Monday, July 6, 2015

Detecting Nephi: Detection in Helaman Chapter 9 (Part Two)

Detect is one of the unanticipated words of the Book of Mormon. It pops out of the air. Readers, bred on Poe and Conan Doyle, see in it a bit of fun. Dorothy Sayers would point us to the riddles of Solomon and Daniel. We may find in Helaman a trace of detective literature. . . 

So what does Helaman mean by "detect this man"? It's not Sherlock Holmes, and it also goes beyond the plain dictionary meaning. 

I  This Man

The demonstrative pronoun also merits a look through the magnifying glass: "We will detect this man." In many languages the demonstrative pronoun can carry a powerful pejorative punch. In Hebrew ha-ish ha-zeh, lit. "the man, the this," often signals despite, criminalization, and accusation. Think of Shebna in Isaiah 22:15: ha-sokhen ha-zeh ("the premier, the this": "this (so-called) premier"). This pretender is about to fall from his high office. Even more biting are the deictic forms hallaz or hallezeh (Here comes this dreamer). This man, in Helaman's Nephite, answers, in both spirit and form, to hallezeh: We will detect hallezeh. And as Baruch Levine notes, these pejorative pronominal expressions only appear in direct discourse--another linguistic detail Helaman gets right. 

But Helaman works even more subtlety into the narrative, for, in their pointed expression this man, the unrighteous judges unwittingly place Nephi in the prophetic role of "this man, Moses." Here is the doctrine of the one righteous man, a favorite Book of Mormon theme for Hugh Nibley. "Have ye not read that God gave power unto one man, even Moses, to smite upon the waters of the Red Sea, and they parted hither and thither". . .[and] if God gave unto this man such power, then why should ye dispute among yourselves, and say that he hath given unto me no power[?]. . .Ye [thus] deny not only my words, but ye also deny. . . the words which were spoken by this man, Moses, who had such great power given unto him" (Helaman 8:11-13). 

Not only do we see power added to knowledge as Leitwoerter par excellence in Helaman 7-9, Nephi's emphatic use of the demonstrative, in logical argument, trumps its echoed pejorative use in the pretended detection of "the pretended prophet." The demonstrative pronoun, subtly but significantly interwoven into the narrative, works much of its magic as metadiscourse, and not solely as a deictic marker in an isolated instance of direct speech. That is to say, as a linguistic marker, it becomes even more essential to the ironic workings of the narrative, than to the one-liner occasion of speech. And Helaman's irony is never more effective: "We will detect this man" leads reader and judge alike to the discovery in Nephi of a man like Moses. One man, armed with knowledge and power, can champion the cause of God.

II  First Definitions

On to the verb. Because it appears to fall to the prerogative of judges, we might understand the verb detect as a technical term in Nephite law, as would be the case for words such as interrogate or discovery. But detect need not be a technical term to be a lawyerly word. An air of cynicism, of craft, here attaches to detect; it connotes cunning and "divers questions," rather than discovery. We get the sense judges are using the word quite often these days and that such detection serves them well. It's so simple, and it requires no magnifying glass: the judges detect who has money and who has none; by means of their secret signs they detect who belongs to Society, and who does not. In their choice of detect, the judges only reveal themselves. 

Because the Book of Helaman comes to us in English, we start with the Oxford English Dictionary, IV, 544. We first learn that detect comes from the Latin detegere, unroof, take off a covering: "to uncover, discover, detect." The judges seek to uncover the true murderer of the Chief Judge; they will discover what Nephi, as confederate, knows about the matter. Such a plain reading of detect gives the idea, but not the whole idea. 

Detecting Nephi may require more than removing a roof. Explain the meaning, if you will be so kind, of the following line, spoken by the disguised duke--the undetected duke--in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure: 

I never heard the absent duke much detected for women.

Does Shakespeare mean to say that the detecting duke never took either missing-persons or infidelity cases? or that he himself was the object of such like detection? Perhaps he means the duke, unlike Guy Noir, never heard the knock of the femme fatale at his office door? And why the intensifier: much detected? In "much detected" lies much happy irony.

I never heard the absent duke much detected for women.

Definition 2a in the OED reads: "To expose (a person) by divulging his secrets or making known his guilt or crime; to inform against, accuse." The usage is often self-referential: I detect myself! The OED marks definition 2a: obsolete.

"Detected, that is, accused, impeached, charged," Halliwell (ed.) The Works of William Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, Comedy of Errors, (1854), 146.

By willing to detect this man, the elites are already formulating an official accusation. We will accuse this man. We will expose this man as a fraud. We will force him to confess his "fault." The decision about Nephi's "fault," which is based on will rather than evidence, precedes the humiliating interrogation. Breaking under the "struggle session," Nephi shall detect himself: divulge his secret confederacy and inform against his "confederate" brother.

