Book 1: The Sign of Four - Sherlock Holmes, Adorno, and the enlightenment as coke fiend

I've noticed that the blog meme du jour is the 50-book-challenge. It goes like this: one attempts to read 50 books this year, and one should try to blog about each book, if only to say that one has read it. I don't know if this is something I'll be doing regularly, but I might as well talk about what's on my mind and in my hands. I don't read as much as I should/used to, so maybe this will help me keep up.

The last book I read was The Sign of Four. It's the second Sherlock Holmes novel, before the series of "Adventures." We'll call it book 1 for this year. I've read passages in several other books, but haven't finished one.

Some personal background: Sherlock Holmes was actually the first thing I managed to read for myself in English. I don't really remember how it happened, but if you believe my parents, I taught myself English by comparing "the Hound of the Baskervilles" to the subtitles of the movie version. I don't really buy that, but I think that it helped me unlock some things. My point is just that it's an interesting experience going back over these books so many years later, because it raises the issue of why I'm still attracted to it.

It's not something I feel entirely comfortable admitting, but strap me to a chair and beat me, and I might let it slip that I still feel a strangely compelling attraction to the Sherlock Holmes universe. Reading one of these pieces still feels like sitting in a comfortable chair, or like lounging about the house in a bathrobe at four in the afternoon. I.e. like something comfortable, which I know isn't really helping me accomplish much of anything. And I don't think that it does. It might have, at some point, but not anymore. For all of its merit, I don't think that Sherlock Holmes can be called great art or great litterature by any stretch of the imagination. So why do people read it and like it?

Perhaps it's the snappy, gripping, well-paced dialogue?

“My mind,” he said, “rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, [90] give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.”

“The only unofficial detective?” I said, raising my eyebrows.

“The only unofficial consulting detective,” he answered. “I am the last and highest court of appeal in detection. When Gregson, or Lestrade, or Athelney Jones are out of their depths–which, by the way, is their normal state–the matter is laid before me. I examine the data, as an expert, and pronounce a specialist’s opinion. I claim no credit in such cases. My name figures in no newspaper. The work itself, the pleasure of finding a field for my peculiar powers, is my highest reward. But you have yourself had some experience of my methods of work in the Jefferson Hope case.”

“Yes, indeed,” said I cordially. “I was never so struck by anything in my life. I even embodied it in a small brochure, with the somewhat fantastic title of ‘A Study in Scarlet.’”
He shook his head sadly.

“I glanced over it,” said he. “Honestly, I cannot congratulate you upon it. Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.”

(That grinding sound you hear in the background is that of the slow and unoiled gears of Exposition).

Or maybe it's not the dialogue. To be honest, I think it is better to say that the answer lies in the character of Sherlock Holmes himself. In his almost prescient ability to deduce the world around him:

“Wedlock suits you,” he remarked. “I think, Watson, that you have put on seven and a half pounds since I saw you.”

“Seven!” I answered.

“Indeed, I should have thought a little more. Just a trifle more, I fancy, Watson. And in practice again, I observe. You did not tell me that you intended to go into harness.”

“Then, how do you know?”

“I see it, I deduce it. How do I know that you have been getting yourself very wet lately, and that you have a most clumsy and careless servant girl?”

“My dear Holmes,” said I, “this is too much. You would certainly have been burned, had you lived a few centuries ago. It is true that I had a country walk on Thursday and came home in a dreadful mess, but as I have changed my clothes I can’t imagine how you deduce it. As to Mary Jane, she is incorrigible, and my wife has given her notice; but there, again, I fail to see how you work it out.”

He chuckled to himself and rubbed his long, nervous hands together.

“It is simplicity itself,” said he; “my eyes tell me that on the inside of your left shoe, just where the firelight strikes it, the leather is scored by six almost parallel cuts. Obviously they have been caused by someone who has very carelessly scraped round the edges of the sole in order to remove crusted mud from it. Hence, you see, my double deduction that you had been out in vile weather, and that you had a particularly malignant boot-slitting specimen of the London slavey. As to your practice, if a gentleman walks into my rooms smelling of iodoform, with a black mark of nitrate of silver upon his right forefinger, and a bulge on the right side of his top-hat to show where he has secreted his stethoscope, I must be dull, indeed, if I do not pronounce him to be an active member of the medical profession.”

I could not help laughing at the ease with which he explained his process of deduction. “When I hear you give your reasons,” I remarked, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours.”

“Quite so,” he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear (...)"

I think that the attraction is lies in two places, and that the above quote is close to it. First, there is the attraction of a compelling character, appearing in a consistent and entertaining universe. For all their crazy leaps of faith, the stories are interesting and their unraveling by Holmes and Watson are amusing. There is some eighteenth-century nostalgia, of course, some longing for the faux-romantic days of colonialism and empire and a globe filled with blank, white spaces on the maps, but that isn't the real attraction. The attraction lies in scenes precisely like the one above, in which Holmes makes sense of the world through observation and deductive reasoning.

Holmes is in effect the spectre of rationalism made literary flesh. He is, I think, more than any other literary character that I can think of offhand, the embodiment of mankind's desire to demystify the world, to shine light into every dark space to see that nothing dangerous is in there. Holmes is a man who completely masters the world, solely by the power of his own will, his mind, and his rationality. He is the avenger of rationalism. Eradicating disruptive elements (murderers, thieves, etc) from the world, he is the guarantor for man's desire for order. When he can do it, surely everyone can?

That is to say that he tickles this anal-sadistic desire of ours to be in control all the time. His literary image projects the idea into our minds that we are capable of this mastery. As such, reading Holmes becomes, in effect, wish-fullfilment. He gratifies the desire in us for evidence that the world can be mastered, even in the face of everything in the world which tells us that it can't be. Sherlock Holmes is, on some level, the gratification of infantile desires, somewhat on the same lines as, say, pornography, some fantasy litterature, bad crime novels, most superhero comics, martial arts movies, the whole string of para-literary, para-aesthetic, self-perpetuating literature.

As such, he is, to his very bones, a creature of the 1800s. He comes just at the cusp of the wave of industry, before everyone realized they were still in chains, that the world wasn't going anywhere. I suspect that, at the time, reading Holmes must have been an affirmation of the power of the human spirit. In this world, after mankind's two unsuccessful attempts at suicide, after Adorno and Horkheimer, he becomes something else entirely. A longing for the hopeful dreams of industry that were produced in the heart of Empire. Manufactured dreams, like the cocaine-ridden thoughts of Holmes himself.

And there's another thing: the cocaine. Perhaps AC Doyle knew what was happening to the world? This rational creature of his could only keep himself going by almost never engaging in friendship or love, only by a constant regimen of cocaine and other stimulants and depressants. Only through stimulants and manic introversion could his psyche sustain itself. As though he saw the unsustainable optimism hidden in his nature. The impossibility of his own enlightenment. Holmes is a coke fiend because he can't stand his own fictionality. He becomes the image of the artificial high of enlightenment, the crash unwritten, but waiting somewhere off the page. You can feel it coming, if you don't let the comfortable chair get too comfortable. Or, y'know, do cocaine while reading.


Blogger annabel said...

woohoo. great little essay-type thing.

"Holmes is a coke fiend because he can't stand his own fictionality."

I would have pronounced this thesis IB-worthy if not for the racy nature of some of its implications. Racy, as we both know, is not the IB's cup of tea.

January 09, 2005 6:36 pm  
Blogger MGL said...

Thanks. I'm not sure I agree with everything I say, but I had a lot of fun writing it.

January 10, 2005 1:19 pm  

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