Riddles as Poetry

Hobbit Day was Sunday, apparently. September 22 is the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, and, as you recall, the day Bilbo famously disappeared from the Shire and left the Ring in Frodo’s keeping.

In their honor, let’s investigate something near and dear to hobbit hearts: riddles.

A famous chapter in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is entitled “Riddles in the Dark.” Gollum and Bilbo engage in a game—an old and ancient exchange in Middle Earth that carries, even for us, a kind of magic and authority. Gollum agrees to let Bilbo go if Bilbo can solve the riddles he poses to him; and Bilbo—well, given the spot he’s in, he agrees to be eaten if he loses.

This chapter hearkens to a very old tradition, not only in English, but in many languages and cultures, and makes you think of nursery rhymes, and kennings in Beowulf (if you’re particularly nerdy) and even the Sphinx in Greek mythology. Tolkien himself emphasizes the sacredness of that tradition when describing Bilbo’s thoughts after desperately asking Gollum “what do I have in my pocket?” as his last riddle:

[Bilbo] knew, of course, that the riddle-game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it. But he felt he could not trust this slimy thing to keep any promise at a pinch. Any excuse would do for him to slide out of it. And after all that last question had not been a genuine riddle according to the ancient laws. (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit)

I remember my dad reading “Riddles in the Dark” to me and my sister and pausing to give us the chance to figure out the answers. It was, I think, the first time I had encountered riddles, and I remember my mind bending and twisting in frustration, stretching to do a sort of thinking that it wasn’t used to.

Here’s one that Gollum poses to Bilbo:

Alive without breath,
As cold as death;
Never thirsty, ever drinking,
All in mail never clinking.

What’s so striking about this riddle is that three of the four lines are paradoxes. It pushes against your sense of what is possible. How can something be alive, and not breathe? A plant, perhaps? But then the next line nixes that: plants aren’t “as cold as death.” Well then; so what is never thirsty, but “ever drinking”? A riverbed? But then your mind is thrown again– apparently this thing wears “mail,” like a soldier? A mail that “never clinks”?

The answer is fish–and as with all good riddles, as soon as you hear the answer, you feel a sense of surprise at its obviousness: “oh! Why didn’t I see that before?”

You work backwards, and realize that each of the pieces of the puzzle fit really well, and invite you to see fish in a strange new way: alive, but not breathing, “cold as death”—and indeed there is something rather ghostly about the fish I observed in the Boston Aquarium as a young girl—, always “drinking” water but obviously never thirsty for it, and arrayed in fine, sometimes beautiful scales like silent mail. Fish are stranger than you think.

When I used to teach Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, I loved telling my students the story of how Oedipus became the king of Thebes, a story which precedes the events of the famous awful tragedy with a kind of unexpected playfulness. After diagramming on the board the (somewhat complicated) family tree, I always shared with them the famous riddle the Sphinx poses to Oedipus. Like Gollum, she places dire terms on the riddle: if he solves it, she will leave Thebes alone; if he fails to solve it, she will devour him:

What walks on four legs in the morning
Two legs at noon
And three legs in the evening?

As a class, we would spend at least fifteen minutes guessing all sorts of answers. I would always insist that students who had already heard the story not to give it away. I can still see the furrowed brows, confused smiles, frustrated frowns and eyes raised to the ceiling for inspiration—all proper responses to the riddle, the kind of intellectual language game that most of us don’t often encounter.

Eventually my students would reach the end of their patience and demand the answer. I don’t remember in my eight years of teaching anyone actually solving it:

Man crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult, and uses a cane in old age.

If you know what happens next to Oedipus in Sophocles’ play, you realize the depths of the irony: Oedipus solves the Sphinx’s riddle about the nature of man, but cannot solve the riddle of his own nature, his own fate.

Riddles don’t seem to be part of our common discourse today, but puns are, and they’re rather akin to them. I have two friends in particular who are really gifted at coming up with puns, and it always takes me several moments to even realize what they’re talking about.

