You're left with wondering what it would have been like if the language had been more in line with the historical dignity. Not that high language is always appropriate for an historical adventure, but this felt almost like a long joke or a detailed attempt and historically accurate toilet humor.

Having said that I enjoyed the novel tremendously having learned more from this work than many learned textbooks about the same period.
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If you've gotten this far you're probably wondering about my sanity, scratching your head about my command of the English language or you're questioning my ability to construct coherent sentences. It's worse than that: I can't construct coherent homework answers and neither can you. It's not your fault, it's not even the fault of our teachers and professors. It is an inherent flaw in how we think and process narratives that makes most coursework more like a class in cryptography.

Here is what I've learned so far. About 20 years ago during my very first programming class I asked the professor this:

  "The assignment says I need to use a Boolean. What is a boolean?"

His answer, which for me has been the paragon of bad teaching, was:

  "A boolean is something that can be true or false".

Although conceptually correct the answer was more than useless. It was confusing and as the very first encounter with a conceptual programming term could have easily lead to a dark path of misunderstanding or worse: not enjoying computer science. I call this type of miscommunication: Answering a 'what' question with a 'why' answer. How this works exactly and what can be done about it I will explain further on. But first some more real-life experiences.

Most bad teaching can be explained by bad student information processing. Bet you didn't expect that as an excuse. It is true, we generally process information in a very inefficient way, something which has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence. In fact I hope to change your mind about what intelligence is.

Entry exams and tests for every school are based on IQ in some form or another. No matter what the vendors of GRE study guides tell you, if you have a higher IQ you will do better on the tests. But that doesn't help you because you can't say: well then in that case I will need to get a better IQ. Think of the process of going through college or graduate school as any other profession for which you need a selection of skills to perform well. If you're a plumber skills in algebra won't help you. Similarly skills in algebra won't help you when you've got turds floating down your bathroom. So you need to discover which skills you have and which skills you need. The answer isn't as straightforward as: 'I just need more math'. The answer: 'I can't do this because I'm not good at math', also doesn't work.

There are many skills that can help you through school you can learn or acquire by putting work behind them: 'patience', 'perseverance', 'caffeine tolerance', etc. But there are two skills that you will need to start thinking about in a different way: imagination and literal thinking. Ironically you need the opposite of these. The best academics, you know those guys who breeze through a test where every question is conceptual and none of the memorized information applies, those guys are non-literal thinkers with no imagination.

You would think that a good or even over active imagination helps you in academia because it allows you to think outside the box. All that lateral thinking business you hear about. A great imagination does the opposite, it makes you think of all kinds of possible representations of the answer to a question (and even the question itself), most of which are so far from the truth that you might as well ask your imaginary friend to help you. In other words, you're spending your energy reconstructing a badly posed question instead of trying to answer it.

How about being a good literal thinker? The stuff mathematicians are made of. You would think this is the best skill to have in the sciences because such folks are not easily put astray by confusing information or non-relevant details. To mathematicians there is ever only one answer to a question, literally. Mathematicians are actually not so much literal thinkers. They are concret thinkers who appear to take things literally. Engineers such as programmers are extremely literal thinkers and I've noticed that most of them have severe problems with higher math. Myself included.

Instead you want to cultivate the opposite skills. During class or when doing homework you want to stop imaging what the answers might be or what they could look like as well as stop thinking literally. Easier said than done, right? If you're like me, an eternal skeptic, then your first reaction when you don't understand a question will be: 'well then the information in the question must be wrong'. Unfortunately in college and graduate school that can happen quite often. On top of that the average teacher are trained to counter the cultivation of non-literal thinkers with no imagination. Most teachers are very very good at their respective fields but very poor at constructing coherent narratives. I would like to share a recent experience with such a confusing discourse. In my final project for a course (which I failed because of the project) the following was tacked at the bottom:


Although the text as-is was completely correct in the appropriate context, the information given is highly confusing. In the first sentence it is suggested to use a different scale than in the second sentence. The two sentences apply to different parts of the project but that's not clear from the text. The example above is from a project given by an extremely competent and understanding professor but unfortunately the course materials and slides were filled with such cases and for someone who has an overactive imagination and who thinks literally it is like going through a mine field with skis on. All you do is figure out what is being said and asked.

So what can we do? We can declare war on confusion and egg salad. Well not the egg salad, that's just a personal grudge. I bet that confused you a bit, but you figured out that I was saying something out of context. Now we're making progress, we're seeing that we can 'decode' unnecessary messages. But in order to do that we have to understand where the lecturer is coming from. Most of them suffer from expert blind spot. They can't explain basic ideas from their field because they've been using them for so long. Very much like the first example about the professor explaining what a boolean is. How can we detect expert blind spots and what kinds of grenades can we use to attack these situations?

Below are few types of well meaning but misleading answers you might get from professors.

  • Answering a 'what' question with a 'why' answer

Back to our boolean question. If I want to explain what water is then a seasoned alchemy professor, uhm I mean chemistry, professor would tell you it is H2O. Correct, but again useless. The given answer tells us that there is a molecule name which differentiates water from other chemical compounds. In other words: it's a why answer. It tells us why water is different from let's say Silicon Dioxide SiO2 (sand).

Although idiotic, explaining that water is stuff that is like sand but is blue, feels cold, and slippery is more helpful. Why? First of all it bypasses the imagination because it is specifically stated what your mind should be seeing. It also helps the non-literal thinker because we're not talking about an animal or plant. The downside? Which teacher ever would give such an answer that made them look like an idiot?

How can we apply this to the boolean answer? What if I told you this: The sotware we write has to make lots of decisions. For example in a video game the player enters a key into a lock to try to open the door. The software in the game decides that the door won't open because it is the wrong key. This is where booleans are very useful. Software applications use booleans to do housekeeping or tracking, it answers the multiple choice question: is the key the right key: a) true or b) false?. It notes down in it's memory: 'false'. When it then goes to try to open the door it sees that the answer to the multiple choice question was 'false' and it won't open the door. The answer for non-imaginitive non-literal thinkers is: a boolean is the answer to a multiple choice question where the answer is one of 'true' or 'false'.

Did that help? I hope so but for this imaginative literal thinker it's hard to come up with good examples. Luckily I don't teach. But we go on, there is more.

  • Answering a 'why' question with a 'what' answer

You see this type of answer confusion a lot with people who are teaching conceptual courses but who are not themselves conceptual thinkers. I have the most sympathy for people who teach like this because chances are they had to work very hard for their position and are proud that they are allowed to teach the complicated material. Here's an example:

Question: Why does the earth revolve around the sun?
 Answer: The earth goes around the sun in an orbit, very much like the moon orbits the earth.

It is an answer but it tells us what the earth does, not why.

