Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Murphy on the Meaning of Belief

Murphy and Solly, Murphy’s longtime friend and pawnbroker  -- the faithful custodian of his toaster, for lo these many years -- sat at meat, in that temple of philosophical discourse,  Joe’s Bar.
            Now Solly -- a Jewish guy, and faithful to the faith of his fathers, though you’d never know it to look at him  -- he and Murphy agreed on a lot of things;  and disagreed on a lot of things;  and on some things, they agreed that they had no way to either agree or disagree -- just like there are some things that a dame knows, and a guy’s just gotta take her word for it;  and some things a joe knows, and a dame just gotta put up with it:  eternal mysteries.    Like, Murphy, who had no head for money -- no pockets for it, even -- just had to concede that Solly, who was a whiz at that stuff, was the only one who could come up with a fair loan on a pawn, and keep the total running in his head,  and adjust when an item was (finally) redeemed, and add on interest where applicable, or deduct the right discount on the Yom Kippur Day Specials:   Murphy simply held forth the teevee, or the hotplate, or his last pair of shoes, and accepted in complete confidence whatever Solly offered;  it always felt fair.    And Solly had to concede that, when it came to things like One God oh no I actually meant Three;  or water turning into wine, and wine into blood;  and things acknowledged to be completely incomprehensible even to priests, yet just as certainly true -- well, Solly would have to leave all that to Murphy;  Solly, he was out of his league.

            So they’re washing down hot-dogs with the local stuff on draft, and settling mighty questions of history and philosophy, of theology and of science, and whether dames look best in tight sweaters -- which emphasize certain features -- or in the most modest of costumes -- which emphasizes the eyes.   And then when they had come to the third round, both enjoying the combat, yet mellowed by the brew, Solly ventured onto delicate territory:  for with these two, nothing was taboo.
            “So Murphy, tell me -- tell me true.   Right:  You don’t do divorce cases.   Not saying you ought to --- Oh, don’t remind me of my own divorce!  -- Agreed agreed, they’re unpleasant:  but so is almost everything we do.    You think I like taking some dame’s wedding ring in pawn?   But she needs the money;   what can you do.   And I mean -- you do some stuff -- well I mean… Murphy…. You’re a grown man, you know about Mine and Thine, and yet -- you keep helping yourself to other people’s cars.”
            “Well, I don’t help myself when other people’s in ‘em -- I don’t jack.  Plus it’s just on a loan, Solly -- like the toaster.”
            “Yeh like that toaster;  what I got on and off in inventory these past fifteen years.   A toaster what don’t even work.”
            “Yeh okay okay;  I got a weakness for abandoned cars.   They been sitting there alone for an hour, they get to feeling lonesome, and unappreciated, so I come along and appreciate them, and speak to them, and drive them around.   Okay.  Your point.”
            “The point is, Murphy, the point is that you do a lot of sketchy stuff.  Stuff on the edge.  Stuff that wouldn’t go down so good at the Country Club.  Plus some…some really rough stuff, if what I hear around is true.”
            “Yeh well, sometimes.  This one time -- really really bad.  But I repented of that.  Never did the same thing again.”
            “So okay, with variations.   But the thing is:  What is it with you and divorce cases?   Yeh they stink, no argument;  but are they really worse than some stuff that you did -- and some stuff you did laughing -- like playing at crime boss and heisting that truck full of heroin and using it to run a patrol car into a ditch?  I mean -- Murphy!”
            Murphy was silent.  What could he say?
            “Y’see, Murphy, me,  I got this theory.   I don’t think you stay away from divorce cases just because they’re dirty.  Sure they’re dirty;  it’s a dirty world.  This part of town especially.  But you -- no.  With you it’s more than that.    You steer clear of divorce cases -- steer clear like the plague -- not for practical reasons, or aesthetic reasons, or even… even moral reasons, exactly…  With you it’s…”
            “It’s for mystical reasons.”   Without inflection.   Sipping slowly;  looking out over the rim of the glass.
            Solly waited, letting that hang in the air.  “For… mysterious -- no:  for mystical reasons.”
            “For mystical reasons.  Right.”   Murphy took a chug and swallowed hard -- for now swallowing was hard -- and looked stubbornly over at the pinball machines.
            “Okay, fine:  mystical reasons.   Only  -- help me out here, wouldja?   You don’t get all…mystical… about loving your country; or telling the truth;  or taking your lumps as they come; though you’re about all those things.   But when it comes to divorce -- you get mystical.    Is it like, some kinda childhood thing, like that thing with your Pop and your Mom?”
            “What -- you mean, that Pop skipped out?   Sure, bad move;  but me, I never even met the guy.   For all I know, they never did divorce.  Fact -- for all I know, they were never even properly married.  No, that ain’t it.    Sorry Mr. Freud -- you don’t win that kewpie doll.”
            “So what is it?”
            Murphy mumbling.  “Hard t’explain…”
            Now Solly got thoughtful.   “Y’know… Just indulge me here, okay?  Because I heard a rumor there’s this, some kind of Church doctrine, in this general area -- I won’t even try to quote it, I’d just screw it up:   but something along the lines of, like, a woman and a man, yadda yadda, and they get hitched up by God, in just the right way:  and from then on,  it’s like trying to yank a horseshoe loose from the hoof -- or no:  more like, trying to yank the blue right out of the sky.”
            Murphy raised a respectful eyebrow.  “That’s pretty much it, Solly.  That’s very well put.”   He nodded again, and savored.  The blue, right out of the sky.
            “So like -- Murphy -- that belief, I get it:  it’s a mystical belief.   My people also understand what that might mean, by the way,  believe it or not.   I mean, God spoke to Moses, right out of a burning bush.”
            “Guess you had to be there,” Murphy said.
            “Yeh -- right.”   Solly wasn’t sure if Murphy was making blasphemous fun of the Torah, or whether he meant it literally:  as a fact, or even as a wish.  Anyhow he hurried on.   “So this -- this doctrine, or this dogma, or this whatever you guys call it -- phrase it however you like, this mystical Thing:  do you -- do you believe it?   You?  Honest Injun?  For real?”
            Murphy frowned.   “Look, Solly -- I don’t want to squirrel out, here;  but it’s kind of the wrong question.   -- No I mean, it’s a perfectly okay question, just on a friendly level, like Do you think Amanda’s hot, and Whadaya think about the chances for Brooklyn this year.  But nothing eternal depends upon your fluttering, or my flickering, moods of belief or unbelief.   And thank God for that!  Plus even, let’s say, believing:   we can believe true things for wrong reasons;  or slightly off-kilter things for good reasons;  or believe true things for what passes for sound reasons, only fact is we don’t know what the heck we’re talking about.   Just like what most everybody believes and ever has believed, about stuff in science.    You may believe the planet Earth goes round and round the sun;  and that your sandwich is made up of atoms, and that  the atoms are all stuck together out of these little eentsy bits can’t nobody see ‘em;  and that might be true; but brother,  you ain’t got a clue.”