Like riddles, puns rely on something similar to metaphor–on pulling together sounds that you do not normally associate, as riddles pull together disparate ideas or images. And, I would admit, despite my own personal frustration and lack of skill with both, puns and riddles have the unique ability to refresh language, to make you encounter words you think you knew in a new way.

Puns and riddles are poetic.

In his wonderful essay “The Persistence of Riddles,” my friend Richard Wilbur says that riddles “unlimber the mind, making us aware of the arbitrariness of our taxonomy; they restore us briefly to clear-eyed ignorance and a sense of mystery” (The Catbird’s Song 46).

“Clear-eyed ignorance and a sense of mystery.” I love that. Flannery would too.

We think and move and live in language–in a particular dialect, conditioned by time and location and class and economic status and ethnic background and all sorts of things we don’t even realize are forming the way we speak and think. But riddles–and, I believe, poems– have the power to engage us with language in fresh ways that can make words strange and new for us again.

Here’s a wonderful riddle Wilbur offers in that same essay:

In marble walls as white as milk
Lined with a skin as soft as silk,
Within a fountain crystal-clear,
A golden apple doth appear.
No doors there are to this stronghold,
Yet thieves break in and steal the gold.

The first two lines begin gently, with similes. Similes are always easier to swallow than metaphors; they claim less. The marble walls as white “as milk”–like it, but not exactly; they have a skin soft “as silk”–an arresting image, to be sure, but nothing to get too worked up about.

But the riddle intensifies as it ventures into metaphor: “a golden apple” appears “within a fountain crystal-clear”–and your mind starts to stretch a bit as you imagine the apple bobbing up and down in the water cascading from some kind of source. Of course, the apple is a metaphor, but for what? And you can’t quite get the image of an apple floating in water out of your head, even though you know it obscures as much as it reveals.

The last clue is more tantalizing than it is helpful (at least it was for me, as I read it before finally allowing my eyes to slip down to the answer). Another metaphor appears: the apple in the fountain is somehow “a stronghold” that is nevertheless breached by “thieves” who “break in and steal the gold.”

Have you guessed the answer?

Wilbur again:

That rich and curious structure, that doorless stronghold, sounds as if it belonged in a fairy tale or chivalric romance. To someone unused to the aesthetic of riddles, it might seem anticlimactic, after all that marble, silk, and gold, that the answer should be merely “an egg.” But that is not how enigmas are to be taken; whatever else they do, they are out to restore for a moment the wonder of ordinary things—to make us amazed, in this case, that an egg should be what it is. (Ibid. 44, emphasis added)

That is what a riddle is—and a pun, and a kenning, and any truly metaphorical use of language. That is what poetry is: the mode of language that can “restore for a moment the wonder of ordinary things.”

If you want a bit of proof, look at Emily Dickinson. Her “Narrow Fellow in the Grass” is, of course, a snake—but she never says his name out loud in the poem, as if she were in a drawing-room full of delicate 19th century ladies.

Rather, she offers us a riddle that helps us rediscover the snake as “a spotted Shaft” or a “Whip Lash;” a creature who inspires in us a “tighter Breathing”; we gasp at the sight of him, and not just because we are afraid.

In “I Dwell in Possibility”, Dickinson poses a riddle whose answer is poetry itself: it is a “house” that is “fairer than Prose” with more “Windows” and “Doors”; that is, it somehow lets in more light. It’s “Chambers” are “impregnable of Eye” with a roof encompassing the “Gambrels of the Sky.” Indeed, poetry is capable of endowing the poet, with her “narrow Hands,” the power to “gather Paradise”.

No wonder Socrates felt that poetry was rather dangerous. Riddles are, too. They are both like magic spells because they are both human acts of renaming the world. They attempt to get a fresh look at things that would otherwise be disenchanted for us. They make the expected unexpected, the ordinary unusual, the profane sacred.

I’ll close with a poem containing a series of riddles that Richard Wilbur says describes the poet:

    Pitcher – by Robert Francis

His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,

His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.

