03 January 2014

On Sherlock and post-modernism

Over at Inky Fool, Mark Forsyth makes an interesting case for the appeal of the original Sherlock Holmes. He sees Holmes as a hero of the modernist era. As a typically vague "movement" in the arts at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries, he argues that they were preoccupied with the urban ( and particularly city) environment as fragmented. The default culture had tipped. The anonymity and the lack of ties and traditions and the anomie (remember your Durkheim?) left a generation or more of new urbanites groping around trying to renegotiate the old certainties of small rural communities. They did not know what was going on.

Holmes did, according to Forsyth. He fitted everything into a pattern; he made sense of the nonsensical,
'This is why we remember Sherlock Holmes much more than we remember any particular crime that he solves. [...] 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.'
So it is an interesting gloss (which I see one of the early commenters on Forsyth's post has noted) that the latest incarnation (or is "regeneration" the appropriate terminology given the incestuous relationships between the Sherlock and Dr Who franchises?) of Holmes is a supposedly super-cool modernist sleuth frankly lost in postmodern sea.
  • The whole trick of his supposedly formidable powers of deduction is indeed based on a modernist premise that every puzzle has a single right answer/interpretation. For all its failings, postmodernism does get beyond this and indeed plays with mutliple significations.
  • By this series, the supposedly tedious process of explaining (and thus rendering contestable) his "deductions" seems to have been dropped.
  • Sherlock was totally out of his depth with Irene Adler. (OK, he always would have been, but A C-D was rather constrained by the standards of the day...)
  • The last episode of season 2 was about crimes which weren't crimes.
  • Much of this first episode of season 3 was taken up with alternative constructions and interpretations of his "fatal" fall from Bart's.
  • ...and to cap it all the trick in the underground carriage of using the "off" switch on the bomb! "There's always an 'off' switch!" —is a line composed to be uttered by Matt Smith. But what if the labels are reversed? 

I started composing this post while walking the dog (what a delight to say that after three years!); I had thought I would argue for Sherlock being a post-modern take on hoary old stories—but she persuaded me that he hadn't changed. The world had.

Perhaps that accounts for his miserable track record?

There's another take on Sherlock as superhero in THE 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?
    4) Can you explain what does it means «what a delight to say that after three years»? I know, I'm intrusive, but I'm Italian... Furthermore I felt such a humanity behind your words!
    My best wishes. "A risentirci" (I hope).
    Sergio Fabbri
    P.S. I saved your page. If the case you can find me here: Sergij Fab (on facebook) or faser96@gmail.com (by email).
    And at the end of the day... sorry for my mistakes! :-)

    1. Many thanks! Sorry for the self-indulgent reference to the significance of dog-walking; our last dog died three years ago, but we have almost accidentally acquired another as a favour to a friend--and among many other things I have re-discovered the value of our conversations on walks. Our last dog was lately arthritic and blind, and so our conversations were rather limited. Our new one is only two years old and currently principally obsessed with chasing squirrels, but I trust she will become more philosophical as she grows.

    2. Thank you very much for your reply, Mr James. I'm sure really soon your new dog will be able to discuss with you about every philosophical issue from Wittgenstein to the squirrels' language: are you sufficiently prepared for that?

  2. Very interesting. I wrote that post before seeing the new episode (and therefore had no idea they'd rework the hat inspection). You're quite right that the suicide-explanation is pure postmodernism - multiple interpretations with none chosen. I also like your observation that his deductions are no longer explained. In a sense it makes him more messianic. It is now an article of faith that he somehow knows that e.g. the waiter's wife is pregnant. Rather than presenting his method as something we can adopt, it's now something that he has, and we must follow.
    If you wanted to get really interpretative, you could see the theorist ripping down all the papers from his wall as a great post-modern moment. But the off switch would then be the opposite: multiple possibilities reduced to a simple immediate truth.


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