  • Answering a 'what' question with a 'yes' or 'no' answer

Although rare, this type of miscommunication and confusion tends to happen on crucial questions and usually on questions where you are explaining your reasoning to a professor to figure out where your train of thought went wrong. The response is almost always well meant but mostly confirms your incorrect but elaborately constructed fantasy of the best fitting answer. You end up with the professor inadvertently confirming your misconception. It is these types of miscommunication that builds the foundation for a bad start of a course. Once a misconception sets hold it is very difficult to undo and will take a tremendous amount of time to compare and contrast to contradicting information.

  • Answer a question by repeating the previous answer

This is probably the most common unanswer and is used by professors who have absolute confidence in the clarity of their own thinking and teaching. This is perhaps a classic example you might have even heard in physics class:

Question: Why do we have tides?
Answer: We have tides because of the proximity of the moon to our oceans

Question: But how does that influence tides?
Answer: Because the moon directly influences the water in the oceans (duh)

The professor in this case assumes you already know the answer but probably weren't paying attention to his previous stellar blackboard performance. Or even worse and more likely: the person in front of the class has no capability whatsoever to assume the body of knowledge of the people in the classroom. The reasoning behind the answer goes something like this:

Everyone knows what the moon is and everyone knows what gravity is. Everyone knows the earth and the moon have gravity and gravity pulls at like everything, so all I have to say is that the moon is close to the earth and the rest is obvious.

What is left out here are all the other possible explanations we make up for ourselves all of which are equally likely. Yes some of those are probably quite bizarre, especially if you are a literal thinker with an overactive imagination but they are valid explanations and that is the important point. They are not correct explanations but they are valid. They are valid because you constructed them yourself using the information you had. Let me say that again:

Just like there are no stupid questions there are also no stupid extravagant imaginings of possible answers.

There I've said it. The trick is to find enough time to selectively weed out all the explanations that couldn't
possibly apply. That's damn hard and it also takes a damn lot of time. Damn. But how about this teaching technique for good measure:

  • Answer a question by repeating the question

Probably the most common teaching mistake and the cause of non-learning. Here we go, you might find this hauntingly familiar:

Question: what is weight?
Answer: In science and engineering, the weight of an object is usually taken to be the force on the object due to gravity (taken from Wikipedia)

Question: I don't understand, can you please explain what weight is?
Answer: it is the definition that states the relation between an object and gravity.

Annoying isn't it? It sounds like an answer but it is the original question. There have been many cases where I wanted to give a professor a lecture in logic and rhetoric but that would have taken too much time and I'm not a good explainer. Besides people who teach rarely take their own medicine.

  • Withholding the answer

Now  you're dealing with someone who doesn't understand the materials either. You're not losing but you're not winning either because chances are you won't get a good answer no matter what you ask. All you can do is make your own questions very small and very concrete. You will be narrowing down the answer by weeding out all the things it can't possibly be. What you're left with has to be the answer.

  • Using more unfamiliar concepts in the answer than there were in the question

This happens a lot in fields that depend on specialized jargon, which is almost all fields these days. I've heard another student ask my boolean question years later and the answer she got was even worse:

"A boolean is an entity that can take on only the values true or false, which is usually modeled by a binary 0 or 1. But if you have to you can also model it with a string that is set to 'true' or 'false'. It just takes more calculation that way and will be slower if used in a tight loop"

Again the answer is correct, but this answer is even useless to seasoned programmers because the person is describing their hard earned experience not the answer to the question. This type of answer will be heard mostly from people who exclusively live in their own heads. Most of the question/answer disconnects are the cause of some kind of miscommunication but this one is exclusively the realm of: I did not hear what you think you meant you said.

  • Pronoun confusion

I only 'teach' during the summer and only interns who come to us from their third or final year in college. Most of them are computer science majors but no matter what their background is I see persistent pronoun confusion. Professors do this as well but enough bashing on them, what do we do wrong ourselves?

Once someone gets comfortable in an area of expertise (even just a little) the mental model becomes so strong and clear that it is difficult to assume that other people don't see the same thing. You will get descriptions like this:

"I just finished the code and patched the stuff we talked about. The other parts are working well now but it's not connecting properly not sure if it's my stuff or something else".

The immediate question should be: what does 'the' refer to, or 'my'? If you're in a direct conversion about details you're actively discussing then you might have some hope of tracking the pronouns but otherwise replace with actual objects or persons no matter how guilty.

An Academic Survival Guide for Daydreamers

What can you do when confronted by these situations? There is no straight answer. Sorry. It's a survival guide, not a winning guide. It is not like the guides they make for the GRE where they say things like: if you are stuck then first make a list and start eliminating the most obviously wrong answers. If you have a good imagination and are a literal thinker you will see every answer as possibly correct. What also doesn't help is to put yourself in the professor's shoes because then you will start to reason about what he or she was imagining when creating the questions.

I want to split the survival guide into two steps. First of all you need to visually separate what are questions in a statement in a homework or test and second you need to start thinking about the difference between 'what' and 'why'. Here is an example of such a question, which is trickier than it seems:

  Question: Describe the distinguishing properties of DG and CA3. What role is each region thought to play in memory formation?

I'm not going to assume you know the answer, quite frankly I've forgotten the jargon myself at this point. But there are some important confusion triggers we can detect. First of all these are actually two questions. In a homework or on an exam I now always re-write or annotate the question so that you can see it should have been:

  Question 1a: Describe the distinguishing properties of DG and CA3.
  Question 1b: What role is each region thought to play in memory formation?

I think it is reasonable for your imagination to see the second sentence as a guide on how to answer the first sentence. This is something I've done wrong for too long and only recently did I notice I was doing this. Here is how I would have read the question in the past:

Question: Describe the distinguishing properties of DG and CA3. Hint: what role is each region thought to play in memory formation?

See the difference? My brain was trying to make sense of the structure of first the question unrelated to its contents. No when I'm confronted by an exam question I do a first pass to find out how many questions there are in a question. THERE MIGHT BE MORE THAN ONE!

Part Two

Also note that we potentially have a 'what' and a 'why' question. The first question relies on memory. It uses the word 'describe'. Your imagination should not kick in. Whatever you do at all costs prevent your imagination from doing anything at all and simply regurgitate. This type of question is best answered by correctly replaying the memorized text you have stored in your head. Golden rule of test taking: if you can score points by memorizing text and diagrams: always always do so.

Question 1b is harder because it is most likely a 'why' question but it could be a 'what' question. You could answer the what question again by listing the facts you've memorized that pertain to both the term DG and the term CA3. Chances are you might get some points for that even though it might not be the dead on right answer. I go for this option mostly.

If we assume question b is a 'why' question we're in dangerous territory. It's begging for our imagination to kick in and construct elaborate theories on how the two are related. We are even able to construct completely wrong but wondeful explanations by using correct facts we memorized. Even if you know the conceptual model underlying the question.