The others throw to be comprehended. He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.

Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.

Not to, yet still, still to communicate
Making the batter understand too late.

Is Poetry Dangerous?

Sappho and Alcaeus *oil on panel *66 x 122 cm *1881

Plato, according to some readings, seemed to think so.

It’s an odd question to ask because poetry, as we usually conceive of it, has been so marginalized from our daily discourse, relegated to esoteric journals and graduate courses, that most people feel as though they don’t even know how to read it, never mind worrying about its nefarious influence. This absence could be partially due to the inaccessible and exasperatingly experimental nature of much contemporary poetry–but then again more traditional forms don’t seem to be faring much better.

However, we could expand our definition of poetry to include music, and we’d have strong justification for doing so. Lyric, of course, comes from the Greek word lyre, an instrument played often to accompany ancient recitations and performances of poetry. The Anglo-Saxon scop chanted the three-thousand lines of Beowulf and Virgil wrote “I sing of arms and the man” in the opening line of the Aeneid, just as Homer “sang” of the wrath of Achilles in the Iliad and the man of many ways in the Odyssey. Historically, poetry was inseparable from song. Including modern music within its domain might make Plato’s anxieties more understandable.

Wordsworth famously defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and Socrates, in The Republic, seems inclined to agree; he is especially concerned with the power of poetry to elicit our emotions:

And the same may be said of lust and anger and all the other affections, of desire and pain and pleasure, which are held to be inseparable from every action—in all of them poetry feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled, if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue. (The Republic, Book X)

Charles Griswald observes:

The debate about the effects on the audience of poetry continues, except that today it is not so much poets strictly speaking, but the makers of others sorts of images in the “mass media,” who are the culprits. Controversies about, say, the effects of graphic depictions of violence, of the degradation of women, and of sex, echo the Platonic worries about the ethical and social effects of art. (“Plato on Rhetoric and Poetry,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

In The Republic, Socrates famously recounts multiple examples of Homer’s unseemly descriptions of weeping heroes and badly-behaving gods in the Iliad as evidence that even great poetry is bad for people. Eventually, Socrates concludes that most poets should not be allowed to enter his ideal city–since even the best ones entice the listener with misrepresentations of the divine. Only the “rougher and severer poet or story-teller, who will imitate the style of the virtuous only, and will follow those models which we prescribed” will be allowed inside.

That is, the only poetry he’ll countenance is the didactic sort that unambiguously directs the listener toward the practice of virtue. I can’t help but think about the recent hoopla in some Catholic circles (yes, again) over the dangers of reading Harry Potter.

Socrates’ solution seems rather puritan, even obtuse, until you consider the sorts of lyrics most young people are listening to on a daily basis. I’m not living under a rock, but I remember chaperoning many high school dances where my stomach twisted at the kinds of things, especially about women, blasted from the speakers. And it’s pretty evident that these messages were being absorbed and even enacted by my students; I had to step in to firmly interrupt a lot of “dancing” that ought not be occurring anywhere, much less a Catholic school gym. What we see and listen to inevitably shapes our imagination and, in ways we may not fully understand, our behavior.

On the other hand, it is hard to conceive of a sanitized poetry that would satisfy Socrates and, at the same time, be worthy of the name. In Book 10, he grants that poetry could return from her exile, but only if her defenders could articulate an argument as to her purpose:

Let them show not only that she is pleasant but also useful to States and to human life, and we will listen in a kindly spirit; for if this can be proved we shall surely be the gainers—I mean, if there is a use in poetry as well as a delight?

Ah, yes, the old objection. What use is it? Why should we read this stuff?

Still, the interlocutors in The Republic seem to have a kind of awe before the power of poetry that is difficult for most people today to understand. If poetry could only be proven to be useful to the city–and, by extension, to the harmony of the human soul–Socrates and his friends would consider subjecting themselves to its spell.

