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Sherlock the Savage

BBC

Daniel McInerny - published on 01/17/14 - updated on 06/07/17

But in the character of Sherlock Holmes, whether as depicted by Conan Doyle himself or by his many adapters, we can also notice a defect that mutates and spreads like a virus through the dramatic lineage of heroes and heroines who succeed him. This defect is not Holmes’s notorious addiction to cocaine. It is his addiction to his “method.” Holmes plays the “game” entirely (almost entirely?) for the game’s own sake. The “game” is his real drug. In “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman,” Conan Doyle has Holmes goes so far as to admit: “Burglary has always been an alternative profession, had I cared to adopt it, and I have little doubt that I should have come to the front.” This startling revelation indicates that Holmes’s mechanic mind is morally neutral; it can just as efficiently be used for evil as for good.  

That is to say, detection for Holmes is as amoral as geometry (Holmes often refers to a case as “a pretty little demonstration”). Hugh Kenner has pointed out that in “The Return of Sherlock Holmes,” when Watson protests in horror Holmes’s quasi-seduction of a housemaid with information to give, that Holmes calmly replies, “You can’t help it, my dear Watson. You must play your cards as best you can when such a stake is on the table.”

Toward Savagery

What the character of Sherlock Holmes plays with is the idea of the detective as aesthete. The aesthete, writes philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, is one who fends off “the kind of boredom that is so characteristic of modern leisure by contriving behavior in others that will be responsive to their wishes, that will feed their sated appetites.” Doesn’t this serve as a good description of Sherlock Holmes? Isn’t Holmes always complaining of boredom? And whenever he isn’t fighting boredom with cocaine and his violin he is indulging in the pleasures of being a thinking machine, pleasures which motivate him far more than justice, and in which other people are treated as means, not ends.

Holmes’s misanthropy becomes even more exaggerated in Sherlock, in a way similar to that of Hugh Laurie’s eponymous character in Fox Television’s House (an audial pun on the connection with “Holmes,” House creator David Shore has said). In both of these characters the image of sleuth as savage is carried far, yet not quite all the way. For a good part of the pleasure in watching Sherlock or House is waiting for the point when these thinking machines betray a sign of real human affection. They play the savage for a good part of each episode, greedily collecting the facts that excite their mental impulses, treating those around them like imbeciles. But before it’s all done, there is usually some suggestion that the thinking machine is not really, at heart, a savage. That he sees at least a glimmer into the deeper mystery of what it means to be a human being.

Daniel McInerny is the editor of the English edition of Aleteia. He is also the author of the comic novel, High Concepts: A Hollywood Nightmare, as well as two books in the Kingdom of Patria children’s series, Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits and Stoop of Mastodon Meadow. You are invited to contact him at daniel.mcinerny@aleteia.org, find him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter @danielmcinerny. You can also visit his blog devoted to the renovation of the Catholic literary tradition, thecomicmuse.com

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