Wednesday 1 January 2014

Sherlock Holmes and Modernism

I do love pretending that this blog is topical, sprinting at the avant garde of the cutting edge, and as there's a new series of the new Sherlock Holmes starting tonight, I thought I'd write about the original Sherlock Holmes and how he relates to Modernism.

The Modernists were a bunch of different artists and thinkers and the like in the very late 19th and first half of the 20th Century. One of their Big Ideas was that the city was fragmented, which is a much simpler notion than it sounds.

The idea was that back at the beginning of the C19th almost everybody had lived simple rural lives in simple rural villages - the sort of place where everybody knows everybody. If you ever do see a stranger walking through town, you're bound to find out who he is by the end of the day because everybody will talk about him. If you hear a scream in the middle of the night, you can wake up the next morning and ask people what happened. If you see a hat lying at the side of the road, you pick it up and find out who it belongs to.

But then, over the course of the C19th, almost everybody moved to the city, and the city did their heads in. In the city you would see strangers all the time, nothing but strangers. And you would never find out where they had come from, or where they were going. You would be woken by a scream from the next street, but you would never find out who was screaming or what about. You would see people fighting down the alleyway, and you didn't know them, you didn't know what they were fighting about, you didn't stop to find out who won. You would see a hat lying on the pavement and you would never know to whom it belonged.

All you had in the city was fragments. The Modern world was, as T.S. Eliot put it, a heap of broken images. You got a paragraph of a story, but you never learned the beginning or the end. The Modernists decided that this was the Big Change in the way people lived their lives: specifically they thought that the human mind couldn't cope with it.

This idea is all over Modernist novels - the unknown strangers at the funeral in Ulysses, or passing Von Aschenbach on the street, or wandering through the Waste Land. Indeed, the Waste Land opens with meaningless fragments from some trip to the Hoffgarten. I shan't go on about this. If you're interested, I heartily recommend Christopher Butler's Early Modernism.

The point about all this is Sherlock Holmes.

To Sherlock Holmes, there are no fragments. To Sherlock Holmes, there are no strangers. The signature action of Sherlock Holmes is his ability to tell a visitor his whole biography after a mere glance, as he does at the opening of almost every tale. All stories are completed for him. There are no more fragments.

This is why we remember Sherlock Holmes much more than we remember any particular crime that he solves. Sherlock Holmes is a vision of how modern man can cope with the modern city. He is an idea and an ideal. Through Sherlock Holmes the Modern Condition of fragments and incomplete stories is vanquished. He is another way of looking at the city.

Sherlock Holmes is not a crime-solver, that is incidental. He is an idea. He is the Messiah who can save us all from Modernism.

Now whether that's actually possible is beside the point, just as it's beside the point to wonder whether the rural idylls of the early C19th ever really existed like that. The point is the idea. The point is that if Leopold Bloom or Eliot had had Sherlock by their sides there would have been no Ulysses and no Waste Land, just a comprehensible, coherent and complete world. There would have been no Modernism.

And for those of you poor souls who have never read the original stories, here is how Sherlock Holmes reacts to a hat left on the pavement. It's from The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.

"Then, what clue could you have as to his identity?"

"Only as much as we can deduce."

"From his hat?"


"But you are joking. What can you gather from this old battered felt?"

"Here is my lens. You know my methods. What can you gather yourself as to the individuality of the man who has worn this article?"

I took the tattered object in my hands and turned it over rather ruefully. It was a very ordinary black hat of the usual round shape, hard and much the worse for wear. The lining had been of red silk, but was a good deal discoloured. There was no maker's name; but, as Holmes had remarked, the initials "H. B." were scrawled upon one side. It was pierced in the brim for a hat- securer, but the elastic was missing. For the rest, it was cracked, exceedingly dusty, and spotted in several places, although there seemed to have been some attempt to hide the discoloured patches by smearing them with ink.

"I can see nothing," said I, handing it back to my friend.

"On the contrary, Watson, you can see everything. You fail, however, to reason from what you see. You are too timid in drawing your inferences."

"Then, pray tell me what it is that you can infer from this hat?"
He picked it up and gazed at it in the peculiar introspective fashion which was characteristic of him. "It is perhaps less suggestive than it might have been," he remarked, "and yet there are a few inferences which are very distinct, and a few others which represent at least a strong balance of probability. That the man was highly intellectual is of course obvious upon the face of it, and also that he was fairly well-to-do within the last three years, although he has now fallen upon evil days. He had foresight, but has less now than formerly, pointing to a moral retrogression, which, when taken with the decline of his fortunes, seems to indicate some evil influence, probably drink, at work upon him. This may account also for the obvious fact that his wife has ceased to love him."
"My dear Holmes!"

"He has, however, retained some degree of self-respect," he continued, disregarding my remonstrance. "He is a man who leads a sedentary life, goes out little, is out of training entirely, is middle-aged, has grizzled hair which he has had cut within the last few days, and which he anoints with lime-cream. These are the more patent facts which are to be deduced from his hat. Also, by the way, that it is extremely improbable that he has gas laid on in his house."

"You are certainly joking, Holmes."

"Not in the least. Is it possible that even now, when I give you these results, you are unable to see how they are attained?"

"I have no doubt that I am very stupid, but I must confess that I am unable to follow you. For example, how did you deduce that this man was intellectual?"
For answer Holmes clapped the hat upon his head. It came right over the forehead and settled upon the bridge of his nose. "It is a question of cubic capacity," said he; "a man with so large a brain must have something in it."