Perhaps the most important danger of poetry articulated by Socrates is its tenuous relationship with the truth:

Then must we not infer that all these poetical individuals, beginning with Homer, are only imitators; they copy images of virtue and the like, but the truth they never reach? The poet is like a painter who, as we have already observed, will make a likeness of a cobbler though he understands nothing of cobbling; and his picture is good enough for those who know no more than he does, and judge only by colors and figures.

The poet is a mere “imitator”, and unlike the craftsman of swords or musical instruments, he doesn’t have a precise knowledge of the thing he makes in words. He is at several removes from the thing itself which he describes.

This seems like rather an odd objection–especially if you read Homer, because he seems to take great pains to describe the disembowelments on the battlefield in somewhat excruciating detail in many places–but if you understand the objection to be referring to something rather oblique in the nature of poetic language itself, it becomes somewhat easier to see the “quarrel between philosophy and poetry” that Socrates identifies.

Emily Dickinson has a kind of response to Socrates, I think, in one of her most famous poems:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

She insists upon telling “all the truth,” but seems to think that the best way to do so is in a “slanted” manner–that is, through poetry.

I think it’s worth pondering her claim that poetry, perhaps even because of its indirectness, its strangeness, has a unique capacity to wound us. It does stir up our emotions, as Socrates fears, but I would argue that the best poetry does not do this in a cheap or unfair way. Poetry affords us a unique way to approach the dazzling and dangerous truth–a way that does not try to seize it in a grasping way but rather, in a phrase Virginia Woolf uses, “alights upon the truth”.

Dickinson seems to locate the danger more in the destination than in the poetic path: the “Truth” itself is dangerous; it is like “Lightning” and has the power, paradoxically, to “blind” us.

It seems to me that Plato must–to some extent–agree with her. The Republic itself, as well as his other dialogues, though they are philosophical works, are highly poetic. They don’t read at all like Aristotle or Aquinas. He seems to approach the truth indirectly as well. The Socrates of one Platonic dialogue is sometimes quite incompatible with the Socrates of another, and Plato’s own views are never clearly reducible to those of any of his characters. He, too “tells the truth slant.”

In a really wonderful essay in Poetry magazine entitled “Unknowing Lyric”, which I have been reading in preparation for the seminar I’m leading this fall, Matthew Bevis digs deeply into the experience of reading lyric poetry. Why read it?

Encountering poems, I seem to know lots of things (“this is a sonnet”; “this is an off-rhyme”; “this is typical of Paul Muldoon”) but one of the reasons I read (I think) is to be disoriented. “We want to feel poetry turning against itself again and again,” James Longenbach suggests, “not only because we need to interrogate our best ideas but because we want to experience the sensation, the sound, of words leaping  just beyond our capacity to know them certainly.”

How beautiful, and how true. The poems that stay with us contain the words that speak to, but also speak just beyond, our experience. We are like this with our favorite poems, but with people too. Isn’t the experience of falling in love killed most quickly by the (incorrect) sense that you have suddenly “figured someone out”? A riddle or puzzle delights only as long as it bewilders us, but a good poem re-bewilders us on every rereading.

Bevis continues,

One sign that it may be a good poem — I feel this especially when I’m “teaching” poetry — is that, whenever I return to it, I’ve forgotten it. Or: not forgotten it, but forgotten my way through it. I’m not sure how to offer pedagogical guidance: I have difficulty in saying who is doing what to whom on the Grecian Urn, or where it’s being viewed from; or I find myself having to figure out (again) who might be pulling the trigger in a life that had stood — a loaded gun.

I’ve said this to students before, and I will again: I think poems are a lot like people. They are frustrating in a lot of the same ways people are, and lovely in a lot of the same ways. And I’m not trying to be overly romantic. Some poems are downright disturbing; some are frightening; some are so long-winded and complex (Eliot) that you’re not sure you could manage a second reading; some are so simple and short that you’re not sure how to move forward (“Red Wheelbarrow”, anyone?). But learning how to approach all poems well, to develop a kind of love that allows you to return to them again and again, with a humble attentiveness, can help us read the folks around us better, too.

I suppose that’s one way of explaining to Socrates why they are useful to the city.

