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A Great Heart vs A Great Brain - Sherlock Holmes and Love - written by Sloane Jensen
”…Love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things. I should never marry myself, less I bias my judgment.” Sherlock Holmes to John Watson in ‘The Sign of the Four’
‘All emotions [to Sherlock] and that one particularly [romantic love], where abhorrent to his cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind. He was, as 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…Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-powered lenses, would not be more disturbing then a strong emotion in a nature such as his.’ John Watson writing about Sherlock Holmes in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’
”Do you ever wonder if there’s something wrong with us?” - Sherlock to his brother Mycroft as they dispassionately watch a family grieve over a dead loved one in a chapel in the morgue of St. Bartholomew’s hospital in the modern BBC ‘Sherlock’ adaptions
It is one of the latter days of the month of June in the year 1902. The great private detective Sherlock Holmes – who has, within the same month, turned down the offer of knighthood for rendering services of such an important nature that will, alas, owing to the unfortunate passing of his literary agent, never be described – and his friend and colleague Dr. John Watson are staked out in the house of Mr. Nathan Garrideb, lying in wait inside for the arrival of ‘Killer’ Evans, an American murder and a counterfeiter. It is not the first time Sherlock and his bold friend have held such a vigil together. Patience and silence are two virtues which they have both perfected. Both Sherlock and John are armed, for this is a two-pistol problem. Their prey is very dangerous and intelligent man. Soon he arrives and after entering the room in which the two friends are hidden he finds and opens a secret trap-door in the floor that leads into a cellar that contains a counterfeit printing press. As Evans enters the cellar Sherlock and John creep across the floor with their guns drawn. But Evans hears them and swiftly exits – only to find two pistols pointed at him. ”Well, well!” he says coolly, ”I guess you have been one too many for me, Mr. Holmes. Saw right through my game, I suppose, and played me for a sucker right from the first. Well, sir, I hand it to you; you have me beat and – ” Suddenly, in a flash, he draws his own revolver and fires twice, striking John in the leg. Sherlock smashes his pistol down onto the murderer’s head and stuns him. Then he seizes John in his arms and leads him to a chair. ”You’re not hurt, Watson?” the Great Detective cries. ”For God’s sake, say that you are not hurt!” Watson goes on to narrate:
‘It was worth a wound – it was worth many wounds – to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as a great brain. All my years of humble yet single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.’
After finding out that John has only been slightly grazed, Sherlock turns to Evans, who is sitting dazed on the floor: ”By the Lord,” he says, ”it is as well for you. If you had killed Watson you would have not got out of this room alive.” (‘The Three Garridebs’)
I – The Accusations against Sherlock Holmes
Throughout most of the Sherlock Canon, Sherlock is often described (or accused) by John as being cold, unfeeling – an ‘automaton’ and a ‘calculating machine’ who never speaks of the softer passions ‘save with a gibe and a sneer;’ a man that has ‘a brain without a heart’ and is ‘as deficient in human sympathy as he was pre-eminent in intelligence.’ No back-story explanation is ever given by Sherlock or by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself for the Detective’s attitudes regarding strong emotional passions or his lack of interest in woman once they cease to be his clients. The closest we ever come to his explaining the matter is when Sherlock writes in ‘The Lion’s Mane’ that: ”Women have seldom been an attraction to me, for my brain has always governed my heart…” John writes that as a lover, Sherlock would be ‘in a false position’ and seems to imply that such state might actually harm Sherlock mentally, if not emotionally. ”I am a brain, Watson,” Sherlock tells John in ‘The Mazarin Stone’, ”the rest of me is mere appendix. Therefor it is the brain that I must consider.” Indeed, Sherlock’s dispassion in regards to sexuality also applies to other bodily needs such as nourishment and rest. In order to solve cases Sherlock often deprives himself of both food and sleep so he can focus all his mental powers on deduction, which sometimes results in him getting sick. In one instance Sherlock fasts completely from food, drink and (most irksome to him) cigarettes for three days so that a murderer might confess and be caught. Finally there is his noble intent to sacrifice (if called for) his whole body – his very life – so that the world might be rid of the insidious Professor Moriarty. John is often distressed by Sherlock’s absent-mindedness in regards to his bodily health and safety. Over the course of several years he slowly weans Sherlock of his cocaine and morphine habits – yet was Sherlock truly an addict? It was only when there were no interesting cases for him to solve that he turned to these ‘artificial stimulants,’ yet, if had he had continued to use these drugs his brain would indeed have been damaged over the course of time. The temporary pleasure induced by the cocaine in order to keep boredom and depression at bay mattered more to him than the harmful long-term affects. Sherlock lives almost entirely in the present. The future and the past – that is, his own – are of little consequence to him, while the history of criminals and crimes and the future of his country, England, matters a great deal to him. But what about matters of love? What is love to Canon-Sherlock and how would he express it?
