Many fans of Conan Doyle’s series like to play what they call ‘The Great Game’, in which they pretend that Holmes and Watson were real and that Conan Doyle was merely their literary agent. As one might expect, the game’s first move consists of endorsing the ‘gentle fiction’ (as Leslie S. Klinger, one of its greatest players, has called it) that William Sherlock Scott Holmes was born in 1845 and that he must have died some time ago now. But if I might make a modest proposal, such fiction is anything but gentle. For it may be a harbinger, and also a cause, of that most melancholy of objects, none other than the end of our civilization. Let me explain.
Distinguishing between fiction and non-fiction is essential to the reality of our everyday lives. ‘The everyday’, as we might call it, is where most of us (adults) spend most of our time: it is the domain of family and work, of ethics and politics, indeed of the whole matrix of personal and social practices. And all of these are, of course, fundamentally non-fictional.
There exists another non-fictional dimension, to be sure, that of ‘the natural’. It is where we may be said to go whenever we don the white coat of the natural scientist and look at things from a disengaged perspective, grasping reality as it exists independently of our everyday purposes. Modern science has brought with it enormous powers, but these have also come with great threats – as the many philosophers who have written of the dangers of a technological world-view have warned.
Essentially, these thinkers’ main worry is that the everyday is being colonized by the natural. What they tend to overlook, however, is the threat coming from ‘the other side’, so to speak, by which I mean from ‘the aesthetic’. This is a dimension of fiction rather than non-fiction, and yet it is no less real because of that. It is where we go whenever we do one of three things: savour, imagine, or play. By savour I mean to refer to the act of taking pleasure in a thing’s beauty, in how, as Kant once described, it appears to our senses for its own sake. When we imagine, by contrast, we use the capacity that Vico called fantasia in order, for example, to make or grasp metaphors, or to ‘put ourselves in another’s shoes’, as the saying goes. And regarding play, we need to be playful if we are to make, or at least get, jokes, as well as, of course, to play games, wherein we conform to systematic rules that are set apart from our everyday lives. These rules are set apart because they, too, must be at least partly followed for their own sake instead of for their ability to serve our everyday values. Why should I kick the ball in that goal or shoot the puck in this net? Because that is how the game is played, nothing more. And why can I not pick up the ball with my hands or kick the puck in with my skate? Because such actions would violate the rules – rules, again, which exist simply because we could not play without them.
‘Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot.’ Now this has, of course, been taken to be Sherlock Holmes’s rallying cry, and it says a great deal about how he conceives of his cases. For though he is undoubtedly quoting Shakespeare (Henry V to be exact), where the reference is to a hunt’s quarry, to the deer or wild boar whose chase was led by greyhounds, Holmes’s meaning is also that which comes most naturally to us today: the idea of competitive play. Because, above all, Holmes is a man in it for the fun.
‘I play the game for the game’s own sake’ was thus how he once corrected his brother Mycroft when the latter suggested that much fame would come to the man who solved a particularly important case. True, Holmes used to care a great deal about recognition, but that was in his younger days, before he abandoned this value altogether in order to ensconce himself fully in the aesthetic. He came to treat money in the very same way, making it into yet another everyday item that held no interest for him (as we see from his decision to work upon a fixed scale – when he did not remit his charges altogether, that is). Indeed Holmes’s disdain for the everyday only grew and grew, so much so that he came to conceive of his whole life as but ‘one long effort to escape from the commonplace of existence’. So it should come as no surprise that, bemoaning the lack of ‘audacity and romance’ that appeared to have passed from the criminal world, he would often inject himself with a seven per cent solution of cocaine in order to stave off boredom. For it is nothing but boredom that, as Kierkegaard once pointed out, is the bane of all who would lead an aesthetic life.
