An Instance of the Fingerpost
Iain Pears, London: Jonathan Cape, 1997; pp. 698; hardcover $35 ca.
Some Bulletin readers will know Iain Pears as an art historian, television consultant and journalist on both sides of the Atlantic, inveterate writer of opinion pieces for the better English weeklies and dailies, and author of a half-dozen well-received detective novels. His recent fiction includes best-selling stories of art fraud in Italy (Giotto's Hand). But in An Instance of the Fingerpost, Pears draws together the strands of his experience and knowledge, including that he has acquired from living many years in Oxford.
The result is an old-fashioned murder mystery, a clever novel, but not a great one. But never mind; although this is the sort of book that we might forget in a couple of years, it is a compulsive page-turner. It is a fine holiday read, and is recommended on that ground.
A thorough and creative study of personality and character it is not, nor does it add much to our grasp of love, life, or human experience writ large. It does, however, touch on themes and questions that worry university and college teachers today as much as ever - the problem of academic freedom, and the question what is "final" or "ultimate" truth.
In Fingerpost, a young historian, Anthony Wood, learns wisdom the hard way, much as Goethe's Wilhelm Meister had to do.
Set in 1660s Oxford, the chief actors of Fingerpost are academics and scientists (John Locke and Robert Boyle among them), politicians and gentlefolk, mystics and religious zealots, and a very few courageous skeptics.
The book comprises four narratives, each by a participant in the events surrounding the death of Robert Grove, Fellow of New College, Oxford. (Grove was, in historical fact, a fellow of New College who died in 1663.)
In Fingerpost, Grove dies poisoned (but not necessarily murdered) in his New College rooms. He had just finished a particularly ghastly meal in "a vast and draughty hall."
The first narrator, an Italian with medical training who turns out to be a spy and murderer (although not of Grove), describes the meal: "As the food is scarcely fit for animals, I suppose it is not surprising that they (Fellows) behave like beasts. They eat off wooden platters, and in the middle of the tables are vast wooden bowls into which they toss the bones, when they do not throw them at one another. I ended up with food platter-ed over me from Fellows ... spraying each other with bits of gristle and half-masticated bread." (p.71) Grove must have been imbibing to the point of unconsciousness, the Italian thinks, in hopes the memory of his College dinner would by that be dimmed. Tragically, the wine was full of arsenic.
The Italian, Marco da Cola, is a fictional character, an amalgam of several persons who might very well have passed through Oxford and London at the time. His commonsensical and empirical view of medicine, like that of Boyle, sits in stark contrast to the ordinary beliefs of even the best-educated persons of the time, and the bleak conditions in which most people lived. But of course, Pears is leading us on; Cola's stylish prose is a cover, and the next narrator, Jack Prestcott, begins to show just how dangerous a man Cola could be.
Prestcott's family is a victim of the recent Civil War, and this young student is determined to restore the family's good name. In doing so, Prestcott threatens a member of the English elite with death, and comes near to execution for his mad act. To him, the relations among the actors identified in Cola's narrative are those of raw power, endless intrigue, and brute self-interest.
In Prestcott's narrative, we are introduced to the character of Sarah Blundy, loveable and mysterious, and thus to a thread that takes us through the remaining narratives - the next by yet another Oxford college fellow, and the last by Anthony Wood, perhaps the greatest antiquary and Oxford University historian there ever was.
Wood, like several of Pears's people, was an historical figure, the author of Athenae Oxoniensis (1691), and dreadfully unsociable and rancorous in the last thirty years of his life. In Fingerpost, his doomed love affair with the previously mentioned Sarah Blundy explains his hermit-like habits. But his "job" in the novel is to make a persuasive accounting of the three inconsistent narratives that precede his.
As a practicing historian, I am pleased Iain Pears chose Wood to provide an argument for one possible truth. But it is alarming to read Fingerpost, and to see how a very persuasive case is made of each narrative. I was thoroughly taken in, for instance, by the Prestcott narrative - only to learn at the end that Prestcott wrote his story in Bedlam, the well-known insane asylum.
The novel's title appears in a quotation at the opening of the Anthony Wood narrative, and is drawn from Francis Bacon's Novum Organum:
"When in a Search of any Nature the Understanding stands suspended, then Instances of the Fingerpost shew the true and inviolable Way in which the Question is to be decided."
A "fingerpost" usually means a road sign that points the way to a desired place. The three opening narratives of the novel, together act as a fingerpost to Anthony Wood. Wood's calm and commonsensical inferences reveal the most satisfactory truth of all (satisfactory for the moment, at any rate).
There is, Pears would probably say, no final truth. But there are in the world of science, just as in the social world, worthy and defensible positions that deserve our strong commitment. Thus, Pears's book is an argument against the excesses of epistemological relativism.
The book is also a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the psychological and social forces that most threaten academic freedom and free inquiry.
In a still broader sense, the novel touches an old controversy, the problem of the two cultures (to quote C. P. Snow). In the last gasp of the century, we confront the fruits of information science and high technology -- and are not entirely prepared. Snow would have wanted us to remember the crucial importance of the arts and humanities at a moment like this; so would Pears. Both of them would insist that without the courage to ask difficult questions, and without the necessary conditions of free inquiry, we may find ourselves even worse off than, say, the more hapless of Pears's 17th-century devotees of science.
Bill Bruneau is with the department of educational studies at the University of British Columbia and past president of CAU