Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Sherlock Holmes and Gregory House: A Terse Comparative Analysis

As the old saying goes "all good things come to an end."

One of my favorite TV shows has been House, M.D which finally concluded this past year after eight seasons. It was surely past its peak point (I would place the show's apogee just before House's stay in the sanatorium) and so probably needed to end. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed every bit of Hugh Laurie's performance as the titular character even in those weaker seasons and so would have gladly watched on if it had continued.  (By the way for those of you who loved Hugh Laurie as House you should definitely watch his early British comedic work, especially his stuff with Stephen Fry.)

But for me the death of one thing usually means the birth of something else. And my newest and to date most pleasurable form of media entertainment is the BBC's excellent TV series called simply enough, Sherlock.  As the title indicates it is based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Victorian detective, Sherlock Holmes, but with a contemporary spin on the classic stories and stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson. (To give just one example of the show's modern setting instead of smoking pipes Holmes uses nicotine patches to help him think.) This is rather appropriate since the character of House, according to his creator, was in fact based on Sherlock Holmes. And so because of this amusing serendipity I would like to briefly engage in a comparison between the two characters in this post.

The two are of course obviously similar in many respects. Both use the science of deduction to solve their respective cases, for House it's figuring out the mysterious disease/ailment/other that is afflicting his patient(s), for Holmes it usually means uncovering the mysteries behind a murder or series of murders. Both affirm reason as the highest, perhaps only, principle. Both are driven by the compulsive desire to solve puzzles. Both are probably atheists. (House affirms this a few times in the show; it's somewhat less clear with Holmes but since God cannot be deduced, Holmes would likely not even entertain the notion of a deity.) Both are unconventional socially, e.g., often stating bluntly what's on their minds no matter the situation or behaving in such a way as to make others most uncomfortable. And both get bored easily which is why they need puzzles of one sort or another to keep them preoccupied.

But there the similarities end. House is different from Holmes in several ways. For one, House is clearly a misanthrope, having little to no faith in people, a sentiment nicely summed up in one of his oft used phrases "everybody lies." In contrast, Holmes doesn't care either way about the human race; he is apathetic really. As noted above both are motivated by the desire to solve puzzles but for Holmes the puzzle is all that matters, nothing else. Contrarily, House really does prize other things in his life even if it's hard for him to admit such, like his friendship with Wilson (The Watson character of course is a friend of sorts for Holmes but more often serves as the latter's sounding board for bouncing ideas off of.) Also, House engages in a few romantic relationships as well as regularly keeps employed various call girls. Holmes, on the other hand, is likely asexual. Romance, sex, companionship of any kind doesn't factor in for Holmes noting succinctly in one episode that "Love is disadvantageous." This is particularly borne out in one my favorite episodes "A Scandal in Belgravia." This episode involves a woman who is in love with Holmes but whom he has to "play" in the end in order to solve the case. Upon this realization the woman asks Holmes if he ever felt anything for her to which he replies "Sorry. I was merely playing the game."* Again, it's only the puzzle that's of relevance to Holmes, the Great Game that moves him.

 But House's attempts to cultivate relationships of some kind, albeit badly, is largely what makes him a miserable person (House's constant leg pain is of course the other part that accounts for his misery.). And it's this misery that forms I think the most crucial difference between House and Holmes. This is because House's misery is what keeps him from being truly or purely rational. His reasoning faculties in other words are compromised by his perpetual misery. So far as we can tell no such thing exists for Holmes. The only time Holmes is probably miserable is when he doesn't have a puzzle worthy of his time to pursue. Therefore, it is Holmes who is the truer rationalist of the two since he's not hindered by those things, especially misery, that have compromised House's ability to reason.

Of course this means that House is the more human, the more realistic of the two and thus the more appealing for most. Yet for my part while I loved House if I had to make a preference between them or if I had to decide which I wanted to emulate more it would definitely be Holmes since he is the one who is truly and fully dominated by reason. Now, obviously Holmes is an ideal, and a fictional one at that. Thus I recognize that it is impossible not to be influenced by those pesky chemical reactions that produce emotions such as "love." Still, it's a laudable goal to aim for, namely, a life dictated by reason and not the passions. The passions, after all, are what ultimately create misery. And so if I can minimize their sway by trying as best I can to make reason my guide then all the better.

Ah, I've slipped into rambling now. Let's end with a couple of clips. The first is a clip from the brilliant BBC Sherlock in which Holmes and Watson meet for the first time. The second is one of my favorite sketches from the show that Hugh Laurie did with Stephen Fry called appropriately enough A Bit of Fry and Laurie. Enjoy. Bonus clip: Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hugh Laurie's son in a show called Fortysomething: *To be fair it is hinted at in the episode that Holmes does in fact feel something for this woman.

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