Sunday, June 8, 2014

Inspector Morse - The Transcendence of Art

[The second of a series of posts which bind my twin loves - philosophy/theology and TV detectives - for no reason whatsoever. Previously: Broadchurch - By Grace Ye Have Been Saved. Up next: Sherlock Holmes - The Aragorn Complex. Upcoming: Foyle's War and moral absolutes.]

“Your aesthetic sense seems to be causing you no end of trouble, Chief Inspector,” says one suspect in the enormous body of Oxford-dwellers under investigation by Inspector Morse.

Anybody that has known me more than a week or two will probably tell you that one of my nerd obsessions is British detective shows. But my standards are high. While your average chalk-and-cheese buddy-cop mystery show is fun, I get bored unless it starts to take a stab at something deeper (see Midsomer Murders, Elementary).

Inspector Morse, at first glance, doesn’t seem to do this. Morse is a broody intellectual with odd habits. Sergeant Robbie Lewis, his partner, is a cheerful, ordinary family man. It’s the Formula. 

But Morse is more than the sum of his eccentricities (as, for instance, Hercule Poirot has become under the subtle grooming of David Suchet.) Morse doesn’t just like good things because they are commonly accepted as Good Things, but because they are genuinely excellent. And while the show has shot Oxford’s homicide rate into the stratosphere, its mystery doesn’t really center around death, but around life, and the longing for something transcendent.

Like Evelyn Waugh (a comparison I'll justify in a minute), Morse has a rather cantankerous view of the modern world, accompanied by a nostalgia for one that is passing away. In his novel Brideshead Revisited, Waugh personified the new age as a shallow young lieutenant named Hooper (he could have been the prototype for happy-go-lucky Robbie Lewis). As described by his Oxford-educated superior Charles Ryder:
Hooper was no romantic. He had not as a child ridden with Rupert’s horse or sat among the camp fires at Xanthus-side; at the age when my eyes were dry to all save poetry--that stoic, red-skin interlude which our schools introduce between the fast flowing tears of the child and the man--Hooper had wept often, but never for Henry's speech on St. Crispin's Day, nor for the epitaph at Thermopylae. The history they taught him had had few battles in it but, instead, a profusion of detail about humane legislation and recent industrial change. Gallipoli, Balaclava, Quebec, Lepanto, Bannockburn, Roncevales, and Marathon--these, and the Battle in the West where Arthur fell, and a hundred such names whose trumpet-notes, even now in my sere and lawless state, called to me irresistibly across the intervening years with all the clarity and strength of boyhood, sounded in vain to Hooper.
Morse and Lewis could easily be Ryder and Hooper transported to a 1980’s police station. Morse is a romantic, burying his regrets from a sad childhood and unsuccessful love life in soaring Wagnerian operas. He’s frequently irritated by Lewis’s grating banality, and takes it out on the poor sergeant by mocking his grammar, education, and practically everything else.

Lewis doesn’t deserve this (it’s in these moments that the relationship is more like the pre-ghost Scrooge and Crachit), because while Morse is a romantic, he’s also a misanthrope and a snob.

There’s a seemingly insurmountable difference between the world in Morse’s head and the daily deluge of sordid tales he encounters as a police officer (he is, after all, “a good detective but a poor policeman.”) His usual mental defense against this gap is to look down on ordinary people and venerate artists, intellectuals, and beautiful women as “something different.” He has a gourmet taste in ale, music, and cars. Even his view of women is idealized and old-fashioned. While this leads him to be pretty sexist at times, it also makes him treat women, and the ideal of femininity that they symbolize, as a race apart, something high and sacred.

He is quick to recognize sehnsucht, the inexplicable longing we find in beauty and purity.

C.S. Lewis defines it so:

That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of “Kubla Khan,” the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.
But though Morse builds his entire ethos around this passion, there are times when it fails. I think that’s what I like the most about him: he reveres the sacred echo in beauty, yet he feels its limitations.

Inevitably, if we hold up people or things as an end, they will wither (if that sounds like an appeal for God, it is), especially living in the age of Hooper. Artists and art are both meant to be means, not ends. 

Morse’s most vulnerable moments are when his ideals break down, and he’s dragged down to join the rest of humanity. 

Take this scene from Twilight of the Gods, when, at the end of the case, Morse is contemplating the ignoble personal life of a beautiful opera singer:

It’s the first time he’s ever asked Lewis about his family.