The trigger word is: 'role'. You can, well I can, replace that word with a whole lot of other words and the sentence still makes sense. I could think it says:

Question 1b: What aspect is each region thought to play in memory formation?
Question 1b: What part is each region thought to play in memory formation?
Question 1b: What mechanism is each region thought to play in memory formation?
Question 1b: What construct is each region thought to play in memory formation?
Question 1b: What theory is each region thought to play in memory formation?
Question 1b: What force is each region thought to play in memory formation?
Question 1b: What destructive power is each region thought to play in memory formation?

This is of course a silly example but it does illustrate how the process works. By the time you're at destructive power you at least realized you didn't process the sentence properly. What goes wrong in our brain is that we put the wrong emphasis on the wrong part of the sentence. I put the emphasis on 'role', but the emphasis should be on 'memory formation'. Detecting this confusion is possible but finding the right interpretation is not so straight forward, not for me at least. However, once you know what the question means you can most likely answer it well and for most people who struggle with this interpretation problem the problem is not not having the necessary information.

I'm sure you're now itching to find out what you can do to solve these sticky issues. I'm afraid I don't have the answer. After more than 20 years of struggling, including starting and stopping various degrees, I'm no further now than I was back then, I can just describe the signs and signals better. I could blame let's say Dyslexia (which I don't have), or Central Processing Disoder (which I also don't have) or simply Bad Learner Syndrome (which I do have).

If I ever figure out how to approach this issues and become a non-imaginative non-literal thinker I will write a follow-up article. For now I'm going to lick my wounds and not care too much about my latest degree failure and have a beer.
Current Location:
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I'm getting much worse at keeping faces apart. If there are some similar facial features I will most likely think it's the same person. That can be quite emberassing as for example I was telling a friend I liked Going Postal regardless of the fact that Andy Serkis starred in it. With great surprised I had to learn that that wasn't Serkis in the lead, but the actor Richard Coyle. Once you know the difference it isn't difficult to tell them apart but it sure got me fooled. Seeing them next to each other you immediately focus on the differences and not on the similarities. Just as a reference, Andy Serkis on the left Richard Coyle on the right.


I had this problem before when I was convinced that actor Patrick Wymark was the same person as the actor Jay Garner. Actually I still have trouble keeping them apart. And their voices don't help because they even sound more alike than they look alike.


Now that you can see them side by side you can also see why the faces might be mistaken for each other if you only focus on the fact that some features are identical. Look at the eyebrows and nose of the two actors in the lower image, virtually identical. Now with older men it's always trickier because they tend to look more alike, but still.
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With almost as much anticipation as I am waiting for Prometheus was I waiting for season 2 of Sherlock, the much celebrated re-imagining of Conan Doyle's brainchild. With the first season safely behind him Steven Moffat barges ahead writing the second season. With disastrous results. If you haven't seen the first episode then please stop reading because I will have to go over some of the persnickety details to wrap up this disaster. Seriously, someone was murdered by a boomerang thrown from such a distance that it would have returned to whomever was stupid enough to use this weapon of mad destruction? If you want to kill someone with a boomerang you would have to hit someone over the head with it, something someone should have done with Moffat. I could go on about all the gaping plot holes but that's not the critical issue here.

Let's get to the important part of why this new first episode reeks of misplaced writing arrogance. Even the Irene Adler opposing Jeremy Brett in his immortal portrayal of Sherlock Holmes met her opponent as an equal. An equal in brains. No gender fight needed. Ironically Jeremy's nemesis was more of a feminist than the incarnation we now have before us, who uses misplaced sex and sex appeal in every scene and which manages to push back feminism by at least 50 years. Even the Irene Adler who seduces Robert Downey Jr didn't have to rely on this much innuendo or plain nudity.

Surely some will argue that the use of sex-appeal was used quite appropriately and that it was to prove a point about Holmes' non-interest in the subject matter. Is that really the message you're stuck with in your head though after you've seen the episode? Personally I felt left with the same old stereotypical woman-saving hero and damsel-in-distress who can't help but have feelings for the lead. Moffat cleverly uses Adler's nude entrance into Holmes' life by explaining it away as a method of preventing Holmes from obtaining any relevant information through one's attire. Really? Is that how we the audience are supposed to feel after that scene? Guys will enjoy the erotic entrance and women will bask in the knowledge that even an emotionally dead person such as Holmes can be changed by the physical elegance and appeal of a naked female body. Sorry but it's that simple. In one swoop it removes the two characters from center stage, who had the potential of being the most interesting leads in a long drought of BBC dramatic productions, and relegates them to the speaking parts of hopeful extras. All of a sudden Moriarty seems to be the most interesting character but he was only Mycroft's puppet it seems.

Speaking of the new leading character, how about Mycroft Holmes? Holmes's much smarter brother apparently took over the plot, the details, the characters, the twists and pretty much everything else Doyle knew not to mess with. Mycroft was interesting in the first season because he was this bumbling political genius who pops in now and then to assist and to bail his younger brother out of a bad situation. Instead we have a master criminal slash overlord who is everybody's better daddy. How about Holmes himself who refused to put on his clothes even at the seat of Britain's royal power. Holmes might be infantile and adolescent but he would definitely not be stupid enough to persist in that little game that doesn't gain him anything he cares about.

After countless scenes of "yes he figured it out, no she wasn't dead but she is and she isn't and they like each other but they don't and we won't know until later when we won't care anymore" we've arrived at the last scene. A scene which I seriously hope was a dream sequence and an actual depiction of events because that seriously puts the new Sherlock Holmes in the shoes of a contrived and poorly developed Indiana Jones.
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Normally I would start a book review with a brief synopsis of the story. Normally. When I have a good idea what the story is about or what the logical progression of events is. In this case I have no idea what's happening. Granted, the narrative is compelling, the descriptions of the period mesmerizing and spellbinding and the sense of reality is utterly sublime. In a nutshell, with many onion layers, digressions and diversions the story probably comes down to:

An old painter has an engaging conversation at a masked ball with a young gentleman who interrogates him about about the perambulations and ideally scandals of society and in particular the most famous castrati of the period. Now the painter becomes the narrator and tells the story of his travels from the country side into the heart of London society. I'm not giving anything away when I say that this outer story is of no consequence at all and doesn't add anything story-wise whatsoever. We are now firmly embedded in the life of the narrator who, as the son of a clergyman, has little or no knowledge of the real world and therefore lands in various unfortunate situations of his own inexperienced devising. Much of these events feel very much like the adventures of The Idiot in the story The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Like the Idiot our unhappy painter-to-be doesn't learn much from his experiences and keeps stumbling on and on. He meets a stunning beauty who hires him without credentials, without experience to paint her portrait. All this leads to is the introduction of another layer of narrative when the dear lady tells the tragic story of Tristano the famous (and fictitious) Venetian Castrato. All this appears to wrap up at some point because every character finds out that every other character isn't who he or she appears to be and is either the other person or is married, engaged or related to the other person. You be the judge.