If we are to take both Sherlock and John at their word, and accept at face-value the fact that romantic and sexual relationships do not fall within the sphere of Sherlock’s needs or interests, then this opens the door to some interesting questions: Is Sherlock really just like a machine? Does he have feelings or emotions at all? What does he really care about? Is he capable of love? And if he is capable of love, how would he express it in non-romantic, non-sexual ways? Would these ways even be considered (in modern eyes) to be legitimate expressions of love because they lack romantic and/or sexual components? How much does John Watson mean to Sherlock? How much does Sherlock mean to John? This makes for an intriguing (for me) study, because a character like Sherlock is not one we encounter every-day in our meanderings through fiction. I would even argue that it is Sherlock’s aloof nature and untouchable person that is part of what makes him such an interesting and enduring character.
II – The Emotions of Sherlock Holmes
So does Sherlock have emotions? Does he care about anything? I would certainly say ‘yes’ to these questions. Throughout the Canon Sherlock expresses a wide range of emotions, yet he always avoids entering into the extreme heights of expressive joy or anger. He is rarely ever that self-disclosing. Yet feelings and emotions he does have. First, there are the intense emotional highs he gets when examining crime-scenes for evidence that is invisible to everyone else. Here is an excellent description of Sherlock’s excitement as he investigates a murder-room in ‘A Study In Scarlet’ for clues:
‘As he [Sherlock] spoke, he whipped a tape measure and a large round magnifying glass from his pocket. With these two implements he trotted noiselessly about the room, sometimes stopping, occasionally kneeling, and once lying flat on his face. So engrossed was he with his occupation that he appeared to have forgotten our presence, for he chattered away to himself under his breath the whole time, keeping up a running fire of exclamations, groans, whistles, and little cries suggestive of encouragement and of hope. As I watched him I was irresistibly reminded of a pure-blooded, well-trained foxhound, as it dashes backwards and forward through the covert, whining in its eagerness until it comes across the lost scent.’
Here we are witnessing, for the first time, Sherlock as the Great Detective, utterly absorbed in his sleuthing, completely indifferent to what those around him might think or care of his antics. In this case, the emotions he is feeling are privy to him alone. No-one with him is seeing what he is seeing or experiencing what he is experiencing. Everyone, including the reader, is on the outside. The pleasure belongs to Sherlock and to him only. All we can do is simply marvel – or mock.
Then there are the stronger, more passionate emotions Sherlock expresses – usually on the side of anger – concerning justice and the capture of criminals. Sometimes these are expressions of frustration or displeasure – either directed at himself or at others – when things are going wrong and the case is not coming along. Sometimes it is coldness and contempt directed at criminals or clients who try to lie to his face and who are vulgar or arrogant in their conduct towards himself or others. Sherlock rarely shows fear in front of his enemies, and sometimes even mocks their own passionate anger with his cool, uncaring attitude. When one visitor to 221B bends a fire-poker in half to warn Sherlock not to mettle in his affairs, Sherlock dismisses him and unbends the fire-poker with hardly any effort and continues in his investigation. Another time Sherlock threatens to beat another visitor with his hunting crop after the man commits injustices that are outside the reach of the law but are, in Sherlock’s view, still deserving of stripes. Sherlock also enjoys playing practical jokes on people and seems to get a kick out of their emotional reactions. Attending music concerts, especially German ones, puts him into a quiet state of mental rapture. He has no problem punching thugs when the situation demands it – he is not adverse to violence, yet never willingly seeks it out. But Sherlock also places a high value on human life, and even places his own life and John’s in jeopardy to save that of a client, such as in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles.’ He tries unsuccessfully to prevent one woman from committing suicide and manages to convince another woman – who has been horribly scarred by a lion-attack – from doing so. ”Your life is not your own,” he tells her. ”The example of patient suffering is in itself the most precious of all lessons in an impatient world.” She takes his words to heart, and later sends him the bottle of poison with which she was going to kill herself. In ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ after Sherlock discovers the identity of the pitiable man who has stolen a priceless gem from a Countess he was serving and listens to his confession in the privacy of 221B, he lets the man leave free. ”I suppose I am committing a felony,” he remarks to John. ”But it is just possible that I am saving a soul…This fellow will not go wrong again…besides, it is the season for forgiveness [Christmas].” Indeed, when John is first introduced to Sherlock in ‘A Study In Scarlet’ by Stamford, Sherlock is in a fit of joyous excitement at having finally discovered an infallible test for blood-stains, regardless of their age. ”Had this test been invented, there are hundreds of men walking the earth who would long ago paid the penalty of their crimes…Now we have the Sherlock Holmes test, and there will no longer be any difficulty.” he gives a bow, and anyone can see that he is very passionate about his discovery, and the good it will achieve for mankind.
