Book Review: The Mind of the Maker, by Dorothy Sayers

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Dorothy Sayers (1893 – 1957) was the author of the Lord Peter mystery series, numerous plays, and a translation of the Divine Comedy. She was part of the Christian literary flowering in the early 1900s which also encompassed T.S. Eliot, Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. “She explored by-ways of knowledge, delighted in puzzles and enjoyed many a fight which she conducted with wit and good humour. Her formidable presence, magnificent brain and logical presentation put her in great demand as a lecturer.” (About Dorothy Sayers)

Me and Ms. Sayers

This particular book, The Mind of the Maker, turns out to have a personal history for me. I’ve been vaguely aware of it for years as a book “I really should read some time.” I first remember hearing it recommended by C.S. Lewis in one of his short apologetics books, where in the process of pointing out that any thinking about nonphysical things will necessarily be metaphorical, and that this does not mean that the thinker is taking the metaphor literally, he remarks that “anyone who wishes to think clearly about this topic must read The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers.”

My dad has a large personal library, and last year, while I was poking around in it looking to borrow some other book(s), I came upon TMoTM, and borrowed that one too. And lo and behold! According to the inscription on the inside cover, this very book was actually given to me by my dad, almost 30 years ago. Even back then he knew I was a creative writer, though at the time I was a very immature and inexperienced creative writer, and was apparently not ready for Sayers. I don’t know how TMoTM made it back into his library. Perhaps I left it there when I went off to university, or when I went to move overseas. Anway, now, after having done some living and some creating, I am ready for this magnificent work of Sayers’, and what a sweet reunion it has been.

I should mention that I have also read many of Sayers’ Lord Peter mysteries, which is helpful because she uses them as illustrations sometimes in The Mind of the Maker. I have not read her translation of The Divine Comedy.

A Must-Read for Artists

The first thing to know about this book is that it’s delightfully readable. Sayers was, after all, a good writer, and she had worked for some years in advertising. This book is full of bon mots, terrific quotes, and so forth, and in fact I plan to post quotes from it for a long time on the Thursday quotation post on Out of Babel. So, although the subject matter might seem kind of abstract, the book is not difficult to read or understand. If you want to read it, don’t be afraid: go ahead and read it. Ms. Sayers will not allow you to get lost or even bored.

The thesis of this book is easy to summarize, but hard to believe until you’ve seen it fleshed out. Ms. Sayers, an Anglican, asserts that we can understand the Mind of the Maker (i.e. God) by looking at the dynamics of the creative process in the minds of lesser makers (people, specifically creative artists). God is, after all, the ultimate creative artist. She talks about “the artist” a lot, but inevitably most of her examples are drawn from the art forms she knew best: novels and plays. Her insights about the creative process were instantly recognizable to this novelist.

Diving a little deeper, she maintains that we can understand the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity (yes, the Trinity) by looking at the dynamics of how an artist produces his or her work. The work itself, she says, is present in what you might call three persons. There is what she calls the Idea, which is the work as a whole, as author first envisions it when she “sees the end from the beginning.” Then there is the physical manifestation of the work (its incarnation, as it were), which is the only means by which any other person can know it. This is the physical book or play; and, in the case of a play, the stage, actors, costumes, etc. … the whole event. The process of converting the Idea into this physical form is hard work, and the artist carries it out by means of what Sayers calls Energy or Activity. Finally, there is the work as an experience that the reader or theater goer has as they read or hear the story. This too is the piece of art itself, and this Sayers calls the Power. Each of these states of the play or novel, Idea, Energy, and Power, can be legitimately said to be the entire play or novel, not just a part of it. Yet they can be distinguished from each other. All three have to be present if the reader is to have an experience of the novel, or the audience an experience of the play. In the Trinity, the Idea corresponds to the Father, the Energy to the Son or the Word, and the Power to the Holy Spirit.

I hope this does not sound blasphemous. As we read through the book, it is striking how well the dynamics of bringing a work of creative art into being parallel the doctrines of the Trinity, and help us to understand them. Sayers would say, of course, that this is no coincidence. It is because people are indeed made in the image of God, and when we engage in creative work, there is something in our structure that parallels His structure as a Maker.

There is, as you might expect, an interesting discussion of the process of the author creating characters that in some sense exist independently of herself, and how this relates to human free will.

Even if you are not interested in the Trinity, I recommend this book to any writer who wants to read the insights of another writer who is intimately familiar with reading and writing literature, including the dynamics of plotting and pantsing, and of being asked if your characters’ tastes and opinions are the same as your own and why you can’t “make X character do Y.” There are also some delightful examples of bad writing that Ms. Sayers quotes as she illustrates different ways in which the creative process can break down. I don’t know how relatable this book may be to artists in different media, such as music or visual arts, but I would encourage them to check it out as well.