Quite frankly I shouldn't be this negative, there is some amazing writing going on and the author clearly spent a tremendous amount of time researching the period and the characters. Pretty soon you will be checking the top of your head to see if your freshly powdered wig is still in it's predetermined place. Not many other books give such a vivid depiction of a historical period and only a novel like The Nature of Monsters by Clare Clark or any of the novels by Michael Gregorio come close.

Fortunately not many writers create such and astonishing amount of confusion as Ross King. When I started reading the novel I felt the strange sensation that the chaotic jumble of events felt similar somehow. Once I managed to wade deeper into the marshes I realized that I had the same sense of confusion during the reading of Ex-Libris, also by Ross King. This time I wanted to know why exactly I had such a hard time figuring out what happened and to whom. Of course the fact that the story revolves around masks and mistaken identities didn't help.

I started searching for specific passages where the progression of events doesn't make sense or doesn't add up. Here is a very good example of how the reader gets off track, sometimes even without realizing it:

That is to say, in this moment I noticed many things about Eleanora that I had hitherto failed to notice or recognize; as if, before, I had seen her only like this, through the false image of some warping piece of glass. Unable to face this reflection I turned and, to the sounds of her laughter--as unpleasant and mirthless as her smile--plunged down the stair and into the rain. ...

(2 pages of narrative in which the protagonists stumbles through the streets of London, walks into a pub where he has two beers, enlightening conversations and other such miscellaneous interactions) ...

'Jealous', Eleanora was saying two minutes later. She was still seated before the glass, ...

If you read the text at a normal speed, which I can't, I have to read it very slowly, you might skim over this detail and think nothing of it. But unfortunately such episodes occur all over the novel and it slowly grates at the frontal lobe. Minor additional aggravations are things like many grammatical errors and misspellings, which are completely out of tune with the otherwise carefully crafted text.

The ultimate irony is that King's non-fiction books are crystal clear in their narrative and storytelling and read much more like fiction than either Ex-Libris or Domino. I recommend reading this if you're into a good period piece and if you want to be thrown head first into London and Venice of the 18th century.
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Ever since I saw a series of ancient tapestries in the Carnegie Museum of Art did I start to wonder why artists depict Alexander the Great in an effeminate manner. It was not just that tapestry that depicted the famous leader as a shining angelic muscular Amazon. I began to find such depictions everywhere. To my surprise this standard female portrayal of Alexander has been adopted by many great artists. The first image here for example is Rembrandt's version, which looks modern, feminine and sexy to say the least. It could easily be the movie poster template for Alexandria, Princess Warrior. There is another similar portrait of Alexander also by Rembrandt, which can be found in Scotland, although this one is not directly meant to depict the historical figure that we know of.

Some artists are more careful in how they paint the great man and will tome down the feminine features and only leave hints and references to other paintings. You have to wonder what is going on here. Is this deliberate, is there some knowledge these artists are tapping into that has been lost through the ages? Perhaps there is some clever and subtle pun at work of which we no longer remember the symbolism but which we've inherited without knowing the source. There are not many references available that allow us to reconstruct what the man looked like and there are various contradicting descriptions regarding his physique. At Wikipedia we find the most tantalizing version by Greek biographer Plutarch (ca. 45–120 AD, which reads as follows:

The outward appearance of Alexander is best represented by the statues of him which Lysippus made, and it was by this artist alone that Alexander himself thought it fit that he should be modeled. For those peculiarities which many of his successors and friends afterwards tried to imitate, namely, the poise of the neck, which was bent slightly to the left, and the melting glance of his eyes, this artist has accurately observed. Apelles, however, in painting him as wielder of the thunder-bolt, did not reproduce his complexion, but made it too dark and swarthy. Whereas he was of a fair colour, as they say, and his fairness passed into ruddiness on his breast particularly, and in his face. Moreover, that a very pleasant odour exhaled from his skin and that there was a fragrance about his mouth and all his flesh, so that his garments were filled with it, this we have read in the Memoirs of Aristoxenus
Historical accuracy gets a bit more complicated with other descriptions being offered. Greek historian Arrian (Lucius Flavius Arrianus 'Xenophon' ca. 86 – 160) described Alexander as:
The strong, handsome commander with one eye dark as the night and one blue as the sky.

The semi-legendary Alexander Romance suggests that Alexander suffered from heterochromia iridum: that one was dark and the other light. British historian Peter Green provided a description of Alexander's appearance, based on his review of statues and some ancient documents:

Physically, Alexander was not prepossessing. Even by Macedonian standards he was very short, though stocky and tough. His beard was scanty, and he stood out against his hirsute Macedonian barons by going clean-shaven. His neck was in some way twisted, so that he appeared to be gazing upward at an angle. His eyes (one blue, one brown) revealed a dewy, feminine quality. He had a high complexion and a harsh voice.

Ancient authors recorded that Alexander was so pleased with portraits of himself created by Lysippos that he forbade other sculptors from crafting his image. Lysippos had often used the Contrapposto sculptural scheme to portray Alexander and other characters such as Apoxyomenos, Hermes and Eros. Lysippos' sculpture, famous for its naturalism, as opposed to a stiffer, more static pose, is thought to be the most faithful depiction.

Here is another portrait of Alexander on the right, this time a bit more traditional and dressed as the artists of the day assumed he strolled around in his domain (Painting by Pietro Antonio Rotari (1707-1762), Alexander the Great and Roxanne. 1756, Oil on canvas, 243 x 202 cm, State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg). What we see is a more traditional rendition based on classic sculptural depictions, as if all ancient Romans and Greeks wore togas all the time. More surprisingly is the assumption that legendary heroes went to battle in this manner. Note however the reversal of blue and red/pink between the female figure and the sitting Alexander.

Portraits such as these are re-interpreted versions of older editions and ironically those newer versions are made more manly then their inspirations. The further back you go the more ambiguous the depiction becomes, which brings us back to the original tapestry that started my wonderings about the legendary figure. Here for example is a modernized version of the same medieval tapestry I saw at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The pose, placement, angles and headress are all exactly the same (although horizontally reversed), but the facial features have been altered and modernized. Unfortunately I do not have a high-res photograph of the original tapestry, but I found a decent version in which you would unmistakenly identify the main character as a woman. I leave it up to you to judge what happened in this historical mystery.