If Sherlock where in truth a pure, cold, calculating machine he could hardly be expected to care about such things, or be moved to acts of valor and compassion that take him outside of himself. Some passion and emotion is required to behave in that way. These are ways by which Sherlock displays a degree of love, or, at least, the valiant, moral side of his nature. But can this be considered expressions of genuine love, truly? Would anyone recognize them as such, especially today? Or must love be confined to the limits of passionate romance and sexuality? If true love can ONLY be expressed by these two means, then Sherlock is, by his own choice, a very dysfunctional, repressed and pitiable man – at least as far as the rest of humanity (not to mention a large portion of his fanbase) is concerned.
III – What Does Sherlock Holmes Really Want?
As I have shown, Sherlock has no trouble being emotionally expressive. The thing with Sherlock is that he has his emotions all perfectly under control and on a very tight leash so that they interfere in no way with his detective work. He is not a slave at the mercy of his passions and desires, but rather he is complete king over them, and therefore, can decide to do whatever he wants with them. When I read of John’s assessment that Sherlock is an unfeeling machine, I sometimes wonder, even though we are given many examples – provided by John himself – of Sherlock behaving in an emotional or passionate way, if Canon-John, like many modern Sherlock-fans, does not consider these events as ‘legitimate’ expressions of feeling and love because they lack personal and romantic involvement. That Sherlock remains distant and impersonal even when being emotionally expressive is something John cannot seem to get his head around. Even though Sherlock lives in one of the greatest cities in the world, among millions of people, he exists unchanging in 221B within his own emotional, mental and professional bubble that cannot be breached by anyone. Even John cannot fully enter into it. Whether Sherlock is truly asexual or is committed to life-long celibacy for the sake of his profession, it is plain that there is no other kind of lifestyle, except a Bohemian one, that will suit him. Why else would he dedicate himself to becoming the first and only ‘unofficial consulting detective’?
Here all of Sherlock’s desires are summed up in two words: Mental Exaltation. Think about it. That is what Sherlock truly wants. It is what he LOVES.
Just as a monk goes into a desert and forsakes earthly pleasures so that he can contemplate the Divine and draw closer to God, so Sherlock also forsakes society and all its pleasures to seek the facts that lead to Enlightenment, Truth and Justice. All that does not aid or contribute to his quest – food, sleep, sex, women, marriage, lots of friends, health, fame, the knighthood, the fact that the Earth orbits the Sun, is thrown under the bus without a backward glance. All things that aid his quest – sleuthing, 221B, John Watson, his violin, chemistry, concerts, experiments on dead bodies, indoor revolver-practice, indexing, criminal history, Wagner, cocaine, tobacco and honeybees are pursued and embraced. The pleasure – the ‘mental exaltation’ – that he experiences when all the facts fall into place and enlightenment descends upon his mind make all other earthly and bodily pleasures too shallow, too boring in hindsight. Perhaps Sherlock has tried all the typical things humans do to experience pleasure and found them all to be completely worthless in the light of mental exaltation, which his hyperactive brain desires above all things. Even after he retires Sherlock still gets involved in the problems of his neighbors and the international affairs of his country. The game never ends and he knows it. There is always something for him to discover and do – both in and out of public practice, both with and without John, both in the city and in the country. The great well of knowledge, of facts, of wisdom, has no bottom and because of this, far from being repressed and pitiable, Sherlock just might be the most content and satisfied of men.
IV – Does Sherlock Holmes Truly Love?