Detection, however, following this last definition, is not simply about establishing through investigation Nephi's "fault," or complicity, in the governor's assassination, or about finding the "true murderer"; it's mostly about exposing a self-proclaimed "some great man" and "prophet," who seeks to "convert" everyone, as a fraud. The judges hustle Nephi from fault to fraud. 

The modern detective does not appear by name or in method until the 1840s, and our great detectives work their magic clue-by-clue. The detecting Gadiantons could not be any more different; the judges are in a wild rush to make known Nephi's guilt and thus expose him as a false prophet by any means possible, legal, evidentiary, or not. Poirot and Holmes, step aside! Such railroading, a standard judicial proceeding in American and Egyptian media-cum-courts today, as everybody knows, has not a touch of wit or grace.

To detect, in this game of wits--accusation and counter-accusation--consists of pressuring Nephi with "divers questions" to "cross" and trip him up, and a show of bribes. The show of bribes would not have been in the public eye: the judges likely put the people on hold, while subjecting an already dejected and lamenting Nephi to a rapid-fire "struggle session." But the crowd, to whom the decision had been leaked, stood by in anticipation of the scheduled news-conference, verdict, and summary execution. Hugh Nibley sees the interrogation as unfolding in public, bribes and all as part of the show, "with the judges at their best." During China's Cultural Revolution such "struggle sessions" were always a public pummeling--so Nibley may be right. The contrast betweet public fair play and open debate versus secretive, confederate, and conspiratorial private doings (and knowledge) makes up another theme of these chapters. Nephite fair play, according to Nibley, is the only thing that keeps Nephi alive throughout the day, even as the prophetic signs continue to unfold to his ultimate vindication (Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 387-388).

Detect, more surely than any other word in the text, thus signals that great contest in which each side tries to expose and even destroy the other as illegitimate claimant to power or as a secret confederate of criminals. But Nephi, the "honest man," never uses the word, nor has need: all truth is present to his view. In their very use of the word, the elites, to the amusement of the reader, expose only their own ignorance and their love of darkness and intrigue. 

Why expose Nephi? The judges, in detecting Nephi as "confederate" of a brotherhood, propose anything but an true act of de-tegere. They want Nephi to name names, yes; but their overriding purpose is to silence him as quickly as possible, and thus thatch over their own secret combination. By exposing Nephi, they cover themselves. On his garden tower, Nephi presented himself openly and spoke freely--there was no search for cover; Seantum hides under his roof. 

III  Detection as Oracular Narrative and Narrative Oracle

The elites finally leave dejected Nephi to detect Seantum. Ironically, their detection and interrogation follow Nephi's instructions to the letter. Of themselves, they ask nothing, find nothing, detect nothing. Detection tellingly comes as a Sign. So is the questioning and examination oracle or analytic detection literature? All is one: the action of detecting comes significantly wrapped in a prophetic oracle.

Has Nephi, the pretended prophet. . .agreed with thee, in the which ye have murdered Seezoram, who is your brother?. .  

He shall say unto you Nay. . . 

Have ye murdered your brother? 

And he shall stand with fear, and wist not what to say. . . 

He shall deny. . .he shall make as if he were astonished. . . he shall declare unto you that he is innocent. . . 

Ye shall examine him, and ye shall find blood upon the skirts of his cloak. . . 

From whence cometh this blood? 

Do we not know that it is the blood of your brother? 

And then shall he tremble, and shall look pale, even as if death had come upon him. . . 

Because of this fear and this paleness which has come upon your face, behold, we know that thou art guilty. 

And then shall greater fear come upon him; and then shall he confess" (9:27-35).

The tell-tale signatures of guilt but rarely appear in the writings of the ancients, but comparable to Helaman is a place in the Ayurveda (900 BC?): 

"A person who gives poison may be recognized. He does not answer questions, or they are evasive answers; he speaks nonsense, rubs the great toe along the ground, and shivers; his face is discolored; he rubs the roots of the hair with his fingers; and he tries by every means to leave the house."

True detection comes at the last: the prompted judges observe signs of paleness and terror in Seantum's face and voice and manner and, finally, even "examine" the skirts of his cloak for delicate traces of blood. Here is a seeming moment of triumph for the elites; yet Nephi has won the game, and the secret combination, of whom Seantum was a leading and promising light, has suffered irremediable injury in the eyes of the people. They now know the truth about "the great Chief Judge" and his family, the great man whose murder they were so poignantly mourning. The idea of the "great man" is swept away and the mourners, weeping dramatically turning to anger and argument, march off in a huff. Sic transit gloria mundi--and the stage is empty, leaving Nephi, like all the prophets of Christ, "standing alone."    

