Hello, friends. It’s been a while (six months, I think). As so often happens with blogs of this sort, the random, weekly writings have taken a back seat as I focus on several new elements in my life. But enough, already.
Below, in handsome PDF format, is a short story I wrote for my own amusement, dealing with my two favourite modern fictional characters: Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. It’s no use you pointing out that the murders attributed to Jack the Ripper were real, because I already know that. The character, on the other hand, is very much the product of the popular imagination.
Pitting one against the other is very much a hackneyed and cliché kind of story, so I’ve endeavored to avoid anything of the sort (I hate clichés. I hate parentheses too). Sherlock Holmes is very much in vogue at the moment – we’ve had two excellent movies, a clever-ish NBC drama and a frankly nauseating BBC series (I’m not just being contrarian) – because, I think, people are drawn to the idea of an intellectual force majeure in these philistinic and cow-eyed times. I’m not kidding: we live in a period of history where intelligence is a handicap on the road to greatness, where standards have been reversed – high has become low, low has become high. How else can we explain a world where an elderly woman tripping over her cape at a music awards show has become a cause célèbre? How else can we explain the meetings of our political representatives as having more than a whiff of the henhouse about them? Good lord, I sound like Ayn Rand, and I’ve moved off-topic. People like Sherlock Holmes because he’s brave, and dashing, and morally incorruptible.
But what if that moral incorruptibility rested on principles beyond what we consider normal and reasonable? It’s not much of a leap to make. In university I studied at length the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. Uniquely among German philosophers, Nietzsche and Heidegger played with the concept of a superhuman morality. I say uniquely, because German philosophers, like their kinsmen in general, are apt to be sticklers for rules and regulations. This is why, for example, so many German philosophers were logicians, because logic offers that rare and heady combination of uniformity, absolute certainty and empirical evidence that draws many to the field. Heidegger and Nietzsche were not logicians in the true sense, but both applied his logic to the field of Ethics, that quagmire of suggestion and prejudice that dogs most of a Twentieth Century philosophers unenlightened and largely fatuous existence*.
Their approaches to Ethics were different. Heidegger was at the very least – historians agree to disagree – a lukewarm Nazi and a temperate anti-semite (if that isn’t an oxymoron). Nietzsche, who gets an unfair share of the blame of Nazi atrocities, was the complete opposite – an intelligent, compassionate philosopher. What they both realised is that Ethics is largely bunk: there is no ultimate set of rules for how people live their lives; our notions of good and evil are derived from thought (or lack thereof) and not from some higher power or ultimate authority. This leads me into a brief digression: I recently watched a video where Stephen Fry, the comedian, was asked what he would say to God if they ever chanced to meet. His answer was perfect:
“Little children with bone cancer. What’s that about? How dare you?”
My thoughts exactly.
For Heidegger, Ethics was a result of the mind, Da-Sein, imposing itself as a schema on the world. For Nietzsche, man was, or would become, a self-directing Übermensch, free in a godless and Ethic-less universe to seek his own path and impose his own rules on himself. It is the latter of those two that captured my imagination as a teenager – there’s nothing more ennobling than a great mind agreeing with your fatuous teenage rebellions – but, as a sober adult, I find myself still agreeing with dear old Friedrich. So much blood is shed today by people in the grip of some kind of mental paralysis; namely, religion, politics, ethical beliefs and prejudices. The general consensus is that these things are inevitable. People need to believe in something, even if it’s utterly moronic. Thinking for yourself is far too much effort. It’s exhausting. It’s so much easier if you let an idiot in a big hat tell you what’s right and wrong
But what of the thinking man? What of the Übermensch? What kind of decisions does a greater personal good lead you to make?
Hence Sherlock Holmes – the only example in literature of a man free from prejudice, social niceties, and Bowlderised thinking. A symbol of all that’s good and right, a paragon of justice, and a shining example of the ultimate human being.
What if his genius led him to do something for the greater good that we mortals couldn’t comprehend?
It’s taken as read that Sherlock Holmes is a Mary Sue of sorts – a convenient gap in a story into which the reader can insert him- or herself. This, I’ve often thought, is a gross misrepresentation of the character. Sherlock Holmes is something of an enigma to most readers because his thinking transcends theirs – they cannot ascribe his concepts to any convenient, easy-to-read flow-chart, and so their assumption is that he has none. They can’t grasp him, and so they assume he is ungraspable – and they congratulate each other on their over-simplified analyses of his character in literary journals and on the internet. Asinus asinum fricat.
It might seem that I’m getting a bit hot under the collar here (comparing his readers to donkeys gives the game away somewhat) but I hate it when dense, complex characters get Hollywoodised into parodies of themselves. The best example of this is the “Holmes and Watson are secretly gay” school of theories, invented by people who can’t comprehend the lofty concept of two people spending a lot of time together and not having sex. It smacks of a certain perversity (and perhaps a homoerotic longing) to assume that people can’t have deep feelings for each other and not rub their naughty bits together. A very find example of this inept thinking occurs all the time in TV dramas. Go and watch some TV. Do it now. Actually, do it later, because I’m in full flow here. Go and find an episode of a TV show where two women become close friends. Skip forwards five episodes. Chances are they’re having sex in an I’ve-Never-Done-This-Before-Let’s-Never-Speak-Of-It-Again sort of way. The golden heyday of this was the mid-2000s. The OC, House MD, Nip/Tuck, 24, ad nauseum.
I may have wandered somewhat from my original point. Sherlock Holmes is that ultimate example of a fictional character whose thinking is so far beyond the average reader that they are rendered enigmatic (another example, if you like, is Jesus Christ). If we treat the concept of Holmes as definitively enigmatic, some interesting things are possible: it becomes possible, for example, to slam together a Victorian detective and Nietzschean nihilistic thinking.
And then something more interesting happens – but you’ll have to read my story to find out what it is.
Enjoy. If you do, please do me the honor of leaving a favourable review, and perhaps contributing a little something to my upkeep. No pressure.
Here’s the PDF:
*I’m not saying that Twentieth Century philosophy is unenlightened and fatuous – merely the philosophers who, like theologians, start their careers with a head full of prejudice and carry it to their dying day. And believe me, there are a lot of them.