I have shown so far that, contrary to John’s observations, Sherlock Holmes can be a passionate and emotional man, who has no trouble expressing his feelings or opinions when the need arises. But still, the great question must be confronted and explored: Is Sherlock capable of loving someone in a truly personal, passionate, sexual sense? But perhaps we are asking the question the wrong way: Let’s rephrase it: Does Sherlock WANT to love someone in a passionate, romantic sense? As hard as this might be for many fans to swallow, the answer to this question would be a very firm ‘no’. Canon-Sherlock never seeks or expresses the desire to be romantically and/or sexually involved with anyone – he even arranges his life and habits in a way that would make such a relationship practically impossible. While the Great Detective never enters into that kind of relationship, he is, however, surrounded by people – namely his clients and John Watson – who do seek out and form those kind of relationships, and so Sherlock must constantly deal with and solve the problems, crimes and issues that arise from sexual and romantic unions. But Sherlock is not completely without understanding in regards to romantic love. Although he himself is no lover or husband, he is still capable of identifying with them and placing himself in their shoes, at least hypothetically. In ‘The Devil’s Foot’ while Sherlock and John are on holiday in Cornwall, Sherlock allows a lion-hunter from Africa, Dr. Sterndale, to go free after he kills the man who had murdered the woman he had secretly loved. After the man leaves Sherlock remarks: ”I have never loved, Watson, but if I did and the woman I loved had met with such an end, I might act even as our lawless lion-hunter has done. Who knows?” In ‘The Valley of Fear,’ after John becomes suspicious of the wife of a murdered man after she shows no grief over the fact that her husband has been shot and that his face has been pulverized by the bullet, Sherlock tells him: ”I am not a whole-souled admirer of womankind, as you are aware…[but] should I ever marry, Watson, I should hope to inspire my wife with some feeling which would prevent her from being walked off by a housekeeper when my corpse was lying within a few yards from her.”
Many of Sherlock’s clients come to him with issues and problems concerning their fiancées, their husbands or their wives or those of others. Crimes of passion and the perils and joys of romance and marriage are everywhere in Doyle’s stories. Sherlock might mock the softer passions, but they sure keep his pocket-book full. Doubtless he secretly finds it all very ironic and amusing.
Then we have the whole Irene Adler affair. Irene is ‘The Woman’ to Sherlock Holmes – the woman above all other woman. Sherlock freely confesses to John that she is beautiful, with ‘a face that a man might die for,’ but it is not her beauty that earns her a special place in Sherlock’s mind – it is the fact that she soundly beats him in a game of wits. She certainly got the better of him (without showing off her naked body or drugging him), and while Sherlock’s career did not suffer because of this failure on his part, it remains one of the most favored stories of the Canon, and Sherlock refers back to the case often. He keeps the gold sovereign she gives him for being the best man (while in disguise) at her wedding on his watch-chain and values her photograph very highly. Indeed, I am surprised that Sherlock is not more praised and held up as a role model by modern feminists for admiring a woman for her brain and not her body. Irene was blessed with both brains and beauty, and she flees off into the sunset with the man she truly loves, leaving Sherlock and the King of Bohemia to pick up the pieces. John states quite explicably that Sherlock felt no romantic love toward Irene – yet she remains his ‘woman’ all the same, albeit in an impersonal, non-romantic sense. Does it therefore count? Is it love? Does it have to be?
If we are to state with certainty that Sherlock is a man who has no desire to be put in a ‘false position’ as a lover and that passionate emotional disclosure is something that has perhaps happened only once in Canon when John gets shot (detailed above), then the final questions remain: if sex and romance are off the table, how would Sherlock express his love and what ways would he go about doing it? After all, there is really only one person that Sherlock truly ‘loves’ – and that person is Dr. John Watson, one of the most patient and long-suffering of fictional mortals.
V – How Much does John Mean to Sherlock and Vice Versa?
“They [Sherlock and John] are a great essay in male friendship, which has gone now. Men’s friendship has been debased. One of the lovely things about Holmes and Watson is that they do have this great platonic relationship.” Jeremy Brett, Sherlock Holmes actor from 1984 – 1994
“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
C. S. Lewis, ‘The Four Loves’
In the case of ‘The Creeping Man’ on a Sunday evening in September in 1903, John Watson receives that now-famous telegram, ordering him to come pay his old friend a visit: ‘Come at once if convenient – if inconvenient come all the same. S.H.’