And finally–last quote from Bevis, I promise, but really you ought to read the whole thing:

My feeling whenever I get to the end of [“Ode on a Grecian Urn”] is something akin to the one Proust describes in “On Reading”: “we would like to have [the author] give us answers, when all he can do is give us desires.” Lyrics always leave something to be desired.

But sometimes it would seem that we don’t want desires, we want answers — want answers, indeed, as a way of being done with desire. “How does the individual get from needing to needing to know?” Adam Phillips asks in Missing Out; he suggests that it’s “as though knowing someone was a way of having them in safekeeping.” We may claim to know the other person in order to evade our desire for them; knowledge becomes a means to tame and triumph over loss, or longing, or both. One thing that seems to me striking about lyric poems — or, more accurately, about my relationship with lyric poems — is how often they seem to raise the question of knowability (their own, and other people’s), how they highlight the ways in which I might be tempted to reach for knowledge at the earliest opportunity and as a last resort.

A necessary but not sufficient condition for lyric, one of the signs I know it by, is that it makes me wary of saying “I understand this.”

So, is poetry dangerous? Yes. And one way it is dangerous is that it makes you painfully aware of what you do not know–a highly Socratic experience, I might add. That kind of intellectual wounding just might open you up to wonder.

An odd couple: shop class and word-craft contra mundum

It does seem rather strange that for the past twenty or more years, although many people have been lamenting the decline of the liberal arts in both the secondary and collegiate levels in favor of more “useful” or career-driven pursuits, there has not necessarily been a comparable rise in techne or craft or apprenticeship in secondary schools. 

There are, at least, robotics classes or robotics after-school clubs, and there are art classes, which involve some kind of physical engagement with material things beyond pen and paper, but there are very few home-ec or shop class courses left in most schools. For all the hand-wringing over reducing classical education in the liberal arts to mere career-prep, one does wonder how useful many of the courses students take in this supposedly utilitarian educational era actually are. The liberal arts and classical education advocates among us may be missing the mark somewhat if we are lamenting an over-emphasis on the practical in education. 

The above musings are provoked by my reading of the first few chapters of Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work for a reading group I recently joined. From the back cover:

Those of us who sit in an office often feel a lack of connection to the material world and find it difficult to say exactly what we do all day. For those who felt hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, Shop Class as Soulcraft seeks to restore the honor of the manual trades as a life worth choosing.

Crawford intersperses personal narrative, detailed descriptions of grappling with stubborn motorcycles with history and philosophy as he diagnoses our dissatisfaction with abstracted office work.  But abstracted office work is often preceded by abstracted schoolwork.

In a chapter entitled “A Brief Case for the Useful Arts,” which paradoxically calls to mind many recent essays attempting to defend the liberal arts and humanities against the encroachment of more pragmatic areas of study, Crawford explains how “blue collar” trade and craftsmanship brings human beings into contact with a stubborn, material world that resists our manipulation and ideological interpretation.

In other words, shop class reorients us toward reality:

The craftsman’s habitual deference [unlike the consumer or typical student] is not toward the New, but toward the objective standards of his craft. However narrow in its application, this is a rare appearance in contemporary life–a disinterested, articulable, and publicly affirmable idea of the good. Such a strong ontology is somewhat at odds with the cutting-edge institutions of the new capitalism, and with the educational regime that aims to supply those institutions with suitable workers—pliable generalists unfettered by any single set of skills. (19, emphasis added)

That last phrase could be easily inserted into many a typical defense of the liberal arts: we aren’t reducing education to “any single set of skills” but are preparing our students for life itself

But when Crawford says “unfettered” here his tone is unmistakably ironic: it is this lack of tethering to concrete things that has unmoored us from reality, from ourselves. 

You could quibble a bit over his identification of man-made objects and tools with the natural, physical world that we did not make, but I see his point.