"The decline of his fortunes, then?"
"This hat is three years old. These flat brims curled at the edge came in then. It is a hat of the very best quality. Look at the band of ribbed silk and the excellent lining. If this man could afford to buy so expensive a hat three years ago, and has had no hat since, then he has assuredly gone down in the world."

"Well, that is clear enough, certainly. But how about the foresight and the moral retrogression?"
Sherlock Holmes laughed. "Here is the foresight," said he putting his finger upon the little disc and loop of the hat-securer. "They are never sold upon hats. If this man ordered one, it is a sign of a certain amount of foresight, since he went out of his way to take this precaution against the wind. But since we see that he has broken the elastic and has not troubled to replace it, it is obvious that he has less foresight now than formerly, which is a distinct proof of a weakening nature. On the other hand, he has endeavoured to conceal some of these stains upon the felt by daubing them with ink, which is a sign that he has not entirely lost his self-respect."

"Your reasoning is certainly plausible."

"The further points, that he is middle-aged, that his hair is grizzled, that it has been recently cut, and that he uses lime-cream, are all to be gathered from a close examination of the lower part of the lining. The lens discloses a large number of hair ends, clean cut by the scissors of the barber. They all appear to be adhesive, and there is a distinct odour of lime-cream. This dust, you will observe, is not the gritty, gray dust of the street but the fluffy brown dust of the house, showing that it has been hung up indoors most of the time, while the marks of moisture upon the inside are proof positive that the wearer perspired very freely, and could therefore, hardly be in the best of training."
"But his wife -- you said that she had ceased to love him."

"This hat has not been brushed for weeks. When I see you, my dear Watson, with a week's accumulation of dust upon your hat, and when your wife allows you to go out in such a state, I shall fear that you also have been unfortunate enough to lose your wife's affection."
"But he might be a bachelor."

"Nay, he was bringing home the goose as a peace-offering to his wife. Remember the card upon the bird's leg."

"You have an answer to everything. But how on earth do you deduce that the gas is not laid on in his house?"

"One tallow stain, or even two, might come by chance; but when I see no less than five, I think that there can be little doubt that the individual must be brought into frequent contact with burning tallow -- walks upstairs at night probably with his hat in one hand and a guttering candle in the other. Anyhow, he never got tallow-stains from a gasjet. Are you satisfied?"


  1. If «Sherlock Holmes is not a crime-solver, that is incidental. He is an idea. He is the Messiah who can save us all from Modernism.», then can we hope the new BBC drama «Sherlock» (i.e. the actor Cumberbatch) can save us all from all Postmodernisms? This evenings I'll wait for the newest Messiah arriving for the elect people only... :-D P.S. Sorry for my poor English that doesn't allow me to pick up from some memories of my youth reads I used to, telling about a parallel between this literature and Robert Musil...

  2. Couldn't help but read that line as Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter:

    "Sherlock Holmes is not a criiime-solver, that is inciden-talll."

  3. The perspicacity of “Sherlock Holmes" is an enduring memorial to Dr. Joseph Bell, of the Edinburgh Medical School, whose diagnostic skills so impressed his young student Arthur Conan Doyle.

    1. I had no idea! Deducing sure is very helpful for a doctor. I remember one of my teachers at medical school telling us that with time we would do most diagnosis within the first 5 seconds the patient enter the door.

  4. I've posted at --a little too long for a comment here.

    1. Dear Mr James,
      I found really interesting what you said. I would like to add some observations or questions, if you want...
      1) The latest Sherlock is going viral here in Italy too, so my daughter and I saw two times the first episode of the third series. I told her about the Forsyth's sentence and she said: «Acutally, when Sherlock was tortured at the beginning it looks like... Christ!»
      2) I remember that when I was young (now I'm 58) I often read Musil, Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin, Rilke... And I would say that among that plenty of fragments, to read about Sherlock and his pseudo-scientific certainties was a bit comfortable!
      3) You are right telling «I had thought I would argue for Sherlock being a post-modern take oh hoary old stories-but she persuaded me that he hadn't changed. The word had.» So, how before this awareness you... save yourself every day that happens?
      My best wishes.

  5. You make an interesting point in how Sherlock Holmes ties up fragments. What, then, do you make of the BBC series' fragmentation (in film techniques and such)?

  6. I'm studying Modernism at college and LOVE Sherlock but I had never considered it in this way - it's very interesting, and probably very true. Although in certain cases the human mind has trouble adapting to the fragmentation - I know people now who have trouble dealing with the pace of life and the strangers that consume our lives - equally there are people who are meant for this kind of lifestyle. Holmes definitely draws together the fragments; or perhaps that's not the right expression, as he does not see them as fragments to be drawn together. They are a whole that he must, and of course will, uncover. And that is why he evades fragmentation. I'm sure, then, that he definitely could've done a whole lot for Eliot. Although I do enjoy The Waste Land, so I'm pretty glad that he didn't.

  7. Absolutely love Sherlock Holmes, and very much enjoyed this post. Since we are also talking about T.S. Eliot - I very much enjoy his 'Prufrock' poem, which is also rather about modern man and his struggles, though it does lend itself to other interpretations.. As for Sherlock's hat deductions - at least one thing the new Sherlock would disagree with is the size of head = intellect idea. There's a great bit in BBC Sherlock with some hat deductions.

    ~The Tiger's Sterne