Watson goes on to describe his relationship with Sherlock in those later days:
‘The relations between us in those latter days were peculiar. [Sherlock] was a man of habits, narrow and concentrated habits, and I had become one of them. As an institution I was like the violin, the shag tobacco, the old black pipe, the index books…When it was a case of active work and a comrade was needed upon whose nerves he could place some reliance, my role was obvious. But apart from this I had other uses. I was a whetstone for his mind. I stimulated him. He liked to think aloud in my presence. His remarks could hardly be said to be made to me – many of them would have been as appropriately addressed to his bedstead – but none the less, having formed the habit, it had become helpful in some way that I should register and interject. If I irritated him by a certain methodical slowness, in my mentality, that irritation served only to make his flame-like intuitions and impressions flash up the more vividly and swiftly. Such was my humble role in our alliance.’
At the beginning of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ Sherlock makes a powerful, defining statement about John and the relation of John to himself: ”I am bound to say [Watson] that in all your accounts which you have been so good as to give of my own small achievements you have habitually underrated your own abilities. It may be that you yourself are not luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt.”
John Watson is Sherlock’s best and only friend, his biographer, his sometimes flat-mate, his partner in crime-solving, his Boswell, the saver of his life in ‘The Devil’s Foot’ and, most importantly, the person who stimulates Sherlock’s mind to rise to new heights and revelations – something Sherlock needs more then anything else to survive and stay sane in a world he can never really be apart of or assimilate into.
It is often a disservice to their relationship (and their maturity) that some Sherlock film adaptions, such as the BBC ‘Sherlock’ series and the second Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock-movie ‘A Game of Shadows’ depict Sherlock in an emotional, psychological tailspin with regards to his friend’s marriage to Mary Morstan, who in the Canon is the client who catapults John and Sherlock into the adventures of ‘The Sign of the Four’ novel. Sherlock was indeed disappointed when John’s bachelorhood is (temporarily) ended by his falling in love – but it was not the end of the world, although there was a touch of bitter irony in the whole affair, as John himself is well aware: ”The division [of rewards] seems rather unfair.” he protests at the novel’s end. ”You [Sherlock] have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones [a Scotland Yard detective] gets the credit, pray what remains for you? ”For me,” replies Sherlock, ”there still remains the cocaine-bottle.” John getting hitched interfered little with Sherlock’s detective work, and John was able to balance out his duties as a husband and a practicing doctor with spending time with Sherlock quite well. Many of the cases they solve together take place during his marriage. Yes, John is Sherlock’s ‘intimate’ friend, and the only person Sherlock goes out of his way to spend time with, but to depict him as being completely dependent on John’s physical presence 24/7 in order to function is a misrepresentation of Sherlock’s character. The hallmark of true friendship is how the two friends cope with being apart. It is lovers who cannot stand being separated from each other. Friends, on the other hand, can be separated for any length of time, and then reunite again and act as if no time had passed. After Mary’s death during Sherlock’s three-year ‘hiatus’, John moves back into 221B and things continue as before. Sherlock’s friendship with John spans almost two decades, but in the end, Sherlock retires to the Sussex Downs alone, after John marries once more. This gives Sherlock the opportunity to write about two of his cases in his own words, and he sums up John’s departure in ‘The Blanched Soldier’ simply and candidly: ”The good Watson had at that time deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in our association. I was alone” (some Sherlockians speculate that this wife was none other then Mrs. Hudson herself). There is no emotional turmoil on Sherlock’s part, no bitterness, no anger against John for pursuing that kind of relationship that he himself finds so unnecessary to his own life. Secured and grounded in John’s friendship (and the memories thereof), Sherlock can live without his presence or his assistance on his own two feet. To him, John is ‘a fixed point in a changing age.’ Sherlock owes his fame to John, as well as a sharp brain that works in his latter years thanks to the Good Doctor weaning him off cocaine, upon which he may have burnt himself out long ago.
