I watched Sherlock with a growing sense of sorrow for the homelessness of Holmes, and for the homelessness of those who wrote it, and for the homelessness of so many of those who watch it. I share their sense that we live in a vale of tears and that we see it through a veil of tears but, unlike these poor souls, I am aware that we need not be homeless…

According to Guinness World Records, Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed movie character in history. He has been played by more than seventy actors in over 200 films. To the older genertion, he will always be seen as he was portrayed by Basil Rathbone in a succession of films made between 1939 to 1946. Today, however, he will be best known for Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of him in the ongoing TV adaptation, Sherlock. What follows will be a personal impression of the inaugural episode (season 1, episode 1) of Sherlock, which I watched recently with a friend who thought I would enjoy it.

Mr. Cumberbatch’s Holmes lives in contemporary London, a place which is philosophically and demographically rootless, a place of ultimately meaningless transience, where nothing really matters. Everyone is homeless, devoid of any realities that clutch, and the whole of life seems to float in a computer-generated fake-reality, virtual and virtueless. The only things rooted in the real are the cold, hard facts that Holmes unearths as clues. Beyond these facts there is no truth. Nothing is definite. All is ambivalence. Nothing is beautiful. There’s only ugliness. We don’t see the sky. Nor do we see any living tree or plant. Nothing that grows and has life. Instead, we see only the walking dead.

Holmes describes himself as “a high-functioning sociopath,” which makes him relatively normal because all the other characters are also sociopaths, albeit low-functioning ones. The truth is that Holmes only differs from everyone else in terms of aptitude but not in terms of attitude. He’s smarter than everyone else but he’s equally screwed-up and equally self-centred. Nobody is well-adjusted and nobody lives their lives by self-sacrificially laying them down for others. When marriage is mentioned, which is rarely, it’s only in terms of its betrayal through acts of adultery. Love, we are told at a climactic moment, is the most vicious of motives. Whereas heterosexual relationships are self-serving and generally stink, homosexuality, which is explicitly and allusively omnipresent, almost to the point of being an obsessive preoccupation, is affirmed as being “good.” Indeed, and if my memory serves me correctly, homosexuality is the only thing in the entire ninety minutes of the drama which is affirmed as being good.

None of the foregoing is intended as a negative portrayal of the purely artistic merits of the drama. The writing is brilliant, though obviously derivative of the genre. The plot, it seemed to me, was borrowed not from Conan Doyle but from Chesterton, turning as it does upon the fact that a man can be made invisible by the practice of his profession. In Chesterton’s story, “The Invisible Man,” published in The Innocence of Father Brown, nobody notices the postman as he delivers his letters, thereby making him “invisible” as he commits the crime. In Sherlock, it is the taxi driver who goes unnoticed as he commits his crimes. It’s possible, of course, that Conan Doyle had employed this same trick in one of his own stories, independent of Chesterton, or that Chesterton had actually been inspired by an earlier story by Conan Doyle which I have not yet read. It is in any event evident that the writers of Sherlock were employing a time-honoured plot device from the detective storytellers’ bag of tricks. Since it has been said, by T.S. Eliot I believe, that bad writers borrow but good writers steal, we will not consider such theft to be blameworthy.

If the writing is good, so is the cinematography which captures the darkness of modern London and the fragmented nature of modern life. Like the (anti)culture that it depicts, it is all broken pieces which can’t be put together again, a reflection of the topsy-turvydom of humpty-dumptydom. It is Eliot’s Wasteland devoid of Eliot’s hope. The diaspora of despair.

The cinematography and the writing combine to keep us in as state of agitation. Our eyes are not allowed to rest on any image for more than a second or two, allowing the restless profusion of images to feed our frenzied addiction to incessant distraction and our disordered craving for attention-deficiency. The camera angles are edgy because they depict the edginess of the very edge of reality, the hinterland between the nightmare reality of nihilism and the comfortable numbness of narcissistic escape. And yet there is no escape. As with all addiction, every high is followed by ever darker lows. The narcissistic numbness passes, and only the nihilistic nightmare remains. The is the edginess on the edge of despair, the cutting edge that cuts life to pieces with its nothingness.

Such were my impressions upon watching the inaugural episode of Sherlock. I watched it with a growing sense of sorrow for the homelessness of Holmes, and for the homelessness of those who wrote it, and for the homelessness of so many of those who watch it. I share their sense that we live in a vale of tears and that we see it through a veil of tears but, unlike these poor souls, I am aware that we need not be homeless.

