Sunday, September 7, 2014

Elementary Musings

Recently I finished the original 60 Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and now I find myself watching many of the TV and film interpretations of this timeless character in a perhaps foolish effort to determine who was the best to play Holmes (and Watson), a project that might last as long as my current one to watch all of Classic Doctor Who. (That particular project is sadly almost at its end.)

So why does this character resonate with me so much as he does and has with countless numbers of readers and viewers since Doyle published the first story back in 1887? Well, for my own part it is quite evident. Sherlock Holmes is the ultimate rational actor, homo rationalis par exemplar. He is not, at least in his original depictions by Doyle, a slave to his passions. It is reason alone that guides his thinking and actions. As Watson puts it Holmes is the perfect "calculating machine." The idea that somewhere, in some individual, reason can conquer emotion is appealing to me, especially as I now realize that much of my own past life has been mired in irrational thinking and behavior. To be completely rational is to be totally in control of one's self.

Of course this is a fool's hope as such a state of being is impossible to achieve. Nevertheless, there the Great Detective stands beckoning me, encouraging me with these words: do not merely see but observe, when observing take note of the trifles as the least detail can be of the most importance, refrain from theorizing ahead of the facts, never guess as guessing is destructive to the logical faculties, learn to reason back from effects to causes, employ imagination, deduce, and when you find yourself bored alleviate the tedium with...cocaine. Ok, perhaps not that last one.

The great irony here is that Doyle who created the most rational being in literature became quite irrational himself when he developed a zealous obsession with the spiritualist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Note: he was married to a psychic.) In fact so strident did Doyle's spiritualism become that he ruined a life long friendship with Harry Houdini who of course aside from being a talented stage magician was a well known skeptic of spiritualism even going so far as to expose many fraudulent practitioners of the movement.

It is then no wonder that based on this apparent contradiction, rational Holmes and irrational Doyle, that there arose a movement which promoted the gentle fiction that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson were real figures of history. The trouble is that the 60 stories are choke full of inconsistencies, contradictions, and silence on important matters (such as where Holmes went to school, his childhood, the development of his skills, etc.) that this same movement has devoted much time to solving these problems. This accepted fiction that Holmes and Watson were real and the attempts to resolve many of the issues that arise from the canon based on such an assumption has become known as "The Great Game."

Perhaps when I am done figuring out who in my opinion is the best Holmes I too shall attempt to play the game. After all much of the game parallels what I used to do in my biblical studies days, namely, trying to reconstruct the historical Jesus from the gospel sources. Anyhow, even if I never play the game I'm quite glad that I have taken the time to read the original stories (yes, even the rubbish ones like "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane" in which, spoiler alert, the culprit turns out to be [cue dramatic music]...a jelly fish!) and to now be watching some great cinematic interpretations and elaborations on these stories. Thus far it has been an enjoyable experience.

Credit should always be given where credit is due. In this case I would probably never had read the original stories had it not been for Steven Moffat and Mark Gatis' excellent Sherlock from the BBC. I'll never likely have the opportunity to meet this remarkable duo of writers (Note: they also write for new Doctor Who, Moffat is the current head writer) but if I ever did I would be sure to let them know how grateful I am. However, special mention should be made of a friend of mine who gave me the first season of that excellent show in the first place. I suppose it was really him that started me on this wonderful journey. The final irony though is that this friend has never watched, indeed refuses to watch, Sherlock.

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