There is no doubt that John means a great deal to Sherlock and it is through his voice and eyes that Sherlock is presented to the readers in all his glory, his genius, his vices, his private life and his public achievements. John – who can be considered the ‘everyman’ – is a foil for the Great Detective, one who aids him, inspires him, puts up with his faults and saves him. Without John’s humanity and ordinary intelligence to counterbalance Sherlock’s reasoning mind and his super-intelligence, the adventures of Sherlock would not have been so appealing and so well loved. Through John Sherlock is made accessible to the every-day world, and the world is all the better for it. Their friendship is unique and special, one that should be treated with respect – not turned into something Doyle never intended it to be. Does Sherlock love John? Yes, John is probably the only person that could claim to have Sherlock’s ‘love’, although it is well established that Sherlock-love is not what ordinary people would call (or recognized as) love. Yet it is there, in little golden nuggets throughout the Canon, as this YouTube video starring Jeremy Brett so touchingly depicts:
Why this should not be viewed as a beautiful expression of love in its own right is something I have yet to fully understand. Yes Sherlock is cold and aloof and unfathomable, and why should he not be? Doyle stated that “Holmes is as inhuman as a Babbage’s calculating machine and just about as likely to fall in love”. It should be important to realize that ‘falling in love’ is not quite the same as simply loving someone. Friendship is – or at least used to be – a type of love in its own right; some of the ancient Greek philosophers even considered it one of the highest forms of love. But such is no longer the case. Jeremy Brett was right when he said that friendship – especially the friendship between men – has been debased. Thanks to Facebook, and other things, the concept of friendship has become so shallow and so watered-down that the relationship Sherlock and John have is almost as unfathomable as the Great Detective himself as the years continue to pass. After J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic tale of the long-suffering Frodo and Sam and their companions, the adventures of Sherlock and John are the finest depiction of the lost love still known as Friendship. Such is the love of Sherlock and John – a love that cannot be understood properly, much less appreciated, by the world today. Anyone who defends the platonic friendship of Sherlock and John against the claim that they were/are homosexual lovers is put at a disadvantage. To say that they are ‘just friends’ will never work. This phrase, in and of itself, seems to imply, in current modern thought, that Sherlock and John have opted to settle for the lowliest, most base, most pathetic, most dull of relationships two humans can form with each other. Friends? That’s all? How sad! How boring! The hyper-sexualization of our modern culture in art, film and literature (especially in my country of America) as well as the acceptance of all sexual orientations and acts as ends in themselves and the glorification of romantic love above all other forms of love has reduced the concept of a non-sexual, non-romantic love (a love that holds its own without romantic or sexual desires and ties – the Love that is friendship) as something that simply just cannot happen or is not worth celebrating or exploring because it lacks the very two things that make it unique: romance and sex. If friendship is not a valid form of love, then Sherlock is truly heartless and his fans must set him right. But if friendship is also its own special breed of love, then we can happily state with certainty that, yes, Sherlock is capable of love and that John is a worthy recipient of that love. ”…you have never failed to play the game [John],” Sherlock tells him in ‘The Mazarin Stone,’ …”[and] I am sure you will play it until the end.”
And what about John himself? What does Sherlock mean to John? After years of living with Sherlock, fighting crime and solving cases with Sherlock, putting up with and helping Sherlock with his vices and problems, being placed in situations of peril and death because of and for Sherlock, arguing, testing and being verbally and mentally backhanded by Sherlock, John concludes, in what was supposed to be the last Holmes-story ‘The Final Problem’ that the cold, calculating and heartless Detective was ‘the best and wisest man whom I have ever known.’
John eventually comes to see that Sherlock does indeed have great heart, yet that great heart will never overrule the even greater brain. To the end, Canon-Sherlock will be his own master. Sadly, it is only in the Canon that Sherlock CAN be his own master. At the end of ‘The Creeping Man’ adventure, in which an elderly professor injects himself with monkey serum to become younger and more viral after he falls passionately in love with a much younger woman and winds up digressing into a monkey-like state himself, the Great Detective makes a philosophical statement about the tension between the spiritual man and the worldly man, between the higher men who follow their destines (as Sherlock seeks to do) and those whose lives are hardly better then that of animals: ”The highest type of man may revert to the animal if he leaves the straight road of destiny…Consider, Watson, that the material, the sensual, the worldly would all prolong their worthless lives . The spiritual would not avoid the call to something higher. It would be the survival of the least fit. What sort of cesspool may not our poor world become?” What kind of cesspool, indeed, Sherlock? And how would a man such as yourself fare in such a world?
