fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

BBC Sherlock: [some rather badly -organized thoughts] on Sherlock as a man trying to become a God

Earlier today, over at Tumblr, I groused a bit about a tendency I've seen lately to only bring up religion in the context of homophobia. Specifically, you have a gay couple facing some kind of pushback rooted in a belief that homosexuality is wrong, and religion is often brought in to frame the issue. This isn't bad on its own, because (sadly IMO) homophobia and religion sometimes goes hand in hand.

My gripe is this is seems to be the only time religion came up in these stories, leaving the impression that religion was only about hating gay people. Even when I was involved in a much more conservative expression of American Christianity, this wasn't really the main point of the religious activity. So yeah, the fact that religion only came up in the context of why John and Sherlock are going to hell for loving each other bothered me a bit. I understand where it's coming from in a lot of ways because the show isn't one where we see a lot of religious practice. Instead of a funeral officiated over by some kind of a priest, we get John and Mrs. Hudson standing by his grave, and in an episode framed around a wedding, the closest we get is an (I think?) Anglican priest standing on the periphery in some photos taken outside the church. For example:

So I think people discussing Sherlock have a lot of very good reasons not to bring in religion in other contexts. And to be completely fair, it's not like organized religion has that great of a track record in the Holmes originals: the only two examples of religious figures I can remember are the priest disguise Holmes takes on in "Bohemia" and the corrupt priest who works with the villains in "Solitary Cyclist." In both cases, the priests (or people posing to be priests; even in the second case there's a question over whether the priest actually deserves that label) seem to be fraudsters who use their position to take advantage. I can definitely see why a lot of people working in either 'verse wouldn't be keen to talk about religion - this just isn't the kind of story that lends itself to discussing those issues, on the surface at least.

Philosophically, in Doyle's stories at least, I think there's a really interesting story to think about, to what extent Sherlock Holmes is meant to be a kind of atheist. He's certainly a rationalist in the sense he thinks there are natural explanations that we can understand if we have all the data, that human behavior is essentially predictable. A miracle would be an anathema to Holmes's worldview. As Josh Pease put it over at the site,

About 10 years later, in 1886, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes story – A Study in Scarlet. Holmes was an unprecedented sort of hero. Emerging from a culture enthralled by scientific progress, he was a superhero who relied almost entirely on his powers of deduction.

Holmes was and is the sensationalized personification of Henley’s captain of the soul. His powers of deduction are presented as the triumph of reason, a triumph open to all of humanity if we’d only try a little harder. In this way, Sherlock Holmes is Nietzsche’s “superman” (a term coined in Thus Spake Zarathustra, written a few years before A Study in Scarlet). He is the moral, observational and logical evolution of mankind.

As I understand Pease, part of his concern as a Christian with Holmes is that he's put forward as the sort of natural path humans take if we "lean on our own understanding," to borrow a Scriptural phrase. The thought seems to be that humans, through the application of purely human intellect, can work out the answer to puzzles presented to us and ensure that justice is done. As opposed to the Christian idea that there is a limit (and should be a limit) to what we can accomplish on our own, and that if you rely too heavily on your own abilities you start to get into serious Tower of Babel danger. I find this all fascinating because in the BBC verse we are dealing with a Sherlock playing out this story in a post-modern world. If modernism/Enlightenment/rationalism is about Sherlock being able to solve the problems he faces, not through appeal to some kind of Go but through the application of his own science of deduction, relying on himself rather than turning to something beyond him, then post-modernism is the rejection of the idea that the world is so ordered and neatly understood as the Sherlock Holmes of 1895 would have believed it to be.

I get that this may not be the accepted usage of those terms, as this really isn't my corner of philosophy, but I hope you can see how I'm using the terms here. There is a very definite theme throughout the BBC series that that Sherlock looks for clever solutions when they don't necessarily exist. Sherlock thinks there is a solution to every mystery and that if he's just clever enough he can unravel it all and fix the problem. we've seen this at least three times that I can think of offhand: famously the rooftop scene in TRF and the showdown at Appledore in HLV, but I think also his saying when faced with the timebomb in TEH that he "can't do it" (if that's a description of the timebomb instead of his inability to "fix" things with John, I'll eat my deerstalker).

Now, postmodernism isn't religious or even theistic in every circumstance. Actually, it's a bugabear of a lot of (American) Christianity that postmodernism is a challenge to religion. I suspect that sometimes recognizing that our grand principles don't actually explain everything is just about recognizing the limits of what we humans can do: that not every problem is necessarily fixable, at least not in an organized way. I'd say the start of religion involves recognizing our own inadequacy to do something by relying on our own abilities (a rejection of the modernist approach we see in Doyle's Holmes) combined with a turning-to. Recognizing that sometimes things aren't as clever as he wants them to be, Sherlock seems to have two options: he can just accept that there are some puzzles he can't solve, or he can turn to something beyond himself.

