Words & Pictures East Coast, LLC

[Home] [Bookstore] [Gallery] [Poets/Artists] [Fun Stuff] [Vital Links] [Contact]


Art Gallery

Poetry & Humor
Lots of Poetry
Featured poem
Humor/Light Verse

Professional Services
About us
Writing Services
Art Services
Web Services

Visual Artists

Local Events

Fun Stuff
Free Samples
Free Art Lesson
Experimental Stuff

Vital Links
Writing Links
Art Links
WEB Info Links

Email & Address Info

[Back to Essays]

Response to a Friend's Question About Sherlock Holmes

You ask if I agree that Holmes is the first character in fiction who is above the story's turmoil. Maybe the first HERO. He's not always above it, but Watson makes a big thing out of those moments he gets pulled in precisely because he is usually detached. Of course, that IS part of the story: The oddness of someone who has made himself into a kind of detached intellectual machine.

I suppose it could be argued that there are many detached characters in previous literature, but seldom, if ever, the protagonists. I think you will occasionally find characters in Dickens and elsewhere who talk the detachment talk and make things happen like a puppeteer pulling strings, but they are usually the villains or, at best, Deus-ex-machina friends of the hero, never (that I can recall) the heroes. In fact, Holmes is a lot (in style) like the James Bond super-villain and, of course, a lot like Moriarty. It wouldn't surprise me to find earlier examples, but none come to mind (other than Holme's immediate models, like Poe's Dupin).

Dostoyevski has characters (e.g., in The Possessed) who strive for a similar detachment and sound very aloof and intellectual, but they are usually exposed, eventually, as full of suppressed passions and emptinesses, etc. (There are occasional hints of this in Holmes.) These Dostoyevski characters are probably descendents of the Byronic hero, full of aloof irony. They also imbibe Nietsche and sometimes nihilism. Turgenev toys with this too (the nihilist hero of Fathers and Sons), but Dostoyevski is probably the richest source (much of it pre- Holmes) for an array of characters who achieve or feign intellectual detachment in various ways. Some of them are treated sympathetically, some satirically, often a mix. Some progress from apparent detachment to dissociation and insanity. Some clearly LACK the detachment, but strive for it (Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Ivan in Brothers Karamazov). One exemplar of feigned detachment would be the inspector in Crime and Punishment. I suppose it could be argued that Holmes is an idealization of the sort of aloofness that is indicated, but always undermined in Dostoyevski's work.

Tolstoy has at least one character whose presence is very much like that of Holmes: Prince Andrey in War and Peace, but, as with Dostoyevskian characters, Andrey's intellectual aloofness is soon exposed as a vacuuousness of spirit, boredom, inner deadness from which love saves him. Alexie Karenin (Anna's husband) is another exposure of the human frailty underlying apparent rational aloofness.

Iago has some of Holmes' talents. But, aha!, so does Prince Hal, a rather calculating hero.

Probably more and closer ancesters can be found in French literature -- for example, 18th century experiments with the rational hero (or monster), cold social manipulaters, brilliant seducers, "pure" logicians who try to apply that purity to every aspect of life. Poe, Hawthorne, Melville and Henry James are fascinated by the possibilities of the detached hero or villain.

We're so used to the Holmesian aloofness as the mark of a certain sort of hero that we probably can't readily see what a novelty it was -- not the aloofness, but its being viewed as heroic. After all, Holmes is something like the scientist that Wordsworth pummels for botanizing o'er his mother's grave. The notion of someone unfeelingly analytical, more excited by the game than moved by the emotions of the pieces in the game, is not new, but it was, before the 19th Century, associated with Satan, though God perhaps shares this quality in the book of Job.

Perhaps it could be argued that Holmes as hero helps introduce the modernist notion of the scientist as hero -- and the ambivalence about such heroism (Verne's scientists, often mad, as are Wells') and the reversal in 20th Century Western science fiction, where, again, science is often the villain.

Much of the later development of detective fiction came from working variations on this by introducing the detached hero, then involving him in unexpected ways. For example, the greatest of the unriddling detectives (as opposed to the tough-guy detectives ala Chandler) is Whimsy, who is delightfully detached and keen for getting at truth no matter what the human expence, but again and again slips into compassion or disgust or love, usually (being a gentleman) trying to fake continued aloofness, but often failing. And then there's the Nero Wolf game, which is to get his character involved (e.g., angry), but nearly always for the "wrong" reason, so that he seems all the more aloof. For example, he'll be aloof until some odd and seemingly irrelevant angle of the case attracts him (e.g., he might be upset if the murderer, in the course of murdering, destroyed a rare vintage wine or rarer orchid), which emphasizes all the more his aloofness from the human angle. But even Wolf slips into involvement, and a big thing is always made of it.

The best known reincarnation of Holmes in our time is probably Spock on "Star Trek." Holmes was apparently a Venusian. He probably wore his hunting cap with the ear flaps down to conceal his pointed ears. Early appearance of a UFO alien in English literature.

  Big Cats in Snow
December 13, 2004