VI – The Character-assassination of Sherlock Holmes
”Come – dance, dance, dance, teach us to be true / Come – dance, dance, dance, ’cause we love you.” Phil Ochs, ‘The Crucifixion’
Nature abhors a vacuum. So do fans. There is a dark side to popularity, and Sherlock is not exempt from this fact. If anything, he is subjected more than any other fictional character to the worldly trimming knife, even while Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle was still alive (Sherlock was given a love interest and got married in William Gillette’s popular 1899 stage-play. Doyle, despite his misgivings, gave his approval). That Canon-Sherlock should have dared to dwell alone in 221B or on the Sussex Downs in complete autonomy, or that he should help make the world better while at the same time refusing to become a part of it, is something that the modern mind finds inconceivable. Men (or characters) such as Sherlock are terrifying to the modern mind because they pose a challenge to how feminized Western society views people – especially males – who posses the kind of character-traits (independence, self-control, intelligence, nobility, power, refinement, class, individuality, honesty and detachment, coupled with a self-ruling, stoic, introverted, defiant, non-sensual nature) that Sherlock is endowed with. In today’s time, when emotions, feelings, passionate love and the free expression of all of them are considered the highway to true happiness, the character of Sherlock Holmes stands in complete opposition to these ideas and sentiments.
Canon-Sherlock, taken at face-value and on his own terms, is a fictional nightmare to the modern world that is haunting them from the remnants of the old world: a man who ‘to the last gasp [of breath] would always be the master.’ This is why there can be no one-hundred-percent accurate portrayal of him in cinema outside of the Canon stories. In order to make Sherlock marketable (sellable) to any kind of audience some aspect of his character has to be trimmed, diluted, culled, edited, exaggerated, removed or in some cases assassinated. Usually the justifications for this treatment stem from the fact that people today no longer wish to be edified and ennobled by the legends, lives and views from the past. Instead of being humble and stepping outside of themselves and learning something about their ancestors and how they viewed the world, there is much pressure and demand to update and modernize stories and characters (especially if those stories or characters are mythological, fairy-tale or legendary in origin or are otherwise old enough to come across as archaic to modern eyes) to suit their own tastes, preferences, sexual-orientations and worldviews. The character of Sherlock Holmes is one-hundred and twenty-five years old and is now public domain. He is practically a relic. A beloved relic, but one who is also undergoing constant adaptation and change, and not all for the better.
In what I view as the ultimate twist of irony, the cold, thin, pale, untouchable person of Canon-Sherlock has been transformed via cinema – especially since the advent of the BBC ‘Sherlock’ series in 2010 – into an (implied) psychologically-disturbed, emotionally-repressed, good-looking boy-toy to millions of current fans to whom ‘brainy’ is indeed the ‘new sexy’. Actually the ‘brainy’ part can just be considered an interesting (or annoying) side-dish: Sherlock Holmes has become a sex symbol of astonishing proportions. John writes that Sherlock would be inefficient as a lover – today Sherlock can hardly be viewed as anything BUT a lover. There is more artwork and fan-fiction depicting Sherlock (usually in the form of Benedict Cumberbatch) having explicit romantic and sexual relationships with people (usually John) than there is of everything he does in the Canon combined. The homo-erotic ‘JohnLock’ fan-fantasy is so prevalent now that it eclipses and overshadows everything Sherlock is. In a way I believe that this treatment is a subtle form of revenge on Sherlock’s original character – to take the lean, keen, calculating machine and try to ‘humanize’ him by having him fall in love and have sex with someone – John Watson, Irene Adler, BBC’s Molly Hooper, CBS’s ‘Jamie’ Moriarty, Mary Russell – or vice versa. To take the cool, aloof, self-ruling detective and make him emotionally and/or sexually needy and dependent on John who is no longer a friend but a lover – these fantasies seem geared (intentionally or not) at stripping away Sherlock’s autonomy and integrity, knocking him off the straight road of his destiny as the world’s greatest consulting detective, and bringing him ‘down to earth’ into the realm of those passions and methods of expression which in Canon are abhorrent to his cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind.’ If all of Sherlock’s relationships must be romanticized or sexualized in order for them to have meaning, then there is no true place for friendship, no place for comradeship, no place for Sherlock to express himself in the ways he prefers. Far from modernizing and updating Sherlock, these fantasies and depictions only serve to strip Sherlock of some of the key aspects of his character that make him unique and special in the first place. Once removed, Sherlock become less of who he is, and more like any other person – more normal, more average, more worldly, more palpable to the modern amoral masses. It dishonors him. Worst of all, it denies him his methods of expressing love, and makes them seem shallow and pathetic in comparison to what others want and do. Sherlock is denied love, and John also, and the ancient view that friendship is (or was) also love is further shoved into a dark corner, where it becomes more pointless and meaningless with each passing year. The callous, intrusive and often vulgar way in which Sherlock’s feelings and desires are reduced and depicted by many fans is often quite repelling. It is also tragic, in that this intelligent, honorable Victorian gentleman should become just another pretty play-boy who needs to be screwed every which way so he can be complete and fulfilled – as if Sherlock ever needed fulfillment. Canon-Sherlock walks the ‘straight road’ of his detective destiny to the end, achieving more in one lifetime then a hundred other men put together. It is rather amusing: Mr. Sherlock Holmes would be, in my estimation, one of the most fulfilled and complete man ever known.