In all literature, no one resembles Nephi so much as solitary Elijah, and it is the story of the false accusation and judicial murder of Naboth that forcibly comes to mind (1 Kings 21). The very difference in the two narratives heightens the suspense, as unanticipated twists make of Nephi, at first, Naboth, at denouement, Elijah. Was all this interplay of narrative intended solely for a latter-day readership? Helaman certainly also had his ancient admirers. Professor John W. Welch rightly sets alongside Helaman 9 the story of Joshua and Achan (Joshua 7; The Legal Cases in The Book of Mormon). But in the case of Achan, finding comes by oracular lot, not by oracular narrative as narrated prophetic sign. The taking of Achan works, step-by-step, by objective instrument, or, as technique; the prophet, by contrast, himself instrument, appears in dramatic subjectivity: flesh-and-blood, face-to-face--and facing kings. Helaman "had his eye fixed" on "one of the prophets": he looks back to Isaiah, Jeremiah, Nathan, and in particular, Elijah (Doctrine and Covenants 128:17). And oracular Elijah, in detection's denouement, plays Dupin or Lord Peter Wimsey far better than either Solomon or Daniel, Dorothy Sayer's prototypes:

"Hast thou killed and taken possession?"

"And Ahab said to Elijah, 
Hast thou found me, O mine enemy? 

And he answered, I have found thee" 

(1 Kings 21:19-20; Heb. matzah, find; cf. Helaman 9:31).

IV  Detecting Nephi: Coming to Acknowledgment

In the OED's third definition of detect, we find the clue to unravel the full significance of Helaman's narrative--and it plays out as irony. It's one thing to "find blood upon the skirts," and another

3. "To find out, discover (a person) in the secret possession of some quality, or performance of some act; to find out the real character of."

Facing accusations of complicity in the teeth of a shaken crowd, Nephi's whole concern is now to prove "that I am an honest man, and that I am sent unto you of God." Proof of honesty will not only save the man from death; of foremost concern to Nephi, it will save a prophet from death under shadow of fraud, it will confirm his witness and, by conviction, stir the wavering people to repentance. Indeed honest Nephi is not detectable; his true character resists unrighteous detection. At story's end the judges do detect Nephi--and, here, the irony--they find out that "this man" is in the secret and true possession of the sure prophetic witness, and they find that his real character mirrors his assertion: "I am an honest man." 

Detecting Nephi is a powerful coming to acknowledgment through signs, evidences, and examinations. The pain and humiliation of the judges has come full circle from prophetic exposure to forced acknowledgment. By detecting Nephi, their own qualities, secrets, and character stand exposed, a house without roof. The narrative tells us no more about these specific judges; there is no slaughter as on Carmel, nor a sudden fall from power, though the confidence of the people has been shaken to the core. Justified Nephi escapes death--that is all. Nevertheless. the tell-tale signs marking out the "true murderer" but tell the loss of their own "great cities," a prophetic toll of doom they rejected out-of-hand just the day before. Nephi's victory spells a zero-sum game. Zarahemla stands detected. She will soon "be taken away" by her enemies. 

Nephi alone stands beyond detection: some in the crowd think him a prophet, others say "he is a god." They never fully see him as he is. Nephi is left "standing alone in their midst." 

Jesus stands separate. 

Mihaly Munkacsy's Christ Before Pilate portrays Jesus on trial before assembled humanity. The debate rages on, the Divinity of Jesus Christ the "Great Question" on all minds (see Alma 34:5). Though at the center of the painting, as of the debate, Jesus stands increasingly unnoticed. Captivated by argument, germane or no, few now turn their gaze toward Him: certainly none penetrates the calm Divinity of His mind. None disturb His silence. Pilate absorbed, attuned only to his own inner debate, looks on Jesus with a scowl. He doesn't really see Jesus. No one does. All are distracted or abstracted. At that very moment, stands Mankind Before Jesus.


1) Stuart Lasine has written on detection and riddling in the Bible and Apocrypha: "Solomon, Daniel, and the Detective Story: The Social Functions of a Literary Genre."

2) For the well-known pejorative use of the demonstrative in Classical Greek and Hebrew, now see Scott B. Noegel, "The 'Other' Demonstrative Pronouns: Pejorative Colloquialisms in Biblical Hebrew," Jewish Bible Quarterly 33:1 (2005), 23-30; I believe the usage has also been noted in print for the Book of Mormon.

3) Ayurveda: Paul V. Trovillo, "History of Lie Detection," Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 29:6 (1939), 849.

4) The reader may wish to compare the semantics of detection in the Doctrine and Covenants: "But the hypocrites shall be detected and shall be cut off" (50:8); "The voice of Michael on the banks of the Susquehanna, detecting the devil when he appeared as an angel of light!" (128:20); "you may therefore detect him [the devil, by his attempt to deceive] (129:8).

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