Updated: Feb 5
SHERLOCK HOLMES: Eclipse of Reason
by Elizabeth Faris
Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes
To describe author Arthur Conan Doyle as curious and creative of temperament would be to tell but half the tale. In fact, he was a powerhouse of inquiry and inspiration: the quintessential Victorian. He seemed to squeeze the accomplishment of three lifetimes into one, earning in its duration the accolades of soldier, athlete, explorer, surgeon, ophthalmologist, politician, advocate and architect, in addition to being one of the most prolific writers of the era. Few literary genres eluded the champing point of his pen: he bridled it to fantasy, romance, humour, history, science and crime in plays, poetry, fiction and non-fiction. And yet no inventory of his exploits is complete unless it yields a portrait of the tug of war between science and superstition that shaped his character and defined the prevailing culture.
A glimpse into the author's formative years may offer some insight as to why this dichotomy was so clearly manifest in this particular Victorian. As a schoolboy, Conan Doyle seems to have been hardy enough to weather academia's climate of intense competition, but the circumstances of his home life told a very different story. His father, once a reputable illustrator, was destined to turn incurable alcoholic and die in an abject state of dementia. Over the course of his childhood, Arthur was thus obliged to see his role model reduced to a mere shadow of himself and to suffer the fallout from the inexorable degradation of his character. Eventually, he and his mother were left no choice but to have him removed to a "home for intemperate gentlemen" -- and thence to a lunatic asylum -- but in the interim, what would have been laid bare to the boy was the brutal truth of a deep-seated threat that resides in us all that can strike without warning and with such precision as to render all our cherished ambitions obsolete.
Shades of such bleak imponderables can visit any of us alone in the dead of night, but when fed in daily diet to a child with a storyteller's imagination, they must surely leave an indelible mark. Their painful residue may in part explain Conan Doyle's eventual urge to seek the solace of the spiritual to supplement the seemingly patchy provisions of his formal education. Perhaps the inveterate speculator in him rose to the challenge of defying earthly absolutes to search for some means of processing the scenes of decay and dissolution that haunted him. Whatever the catalyst, this student of the Victorian School of Fact over Fancy was to find himself drawn increasingly over the years to matters metaphysical, only to finish his days a self-described spiritual mystic.
And yet for all his attraction to the arcane, Conan Doyle is best remembered for his portrayal of the hardheaded detective Sherlock Holmes, who first appeared in his 1887 Study in Scarlet and went on to form the spirit and substance of four novels and fifty-six short stories. Indeed, this character's vast appeal may even be due, in part, to the author's allowing, wittingly or otherwise, his zest for the occult to bleed through in his portrayal. As utterly cool and calculating as Conan Doyle had intended him to be when he first fashioned him “round the centre of deduction and inference and observation” instilled in him by a former teacher and mentor, there is yet a complexity to Holmes that betrays that of his architect. In both his personality and the problems he confronts, we feel the unmistakable presence of Conan Doyle and his fascination for all that is weird, wonderful and eternally elusive.
Of course, if we are to judge his famous sleuth by his words alone, we would never suspect him of any such frivolity, for his fastidious personality bristles at the least challenge to the supremacy of logical deduction. Even so, in his approach to solving crime he reveals an instinctive understanding that, in order to properly access the criminal mentality, one must be prepared to dive deep into the murky chasm whence it hails. Evidence of this dalliance with the dark side of self is most readily apparent in his periodic flirtation with intoxicants that tantalize with the prospect of escape from the rigors of his own demanding nature. While they are generally limited to the mild stimulation of tobacco, when the pipe proves insufficient to relieve him of his roughest edges, he will reach for stronger stuff:
Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his
hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous
fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For
some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist
all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the
sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-
lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.
(The Sign of Four)
In the aftermath, of course, ego dictates that his anxious sidekick Watson be persuaded that such digressions are part of a process of deliberate calculation: that morphine and cocaine are a practical means of clarifying and stimulating the mind in the disinterested course of duty. Meanwhile, Conan Doyle himself would doubtless have begged to differ. As the son of a dipsomaniac, and physician with the power of prescription, he would have been thoroughly-versed in the dangers of addiction. Nonetheless, the secret susceptibility to the needle that quivers beneath his detective's otherwise flawless self-control may be the author's most effective means of reassuring us of his essential humanity. We are meant to feel an unexpected pang of sympathy when we see him emerge from the closet of self-injection to behave in a manner that would shame his better self. And any dismay over this tainting of our ideal is far outweighed by our gut relief in knowing that he, like us, is susceptible to the whims of the subliminal.
