And so I endeavor, from the beginning, to examine the book. I hesitate to approach the actual content from a literal angle, but these are avenues I feel ought to be exhausted before the hairier metaphorical and allegorical aspects feel scrutiny. Also, this approach aligns more closely with an academic background in letters, so here I go. I hope to explore the texts cited in Being or Nothingness and those at one level of remove from The Book, if they should appear to me.
The Giant Rat of Sumatra
I’ve isolated the Conan Doyle short story in which is written the phrase from the book. The Cliff’s Notes version is that it’s a classic mystery of mistaken intent. It opens with a wrecked man visiting Holmes. This Ferguson explains the scenario: His friend’s wife, a Peruvian woman, has been caught drinking blood through a wound her infant’s neck. Holmes arrives on the scene, noting the appearance of a crippled dog. The husband has a teenaged son from an earlier marriage, Jacky (also crippled) and a maid. His wife is locked in her rooms, away from the infant. She has also been accused of beating the shit out of the crippled kid. What a lady!
Holmes notices South American weapons on the wall in the child’s room and does his perception magic. Turns out the crippled kid’s been popping the infant with blowgun darts, but not before he tested the juice on the dog. Mom knew the kid was doing it and would spend time sucking the poison out of the infant and couldn’t tell her husband because she knew knowing would crush him. Jacky it prescribed a year at sea for being a homicidal jerk. We resolve cleanly.
What do we know?
- At the core of the narrative circumstance surrounding the Rat’s citing is a visual illusion: a woman appears to be guilty of vampirism.
- Holmes, exasperated, complains early on that he and Watson are leaping into a Grimm’s tale.
- The culprit is a vitriolic teenager, jealous and fearless.
Illusion seems to be, given the content on the first page of BoN, the theme of focal import here; are things as they seem? I’m interested in the nature of misdirection here.
The only Grimm’s Fairy Tale which includes rats, specifically, (that I’ve found) is their Pied Piper story. One day, a single man comes to town dressed in strange clothes and leaves later that day with a horde of rats following him. The town doesn’t thank him, or offer him payment. Angry, he returns dressed as a hunter and plays his flute again, this time attracting the town’s children. They follow him out of town into a mountain cave and aren’t heard from again. Bastard!
So. A man comes to town and pipes. *yawn*
There are twelve short stories in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, the parent collection which houses The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire. It is the fifth story of twelve. The end of BoN depicts B discovering the 13th book after suffering an aneuryism (or something near), effectively tying up the narrative beginning on the first two pages.
Other works referencing the Giant Rat can be found within the Wikipedia entry.
Further, this method echoes Hofstadter’s concept of fugues applied metaphorically to other things. He writes, in Gödel, Escher, Bach:
A fugue is like a canon, in that it is usually based on one theme which gets played in different voices and different keys, and occasionally at different speeds or upside down or backwards. However, the notion of a fugue is much less rigid than that of canon, and consequently it allows for more emotional and artistic expression. The telltale sign of a fugue is the the way it begins: with a single voice singing its theme. When it is done, then a second voice enters, either five scale-notes up, or four down. Meanwhile, the first voice goes on, singing the “countersubject”: a secondary theme, chosen to provide rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic contrasts to the subject. Each of the voices enters in turn, singing the theme, often to the accompaniment of the countersubject in some other voice, with the remaining voices doing whatever fanciful things entered the composer’s mind. When all the voices have “arrived”, then there are no rules. There are, to be sure, standard kinds of things to do – but not so standard that one can merely compose a fugue by formula.
And so let BoN work as the theme, and all of these accompanying texts, let them be the other voices. We’ll rough it, and then trim it down to a manageable number, like six or eight. All of that later. I’ll be reading happily on.