The Adverbs are Where the Opinion Comes In

They give us a sense of how the speaker experiences time:

“… finally.”

“… still.”

“… already.”

They give us a sense of their expectations of others:

“I’ll bet you didn’t even …”

And of the way things usually go:

“… for some reason.” [adverbial prep phrase]

And of their opinions of themselves and others:

“I graciously accepted a phone call …”

“You barely even noticed.”

And of their attitude towards their own discourse:

“Well, basically, what happened was …”

NW Reads a How-To Book

This book, the first in the Crossroads trilogy, takes place 850,000 years ago. I read it because it’s in my genre (sort of), and we indie authors writing about super-ancient times gotta stick together.

In my persona as a cave woman, I was hoping to pick up some tips on raw survival. One main strategy employed by Xhosa’s tribe seems to be Running Away. Me approve, as I am a master at this and so are the characters in my own books.

In Survival of the Fittest, Xhosa and her tribe travel from somewhere in the interior of Africa, north, crossing the Great Rift Valley and then (I think?) the Red Sea, or whatever that used to be 848,000 years ago. Once in the Levant (the Arabian Peninsula? Or did such exist back then?), they meet up with another tribe that is already successfully living there, plus a pair of young misfits, accompanied by their pet wolf, who have come all the way from what is now China.

The book moves fast, covering a lot of territory, both literally and metaphorically. It never really took off for me. There were lots of different episodes, each of which could easily have been its own book. The narrative moved back and forth between different groups quite a bit. With Big Idea novels like this one (and like my own books), the reader has to be at least intrigued by the theory of history that the author is exploring, so perhaps my problem was that this element was missing for me.

Another thing that harmed the verisimilitude for me was what appeared to be inconsistencies in the language. On the one hand, the characters don’t have enough abstract thought to count other than saying, “One, another, another …” On the other hand, they can describe to one another things that the hearer has never seen, such as the sea. They call the Cro-Magnon people Big Heads (which seems fair enough), but occasionally they will talk about things using modern terms, like Lucy (yes, the Lucy) or “tsunami,” which seems like an anachronism to this linguist. To be fair, any time we are writing about people in an ancient time, we are writing in translation, so the modern writer has to decide when to use a “free translation” (using words that modern readers will recognize) and when to use more literal glosses on the characters’ vocabulary, which gives a more atmospheric feel but is also harder for the reader to understand.

However, the author does lay some land mines that I presume will be stepped on in the next book, notably the obvious danger posed by Xhosa’s ambitious head warrior, Nightshade. If you believe that people evolved about a million years ago, started out not wearing clothes or counting past one, and you’re fascinated by what life might have been like during that time, then this series is for you.

There are lot of notes about terminology and the different humanoid groups at the beginning, which were helpful, but one thing I really, really wanted was a map. I tried to picture the characters’ routes, and I was checking modern maps of Africa, but realizing that the land has probably changed a lot since the time this book is set. I wanted to know exactly where they crossed the Great Rift Valley (which is pretty large, after all); what body of water they were crossing; and exactly where in the Levant they ended up. If there had been a map at the beginning of the book, I would have been flipping back and forth to that puppy every few pages, and perhaps would have been more engrossed in the story.

Quote: Alternatives Actually Available

Judicially expanded “rights” to appeal state court decisions to the federal courts led to an increase in such appeals for habeas corpus from fewer than 100 in 1940 to more than 12,000 by 1970. … This is not to say that there are literally no innocent men ever convicted in a country with a quarter of a billion people. It is simply to raise the question whether extended federal second-guessing of state apellate courts will turn up many or any … and at what cost, not only in terms of money, but in terms of innocent people sacrificed as victims of violent criminals walking the streets longer and longer, while legal processes grind on slowly in a seemingly interminable way.

In short, while saving some individuals from a false conviction is important, the question is whether it is more important than sparing other, equally innocent individuals from violence and death at the hands of criminals. Is saving one innocent defendant per decade worth sacrificing ten innocent murder victims? A hundred? A thousand?

Once we recognize that there are no solutions but only trade-offs, we can no longer pursue “cosmic justice,” but must make our choices among alternatives actually available. These alternatives do not include guaranteeing that no harm can possibly befall any innocent individual. The only way to make sure that no innocent individual is ever falsely convicted, is to do away with the criminal justice system and accept the horrors of anarchy.

Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed

I realize this might seem a little esoteric, but I’m posting it for two reasons. 1) I love Thomas Sowell, and 2) This theme of having to choose between existing options, none of which are perfect and all of which may be awful, is a major theme of both my second and (freshly drafted) third novels.