Does "it is true" and "is quite customary" refer to "explanation"? and what does it mean? does it mean the "explanation" is both "true" and "customary"?

If, nevertheless, the foundation of this act, deduced by me on the ground of an enlarged conception of space, should be denied, only one other kind of explanation would remain, arising from a moral code of consideration that at present, it is true, is quite customary. This explanation would consist in the presumption that I myself and the honourable men and citizens of Leipzig, in whose presence several of these cords were sealed, were either common impostors, or were not in possession of our sound senses sufficient to perceive if Mr. Slade himself, before the cords were sealed, had tied them in knots. The discussion, however, of such a hypothesis would no longer belong to the dominion of science, but would fall under the category of social decency."

Transcendental Physics


I'm pretty sure any editor would tell Mr. Doyle to use fewer appositives. This feels like he's making the line intentionally confusing to read.

Pulling out all the unnecessary asides, the line would read:

If the foundation of this act should be denied, only one other kind of explanation would remain, arising from a moral code of consideration that at present is quite customary.

So clearly it's the moral code that is customary.

The aside "it is true" is only saying "I acknowledge that the moral code is customary at this time", which is a completely pointless addition to the sentence that serves no purpose except to make it more complex and hard to follow.

Normally you'd use an aside like that to say you're agreeing with what you assume the reader's immediate response would be to what you're saying. For example, "When I punched him in the face, it's true, I was being overly aggressive." In Doyle's paragraph, there's no reason for it, because the reader was presumably not metaphorically jumping up to say, "Oh sir, but that moral code is only customary for now and will surely change in time!"


Arthur Conan Doyle is verbose and inexact. Both "at present" and "it is true" are completely unnecessary to the sense of what is being said. "Moral code of consideration" is probably meaningless in any context, and if it has meaning, it is not what he meant in this context. Nor does he mean "impostors" in its usual signification. Here is a translation into decent English.

If my explanation that we do not fully understand space is denied, only one other explanation is possible, a human explanation that is quite common, namely that the witnesses were either accomplices of the impostor or inept observers. It is indecent to imply that I am either an accomplice or inept.

I'd like to point out that tangled prose frequently marks confusion of thought or deliberate obfuscation. In this case, it involves imputing moral wrong to mistaken observation, implying that mistaken observation is identical to madness, and denying that powers of observation cannot be judged objectively. So if we want to look at what can be rescued logically from this mess of verbiage, it is:

We have two basic opinions about this experiment. Mine is that the experiment was honest and that therefore we do not fully understand the physics involved in the experiment. The alternative and more common opinion is that the experiment was fraudulent and that therefore any witness is either an accomplice or a dupe. It is indecent to call me an accomplice; my character is well known. That leaves open the possibility that I am a credulous dupe and an inept observer.

  • I love your translation. As an aside and historical note, Mr Doyle was entirely correct: He was a credulous dupe and an inept observer. Or more to the point, he was going up against people whose entire livelihood was doing magic tricks in front of an alert and often skeptical audience and not getting caught. He just assumed his own eyes were good enough to catch the tricks. He and Houdini had a long and acrimonious disagreement about spiritualism because Houdini did in fact have the necessary experience to catch these people at their own games, and didn't buy it for a second. Jul 8 '20 at 16:29
  • I was vaguely aware that Houdini and Doyle had disagreed. I did not know that it was long and acrimonious. Jul 8 '20 at 17:01
  • It was bad enough that Houdini ended their friendship over it. In a final effort to get Doyle to understand, he threw a personal magic show at Doyle's house and then broke the magician's code and walked Doyle through exactly how all the tricks worked. Doyle basically responded "No, no, that wouldn't have fooled me, you must have actual supernatural powers and don't know it", and afterward Houdini would have nothing to do with him. Jul 8 '20 at 17:50
  • At one point, Doyle claimed Houdini's debunking of spiritists involved him using his powers to suppress those of lesser magicians and then debunking them in order to hide the truth. Jul 8 '20 at 17:57
  • ROFL. Nothing like bias confirmation. Jul 8 '20 at 18:03

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