Lewis isn’t such a bad guy, after all. He is kinder and more principled than Morse—he has a family, a decent, albeit somewhat dull, life. Lewis has an emotional center, while Morse is eternally lonely. But even with all his flaws, I prefer Morse’s snobbery to Lewis’s routine. Lewis seldom takes a stand on his middle-class doctrines, and when he does it stems from convention, not conviction. Morse is at least decisive, and his spiritual skepticism has more integrity than Lewis’s wishy-washy conformity.When Lewis is asked about God, he shrugs and retreats into English embarrassment. Speaking to a slightly buffoonish canon about devil worship:
Lewis: How can someone so bright believe in all that stuff?
Canon Appleton: I believe in an historical figure who made the lame walk and the blind see and who raised himself up from the dead. Or don’t you believe that, sergeant?
[Lewis looks embarrassed.]*

Morse, on the other hand, later engages the canon in a more lengthy, nuanced discussion on evil. He refuses to resort to clich├ęd, cookie-cutter atheism. He’s a cynic about organized religion (with all the corrupt churchmen he’s encountered in Oxford, who can blame him?), but ideas of justice and penance resonate. Another factor is the constant reminder of his own insufficiency in his empty love life, dead-end career, and academic failures. (If he wished to forget the last, a long parade of suspects employed in Oxford's thirty-nine colleges continually rub it in his face.)

There’s one scene in my favorite episode, Promised Land, in which this is demonstrated. The story is a melancholy one (though interspersed with some of the series’ funniest moments)—a tale of miscarried justice, a never-ending cycle of reprisals, and the impossibility of human redemption, set with great irony in a paradise of independence and prosperity. Even in this moral morass, Morse keeps a hold—tenuous as it is—on his ideals. He cares more about justice than process, but justice fails him, and he certainly fails himself. After some morose rambling about Pascal’s wager, he says:

Morse: A real gambler will always choose life over death, Lewis.
Lewis: What do you think…about God and that? Do you think there’s a God?
Morse: I think…there are times when I wish to God there was one. A just God. A God dispensing justice. I’d like to believe in that.
That humility and insecurity, an appeal to a power outside himself, is easier to respect than snide, certain atheism (or for that matter, snide, certain faith). Morse loves beauty and ideals, but he feels the inadequacy of these things in the face of human depravity and failure, and he’s honest enough to at least wish there was something behind the beauty. He even admits the possibility.

We shouldn't be left with a picture of a romantic, virtuous seeker after spiritual truths: Morse is an imperfect hero. His flaws are dramatic and obvious, he’s a bully, a snob, socially inept, nearly an alcoholic, a sexist, a corrupt policeman, arrogant, self-centered. But he never pretends to be anything else. Much of John Thaw’s magnificent portrayal of the character comes down to the fact that he wears his heart on his sleeve, in all its passion, sensitivity, sinfulness, and brokenness. It is this obvious shortcoming (and his awareness of it) that grants him both unusual vulnerability and an endearing humility.

As Morse said about Wagner, this show was about “…the important things...Life and death…regret.”

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
    Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
    Falls the remorseful day.
~A.E. Housman

Watch the series for free on Hulu.

Want something good to watch? Check out my full list of British detectives, here.



*It’s notable that Lewis’s shallow faith is uprooted the instant he loses what is dear to him (I’m thinking in particular of events between the end of Morse and the beginning of Lewis.)


  1. I've just watched the ‘Morse in Australia’ episode as a repeat on the TV. It was very interesting and also relates to your blog here. This episode starts with Morse going to Australia to dig up new evidence to avoid an enquiry (and save his own reputation) into one of Morse’s previous cases. Morse starts digging around in Australia, and this causes two innocent men to die including the local cop, as well as someone else who commits suicide because they believe Morse has discovered his 'secret' even though at that point, Morse had not.

    What makes this episode really interesting is that near the end of the episode, Morse finds out that he had, in fact, convicted the wrong man in his original investigation. This innocent man later died from AIDS that he caught in prison. So Morse comes to realise that he has personally caused the deaths of four innocent people.

    Morse is personally to blame and he knows it. Gone is the normal arrogance and self-righteous certainty, and to some extent Morse is 'lost'. Morse’s normally unshakable, arrogant belief in ‘always being right’ has been shattered by his own failures.
    This Morse is the opposite of the normally arrogant and intolerant Morse, which makes it even more compelling viewing. It's interesting that Lewis, although he shows genuine sympathy and concern for Morse after these deaths, does not grasp the seriousness of Morse’ distress. This is consistent with Lewis’ affable but shallow awareness of other people’s emotions and needs. It’s not that Lewis doesn’t care, he does care, but his depth of understanding will always be shallow.