We have a home and we can feel at home, even in this land of exile, because of the presence of real love, the love that gives itself to others and willingly pays the cost. The real presence of this love is the home of man. Its absence makes us homeless. Its absence leads to despair, which is the homelessness of hopelessness.

When all is said and done, the answer to modernity’s existential angst is all so very simple, or, as Holmes might say, it is elementary.

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8 replies to this post
  1. The “invisible” taxi-driver was indeed invented by Conan-Doyle, in the very story on which the first episode of “Sherlock” is based, “A Study in Scarlet” (which happens to be the very first Sherlock Holmes story, a fact of which you are surely aware).

  2. Perhaps one could look at the relationship between Holmes and Dr. Watson for some glimmer of light in the bleakness? John Watson does show evidence of possessing a human soul.

  3. the heart of the entire show (developed over the entire series) is John Watson and the humanization of Sherlock, and with time, even of Mycroft.

  4. Sherlock learns to love as the series continues by his willingness to sacrifice himself for the lives of his friends in “The Reichenbach Fall”. Surely saving the lives of his friends from snipers answering to James Moriarty demonstrates a divergence from the sociopathic tendencies in Sherlock’s character.

  5. I didn’t care for the first episode, then several months later gave the series another shot and found it riveting.

  6. Perhaps as with so much in the contemporary culture industry, not much seems to be at stake because so much has been devalued. We have what the Holy Father Emeritus might see as the vague replacing the concrete, the specific. A sort of Monty Python hollowing of the substantial. A hunger which often goes along with homelessness.

  7. My feelings are much like yours. When the first episode came out, I was excited to see Holmes in a modern setting. Unfortunately, I soon found myself disliking and then abandoning it. You touched on one reason with this remark: “Holmes describes himself as “a high-functioning sociopath,” which makes him relatively normal because all the other characters are also sociopaths, albeit low-functioning ones.”

    That’s not the Holmes of Doyle. He can be impatient, but he’s actually quite kind, often taking on seemingly trivial cases and for no payment, simply to ease someone’s mnd. The thing I hate most in movie and TV adaptations is when they alter traits of character like that. I hated that with the modern Holmes with its sociopathic Holmes. I hate many of the older movie adaptations because they turn Dr. Watson into a dullard. Doyle’s Watson is quite smart. He simply pales in comparison to Holmes.

    But keep in mind that this updated Holmes series reflects the same nihilistic attitude of much contemporary British mystery fiction—or at least the ones who make it on TV. Years ago I used to look forward to them on PBS. Now I don’t bother to watch them. Inspector Morris was about the last good one and he was killed off. And how did they replace him? By having his assistant start a new series, and he was screwed up by the death of his wife. In virtually all these shows, their chief detectives live such mixed up personal lives that I’m left wondering why they bother to look for criminals. “Why don’t they just check themselves into a mental hospital?” From my perspective as a writer, that is poor writing. The crime itself should be tragedy enough. Tossing in a detective who marriage has failed, who is going blind, or who is becoming diabetic is too much. It creates pathos overload.

    The only exception was one where the chief detective had a quite happy marriage and a good relationship with his daughter. But I gave up on that one too because it seemed like they solved their murders using ‘last man standing.’ Suspect after suspect would be killed until the real murder was almost the only one left. That’s not detection, I thought.

    And forgive me if I forget their names. It has been since the 1990s. I really did abandon the BBC mysteries on PBS. They have forgotten that the real attraction of murder mysteries is that they reaffirm a moral universe in the face of great crime. I get the impression that today’s genre does the opposite. They present people whose lives are so screwed up that viewers can feel better about their not-quite-as-screwed-up lives. That is not good.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien (a book-length, day-by-day LOTR chronology)

  8. I watched the show and saw a man who had been wounded serving Queen and country. A DI who risked his job bringing in Sherlock to try to stop a killer. I saw a woman helped out of dangerous marriage and the affection between them. John Watson is trying desperately to feel, to act and to have a reason to get up in the morning. Almost all the characters, no matter how damaged , are trying for meaning and connection. Even the serial killer still loves his children; it still hurts, and that means you are still alive inside. And that means there is still hope.

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