VII – Conclusion
Sherlock Holmes is a man of power, integrity, passion, and yes, even love. His entire life is proof. The game is played for the game’s own sake. The work is its own reward. I liken the character of Sherlock to that of a tower of sharp, smooth rock thrusting out from an ever-churning, ever-shifting sea. The great sea of humanity is always shifting and changing, but Sherlock remains the same. Whether we are reading an issue of ‘The Strand’ magazine in 1981 or are curled in our beds with a giant hardback of ‘The Complete Sherlock Holmes’ Canon on our laps in 2015, Sherlock does not change. That is the beautiful, terrible thing about the written word. It freezes and immortalizes an event, an idea, a person, and holds it stationary in the long stream of time. People, culture, viewpoints, the very world, are always changing – but a book, a book with a beginning and an ending that cannot be altered or changed – is forever fixed and held in the era and time it was created, autonomous and self-contained, and unaffected by whatever will come after. Outside of the Canon Sherlock can be handled or mishandled by anyone for any reason – but as long as the Canon exists, Sherlock, the TRUE Sherlock, will also exist – in his own way and on his own terms. In that way, Sherlock remains immortal and untouchable, as well as the world and the people who surround him. Here, though one-hundred and twenty-five years have passed, the yellow fog still drifts down London’s streets and the gas-lamps fail at twenty feet. Here the game is always afoot and the cab is at the door. Here dwell two men of note at 221B who will forever live and never die. Here the Great Detective Sherlock Holmes hunts like a hound; the self-mastered one stalking the masterless, the dispassionate one triumphing over the passionate, the just man overtaking the lawless for as long as his adventures are read. Sherlock is no fool – he knows that the world is a cruel and dark and evil place; but that does not stop him from doing what needs to be done to try and lessen the pain. His readers are no fools. Regardless of the age we, too, also live in a dark and dangerous world, and the road to Reichenbach is a long one. But Sherlock gives us HOPE, and it is that what makes him so wonderful a character – so fine a man – so fitting a hero.
Finally, if one final proof is needed that Sherlock is no heartless machine, and that he is indeed more ‘human’ then many who would style themselves as such, even though their lives are hardly different then that of animals, it is that he possesses a virtue that no machine ever can nor ever will – humility. Sherlock Holmes, the master detective, the man of such great genus and intellect, still has the humility to say, at the end of the day, recognizing his own faults and weaknesses and the evil state of the world – ”There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.”
And on and on the Great Detective goes and goes - down the streets and byways and docks. Over mountains and moors and seas. To the Falls and the Hound. In forests and on the Downs. Come, my dear Watson, the game never ends, the work is never finished - an East Wind is coming (but 221B is always warm). This is what I love, this is what I live for, this is my passion, my dance, my life - and I would have no one else but you by my side...
The love of Sherlock Holmes is a lost love, a forgotten love, an ancient love, a disregarded and degraded love - but it is a love nonetheless. It is enough. Do not take it from him. Do not take it from John. Let them have their love. Let Friendship reign supreme. It is enough.
- About the author: Sloane Jensen is a 25 year-old Sherlock Holmes fan who lives in the USA in the State of Colorado. She enjoys reading, writing, hiking, biking, fishing, horseback riding and hanging about the house in pajamas and a bath robe when not at work. She is grateful for more serious, Canon-respecting Sherlock sites like this one and is pleased to be able to submit her writings to the 'Sherlock-Sherlockian' English-site. Her favorite Sherlock actors are Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch and Basil Rathbone in that order. Her favorite Sherlock short-story is 'The Dying Detective'