This is not to suggest, however, that Holmes’ ventures beyond the veil of reason are always a matter of choice. In spite of his insistence that "this agency must remain flat-footed on the ground .... No ghosts need apply!" (The Sussex Vampyre), the supernormal seems nonetheless to dog him at his heels. Conan Doyle's plot lines are rife with scenarios steeped in the uncanny that submerge his protagonist in circumstances poised to put the lie to the primacy of logic. Accordingly, the Sturm and Drang of the Gothic yarn abounds. For example, In The Sussex Vampyre, Holmes struggles to find a plausible explanation for the trail of death and apparent bewitchment that surfaces in the wake of one John Stockton, a newcomer suspected by the local villagers of seeking to avenge his ancestors' persecution as vampires. Although the gumshoe's faith in reason is ultimately restored when a troubled Curare-dispensing youth is found responsible for the fatalities, it is not before our hero, like any mere mortal, has wavered almost out of character under the seduction of the preternatural.
In The Noble Bachelor, Conan Doyle is even more intent on raking his protagonist over the coals of his covert conflict with the personal shadow. The tale commences with scenes of Holmes tormented with recurring nightmares: a series of dire images he cannot explain. Increasingly obsessed with their significance, he wakes half-mad, attempting again and again to capture their content in charcoal. When at last the spell is broken by a request to investigate a manipulative suitor who collects heiresses for wives only to invent creative ways of later disposing of them for their fortunes, the dream sequences turn out to be a match for scenes of the crime at hand: glimpses of one of the forsaken wives imprisoned in an abandoned chapel and awaiting her moment of revenge. Thus, Holmes' nightmares are attributed to pre-cognizance, a conclusion that flies in the face of his trademark conviction that every riddle can be explained in terms of tangible fact.
There are even times when Conan Doyle's sleuth is so taken with the task at hand that he is willing to brave the tenuous line between sanity and madness: to dip an intrepid toe into a darkness from which he knows full well there is no guarantee of return. In The Devil’s Foot, we find him hoping to harness the altered state as a tool of detection in a case where an estranged brother has contrived a ruthless means of eliminating his siblings in order to seize possession of their mutual legacy. When, after a family game of whist, the sister is found dead and the two brothers in a gibbering state of madness, evidence of culpability is lacking. However, as soon as Holmes spies at the scene of the murder a suspicious pile of ash on the base of a lamp, he is keen to test his suspect's guilt by trying the substance on himself. What follows is a terrifying trek through every latent horror lurking in his personal shadow that will lead him to the very brink of insanity.
Although, in The Dying Detective, Holmes refrains from purposely infecting himself with the rare Sumatran River Fever, he does discover enough about it to mimic its symptoms as a means of snagging a confession from a prime suspect. When a thwarted expert on the subject infects his poet cousin with the fatal disease in order to abscond with his fortune, Holmes is hot on his trail. Assuming that a mysterious tobacco box he himself receives in the mail is likewise infected, he smears his eyes with belladonna and his lips with beeswax, tousles his hair, and prostrates himself on the settee, feigning the throes of delirium. He then asks the unsuspecting Watson to summon to his bedside the very specialist who has attempted to dispose of him. Once he has convinced the culprit that his own demise is imminent, the cunning detective tricks him into admitting his heinous deed.
Interestingly, the one altered state to which Holmes never seems to let himself fall victim is that of fatal attraction to the opposite sex. Conan Doyle himself was twice married and, to add one more hat to the many he wore, was something of an incurable romantic. Perhaps this is why, in spite of Holmes' insistence that the fairer sex is Watson's domain, his creator nonetheless keeps us in a subtle guessing game as to whether this posture is attributable to pure indifference or, indeed, his secret fear of losing control. Could the violence of his protest in matters of the heart be a measure of his hidden susceptibility? Certainly, in Scandal in Bohemia, his fascination for the beautiful contralto Irena Adler "of dubious and questionable memory," whose photograph he keeps forever locked in his bureau drawer, offers us reason for suspicion. Thus, in reflection of his own myriad nature, Conan Doyle leads us on a chase after the many facets of Holmes. To understand either the creator or his creature -- or perhaps even ourselves -- we might pause to wonder if there is any definition of self that does not, on some level, feel the gravity of its secret twin.