Monday, April 28, 2014

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes and the Memoirs of Mike Welch

And the Return of Mike Welch...

Robert Knightly

I have just finished reading three of the four novels that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Sherlock Holmes: A STUDY IN SCARLET, THE SIGN OF THE FOUR, and THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. I’m halfway through THE VALLEY OF FEAR, and would like to finish it before I write this, but I can’t because I have to be done before my writing class tomorrow, and I am getting sleepy.

Anyway, reading the three and one-half novels has created two major impressions in me. One is that the real hero of the novels is Watson, in that he, through his devotion, provides a heart, and gives a heart for and to his friend Holmes. The real hero is certainly not deductive logic (a kind of old and ugly fellow who does not look too dashing in a deerstalker hat). I mean, who remembers how Holmes gets to the bottom of all these tangled cases? I don’t. I lose the thread usually before I am halfway through, and anyway, I kind of think deduction, what Holmes calls looking at effects and thinking backwards towards causes, has got severe limitations on it. I mean, causes can have many effects, and therefore (am I reasoning deductively here?) effects can have many causes. How does Holmes always know his backward reasoning is correct? Isn’t he just taking a stab in the dark, looking at evidence, at building blocks of a structure he calls a solution, and constructing a building in only one of many ways it could be built?

I don’t know, but without Watson, we have the 17th Century Enlightenment figure of Holmes with no Romantic relief, no yin for yang, so to speak. And Watson certainly is a romantic (he is always falling in love with some beautiful woman that comes calling on Holmes for help, and he certainly loves Holmes), and it is he, after all, who tells the stories. And they are romances, adventures, ripping good yarns (saving the Empire from rogues and rascals with a gentleman’s code of honor, with a little of Kipling’s White Man’s burden thrown in, along with a pro-capital stance so partial that the hero of “FEAR” is a Pinkerton), to be sure. And thank goodness Watson tells them! I mean, how stirring would Holmes’s description of the dreaded Hound be compared to that of Watson’s? Or the gloom on the Moor, or the city of London itself—diseased, miasmic, debauched: “the great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained,” a city which threw “monster tentacles” into the surrounding suburbs.

And so Watson, stalwart (and less bumbling than as betrayed by Nigel Bruce in the series of 1940s British movies I remember watching on WOR, WPIX, and PBS on rainy Saturday afternoons as a kid) and loyal, gives us the romantic portrayal of the adventures.

Now, my memoir, the story of my depression, partakes of both Holmes and Watson. It certainly is a romance, or at least is concerned more with the heart than the brain, but telling it has required me to examine evidence and construct a theory or story of my experience.

And I have been ever aware that what I have deduced from the evidence of my life, the journey I have taken from effects back to (supposed) causes, the story I have told, is a tentative one at best. And others, I am sure, would tell the story differently. My parents, for example. The title of my mother’s story about my life would be: CHRONICLE OF A SELFISH SINNER. My Dad is a bit more verbose, and would have one of those Eighteenth Century titles like Defoe’s (which could take up a whole page and, for some reason, have a lot of semi-colons): Lessons from the Life of a Loser; That life being the callow and craven one of my very own son; Blood of my blood; The supreme disappointment of my life; Which disappointment (among other things) hath led me to the brink of despair.

Anyway, thinking this stuff through is giving me a headache. I am sure a good big bowl of tobacco, some cocaine and a little violin music would help get these rusty synapses firing, but I don’t have access to any of those, so bear with me.

I have an intuition I need to talk about the unconscious. Indeed, it occurs to me that intuition emerges to our waking selves through the unconscious (an intuition I just had about intuition). The unconscious, that place the noir tough guy detective must go to crack the case, is the place where his love for the femme fatale is clouding his vision, unable to see the culprit although she stands right before him (with lipsticked lips [and legs?] slightly parted). It’s her, you idiot, I want to yell, but I know I would be an idiot for a dame like that, too.

Holmes does not trust intuition, pays no heed to the unconscious, relies solely on his sanctified scientific method. It’s the same thing a lot of memoirists do, or tell themselves they are doing—just objectively telling the story (just the facts, m’am, we don’t need a god-damned editorial). Holmes says more than once that he mistrusts women, and if intuition is a female trait (it may not be, but it is instructive that in Holmes’s time most people thought it was) then the ultra-masculine analytical Holmes is no fan of it either.

What I am getting at is this (here’s the cause and effect of my reasoning, the dialectical syntheses of it all, my Holmesian criticism of Holmes himself): If there is always more than one theory that fits the evidence, especially the evidence of personality, and the unconscious exists, then we are biased to look for the evidence that satisfies our hidden desires, or avoids our hidden fears. It would behoove Holmes to give the unconscious some credit, to plumb its depths in himself and his criminals (of course, this may be hard to do with Aspergers). Perhaps as the result of an unconscious fear he has of them, he has a blind spot about women (they are simply creatures not to be trusted, amoral, but predictable like your pet cat who would probably eat you if you died alone with her in the house). Holmes could be seriously overmatched by a female super-fiend, but he never confronts one, because Doyle won’t, or can’t.

And it is my hypothesis that the memoirist also ignores the unconscious, at great risk. It is this kind of neglect that allows the bully to write themselves as a victim and for the victim to write themselves as never having collaborated with their tormentors; allows the grandiose to portray themselves as modest (see Mein Kampf and the autobiography of Arnold Schwarznegger); allows the supposed sinner to make a lurid and sinful display of his or her sinfulness.

Of course, at the base of my theory is a kind of optimism, a belief in the kinds of final solutions Homes is so fond of, a belief that we can plumb the depths of ourselves, to go into the basement where all those gibbering, capering mad things are, and bring them to heel, outwit the archfiend Moriarty in ourselves, once and for all find the thing out. And then have the guts to write about it.

Something of Doyle’s own unconscious is on display for all to see in these stories, I think. He has a need to apologize for the Empire, I think, and does it by creating a world where you are either a gentleman or a blackguard; a Christian or a heathen; an upright thrifty and cheerful capitalist who can tie a double Windsor and owns, never rents, his tux, or a bomb-throwing swarthy anarchist; a boy scout or a pedophile (I know, I see the irony there, believe me).

And still the stories thrill me, I must admit. I know they can be a bit juvenile in their plotting, and the characterizations of the good guys and the villains can be simplistic, and yet I come back to them, to the nighttime world of the “cesspool that is London” to see if Holmes can catch his man, with the help of dear Watson, who, after all, is also trying to catch his. And me, mine.

© 2014 Mike Welch

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the hyper-rational Sherlock Holmes character, was himself a gullible and naive person. He was famously duped by a couple of teenaged girls who created fake photographs of fairies. He was also fooled by mediums, and he rebuffed Harry Houdini's attempts to educate him about the trickery used by such "spiritualists". In fact, Conan Doyle started thinking that Houdini himself had supernatural powers.