How do you think?
That’s the question that comes up when you read George Simenon’s Maigret novels. Maigret is introduced to a new situation, asks a lot of questions and then — mulls over the entire situation. Simenon tells you all these minute details about Maigret’s life because without them you cannot understand his thought process.
Most disciplines of thought tell us to structure our thinking in some way. Maigret never does that. He’s fond of saying to journalists, “I know nothing,” which, if you’ve read Socrates, is the key to wisdom. The oracle at Delphi declared that Socrates was the wisest man in the world and Socrates said that could only be because he was the only one who knew that he knew nothing!
There is no greater barrier to wisdom than thinnking you already know. Once you already know, you can no longer learn.
Reading the Maigret books you trace Inspector Maigret’s thought process — things that occur to him, things that strike him a little bit odd, but you also have to know the trains he took, the restaurants he ate at, what he ate, which pipe he is smoking and why — if there is a reason…
I love it. I’ve just read four Maigret books in succession. You get a description of one man’s thought process and it gives you insights into your own.
Unless you try to structure it, as Maigret never does, it’s not an orderly process at all. Images, impressions, associations, notions, snatches of song, occur to us seemingly at random, unless they are triggered by a stimulus like the cookie in Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche de Temps Perdues, which I have never read, and I don’t know anyone who has read it, but everybody knows about it for some reason. Maybe someone read it a long time ago.
Maigret proceeds as if guided by the contemplative guidelines in The Cloud of Unknowing, a 13th-century guide to meditation: “Place the Cloud of Forgetting below you and the Cloud of Unknowing above you.” This places you, the reader, in the immediate present. So what occurs to you? How does your thought process work?
I just know that when I read Maigret, I have these incredible dreams. One night about 15 years ago I had been reading Maigret in Society about this diplomat who had not been allowed to marry the woman he loved, but kept up a correspondence with her for fifty years where they told each other everything, and I mean everything.
That night I had a dream about my old girlfriend at college. I dreamed that I had wandered down the wrong aisle in the supermarket and lost track of her, and now here it was nearly 20 years later. I emailed her to find out how she was doing. I did lose her because I made a wrong turn. In the perspective of decades you come to see these things without regret, but with greater understanding. I wrote a short story about it.
Well then just the other night I was reading Maigret Sonewalled and I had a very amazing dream. Unfortunately, I can’t describe it in words. Maigret had figured out exactly nothing about the crime or the criminal but when the innkeeper asked him how the investigation was going, he said, “It’s finished.” He knew he had all the information he needed; he just hadn’t put it together yet.
Well neither have I, but like him, I think all the necessary information is there. I’ll keep you posted.