I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things…
I’ll admit right off the bat that I imagined Benedict Cumberbatch and Martine Freeman as Holmes and Wilson while reading the first Sherlock Holmes tale. It’s hard not to, considering both actors maintain excellent performances in the BBC adaptation. Of course, the TV series is a modern retelling of Doyle’s classic. However, it surprised me how similar the first novel and the first episode were in story, structure, and theme.
Sherlock Holmes has become, in many ways, a cultural icon. As such, he has been emptied of all the content that makes him recognizable as Sherlock Holmes. Each iteration has slowly departed from the original character. The Holmes of today is a dim copy of the original.
Perhaps I am forming this thought from my recollection Dr. House who was inspired by Holmes.
And also Robert Downey Jr.’s odd interpretation of Holmes in the strange, but short-lived, movie series from Warner Bros.
Nevertheless, Sherlock Holmes holds a special place in the English literary and visual heritage. Beginning in 1887, Sherlock Holmes is a series of novels and short stories that fancies the most difficult and mind-bending mysteries. But there is more than a mystery to this series. Like any good literary fiction, it contains within it a commentary on the cultural dialogues of the day.
As I pointed out in my thinking through The Time Traveler, fiction is a repository of the ideas, themes, or the zeitgeist (the spirit of the age) of the time period.
What I am interested in here is the scientific leanings of Sherlock Holmes. His philosophy. His methodology. I was awe-struck by the scientific thematic of the novel. One could make the claim that Sherlock Holmes is timeless—as we have seen with the diverse iterations of Holmes—but the A Study in Scarlett reveals the building scientific momentum of the late 19th century.
But a certain kind of science sometimes called positivism or empiricism. A science that is obsessed with facts and their utility. How does science progress humankind? What do we do with facts, and even systems of thought such as religion or the humanities that are not useful in the grand scheme of human “technological” development?
You know that a conjurer gets no credit when once he has explained his trick; and if I show you too much of my method of working, you will come to the conclusion that I am a very ordinary individual after all…
In many ways, I read A Study in Scarlett as belonging to the genre of science fiction. Of course, Doyle’s series properly belongs to the canon of mystery and literary fiction. But I couldn’t shake the experimental element—that is, speculation—of Holmes’ “science of deduction” to solve his cases.
If the root of science fiction is in fact speculation, then A Study in Scarlett certainly finds a small home in the genre of sci-fi. This isn’t a conventional reading. In many respects, this is a bit of a stretch, so please bear with me. I’m not necessarily arguing here that Doyle’s masterpiece of a series belongs rightfully in the science fiction canon.
I’m merely experimenting. Speculating A Study in Scarlett as sci-fi. Call me a postmodern scoundrel.
Only the first half of the novel is a mystery. The second half is a long-winded exposition and critique of Mormonism. Indeed, Sherlock Holmes has an atheistic air about it. This is the effect of rationality and pompousness left uncheck. Holmes is only interested in what is provable through observation, facts, and empirical data. Anything else has no real purpose. If anything, these fall into the category of pure distraction.
No wonder then the second half of the novel acts as a foil against the science of deduction. Followers of the unseen and unprovable God turn into murderers.
But the plot thickens. . .
This science of deduction reveals an interesting, if not problematic,At times, Holmes comes across an uneducated bigot.
Sherlock Holmes is a believer in a kind of utilitarianism. He doesn’t necessarily discriminate against facts or a work of art. His classification system ranks objects of knowledge based on how useful they are in solving cases. He is a blind follower of his Science of Deduction. Hence, the cold demeanor of Holmes. Hence, why Dr. Wilson is the perfect companion of Holmes, who is an excellently educated individual, having a broad range of knowledge from medicine to the humanities.
I found it curious that Holmes classical education was lacking. Indeed, Dr. Wilson, though not as “naturally smart” as Holmes, possessed a much better education than Holmes and as such a deeper breadth of knowledge about the material and social world. For example, Holmes was completely ignorant towards the Copernicus revolution and happily complacent with the Earth as the centre of the heavens. From Holmes’ perspective, the knowledge of the position of the stars in relation to the Earth has no real use in solving cases. Thus it is ignored or discarded from his realm of thought.
There is a certain danger in this logic Holmes holds dear.
That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth traveled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it…
This line of thinking that Holmes clings too, and certainly that Doyle probes throughout the series, is not new to our time. The utility of knowledge, the power of distraction of certain bodies of knowledge and collections of art, belongs rightfully to Plato’s Republic. I talked about this briefly in my review of Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time. If I keep returning to Plato, it’s because his corpus has had an immense impact on the English canon. (Most poets and literary figures that hallmarked, had a liberal arts education where they would have read Plato at some point).
Sherlock Holmes would probably find a home in Plato’s Republic.