II. The Detective/Hero as Thinking Machine
The beginning of “A Scandal in Bohemia”: “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer — excellent for drawing the veil from men's motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.”
1. What does the character of Holmes imply about the world, the human person, and mystery?
(a) the world is data, “facts”, sensible stimuli
(b) the human person, if responsive to such stimuli, can collect these facts, be a combiner of units of sensation (out of Hobbes, Locke and Ockham)
(c) a mystery is a paradox (Holmes is outwitted by the very woman he think he is outwitting—“A Scandal in Bohemia”) that can be unraveled by tracing the linkage of efficient causes; or, a mystery is a “puzzle” (two dimensional pieces designed to fit with one another)
2. The Holmesian “Clue.” The clue is a bogus epiphany. In itself it has no ontological significance. It doesn’t open to contemplative penetration the intelligible depths of some object; rather it suggests to the quick deductive wit discursive attention to the superficies of a dozen other objects. The clue and the chain of reasoning function, like a jigsaw puzzle, in two dimensions. The sleuth’s reconstruction of a crime works at the level of efficient causes only; the epiphany implies an intuitive grasp of material, formal, and final causes as well (Hugh Kenner, Dublin’s Joyce, p. 176).
3. We are now in a position to name Holmes’s heirs:
b. The Matrix
d. action-thriller heroes such as Bond and Indiana Jones and Bruce Willis in RED
f. Source Code, etc. etc.
4. In emphasizing the metaphor of the mechanic mind in these films and television shows, I don’t want to neglect the obvious fact that there is real human, indeed moral, interest in these stories. There are criminals to be apprehended, evil to be fought, truisms to be upheld (GKC: “These common and current publications have nothing essentially evil about them. They express the sanguine and heroic truisms on which civilization is built; for it is clear that unless civilization is built on truisms, it is not built at all” In Defence of Penny Dreadfuls pp. 24-25). And for this reason these stories will always be popular, and for my money, rightly so. What truisms? Greed is evil, crime doesn’t pay, love is stronger than death, etc. (And it is not to say that interesting themes aren’t played with—in the thriller genre, for example, “identity” is an integral theme, as we see in A History of Violence.)
5. And the detective/heroes of these stories often enough display residual heroic virtues, principally cunning and courage. The virtues of Ulysses. Yet we should recall that Ulysses was damned by Dante. Hubris. His failure to recognize limits to his cunning and courage. In Sherlock Holmes himself, we notice a similar hubris, a defect that mutates and spreads like a virus through the dramatic lineage of heroes and heroines who succeed him. It’s not Holmes’s addiction to cocaine (“a cynical defiance of a pleasureless world” Kenner, Dublin’s Joyce, p. 173) that is so harmful, it is his devotion to his “method.”
6. Holmes plays the “game” for the game’s own sake…the “game” is his real drug…he could just as easily have been a criminal: “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” (“The Adventure of the Retired Colourman”). What Holmes introduces is the idea of the detective/hero as aesthete. Being a thinking machine is not incompatible with being such. What do I mean by an aesthete? Artistic temperament: Holmes’s violin, House’s piano, Edward Cullen’s piano). But more importantly, Alasdair MacIntyre: 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” Wishes and appetites that may or may not be benevolent. Others are always means, never ends (After Virtue, p. 24).
Detection is as a-moral as geometry (it is not for nothing that [Holmes] so often refers to a case as “a pretty little demonstration”). Whenever they become components in a problem, human beings become numbered points, devoid of rights and autonomy, like the gunner whose response characteristics the cyberneticist incorporates mathematically into the radar mechanism. To Watson’s horrified protest at his quasi-seduction of a housemaid with information to give, 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,” “The Return of Sherlock Holmes.” (Hugh Kenner, Dublin’s Joyce, pp. 174-75).
7. Bringing in MacIntyre reminds us that we need to situate the rise of sensationalist literature amidst its 19th- and 20th-century cultural backdrop, where culture becomes more and more characterized by emotivism. There is no rational justification of the ends human beings pursue. The mechanic mind is cut loose from the truisms of culture. So What is to stop the mechanical mind from relieving itself of boredom in other ways? What keeps such an understanding of the human mind, of the person as a whole, from declining into criminality?
8. Holmes as Freak: We see Holmes’s misanthropy become even more exaggerated in the BBC’s Sherlock and in Fox Television’s House (a pun on the connection with Holmes, House creator David Shore makes clear). The image of sleuth as consuming is carried far, but not all the way.
9. But in some recent films the metaphor is carried all the way. The thinking machine becomes the consuming beast, or what Flannery O’Connor called the “freak”:
(a) A History of Violence: Viggo Mortensen’s character uses his wife & children to achieve the end of a new life.
(b) No Country For Old Men (the reductio ad absurdum of the mechanistic mind): Anton Chigurh is adept at finding ingenious mechanistic solutions to complicated problems: his weapon, the explosion outside the drugstore. Killing things for fun, with no reason. All is chance.
(c) Dexter: the serial killer who kills only the morally culpable
(d) Even in the more traditionally heroic Source Code: human lives are manipulated: Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes over another person’s existence—persons are not unique.
Next post, I’ll pick up on understanding mysteries according to the “Father Brown Approach.”