* * *
It took me a few Anne Perry and Victoria Thompson novels to discover that the term 'mystery' has changed from how it was used let's say 10 to 20 years ago. Most readers might still associated a mystery novel with a puzzle and with sleuthing, but those terms rarely apply anymore to modern mysteries. Anne Perry is one of many contemporary authors who writes historical fiction with a romantic inclination, which is probably a better label than mystery. Granted, the reader does not know until the very end who has committed the heinous crime, but then again the reveal is most of the time arrived at by the culprit confessing without provocation and regularly without convincing motivation. You could say: with enough time and social pressure the murderer will eventually show him or herself without the need for evidence. Rarely in these novels is there actual hard evidence linking the crime to the crimee.

Traditionally in the context of a murder mystery there are a number of suspects each with the appropriate motivation as to why they wanted to snuff the life out of the poor victim. At the end of the story a sleuth or consulting detective explains why only one of the suspects could have actually committed the crime and why the rest of the bunch are not eligible for the title of murderer, no matter how much they desired that tribute.
In an Anne Perry novel the mechanism is reversed, we now have a number of suspects each of which was potentially at the proper place (one will never know) with the right intentions and correct means, but physical evidence and eyewitness reports don't matter that much. The one who has the best motive wins, it's that simple. Instead of the traditional plotting of the author, sleuthing by the detective and puzzling by the readers, we now have novels where the mystery content revolves around veiled dramatic character interactions. Most of these interactions will mostly appeal only to female audiences and ironically portray a rather traditional domestic picture and gender role division.

From a historical perspective there is much to be found and experienced. Authors like Anne Perry, Victoria Thompson and Caleb Carr to name just a few, are heavily invested in accurate depictions and appropriately original detail. Reading an Anne Perry is just as much an immersive trip into Victorian Times as it is an ongoing daytime television saga. Readers aren't really invested in an Anne Perry for the story, but for the endless almost but not quite amorous interactions between Charlotte and Thomas. For a Victoria Thompson novel you can swap out Frank and Sarah, everything else stays the same.

If you like a trip into a complete and convincing Victorian world with lots of interesting drama and elaborate character interactions through dialog, then you're in for a treat. If you're looking for an Agatha Christie mystery then I suggest you read an Agatha Christie.
* * *
Recently we've been seeing a revival of the mystery genre known as 'the closed room' problem. First used in a novel called The Yellow Room, such stories revolve around several guests, who don't know each other, slowly being murdered, lots of possible solutions and most importantly: no way out. Even though we could argue that it all started with The Yellow Room, we should credit Agatha Christie with constructing the template for most if not all of the works of this genre. Christie added two important twists to the concept of a murder that happens in a place where there is no apparent ingress and egress and where there are a well defined set of suspects. What Christie did was she kept the guests prisoner in the 'yellow room' for the duration of the mystery and those guests or suspects would be killed one by one until no one would be left. So how does this form of narrative work and why is it interesting to know how it works?

Before you read this any further let me warn you. In order to explain the narrative patterns and constructs I'm going to have to reveal many well known plots. If you do not want to risk finding out the dunnit and the who, then stop reading.

Before discussing what we can do with narrative knowledge about closed room mysteries, let's first look at what we're up against. If we're talking about the kinds of mystery novels or movies that revolve around this closed room dilemma, then In all likelihood you will read a description that can be summarized as: two or more strangers are invited to a mansion/island/house/room by a host none of them knows. As they slowly become acquainted they also slowly die one by one until there is only one or no one left. The premise never changes except for some of the details of the setup and the conclusion. For example in the movie Cube we, as well as the trapped strangers, are immediately confronted with the fact that none of them knows what they are doing in a small room or how they got there. There is no lead-up where people explain to one another how they were all invited to this curious party at some remote location. A rather popular version of this same plot device can be seen in the movie Saw, the other plot mechanisms are however exactly the same. The other way in which closed room mysteries can differ amongst themselves is how they end, which can be one of two ways. Either one of the guests escapes by figuring out what has been going on all along, such as in the movies Exam, Saw, The Method and Fermat's Room or none of the innocent guests survive such as in Devil, which is the most common variety and the one Agatha Christie started with in Ten Little Indians. I would like to leave out such films as House on Haunted Hill, The Legend of Hell House and The Thing, etc, because they use either fantasy or supernatural elements making the narrative unreliable since anything can happen and any imaginary entity can intrude at any time.

This last detail, the one where nobody survives the ordeal, is actually a rather big clue because then the killer somehow must have thought to have died. Other than the movies Cube and House of 9, all other closed room plots have the killer or planner be part of the crowd that is trying to figure out the puzzle. A quick note on the film House of 9. It is in a lot of ways the odd one out. After watching this production, which has a delightful twist at the end, you realize the goal of the film isn't puzzling or problem solving. Instead we have to conclude that the director wanted to explore clashing personalities. There are two strong pieces of evidence noted by a lot of other reviewers. First of all those trapped do not make a concerted effort to find out if there are truly no exits. Also the writer of the script wonderfully decided to play out unlikable characters exactly as they would behave in real life as opposed to film where they would be arrested, imprisoned or killed. Another important detail to note is how a movie like The Method throws out a lot of important principles of mystery writing. It is therefore difficult to say something sensible about how the film fits into the format we've defined. For example at some point as the hopeful job candidates (read victims) are given some breathing space and time to relax because lunch is provided, a seemingly important scene plays out. To everyone except one of the known insiders, or informers, the lunch tastes bad and is possibly even spoiled. All job candidates pretend eventually that there's nothing wrong with the food and force eat it anyway. Except one of the characters. To anyone observing this sequence of events and character behaviors the conclusion would be that the individual making an opposite decision from the group must have some significant meaning. As it turns out, it doesn't. This is a clear instance of a writer not understanding Tchekov's Gun.

With all of these pieces in mind we can now say something about why stories like this are interesting.

The Closed Room Narrative

We have a group of people that never leave a space, who have to interact to survive and who will have very different personalities. As you can see, the restricted nature of the setup gives us a unique opportunity to study narrative. Because all events take place in a small confined never changing arena we can discard any influence on the story based on location. Characters aren't running around a city or urban area and we can therefor establish very exact times and places. As in: places within a room or rooms. Besides location we can also take out hidden events since everything occurs out in the open right in front of our eyes. There are no situations where we do not know what one of the characters was doing because all of them are always in view. Even when people are out of sight we are usually informed of their doings. In fact under the 'rules of mystery writing' we have to know what suspects have done otherwise the reader can't puzzle along.

With all those extraneous details out of the picture we end up with a sequence of events that truly matter. As in: we can now better judge how each event contributes to the puzzle. Normally when we read a novel or watch a movie we are treated to lots of extra details and character developments. Some of these are important to the narrative of the mystery and some of them are only important to the characters in the story. In a closed room mystery we can look at every event in light of the puzzle and the narrative. Some of them might turn out to be unimportant but in those cases the events turn out to be red herrings. We know this is the case for a number of reasons. First of all when you want to kill off eight to twelve characters in the span of an hour and a half you will need to have every event count. A second reason why we can now take events at face value is that we can better tell which events are real-time and which ones are reflective. Reflective means that events are described or mentioned by the characters in the room but are not actually happening at that point in time in the room. That means we can carefully separate what happened to whom and when. Characters might still be lying about what happened but at least we know more about the where and when.