    The extremity of Morse’s distress is brilliantly revealed in the closing scene:

    Normally, Morse barely tolerates the company of Lewis. However in this final scene, Morse has to wait for an hour before his opera starts, and Morse actually asks Lewis to spend this hour with him! I could scarcely believe it. Lewis (of course) doesn’t realise how this normally unthinkable and humiliating (for Morse) request is really a plea for help. So Lewis innocently and happily replies that he is going for a ferry ride on Sydney harbour, and off he trots, leaving Morse ‘abandoned in his hour of need’ to deal with his own personal crisis of self doubt and failure.

    These episode is Shakespearean in its portrayal of the hero’s fatal flaw being the cause of his own humiliating down-fall…Closing Credits…. Standing ovation! Bravo!

    1. That one's probably my favorite episode - and you identify exactly what I like about it. I think it's interesting that Morse, in his uncertainty about the possibility of human justice (and particularly his own), expresses a wish for divine justice. It's incredibly poignant.

    2. It's also why I don't buy the whole Inspector Lewis thing. His character simply changes *too* much.

      It's far easier to see characters like D.S. Hathaway, Ellie Miller, D.S. Joe Ashworth, or maybe even D.S. Bacchus be promoted, but Lewis - as portrayed in Morse - doesn't seem much like Lewis in Inspector Lewis.

    3. Indeed, but Lewis in Lewis is still outshone as a character, as a man, and as a detective by the wonderful Hathaway. It's interesting that Lewis in Lewis is still shallow but in the reverse relationship to the Morse pairing - in Lewis it is the junior partner Hathaway that makes it watchable. Poor Lewis is still the weakest and least complex character - I wonder what the actor is like in real life…☺

      And by the did the extremely kind, sensitive, and likeable 'Endeavor' Morse turn into the snob and bully of the older Morse?

      Confession: when I first watched Morse quite a few years ago, I quite 'fancied' Morse as the character, but now these same episodes make me think he's a snobby, intolerable s*it, and I can’t find anything likeable about him at all - except the one episode I described above when I only felt sorry for him, but also felt that he thoroughly deserved it.

      If Lewis had been more ‘real’ as a character in the final scene of that Australian episode (called Promised Land where you watched it) he would have felt the same as I did. The writers could have increased the drama of the moment if Lewis had paused to consider whether he would comply with Morse’s desperate request or…deliberately refused to do so, and let Morse see that he knew that he was deliberately refusing to. Then Lewis could then have been shown to walk away, enjoying the justifiable sense of revenge that would have brought him for all those Morse insults and ‘put downs’ he had endured over the years - the worm that finally turned. But no, he was shown to be true to his wishy washy character. Pity. I would have cheered him for that.

      PS I’m wasting far too much time discussing this, but it’s fun isn’t it!

    4. Lewis strikes me as a type of person who's all too common - he just cares about going through the motions of a "good" life. Like Hooper from Brideshead, he's just so mediocre and pedestrian. He never aspires to transcendent things. That type really irks me. But they can often make me like Morse - I love art and culture and all that jazz, and often look down on those that don't.

      In the context of the whole series, I think both of the characters did occasionally defy those types, though. (Incidentally, you can watch it here in complete form: I've never watched an episode on TV, but rather watched the whole series on DVD all the way through, pretty much without interruption. Liking Morse sometimes takes the context of several episodes. In season two, there were several where he was particularly nasty, but throughout the series, his grumpiness was leavened by the sympathy we felt for his loneliness. And he had his moments: the gallantry with which he treated women was, I think, a lot of his appeal. He occasionally showed some affection for Lewis. He was intriguingly mysterious. There's the vulnerability thing, like you mention (this happens several times in the series), and his amusing tendency to rush off in the wrong direction (I love that he isn't infallible, like Holmes.)

      As for Lewis, even he could occasionally do a bit of critical thinking. Remember the end of that one episode when he threw the tape in the pond to protect Morse (thereby perverting the cause etc. etc.)? It took some strength of character to do that, when Morse hadn't even asked him.

      Shaun Evans's brilliance is that he really just does things that *suggest* Old Morse. He drops hints and small things. I can definitely see some of the snobbishness peeking through at times. I suspect the third season will find him breaking up with Monica, which might reveal another side - also, moving away from the influence of Thursday could be a major thing as well. But in general, he does seem to have been softened as a character.

      P.S. I love your long, thoughtful comments! :)

  2. We have only just had the Endeavor first season here in Australia, so I look forward to the second and third season.

    Also we have only just had reruns of whichever season The Promised Land was in, although I watched them all when first shown years ago. Maybe I will like Morse more in later episodes.


WARNING: Blogger sometimes eats comments - copy before you post.