I think we see this vision of Sherlock most plainly in A Scandal in Belgravia, particularly in Sherlock's discussion with Irene. This is the only scene I can think of, except for that priest stnading to the side at John's wedding and the occasional religious-themed swearing (or perhaps prayer, in the case of "Please, God, let me live" in ASIP - a topic worthy of its own post) where religion really makes an appearance. When Sherlock tries to get into Irene's house to recover her photos, he shows up wearing a priest's collar:

And then once inside, when Irene takes off his collar and says now they're both defrocked, she offers this description of Holmes (from the inimitable arianedevere's transcripts):

IRENE: D’you know the big problem with a disguise, Mr. Holmes? However hard you try, it’s always a self-portrait.
SHERLOCK: You think I’m a vicar with a bleeding face?
IRENE: No, I think you’re damaged, delusional and believe in a higher power. In your case, it’s yourself.

At least to this American, Sherlock doesn't look like a vicar, he looks like a Roman Catholic priest. Quite literally a stand-in for God capable of forgiving sins and the like. Vicar makes more sense given the geography and social class we're dealing with here, but I think the symbolism is supposed to be similar. Both figuratively and literally, Sherlock is presenting himself as his own higher power, the thing that is totally self-sufficient and doesn't need outside help. He is self-sufficient, untouchable, not needing anyone else.

The problem is, this doesn't actually last that long, does it? Skip ahead to "Baskerville," where after seeing the hound in the woods Sherlock is literally overcome, he cannot work out what to trust about his situation. And instead of simply accepting that this is something he can't really control what he's going through. This is the post-modern crisis in a nightmare, I think: for the man of reason to see that his grand principles cannot sustain him through this situation where they don't really account for everything. One approach is to accept there's no reason; another is to do more than rely on your own ability to figure things out. That's the path Sherlock takes here when he appeals to John Watson for help maintianing (re-establishing?) his hold on reality. And he goes the next step further in TRF when he realizes that it's not just one person but three (and I'd say Moriarty's list is too short, Mycroft certainly and possibly Molly as well also belong there) on whom Sherlock depends in various ways - and who he is willing to let them depend on him, even if they don't know they're doing it.

This reminds me of a great line in Aristotle's Politics, which I'll quote from GoodReads because it's late and I'm too lazy to dig out my proper translation:

Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.

The point, for Aristotle, is that humans seem to need other humans, and in particular the well-ordered community, in order to develop virtue and live good lives. If you are so perfect you can live a truly good life outside community, you are something more than human, or else you end up not developing the capacities that define us as humans and end up living basically the life of a non-human animal. Sherlock of series one seems to be aiming to be a god, untouchable and not needing anyone else, but that doesn't work out so well. This is John's point in The Great Game: that caring about the people around you is important, even if it doesn't lead to better consequence, that it's not a matter of caring being useful so much as it being good. And this is the lesson that Sherlock seems to be learning (and failing to learn, and getting better at by increments): that his principles and deductions can only carry him so far, that he will keep falling short - or he will have to turn toward something other than himself.

As a religious person, I see a lot of the religious life at its best in this decision. The difference is that religious people are not merely turning toward our friends (who are after all just as imperfect and inadequate in a fundamental sense as we are, being limited in the same way) but to the absolute source of goodness and perfection (here I'm talking like a medievalist, and I'll spare you the whole picture). The community and the traditions and the shared liturgy are all about taking part in something beyond yourself that's supposed to point to the source of all that beyond-ness, for lack of a better word. This doesn't have to be derogatory toward those of us doing the turning-outward; it just requires that we recognize we're not complete in ourselves, not that we aren't pretty damned amazing. Sherlock is fantastic, wonderful, all those things John calls him - but he is not so fantastic he doesn't need to lean in to the people around him. it's the first step of a spiritual journey that sometimes takes place within the boundaries of a certain religion, and sometimes probably doesn't.

Anyway. This may be so much blather that only means something to me. As I sat thinking about Sherlock and religion, though, it occurred to me how similar what Sherlock is doing is to certain kinds of meditative ascents you see throughout medieval literature and theology, and how spiritual this struggle actually can be. Sherlock seems to be, in its own way, about Sherlock recognizing that he is neither a god (complete unto himself) or a beast (utterly incapable of being good in the human sense), but is instead a man, and so in need of redemption through something bigger than his own person. That doesn't have to take place within the walls of a church or synagogue, but the fact that it needs to happen at all seems like a pretty big swipe at the modernist view of Holmes.
Tags: religion, sherlock
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