We can now start to ask our main questions about narratives using the closed room experimental setup: what do we think is happening in the story v.s. what is actually happening? In more accurate narrative terms: how consistent are the perspectives (understanding of what is happening) and positions (level of opportunity to change events) of the characters compared to our own perspective. Are those two always different? Or are those two always the same perhaps? Quit frequently I have to or want to explain the difference between narrative and story. It sounds trivial and pedantic but there is an important difference. Understanding the difference can even help you enjoy a novel or movie more. Here's why. I will be using E.M. Forster's basic explanations of narrative, plot and story [1] to begin with:

A narrative is simply a sequence of events. If you were to write a novel that only has narrative it would look like: "and then ... and then ... and then ...". Narratives of this sort are quite boring because it doesn't tell us anything about people. Ironically even though the main construction mechanism is the "and then ..." structure it doesn't tease us to ask: and then what happened? In order to accomplish that elusive and important element "and then?" we have to turn the narrative into a story. A story starts to emerge when the events in a narrative have a significance and meaning to the characters they are about. More so when those events drastically changes their experience or even outlook on life. Things get interesting when, we, as readers, start to detect patterns between the narrative (events) and the characters' behavior in a story. That's what we call plot. A plot describes the causality between people's behavior and events, or between events in general. In a dryer form could even say that a plot consists of a causal chain which might only be apparent at the end of the chain of events.

Discourse Analysis

A plot, perhaps better called a character causality puzzle, is what we're essentially dealing with here when we look at Closed Room Mysteries. It's tempting to immediately delve into the technical details of event causality, but if we did that we might miss a lot of the human elements. Instead it makes more sense to use a method like Discourse Analysis [2], which can capture different perspectives and interpretations of a text. In Discourse a number of participants who are communication use various techniques to create a persistent and consistent reality. We will use the word 'means' for the methods characters use and 'creation' for the things they build or construct. So what do we mean by 'construct'? When people try to explain a situation to others and to themselves they construct a plausible explanation or description. That explanation is such a construction. But it is more than a formal way of saying what has just happened. It is also a self-contained reality with its own rules and standards.

This is pretty abstract stuff so let's take a look at an example first. Let's say that five people are for some mysterious reason trapped in a room which has no discernable openings, no means for anything to come in and no way for anything to get out. Most likely the question which will go through everybody's mind is: "how did we get here?" Depending on the roles and personalities one or more of the 'victim's will offer an explanation. This explanation might clash with the beliefs and sensibilities of the other subjects and they might step up and question the reasoning. What ensues is a back and forth between the trapped characters in an attempt to make sense of their predicament. They are effectively co-constructing a way of thinking about their situation. That's quite complicated because it would have been easier to say that they've come of with a rationale, but that wouldn't help them later on. What they need is a system of thinking that can help them in their overall situation. This way of thinking or reasoning can be considered the creation in terms of Discourse Analysis. When we apply Gee's general discourse theory [2] we should look at 7 versions or perspectives on reality. These perspectives are called:
  • Significance
  • Practices
  • Identities
  • Relationships
  • Politics
  • Connections
  • Sign systems and knowledge
Think of these perspectives as ideal states of understanding given a certain context or situation, or a lens that provides clarity and filters the characters' understanding. Our trapped victims, let's call them subjects instead, all together try to generate consistent versions of Significance, Identities, Relationships, etc. For example, our poor characters might be trying to create Connections. Either connections between themselves to figure out if perhaps they have something in common that brought them there and that could get them out of their predicament, or connections between events that happened to perhaps find a link or reason that explains what is going on. Think of the dinner scene in the movie Clue where each of the guests realizes they have some connection with the political world of Washington. The exact same scene occurs in Murder by Death where ironically all the guests are famous murder mystery writers. Another example would be that throughout the interaction between characters certain aspects of Significance are created. Think of those as highlights in the experiences of all characters/participants.

We need to make this one step more complicated because in narrative, particularly this kind, we need to add the narrator/author as a character who creates Connections and Significance, etc, as well. Now here we have to be extremely careful because the narrator and the author (and even the person telling the story) are not the same person, as it was very clearly explained by Ball [4]. Essentially the narrator's job is to make the narrative as clear and as accessible as possible to the audience. The author might have different goals, most of which are usually personal. Some authors use a story to analyze their own past, some want to make a viewpoint come across or deliver a message. Whatever the reason, since the author can have an unduly effect on our analysis, due to this intruding, external and irrelevant perspective as it were, we will add only the narrator as an additional character to our Discourse Analysis and we will treat this narrator as if he or she plays an active part, usually the part of hiding important information such that the subjects have to work rather hard to either make sense of their predicament or survive.

To accomplish this, to build the 7 versions of perspective, they have six methods to their disposal. Again this is according to Gee's theory, but we will see that it works out quite well for closed room mysteries and it can even help us out to understand what the dynamics are and narrative is in plots like these. In short our characters have the following means to make sense of their narrow world:
  • Social languages
  • Socially Situated Identities
  • Discourses
  • Conversations
  • Figured worlds
  • Intertextuality
A full explanation of all these methods and resulting creations is beyond the scope of this article, for more information please consult Gee's work on Discourse Analysis [2]. Instead of looking at all combinations of means and result for a full analysis instead we could look at those combinations especially vital for closed room narratives. Granted, all the combinations are potentially valid but some are more active in the foreground than others. What is meant by that is that some of the combinations are especially important for closed room mysteries.

Significance and Connections

Let's begin with the big stuff, the obvious stumbling blocks our subjects have to deal with. They do not know where they are and they do not know how they are related to each other or to the events that brought them there. In essence they are trying to find links and relationships. Most of the time the subjects try to find bits of information in the environment and the other subjects that stands out, something that is out of the ordinary. A ridiculous notion you might think because their very situation is extraordinary. Still, humans are extremely fast at adapting to novel situations and within minutes (film and novel minutes) they have accepted that they are in bizarre circumstances. But something else has to stand out, they are ordinary people who have no business being there, at least that is most likely their starter set of thoughts. How do they figure out what is now Significant in this new environment? What are the new rules of existence? Without anything to go on the subjects have to either try things out or through Conversations with the other subjects gather more details.

