Saturday, January 28, 2012

Sherlock Holmes a Conservative Hero?

Men of Honor

Raymond Chandler in his brilliant essay, The Simple Art of Murder, writes,

"Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic...

Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds. All men who read escape from something else into what lies behind the printed page; the quality of the dream may be argued, but its release has become a functional necessity. All men must escape at times from the deadly rhythm of their private thoughts. It is part of the process of life among thinking beings. It is one of the things that distinguish them from the three-toed sloth; he apparently–one can never be quite sure–is perfectly content hanging upside down on a branch, and not even reading Walter Lippmann. I hold no particular brief for the detective story as the ideal escape. I merely say that all reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce, or The Diary of the Forgotten Man. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob, and a juvenile at the art of living...

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in."  The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler, 1950.

Chandler's heroes, such as Philip Marlowe, are essentially conservative.  They are not "anything goes" moral relativists of the liberal school.  On the contrary, they have a code of honor by which they live and sometimes die.  Even the politically liberal Dashiell Hammet was a creator of conservative fiction in this sense.

Moreover, the structure of the mystery is intrinsically conservative.  Crime has put the world out of joint and the hero detective must restore order in a world that constantly seems to be spinning out of control.  The conservative principle is, at its heart, a struggle against the forces of entropy and chaos.  The detective/hero re-establishes order by bringing the criminal to justice even when this may contravene the law (e.g. Agatha Christ and Murder on the Orient Express).  By doing so, he struggles towards redemption.

Have you seen the new BBC production of Sherlock (two seasons produced thus far)?  It is simply a revelation of how good television can actually be.  This Holmes and Watson (an Afghanistan veteran) are set in 21st century London.  The writing on the show sparkles and is constantly allusive to its source material while at the same time being thoroughly modern.  Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the "complete man and yet an unusual man" that Chandler praises while Watson (Martin Freeman) fulfills the role of the "common man." Dr. Watson blogs.  Holmes has a web site and uses nicotine patches instead of smoking a pipe.  Irene Adler, "the woman," is a high-class sex worker.  This Holmes is assuredly "a man fit for adventure" with "a range of awareness that startles you" at every turn. 

Holmes famously is indifferent to whether the earth rotates around the sun or vice versa.  The world's meaning lay entirely in the sphere of the ethical as far as Sherlock Holmes was concerned.  The brute facts of natural science were only of real interest when they could be put to use in serving an ethical end (e.g. solving the crime).

Sherlock Holmes is the embodiment of conservatism on so many different levels.  First, he is a practical Aristotelian examining the world and making deductions* based on his findings.  Second, to consult with Sherlock is to enter into a free and private transaction (Adam Smith would approve!) because government based solutions (the police) are so clearly inadequate.  Third, Sherlock Holmes prefers reason over feeling, thought over emotion.  Fourth, through his work, he restores the moral order of the universe.  Finally, Holmes and Watson celebrate the importance of male comradeship.

The success of Sherlock tells us that conservatism remains utterly relevant in the 21st century. 

Commander Kelly says, plan your escape with Sherlock!

* Technically, it should be "inductions" but Arthur Conan Doyle conflated "induction" and "deduction" in the original canon and Sherlock perpetuates the error.  If I wake up in the morning and observe that the streets are wet, I would usually "induce" that it rained during the night, in spite of the possibility that the water mains may have burst .  Induction, therefore, involves the calculation of probability.  If all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, then I may correctly "deduce" that Socrates is mortal.  "Deduction" demands a logical necessity.  If Sherlock Holmes notices the cigar ashes on my vest and "induces" that I am partial to Montecristos, it could be that I am a non-smoker who brushed up against someone in the tube that morning.  Sherlock Holmes is, correctly speaking, a master of "induction."


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