I wonder… perhaps there could be a rapprochement between the liberal and utilitarian (“servile”?) arts as mutually ennobling and distinctly human endeavors—and mutually resisting the fragmented mishmash of undergraduate ideological offerings at your typical university or the lock-step college-prep courses at your typical high school?

At the risk of stretching his ideas too far, I will say that I’ve been surprised by how so much of what Crawford says about working with cars and motorcycles applies to working with a different kind of reality; not material, but nevertheless stubborn and resistant if you take it seriously: the world of words—of poetry and literature. 

He observes, “The repairman has to begin each job by getting outside his own head and noticing things; he has to look carefully and listen to the ailing machine” (17).

I mean, that description could easily describe Elizabeth Bishop crafting one of her attentive, perceptive poems about a fishhouse or a moose (the latter actually took her twenty years to finish). Her poems, though personal and warm, are famously self-effacing– she “gets outside of her own head and notices things” with a kind of relentless dedication rare even for poets.

In a story about a coffee table he made as a young man, Crawford muses on that object in the same way that many a poet has mused upon the (im)permanence of his poems: “Shared memories attach to the material souvenirs of our lives, and producing them is a kind of communion, with others and with the future” (15). Crawford really sounds like a poet there, reflecting on the ability of his art(ifact) to outlast himself and to bring him into connection with others. One thinks of Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, or Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
   So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

“This,” of course, being the carefully-crafted poem that we’re still reading four hundred years later. Communion with the future, indeed.

In this same section, Crawford quotes philosopher Hannah Arendt in order to explain the satisfaction a mechanic experiences in successfully fixing a particularly troublesome engine, but his reflection speaks just as beautifully to the poetic act:

“The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors.” All material things turn to dust, ultimately, so perhaps ‘permanence’ isn’t quite the right idea to invoke here. The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self. (16)

Later, he argues that shop class has the potential to cultivate the virtue of humility and a unique way of reading the world: “Piston slap may indeed sound like loose tappets, so to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly attentive to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is an ethical virtue” (99).

And as he interweaves quotes from Iris Murdoch (this guy did get a Ph. D. in political philosophy from U Chicago), Crawford explicitly acknowledges the similarity between artist (poet?) and mechanic that I’ve been noting:

[…] to respond to the world justly, you first have to perceive it clearly, and this requires a kind of “unselfing.” […] “[V]irtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.” This attempt is never fully successful, because we are preoccupied with our own concerns. But getting outside her own head is the task the artist sets herself, and this is the mechanic’s task, too. Both, if they are good, use their imagination “not to escape the world but to join it, and this exhilarates us because of the distance between our ordinary dulled consciousness and an apprehension of the real.” (100, emphasis added)

There’s this strange overlap then, I think, between the “useful arts” and the “liberal arts”, between mechanics and poetics, between shop-class and word-craft—at least insofar as these human activities involve a wrestling with a reality that resists you, that calls you out of yourself and yet, in a way, gives you back to yourself. Both are deeply engaging, and, when done well, ennobling.

I included the phrase “contra mundum” (“against the world”) in this post’s title but maybe I ought to have said “pro mundo” (“for the world”). Both shop class and word-craft are very human activities that can orient us in a more humble attitude toward the world, yet against worldliness, and I think Crawford would agree with me there. It’s odd, isn’t it, to associate techne (practical knowledge) so closely with sophia (wisdom)?

But then again, Jesus was a carpenter.

How Columbo Educates

A few years ago I taught a one-semester Creative Writing course, and the unit that was by far the most successful was the one on mystery stories. Before my students wrote their own mysteries, we read Conan Doyle, Chesterton, and Christie — watched an episode of the new Sherlock and — in my opinion, best of all — an episode of Columbo.

If you don’t know, Columbo was a murder-mystery t. v. series starring Peter Falk that originally ran from 1971-1978 (and again from 1989-2003).

I wanted my students to see the different ways in which one could structure a mystery plot so they could try to develop one themselves– and, to my mind, the most interesting way is the Columbo way.