An interesting phenomenon plays out in most of the movies and novels listed, the subjects try to determine who is a friend and who is a foe. They go through this process even though there is no immediate evidence that any of the other subjects is the enemy in the story. For a lot of the stories presented here an adversarial situation is created whereby subjects have to compete for survival, but that doesn't automatically make a subject The unseen enemy. Instead we should think of this as a means or a technique which we can call the Safety Discourse. Discourse with a capital D as it is one of the seven means listed above. Humans, and also animals, will want to get an immediate sense of who can help us and who will hinder us or endanger us before we do anything else. In fiction the author has the characters use Social Languages and Socially Situated Identities to figure out who is what. Think of it this way, a man all of a sudden walks into our subjects' prison wearing a police uniform and is carrying a flashlight, this is our accepted way of signalling that he is one of the good guys. Of course this could be completely misleading and there are a number of examples where authors have used this accepted Socially Situated Identity to fool us. In our definition of a Closed Room Mystery there is nobody coming in from the outside and the characters will have to determine by picking up subtle clues what the collection of Identities are. Usually there are a couple of tropes we can count on. There is always the leader character, the paranoid character, the wise character (tends to survive) the rash character, etc. Whatever combination of Socially Situated Identities are being signaled we can count on them being clearly identified to us.

Now that our subjects have figured out what roles are amongst them they have at least taken away some of the insecurity of their predicament, they now have something they can count on. Or rather: the author of the narrative now has a means of making the events move forward with some basic assumptions. Because, really, the role assignments are there for us so that we can be funneled towards a conclusion or a point in the narrative where we can see the story as a whole. See Narrative Concepts for AI Driven Digital Interactive Story Telling [3] for a discussion about the difference between a conclusion or turning point versus a reveal.

Sign Systems and Knowledge

You might have gotten a sense that so far the Discourse Analysis describes some sort of negotiation, one between you the reader/observer and the author, accomplished by the proxies of the narrator vs the characters. Thinking about plot driven narrative as a negotiation is not a bad analogy. The author through the narrator gives the characters hints, leads, information and experiences and we're picking and choosing and feeling our way along. We might agree with the narrator (author) or we might disagree, but we know what we're both talking about. In other words we've built up a mutually agreed set of rules by which the small confined world works. You could think of this shared narrative model as a form of Sign System combined with context specific Knowledge.

How do subjects communicate and test the newly discovered rules of their demise? Most often they use Figured Worlds and Intertextuality. When you use a figured world you will couch a conversation in terms borrowed from well known contexts. The simplest example would be someone who uses baseball terms metaphors consistently in daily conversation. Think of it as speaking in metaphors borrowed from well worn tropes. We've already seen one such trope, which is the tendency to think in terms of human hierarchies. One of the subjects should be the leader, one should be the executive branch who gets sent out to do things and examine places, etc. Agatha Christie ironically had her characters always drawn from a static pool of roles. We therefor end up with characters whose role in the narrative needs no further explanation. For example in the story 'And Then There Were None', the leader is a figure whose profession is (was) a judge. The executive branch is represented by a police detective together with a retired colonel. Christie always deployed these types of characters because she could then focus on the puzzle not the participants. Other stories are not so clear about role divisions, which can greatly enhance the depth of a narrative or it can greatly confuse things if there are no other models the reader/observer can depend on. For example in the movie House of 9 there are no leaders and no followers. Even the notion of aggressor vs victim doesn't quite exist. Unfortunately there are no other support systems for the viewer to get a good sense of what is really going on and the film feels very scattered and unstructured. Nothing wrong with that except the very premise of the story is that there is a logical plot in which characters exist, instead of a number of characters that try to figure out if there is a plot at work.

Figured Worlds are very powerful mechanisms for getting a point across. It accesses common knowledge to rapidly build an understanding of a complex situation. But most of it is unspoken and assumed, we can't say much about it and it would be difficult to mimic in a digital system since it requires constant checking if the live participants are on board with the proposed model. A more direct approach is the use of Intertextuality since it is a direct quotation of references from external models. If we go back to the baseball example we could say that the actual quotes produced by our neurotic baseball obsessed subject are what Intertextuality is about. It appears that Intertextuality is a more overt form of Figured Worlds. This is in essence true but when using Figured Worlds we draw various elements from a well established trope, whereas in Intertextuality we leave the interpretation of the borrowed speech up to the observer. A wonderful film that spoofs closed room murder mysteries is "Murder by Death", in which the subjects are all famous mystery writers who are challenged to solve a murder. Take a look at the following clip:

Movies like Murder by Death and Clue are hilarious strings of quotable forms of Intertextuality. Each line accesses imagery directly related to murder mysteries and the typical characters we find in them. Murder by Death is an ironic work since all it does is continually reference itself in a humorous way instead of trying to drive to a reveal or conclusion.

It is tempting to tease apart in detail what works and what doesn't, to find that precise inventory of mechanisms we could use in a database to drive an interactive version of a Closed Room Mystery. Unfortunately there is much left to do and many additional elements are needed that are not covered by Discourse Analysis. All this technique can do is build a global inventory of high-level means and modes we can use to drive our investigation. A number of building tasks have not been addressed here, for example Practices and Politics. Arguably these are just as important and warrant a careful examination, but those will have to wait for a follow-up post in which more concrete aspects are discussed on how a Closed-Room Murder Mystery could be created using modern video game technologies.


I hope it is clear from the preceding that the analytical techniques described above aren't meant to help you figure out the puzzle. That tends to come down to logical reasoning, and contrary to Hercule Poirot's motto that it is the psychology that matters, the outcome is usually a combination of 'this happened and here's why'. The 'because this character is such and such' is unfortunately usually left out of the conclusion, even by Agatha Christie herself. Instead the exercise of dissecting Closed Room Mysteries using Discourse Analysis can give us a better way of setting up experimental interactive narrative models where we know what we can expect from those who participate. Think of it this way: if we walk into a restaurant we expect someone task ask if we want to be seated. In terms of narrative interaction expectations we can say: if a computer game or other such simulation of a Closed Room Mystery allows a human participate to engage as one of the characters, then we have an inventory of the kinds of behaviors and thought patterns that subject might have. Even thought more can be said and reasoned about how characters will behave and be predictable, we don't have an operational model or a test environment that will allow us to see if the believes about Discourse Analysis for the types of narratives presented here holds up. For that purpose I propose a well defined and critically constrained narrative environment that could be called the Ground Hog Day Mystery. How this works will be discussed in a future post.

