Sherlock Holmes and the Life of Principle

Humor me on this one. This is a moment for making grand pronouncements from a soap box, so here it is: every once in a while, I feel the need to speak up in defense of one of my favorite literary characters, Sherlock Holmes.

How silly is that, really, if you think about it? And yet, I feel it’s not. Since to defend him is to defend, as lofty as that sounds, an idea that one can live a life of principle. These modern times encourage us to use the findings of our psychological science to “understand” people, but that just leads to our vision of others being distorted by the clouded lens of modern diagnosis. Like someone out of Andersen’s “Snow Queen” with a shard of the devil’s mirror stuck in our eyes, we proceed to view nothing but pathology in our fellow men. “Daddy issues,” “mommy issues,” “trust issues,” “intimacy issues,” “abandonment issues” — why, there is no shortage of categories where it could all go wrong for a person, so it’s a wonder anyone functions at all! It follows then, for a contemporary pseudo-sophisticated student of human nature, that “functioning” is a compensatory façade. So the student proceeds to peer beyond the façade to search for traces of what makes one “human”. In reality, however, the search is for the animal — it is more comforting for such a student to disrobe a hero and pull him down into the mud, where the rest of us humans live. So it comes to be that principles go grossly out of fashion because they are seen as nothing more than sublimation of issues. And so poor Holmes, a confirmed bachelor who prefers the company of his pipe, his violin, and one trusted (male!) companion becomes a victim of modern-day (psycho) analysis.

He is gay, we’re told. Has to be, or else why would he live with Watson eschewing the company of women?

Autistic, perhaps, since he despises emotions and social longings, or (the latest in the pop-analysis) a sociopath and a psychopath?

The assumption is, then, that health, as is narrowly defined by our “sophisticated” times, is such: emote all over the place (self-possession is just one slippery slope roll away from developing a stiff upper lip and repression!); or want to be others most of the time, and, first and foremost, make sex your absolute priority, acknowledging your basic jungle nature. Poor Holmes! Alas, he fails the test of health miserably since he is skeptical of people at large, and of women in particular, and lives for nothing but short bursts of activity when he is working and quiet contemplation when he is not. Granted, occasional heroin injections don’t help.

How refreshing then it was to see that there are still those who understand him! At least Steven Moffat, whose brilliant new British series “Sherlock” does, and voices his understanding beautifully (no doubt it’s this understanding that accounts for such success with the new series): “He’s not a psychopath, he’s not a sociopath … he’s a man who chooses to be the way he is because he thinks it makes him better. It’s a monastic decision. He takes himself out of touch with his sexuality, out of touch with his emotions in order to make himself better.” It’s hard to convey my delight at hearing him speak thus in an interview on NPR with Kurt Andersen, who uttered the “psycho-sociopath” diagnosis once again, prompting Moffat’s response which captures Holmes nature perfectly: it is precisely in the service of his ideals that Holmes develops only certain sides of his psyche. However, it is also these ideals that our times –which so readily forgive all sorts of sins — cannot forgive. Holmes doesn’t need to take a vow to make monastic decision because for someone like him there could never be temptation; he is much too true to his principles to be tempted, yet it is the adherence to principles that our psychobabble brainwashed public finds so suspect. What is it that he represses, after all? Some major (early!) disruption must have taken place in order for him to cut himself from all that is “human.” By human, once again, they seem to mean animal. But what it is more human than principle, the idea of ethics, of living out your beliefs no matter what winds blow? To some, Holmes is “out of touch with his feelings;” to others, he transcended the bind of feelings.

Yet, the zeitgeist dictates, principles are boring. If Hilary Mantel (an author of recent historical novels set in the court of Henry VIII) as reviewed by The New Yorker is to be believed, we would consider the shrewd monster Thomas Cromwell or Henry himself more human than Thomas More, who, being “a saintly monster”, would just “drown [us] in scripture.” Interesting world it is indeed, in which More, a man who lived out his principles knowing full well that he’d be beheaded for them, is seen as less appealing than Cromwell, who sends him to his death. No doubt More would be viewed as having “issues” too, and thus is understood and hence easily discarded. No doubt too that, not saintly in the least, Holmes is written off as a walking pathology simply for the psychological crime of being true to his nature and his beliefs (perceived by us as “rigidity”). Be he an ebullient, tipsy skirt-chaser, he’d be a picture of mental health. Being who he is, he tempts a lay diagnostician with no shortage of tools at his disposal. Any yet, how many literary figures can claim a hold on the imagination so firm as Holmes does?

Surely, there must be a reason that a man of ostensibly little visible emotion has inspired such love through the decades. We — those of us who love him — return to him not to pathologize him and feel healthier by comparison but to bask in all of his humanity, complex and real, made up of the coldness of his logic and the tenderness of his devotion, the precision of his thought and the purity of his spirit. Time and again, Conan Doyle’s genius creation defies the attempts of those who accuse him of illness for his refusal to fit into their mold of health. It is his character, integrity, and principle that set him apart. His innocence is not in his supposed virginity, but in his absolute refusal to live outside of truth as he sees it.

I love Sherlock Holmes, but ultimately this piece is not about him. I do wish that living people too could be spared the false explanations of their nature. Perhaps they might be better able to live in peace with themselves, if they could accept that the motives behind their “issues” are not necessarily sinister or pathological. Holmes’ version of truth in reality might have lay in bringing hidden things to light. Similarly, for a person with “intimacy” issues, could the motive be not in a wish to withhold or an inability to connect, but in fearing that a connection too is finite and will hence bind him, making him finite as well?… Whatever it is that makes us tick, wouldn’t it be wonderful to see it not through the distorting shards of the broken mirror, but through the lens of a spyglass Man has always wanted to peer through and perhaps catch a glimpse of Being.