Saturday, November 26, 2011

Epistemology and Funerals

I read a lot of Stephen King’s Needful Things yesterday. I have two items:

1. There were a couple of passages on pages 405-406 that stood out to me, a wannabe academic. Sheriff Alan Pangborn and Henry Payton of the Maine state police are comparing notes on the case of Nettie Cobb and Wilma Jerzyck. On the surface, the case looks rather cut-and-dry: Wilma killed Nettie’s dog, Nettie then retaliated by trashing Wilma’s house with rocks, and the two then met in the street and killed each other. We the readers know that this is not true, however, for we realize that Leland Gaunt, the owner of the new shop in town, had others do these dirty deeds in exchange for something that they wanted from Gaunt’s store. Brian Rusk wanted a Sandy Koufax baseball card that Gaunt was selling, and part of Brian’s payment to Gaunt was trashing Wilma’s house. Hugh Priest desired a fox-tail, and his payment to Gaunt was killing Nettie’s dog. But Gaunt wants for Nettie and Wilma to blame each other, for he likes to instigate conflict and exasperate feuds for his own personal amusement.

At times, Alan and Henry seem to accept the standard narrative—-that Wilma killed Nettie’s dog and that Nettie trashed Wilma’s house—-but there is a small suspicion within them that something about the standard narrative is not quite right. Things don’t add up—-such as the timing of events. I won’t go into detail on that in this post, but I will say that it was interesting to read, even if I did not understand every detail of their reasoning. What I want to highlight are a couple of passages that occur within the context of Alan and Henry hashing out ideas and scenarios.

On page 405, we read: “[Alan] was thinking of the Agatha Christie novels which [his late wife] Annie had read by the dozen. In those, it seemed there was always some doddering village doctor who was more than willing to set the time of death between 4:30 p.m. and quarter past five. After almost twenty years as a law-enforcement officer, Alan knew a more realistic response to the time-of-death question was ‘Sometime last week. Maybe.’”

On page 406, Henry tells Alan that the bloody fingerprints in Nettie’s house of the one who killed her dog do not match Wilma’s fingerprints or correspond with Wilma’s small hands. But Henry cannot use that information in court because the fingerprints in Nettie’s house are only partial. Henry eloquently says: “…if I testified in court on something like that, the defense would chew me a new asshole. But since we’re sitting at the bullshit table, so to speak—-they’re nothing alike.”

I liked these passages because they illustrate how hard it is to know things exactly, and yet it may be productive to throw out some ideas for consideration. Even if those ideas do not exactly follow a high standard of logic and evidence, maybe they can lead somewhere, or generate new questions, or point out new angles, or highlight important issues. As a wannabe academic in the humanities, there are plenty of things that I am reluctant to say that I know for certain. But it’s good to read and hear different ideas. Does that mean that I’m saying that everything is speculation and so people can pick whatever narrative they prefer? Not really, for evidence is still important. Even when Henry and Alan were speculating, they were appealing to some evidence, or they were raising questions about the standard narrative on the basis of facts. But there are cases in which, even with evidence to work with, we cannot arrive at definitive answers, and so the best we can do is propose different scenarios or ideas. I think of the scholarly attempts to define and to account for Paul’s view on the Torah. I wouldn’t lay down my life on any of these scholarly constructions being true. But they are interesting and plausible ways to emplot and account for the evidence (or, actually, some ways are more plausible than others), and so perhaps they can help me to have a conception of my own when it comes to Paul’s approach to the Torah.

2. Wilma and Nettie had separate funerals. Wilma’s funeral was at her Catholic church, and many cars were lining up outside of the church for that event, as people came for Wilma’s husband, Peter, “if not for his dead wife” (page 435). But only five people attended Nettie’s funeral: her friend and employer Polly, Sheriff Alan Pangborn, Deputy Norris Ridgewick, Rosalie Drake, and old Lenny Partidge. Lenny went to all funerals except for Catholic ones, but Polly and Alan went because they cared for Nettie. The preacher at Nettie’s funeral was Tom Killingworth, a Methodist, and he knew Nettie when she was at Juniper Hill (an insane asylum), for he conducted services there. On page 434, the narrator sums up the nature of Tom’s homily: “The homily was brief and warm, full of reference to the Nettie Cobb this man had known, a woman who had been slowly and bravely coming out of the shadows of insanity, a woman who had taken the courageous decision to try to treat once more with the world that had hurt her so badly.”

This funeral somewhat reminded me of the funeral for Paul in the second season of Dexter. Paul was a heroine addict who abused his wife, and yet he was nice to his children, and they motivated him to try to change. At his funeral, only four people showed up: Dexter, Paul’s ex-wife Rita, and Paul’s two children Cody and Astor. But the pastor gave a beautiful homily about how Paul may have had his struggles with darkness, and yet his children brought out the good in him. In my opinion, that’s how funerals should be: highlighting the good that people have done. And it doesn’t matter if many people show up to the funeral or only a few. Each life is valuable, whether or not anyone attends a person’s funeral. And yet it’s good when people at least have one person who cares for them enough to show up.


  1. On the last part of your article which says, "Each life is valuable, whether or not anyone attends a person’s funeral" -- there's always one (at least) that will take care and attend a person's funeral whether he is or not a relative. Somehow that person has cared for and gave him a decent funeral.


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