Thursday, December 07, 2006

Sherlock Holmes

I read my first Sherlock Holmes story, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” It is brilliantly written with an excellent plot and it shows Holmes as a repressed valuer. (To be accurate, I read a Sherlock Holmes story when I was young, but have forgotten it.)

My only problems are with Holmes’s character. I have a hard time believing that someone who spends his off-time in a cocaine-induced daze could be so brilliant. The cocaine users I have known have not exactly been Sherlock Holmeses. This is, well, elementary.

Holmes’s epistemology is unrealistic. His remarkable power of observation provides the stories with much of their delight, but in reality observation must serve purpose. Holmes knows how many stairs lead to his apartment, but what purpose does this serve? Someone who went around noticing these things every day would have a strange mind cluttered with unimportant facts, like an autistic savant.

Another problem is his reason-emotion dichotomy. Watson the narrator says,

It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer – excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his.

In reality emotions can be tools to help one know what is important if one contemplates their meaning. Emotions are psychosomatic responses to values; a threat to values causes fear, injustice causes anger, etc. Emotions are essential to evaluating reality. Someone like Holmes would have a hard time functioning successfully because he would not have his own emotions to use as clues for understanding. He would be a detective cut off from some of the most important clues humans can use!

Setting aside psychological realism, or lack thereof, Holmes’s epistemology does provide tremendous drama for the stories. Falling in love would be the most disastrous thing that could happen to him; this sets up a value-conflict between love and crime-fighting, and value-conflict is the stuff of drama. (I would expect to see Miss Irene Adler return in other stories, but I don’t know.)

With the value-conflict and the plot, “A Scandal in Bohemia” is superb romantic fiction. We’ll see if the other stories are this good.


EdMcGon said...

You might be on to something with your autism analysis of Holmes, although I would suggest Asperger's Disorder might be a better analysis, as it is not quite as severe as autism.

Myrhaf said...

That's right, Holmes is not as bad as Rain Man. He can function in society. I'm just saying there's a similarity in that his thinking is dissociated from a well-rounded, happy life.

Jennifer Snow said...

I recently read through ALL of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, and I agree with you completely. I'm not sure that Holmes's rejection of emotion is some kind of psychosis, however, I think it's just a result of bad philosophy on his part. I know lots of people that do similar things. It's not so much, too, that he refuses to HAVE emotions (he does, very powerful ones) it's that he doesn't let them dictate his actions.

While probably painful for him, I think this is actually a decent course of action. For the large part, Holmes is disinterested in philosophy and psychology, so he's not going to sit down and ponder the reasons behind his own emotions (not to mention that, at the time, emotions were considered to be baseless primaries not subject to analysis). That being the case, he could never know whether his emotions were prompting him to do something good or not. Since loving a woman is pretty much entirely emotional, it would make sense that he would never allow himself to do it. A pity, really, because the man was sexy as all get out: he definitely has a place on my list of fictional characters I have a crush on.

If you pay attention throughout the course of Doyle's works, you discover that this is actually the reason why Holmes eventually retires--the philosophical and psychological questions pile up until he can no longer ignore them and he gets burned out. It really is great romantic fiction showing just how one's choices affect one's path in life.