What a sad spectacle. But what should we expect from a man who looks back on the 50 murderers in his career as if they were players in a game – or actors on a stage? For that, too, is how Holmes sometimes views his cases. As he himself once pointed out: ‘Watson insists that I am the dramatist in real life. Some touch of the artist wells up within me, and calls insistently for a well staged performance.’ And what is his justification for treating such serious business in a theatrical way? Yet again nothing but the aesthete’s desire to stave off boredom, for ‘surely our profession would be a drab and sordid one if we did not sometimes set the scene so as to glorify our results’. In response, we have only to cite Holmes’s own words back at him: ‘To the man who loves art for its own sake, it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived.’ No wonder he was such a fan of Wagner.
‘Come, friend Watson, the curtain rings up for the last act.’ Again and again, Holmes can be heard explicitly invoking his friendship with Watson. It seems to me, however, that he insists upon it just a little too much. He does so because he suspects that he and Watson are not genuine friends after all and that, moreover, it is he himself who is to blame for this. The reason is simple: his aestheticism has kept him from developing the steadfastness and sensitivity to others that real friendship requires. How else to explain his abominable treatment of the man who was his roommate, associate and biographer? Of the many examples that one might cite, the most manifest is surely his keeping Watson ignorant – for three long years and for the flimsiest of reasons – of the fact that he was not, after all, killed during his struggle with Dr Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland (where, it’s worth mentioning, members of the various international Sherlock Holmes societies make a pilgrimage every May 4th to commemorate the ‘death’ of their beloved hero). No real friend would ever have behaved in such a terrible manner – which is why we need to recognize that Holmes has never been a real friend to anyone, indeed, that he is simply incapable of friendship. Because what is friendship if not an everyday rather than aesthetic thing, more like milk than honey? Watson, then, could never serve as anything more than a tool for Holmes’s aesthetic endeavours. And indeed he never did so, no matter how much he may have believed otherwise.
However surely the worst of Holmes’s transgressions was one perpetrated upon those of us in the everyday rather than imaginary world. For though some might consider this but a philosopher’s conceit, it seems to me that Holmes’s greatest contribution to the blurring of fiction and non-fiction arises from the highly detrimental effect that he has had on our conception of rationality. For how is it that so many have failed to notice that the cold logic he proudly and repeatedly claims to employ is nothing of the kind? Holmes does not deduce, moving from general premises to specific conclusions, but abduce, which is a very different form of ‘reasoning’. At base, it consists of the examination of a series of seemingly unrelated phenomena in order to arrive at a hypothesis about their connection on the grounds of intuition − of a hunch, essentially − and what is a hunch if not a product of the imagination? ‘The first rule of detective work,’ Holmes has helpfully declared more than once, is to ‘imagine any possible alternatives.’ Moreover, when it comes to validating the hypothesis, this is to be done by determining that it is the best possible explanation for the data through an application of Occam’s razor, which is to say by judging it on the basis of elegance and simplicity. But what are these if not further aesthetic standards?
So Holmes blurs the border between the everyday and the aesthetic. And nowadays it is much more than just his fans or, as one might expect, philosophers (from the postmodernist to John Rawls and Charles Taylor) who enjoy conflating reason and the imagination, games and serious life, the good and the beautiful. Because one might also invoke some of our leading historians (think of the French school of the ‘social imaginary’), political scientists and economists (think game theory), journalists (think ‘infotainment’), filmmakers (think Oliver Stone), comics (think Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David, their opposites being The Daily Show’s John Stewart and Hotbox’s Pat Thornton), and novelists (think Martin Amis, for whom ‘A novel is a rational undertaking’, or Clancy Martin). Many, many others could be mentioned as well. Which is why I feel it necessary to conclude with a humble warning, namely, that this blurring can only lead to one thing, and that is the aestheticization of our politics. Think of how often already it has been reduced to spectacle, to events consumed by spectators in which players compete or act according to classic plays, tropes or archetypes. And when this happens − when, as The Tragically Hip sing, the struggle has a name − can fascism be far behind?
Holmes, or should I say Conan Doyle, has much to answer for.