            Murphy then took a long, and slow, reflective sip, of the splendid beverage in his tall glass.    It was shaped like a long and slender cone;  and he eyed with discerning pleasure, how the level of the sparkling gold went down, with each refreshing draught. 
            “Tell you one thing, though -- I believe a lot more drunk, than I do sober.  And that doesn’t mean I’m misbelieving then, either.
            “Give you an example.  You’ve heard of Dutch Courage -- the bravery or bravado, of a man in his cups.  Well, it’s not the best kind of courage around:  but it’s better than nothing;  and it’s one helluva lot better than cowardice.
            “And when I’m in my cups -- in my shot-glasses, in my beer-mugs -- then I have a kind of courage that I might not have at other times.   And I believe things that, at other times, I…I might still believe… but am ashamed to believe.
            “Like -- You ask me if I literally believe what the Church teaches:  that he and she who are united, in the name of the Ghost, become indeed One Flesh -- yet of a flesh, a flesh more fiery and more fleshly than this sagging paunch and these dried-out wrinkles here -- a flesh such as that very bread becomes, when it ignites and catches fire -- no, catches light…”
            And then, alarmingly,  his eyes grew red, like a mean drunk.   And suddenly he lunged across the table, grabbing  Solly by his necktie.  Yes, I believe it, dammit!  I believe it utterly, I believe it savagely.”  Stunned by his own sudden violence, he relaxed his grip, and settled back.  “But when I’m in a roomful of exquisitely educated reserved people, with their langorous manners and their tight Princetonian smiles -- well, then, it sort of sucks to sound like an idiot, or a caveman, or a…or a Christian.. so then I mumble something and make excuses and they all nod and agree and say Well-spoken (for a working man), and add On the one hand this and On the other hand that, sigh sigh, we’ll never know, but isn’t it swell that in this great country of ours, each one is free to celebrate his or her own unique and individual independent completely made-up beliefs,  all of them so delightfully quaint, which none of us should ever criticize, since after all, What is truth?  We’ll never know.”
            Again the savage growl;  Solly prudently moved his chair back, as Murphy was again looking dangerous:  though this time, for a broader and absent enemy.
            “’Cept -- guess what -- You’ll know.   You - will -  know -- we’ll all know.  You may know by Fire, or you might know by Light:   but you’ll know -- oh, trust me:  you’ll know.”

For the further adventures of Solly and Murphy,  try this:

Murphy and the Magic Pawnshop


Saturday, March 1, 2014

A most particular mystery

A recurring theme in the Murphy stories, is that of a client who is not what he seems, getting the best of the detective.   Here we find a similar hoax being put-over on Mr Sherlock Holmes:

Note:  This piece will best be appreciated by those familiar with Die Traumdeutung (1900).   It is a Transference-based thriller, much like this one: