Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sherlock, Spock, Encyclopedia, and Corlis.

I've had this archetype on my mind. My wife and I just finished watching the first season of the modernized BBC Sherlock. My son is reading Encyclopedia Brown and (as intended by the author) trying to solve problems through knowledge and logic. And we've been reading Sherlock Holmes as bedtime stories. Star Trek's Mr Spock is in there too, and the ideal of old-fashioned science fiction in general.

It's an ideal of mental acuity and compiled knowledge, able to defeat raw ambition and violent oppression. Brains over brawn—but not trickster-y brains, mostly. Brains in service of Public Order. Sherlock as brother to Mycroft, presiding over a (mostly) enlightened Empire.

Sherlock Holmes was written before Gandhi showed the corrupt underbelly of the empire that Dr Watson had fought for, and never really addressed what that empire did to the generation of young men who marched off to destruction in the trenches of World War I. The archetype after Holmes turned away from Empire. The Star Trek universe is more ambivalent about smarts: There's Spock, of course, and his successor, Data, but these are more uncertain geniuses, uncertain about their magnificent rational minds, and tenderly exploring the gulf between themselves and that confusing, alien, emotional humanity. And defending against the seemingly perfect, rational but totalitarian Borg.

Barry Lopez's Corlis Benefideo is a bit like these characters, in his sense that if we just make enough maps, we'll get the answer to our question. If we make a broad and deep enough atlas, we'll come to know a place.

The truth is, it's too easy to keep our focus on Sherlock. He's flashy; he's impressive, and he's way smarter than us. But he is always an actor in a play. He reveals a human drama, but he seldom actually controls the drama, and he gets bored and restless when other people aren't providing the other necessary elements. He is reactive.

And Spock is not the captain of the Enterprise, any more than Merlin is king of Britain. Encyclopedia Brown is not the leader of his group, he's just the go-to problem solver. He finds the faults in the bully's story, and lets the police and the other grownups take it from there. The mistake I think people who want to identify with Sherlock as their hero, is to make him the center of everything. But he is an impatient (and in some ways self-destructive, as in his cocaine habit) outsider to most of the dramas he plays out in, withdrawing into the wings when his role is done.

Sherlock Holmes never really addresses the deeper "why" of criminal behavior. We never find out why Moriarty is such a twisted evil mastermind. That was left for 20th century crime writers, raised on Freud and his successors. Holmes' job is to simply assume the goodness of the law and to shine the light on places where it has been crossed.

He is working in a fixed system of truth, morality and justice, within which he jumps about like an agile monkey, acknowledging that there are sometimes places where morality and decency trump law, but always believing that revealing the truth will clarify the situation and make moral choices clear.

It's a nice dream.

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