The funny thing about Columbo is that the show isn’t suspenseful in the way you’d expect. You know, right from the beginning of the story, whodunit. You see how they dun it. And usually, why they dun it. That is, the first twenty minutes of every episode show you the murderer committing the murder—and, usually, the reasons for it. The titular character himself never appears until after this sequence finishes.

What’s interesting about this plot pattern is that its consistency and predictability liberate the show from the challenge most crime shows face: finding new ways to conceal from the audience the real criminal in a way that does not seem cheap or unfair. Misdirection is almost never an issue. The audience knows, before even Columbo does, the truth—but we still find ourselves captivated by watching how he finds it and proves it.

The real action of the story, instead of being about finding out who committed a murder, is rather centered around the relationship the detective develops with the murderer. It is through this relationship that the show can make its jokes, its social commentary, its reflections on human nature. It’s entertainment, to be sure, but it’s of a much more thoughtful sort than many t.v. crime shows. In fact, I would argue that it’s educative.

How does Columbo educate?

  1. The show celebrates attentiveness.

Like Monk, his spiritual heir, Columbo’s genius lies largely in his obsessive attention to detail. He frequently apologizes to the killer for his incessant questions about these details: “Ya know, these things just botha me. I was up all night. I was wondering if you could help me understand why the victim’s shoelaces were tied with da loop on the left insteaduh the right.”

Indeed, the more you watch Columbo, the more you start looking for such details yourself during the first twenty minutes during the murder sequence, just to see if you can spot the key clue that might “bug” him later.

Attentiveness is the key to Columbo’s success; he has a particular way of reading the world that allows him to see what most other people can’t see. But unlike Sherlock Holmes’ “powers” or Hercule Poirot’s sophisticated genius or Monk’s OCD hyper-sensitivity, Columbo’s ability isn’t super-human—nor is it even a kind of spiritual charism like that of Father Brown. His gift feels almost accessible to us—as if we might be able to cultivate that kind of attentiveness, too, with enough practice. If we only learned how to pay attention to people more, to relate to them in the way Columbo does, we would be able to see a lot more going on around us.

2. Anagnorisis is key to the plot

In ancient Greek tragedies, the turning-point of the story often occurs when the tragic hero recognizes something about himself or his situation. The Aristotelian term for this is anagnorisis, and surprisingly it’s the heart of almost every Columbo episode. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, anagnorisis is

the startling discovery that produces a change from ignorance to knowledge. It is discussed by Aristotle in the Poetics as an essential part of the plot of a tragedy, although anagnorisis occurs in comedy, epic, and, at a later date, the novel as well. 

In Oedipus Rex, the tragic hero experiences anagnorisis when he finally realizes that it is he who unwittingly killed his father, the previous king, and married his mother.

The discovery here, of course, isn’t about the moment when Columbo recognizes the killer—he usually seems to intuit who it is within his first five minutes on screen. Nor does it a moment when the killer realizes the wrongness of his action–he usually doesn’t.

The discovery is usually more modest, but still significant. The killer recognizes a key mistake or oversight he has made. Columbo, like Tiresias, always needs to explain this error to the killer in order for him or her to see it. And this discovery, though not necessarily redemptive, is nevertheless humbling.

Almost all the killers in the series are extremely proud, and they often dismiss the man in the shabby coat with the cigar and the blue-collar demeanor. As clever as they all are, they are usually ignorant of human nature, and this ignorance often leads them to misstep or miscalculate in a manner that confirms their guilt. In the anagnorsis, they are forced to acknowledge the shortcomings of their own cleverness and the power of Columbo’s wisdom.

This is admittedly not the kind of radical grace Flannery O’Connor’s characters experience, the kind that seems to anticipate a possible conversion, but I believe it is a kind of grace nonetheless. Humility, a professor of mine in college always said, is “the reality principle.” It’s the ability to see things as they really are. Columbo often leads the murderer to recognize, at the very least, her own inattentiveness.