  1. Forster, F. (1985). Aspects of the Novel. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  2. Gee, J. (2005). An Introduction to Discourse Analysis. New York: Routledge.
  3. Van Velsen, M., Williams J., Verhulsdonck G., (2009) Narrative Concepts for AI Driven Digital Interactive Story Telling, in proceedings of the 2009 ICIDS conference
  4. Bal, M. (1997). Narratology : introduction to the theory of narrative. Toronto Buffalo: University of Toronto Press.
Suggested Reading
  1. Chatman, S. (1980). Story and discourse: narrative structure in fiction and film. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.
  2. Genette, . Narrative discourse : an essay in method. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1983.
  3. Auerbach, E. (2003). Mimesis : the representation of reality in Western literature. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
  4. Wood, J. (2008). How fiction works. New York: Picador.
  5. Bal, M. (1997). Narratology : introduction to the theory of narrative. Toronto Buffalo: University of Toronto Press.
  6. Leitch, T. (1986). What stories are : narrative theory and interpretation. University Park Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press.
* * *
It's been explained to me many times and I sort of get it but I can't reproduce it and it clashes with what I know about Old Masters. I think. My own favorite form of painting is a style known as Chiaroscuro, meaning light-dark. It's that style that creates great contrast between parts of a painting with great dramatic effect. Unfortunately it has gone out of style and modern paintings are typically of brightly coloured scenes of Venice or Paris or some other stereotypical destination. I'm sure you've seen lots of those. Your doctor's office probably has one or two.

We owe our magnificent light-dark painting styles to a variety of painters each of whom wanted to create great dramatic scenes of human tragedy. Some used the same technique to take an ordinary scene and show how even common human activities and emotions can be special in themselves. From such early painters as Titian, to Caravaggio, Velasquez and finally the ultimate master of light and dark: Rembrandt, we can see a long line of obsessed artists trying to capture humanity in all its forms.

In order to create stark differences between light and dark you need to have access to light paints and more importantly: very dark paints. Obtaining and using very bright pigments wasn't that complicated, although quite dangerous. Most white paints were Lead White, a substance derived from oxidizing lead. If lead poisoning didn't kill you it would most likely drive you mad, which makes you wonder how people like Titian and Rembrandt managed to become as old as they did. But back to darkness. How do you create darkness in a painting? Well you use black paint. At least that's the direct answer and the one you will be tssk-ed for if you were to be an art student. What you're taught is that you should mix other colours to obtain dark paints. For example you could mix Viridian Green and Alizarin Crimson to get a really dark colour. But unless you are making YouTube videos on how to do this where this always works you will either end up with something dark and green or something dark and red. It is very difficult to blend those colours to get actual black, or something close to it.

Now it does depend on your original background for this colour alchemy to work. If you have a blue-ish overall background and you mix the colours described above you could have a much better chance of ending up with black. That's the reason why this approach is suggested because these days most paintings have some happy background color. But not if you're an old master, then you start with pure darkness. Did the old masters also use red and green to create black? The answer is a very simple: no. They used black, or rather they used charcoal in various forms.

We know an awful lot about the pigments painters used and our chemical understanding of how they mixed their paints is quite detailed. There are also various books out there by authors with first-hand knowledge of how painters mixed their pigments, such as the famous Il libro dell'arte [1]. More specifically it says [5]:

How to Make Various Sorts of Black
Chapter XXXVII
Know that there are several kinds of black colors. There is a black which is a soft, black stone; it is a fat color. Bearing in mind that every lean color is better than the fat one [except that, for gilding, the fatter the bole or terre-verte which you get for gilding on panel, the better the gold comes out], let us leave this section. Then there is a black which is made from vine twigs; these twigs are to be burned; and when they are burnt, throw water on them, and quench them; and then work them up like the other black. And this is a color both black and lean; and it is one of the perfect colors which we employ; and it is the whole . . . . There is another black which is made from burnt almond shells or peach stones, and this is a perfect black, and fine. There is another black which is made in this manner: take a lamp full of linseed oil, and fill the lamp with this oil, and light the lamp. Then put it, so lighted, underneath a good clean baking dish, and have the little flame of the lamp come about to the bottom of the dish, two or three fingers away, and the smoke which comes out of the flame will strike on the bottom of the dish, and condense in a mass. Wait a while; take the baking dish, and with some implement sweep this color, that is, this soot, off onto a paper, or into some dish; and it does not have to be worked up or ground, for it is a very fine color. Refill the lamp with the oil in this way several times, and put it back under the dish; and make as much of it in this way as you need.

Let's start with Rembrandt, known for his bright striking paintings. What did he use? As it turns out his palette was quite restricted. He only ground a few pigments into paints to work with and those represent a rudimentary earth-tone palette. Usually he used a combination of:
  • Lead white
  • Ochres
  • Bone black
  • Vermillion
  • Siennas
  • Raw umber
  • Burnt umber
  • Lead-Tin Yellow
  • Cassel earth
From this he managed to create vivid representations on a canvas. If you've ever walked into a store that sells oil paints you might feel humbled that he managed to create all these masterpieces with so few colour options. See the photo above on the right for a snapshot of a recreated workspace of the painter [4]. Rembrandt was known to paint his entire canvas dark with blacks and browns over which he painted the lighter figures as filled shapes first [3]. This way he figured out the volumes and where light would be allowed to penetrate. Keep in mind that this technique relies on an immense confidence in knowing anatomy and proportions since those volumes do not contain anatomical content or other detailed information. They were just shapes.

One of Rembrandt's great inspirations and examples was Caravaggio, an earlier Italian painter who burst into the art world with wild paintings of struggling people. There are many similarities between the two artists and we know Rembrandt even modeled some of his compositions on famous paintings by Caravaggio prompting an exhibit in Amsterdam [6]. If at all possible Caravaggio's paintings are even darker and they needed to be since most of them ended up in fairly well lit and open church spaces. What did he use for his darkness? As it turns out his palette was strikingly similar to Rembrandts':
  • Umber
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Red Ochre
  • Vermilion
  • Lead White
  • Carbon Black
  • Lead Tin Yellow
  • Copper Resinate
Creating very dark mysterious paintings doesn't just depend on having very dark materials to work with, but it helps of course. Much also depends on the artist's skill in managing such pigments. When you try to make paint darker by adding black you tend to end up with a very dirty matte result. That's why they all started by filling in the background to work their way forward by applying layer after layer of lighter paints.

Another important aspect to keep in mind is the influence of varnish on a painting. When you're done with your work you still haven't seen the final version until the varnish has thoroughly dried. Once this final layer is added you've added a tremendous amount of saturation to your light and dark colours. Take a look at the included video about the restoration of a painting by Jan Steen. the lighter muted areas are those where the varnish has been removed. There is much more to the mystery of darkness in painting but this represents the basis to start from. As I learn more about Chiaroscuro and after I have more experience with this form I will most likely update the post with more information and details. Chances are there are better methods out there to achieve this effect but until then this will have to suffice.

[1] Cennini, C. (1960). The craftsman's handbook : the Italian "Il libro dell'arte. New York: Dover.

[2] Clark, K. (1968). Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance. New York: W.W. Norton.

[3] Wetering, E. (2001). The mystery of the young Rembrandt. Wolfratshausen: Edition Minerva.

[4] Photo courtesy of Dan Englander

[5] http://www.noteaccess.com/Texts/Cennini/2.htm

[6] http://www.rembrandt-caravaggio.nl/index_en.htm

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