They say villains are always more interesting than heroes. They say it’s much more fun to read about scoundrels than straight-arrows, and that unflinching rectitude is an unendurable bore. “They” must not have looked at any of the Sherlock Holmes stories lately. Or heard anything about Holmes’ creator, the even more amazing Arthur Conan Doyle.
A couple of weeks ago I finished Daniel Stashower’s 1999 biography Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle emerges from Stashower’s pages as a giant of a man, physically and intellectually, an extraordinary combination of brain, brawn, and untiring zest for adventure.
Really: you’ve got to cheer for a guy who at age 20 takes leave of med school at a week’s notice to sail as ship’s surgeon on a whaling expedition to the Arctic Circle—and starts out the voyage by flattening one of the ship’s officers in a boxing match.
He was, above all, a man of virtue. Conan Doyle’s ideal, which with a few understandable lapses he lived up to all his 71 years, was to be a Victorian gentleman—not meaning by that a wealthy stuffed-shirt, but a person committed to the good and true, the just and equitable and patriotic. Again and again he threw his passion and prestige into the defense—sometimes successful, sometimes not—of the rights of some scapegoated underdog. In his later years he took up the most quixotic of his crusades, the one by which he defined the purpose of his existence here on earth. Namely, to persuade the people of the Jazz Age that it was the immortal soul and not the perishable body that counted, and that death was not our end but the finest of our human adventures.
It’s at this point that Conan Doyle the phenomenon shades into Conan Doyle the all-but-insoluble enigma. For if there was ever anyone who didn’t share Conan Doyle’s convictions on this subject it was his most enduring literary creation, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
Yes, I know: the author and the character are not the same. But I also know that, if you’re to create a character who really comes to life, he or she has to be in some way a part of you. And who can deny that Holmes and his faithful sidekick Watson come to life in a way that hardly any fictional characters have? Tourists by the thousands come to London searching for the non-existent “221B Baker Street,” where Holmes and Watson had (or still have?) their digs. As Stashower wittily points out, for many Holmes-lovers “A. Conan Doyle” barely exists, except as a literary agent for the real author of the stories, John H. Watson, M.D.
For Holmes, the supernatural is out of the question—any question. “Now, let us calmly define our position, Watson,” he says in the late story “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot.” “I take it, in the first place, that neither of us is prepared to admit diabolical intrusions into the affairs of men. Let us begin by ruling that entirely out of our minds.” Watson might have objected, as Conan Doyle surely would have, that there are more things in heaven and earth, my dear Holmes, than dreamt of in your deductive reasoning. He doesn’t. These are two enlightened children of the late Victorian era, confident in their secular materialism.
Temperamentally, and perhaps mentally—though Watson is hardly the dummy he’s often made out to be—the two have their differences. Philosophically they’re in the same camp.
Every now and again Holmes pays lip service to the notion of God. But to my recollection, neither he nor Watson ever sets foot inside a church, except perhaps to admire the Anglo-Norman architecture. Nor does he pray. Or waste a minute of time reading the Bible.
On the contrary: “Let me recommend this book,” he tells Watson at the end of chapter 2 of “The Sign of the Four,” “—one of the most remarkable ever penned. It is Winwood Reade’s Martyrdom of Man.” Martyrdom of Man, published in 1872, was a passionately secular reading of human existence, in which religion was condemned as intellectual slavery. The book has nothing to do with the story of “The Sign of the Four.” It’s there to tell us about Holmes, and where he stands on the great questions of his (and our) day.
When Holmes hears the legend of the Hell-hound that haunts the Baskerville family, he reacts with a yawn. When asked, “Do you not find it interesting?” his reply is: “To a collector of fairy tales.” I shudder to think with what language he’d have dismissed The Coming of the Fairies—a bizarre treatise published by Conan Doyle in 1922, which offers a series of preposterous faked photographs as evidence for what was supposed to be the greatest scientific discovery of the new century, that we share the surface of the planet with a race of winged Wee Folk.
So how is this to be squared with Conan Doyle’s obsession with spiritualism, his stubborn faith in mediums and their communiqués from Beyond?
The standard answer: Sherlock Holmes was a product of the author’s youthful vigor. He became a spiritualist when his aging brain, perhaps already softening, reeled under the shock of losing his son in World War I; how could he believe the boy was gone forever? Stashower makes short work of this theory. He shows that Conan Doyle’s interest in spiritualism went back to his twenties, well before Holmes popped out of his brain. It stayed with him the rest of his life. The enigma, of Sherlock Holmes vs. his creator, remains unsolved.
And now the bell rings and the table starts to shake, and a spectral voice proclaims from the Other Side: “SHADOW!!!” Of course. It’s the ghost of C.G. Jung, come to remind us of one of his most important insights. Namely, that each of us carries within us our “shadow,” the very opposite of those traits by which we define our conscious selves. It’s part of our psychic journey to recognize that shadow, integrate it, bring it from the darkness of the séance room into the bright sunlight of awareness. In my Fan Page post for August 13, I remark on how the UFO debunker can have the UFO abductee as his “shadow.” In Conan Doyle’s case it was something like the reverse.
Did Conan Doyle ever manage to integrate his skeptical, materialist “shadow”? It sure doesn’t sound like it. In his later years he met that shadow in the flesh, in the person of Harry Houdini. Houdini, like Sherlock Holmes, was a magician, performing the most amazing feats through means he insisted were purely natural. Like Holmes he was an astringent skeptic, although—having his own “shadow”—he was far less consistent about it than a fictional character could afford to be.
Houdini debunked mediums in a desperate search for a real one, who might put him in touch with his beloved mother. When he could never find a medium whose tricks he couldn’t see though, he fell into despair. Conan Doyle and his wife Lady Jean were part of that search, and the disastrous Atlantic City séance of 1922 was the beginning of the end of their friendship. (Though they never stopped liking and respecting each other, and when Houdini’s widow received what she thought was a spirit-message from her dead husband, Conan Doyle—then approaching the last year of his own life—publicly gave thanks to God.) I have the impression Houdini may have been dimly aware of Conan Doyle as embodying a hidden part of himself. Conan Doyle—never. That side of him had been split off as Holmes, whom Conan Doyle came eventually rather to dislike, and to resent his popularity.
Yet there’s one spot in the Holmes corpus where, I think, creator and creation intersect. It’s the eerie, almost numinous passage at the end of the 1914 novel, “The Valley of Fear.” The central figure of the novel, a remarkably appealing character, has just been murdered through the machinations of the fiendish Professor Moriarty. Of course the crime will never be noticed, far less punished; there’s the evil genius of it, Watson. One of the dead man’s friends, learning of this, “beat his head with his clenched fist in his impotent anger. ‘Do you tell me that we have to sit down under this? Do you say that no one can ever get level with this king devil?’
“ ‘No, I don’t say that,’ said Holmes, and his eyes seemed to be looking far into the future. ‘I don’t say that he can’t be beat. But you must give me time—you must give me time!’
“We all sat in silence for some minutes while those fateful eyes still strained to pierce the veil.”
Conan Doyle’s eyes also strained to pierce a Veil. Maybe not the same one. But with no less intensity, and no better odds.
by David Halperin
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