But the audience, too, despite their prior knowledge of all the steps the murderer took to set up and execute his crime, is somehow also limited by that perspective. You get the sense, after a while, that simply having factual knowledge about events isn’t enough in order to really see into the truth of things. The murderer, after all, also has access to all the facts of the case. It takes a deeper kind of wisdom to see how all those facts connect to one another. Columbo often solves the case through his insights into how human nature works, and we too often find ourselves saying in recognition, “Oh—that was what we missed!”

3. Uncommon courtesy is the rule.

Something that sets the Columbo character apart from other popular detectives is his deep sense of courtesy and respect for all the other characters—even, and especially for the murderer. His relentless affability and endearing clumsiness may be an act to put criminals off of their guard—but his deep kindness never is.

In my favorite episode, “Any Old Port in a Storm,” (remember I’m not really giving anything away since you’ll know who the murderer is in the first few minutes!) a sommelier seeks to protect his family’s wine business by killing his wayward, thrill-seeking half-brother. After explaining to him the evidence that will convict him, and before he drives the murderer to the police station, Columbo gently offers him a glass of very fine wine. Surprisingly, the guilty man accepts.

There are similar moments like this throughout the series, where despite his relentless pursuit of justice, Columbo shows respect and understanding to everyone around him, even the murderer. He reminds us that even people who have committed terrible deeds have dignity.

4. Anger is the appropriate response to injustice.

Columbo so rarely loses his calm disposition that when he does show anger, you know the murderer really is in trouble.

There are times when a murderer’s cruelty and manipulation of other characters elicits the detective’s anger in ways that even the act of killing itself does not. Columbo does not seem surprised or even particularly offended by run-of-the-mill envy, fear, or selfishness. But there are certain behaviors that inspire his clean and blazing wrath.

In the above scene, for instance, from “A Stitch in Crime,” the killer not only murders other people to conceal his efforts to murder a colleague, he abuses his role as a surgeon. You get the sense that what Columbo finds particularly repulsive here is the man’s betrayal of the nature of his otherwise noble profession of saving lives.

I say this with some hesitation, because any kind of offense against human life is an extremely serious sin and deserves unambiguous condemnation, but I do think the show demonstrates wisdom in suggesting that there are various depths of depravity. Dante himself places murderers and other perpetrators of violence down in the seventh circle of hell–but the ninth and lowest circle, where Satan is incased in ice, is reserved for the treacherous.

Perhaps because it is so rare, Columbo’s anger teaches us the difference between the motives behind vengeance and justice.

Oh, and one more thing–

5. The show’s pervasive humor is delightful, not derisive.

There’s a kind of light, old-fashioned touch to the humor in Columbo. Some scenes almost seem slap-stick because of Peter Falk’s gift for physical comedy in his gestures.

The humor often runs on motifs that develop throughout the series: there are references to the never-on-screen “Mrs. Columbo”: “Oh, well sir, my wife always tells me…” “Would you sign this? My wife–she’d get a kick outta that. She’s got pictchas from you’re movies everywhere.” “Oh, no thank you ma’am, my wife’s been buggin me all week to get home earlier.” There’s Columbo’s dilapidated car that’s frequently breaking down and getting all sorts of strange looks and bemused comments from the people around him. There’s his dog, a sleepy, stubborn basset-hound–named Dog–who he often takes to the vet and instructs to wait for him in the car while he’s on a case. There are his cigars–the odor and ashes of which sometimes get him into amusing dilemmas.

And then there’s the class motif. Columbo’s humor often explores the the relationship between the rich elites and the common man. In one particularly delightful and relatable scene, Columbo wanders into a fashionable modern art studio and, for once, cannot make head nor tails of what he sees:

There is often deeper irony lurking around too, yes, as here–but not of the sarcastic or acerbic kind. Laughter about the circumstances of the case is usually elicited by Columbo himself rather than by any derision of the crooks and their cronies. It’s this kind of pervasive humor which pokes fun but never ridicules that helps keep an otherwise serious show about the greed, ambition, and folly of human beings a joy to watch.

Columbo is entertaining certainly, but it invites a kind of engagement from the viewer that educates as much as it delights.