Sherlock Holmes and the strange case of anti-intellectualism
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Neither Sherlock Holmes nor Donald Trump are far from the television screen at present. Trump’s latest exploits share screen time with the return of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, the current series of which ends this evening. But somewhat surprisingly, the two are also connected by the idea of anti-intellectualism. Trump won the White House on the basis of a populist disdain for experts, the spectre of the educated liberal elite, and the valuation of common sense over theory. Anti-intellectualism pervades our wider culture: soft drink commercials show boring university lectures explode into joyous life when someone cracks open a can; the recently established “Which University?” suggests that higher education is a decision similar to buying a washing machine. But Holmes? Surely Sherlock Holmes represents the height of intellectualism, the rationalist expert? As readers and viewers, we rely on Holmes’ expertise to solve the mystery and restore order, but Doyle’s stories and their adaptations also suggest that Holmes’s intellect is also faintly monstrous. Equally, the cry of “high functioning sociopath” echoes throughout the BBC’s Sherlock, signalling that the values of the intellect are supposedly not those of social humanity.
The Victorian HolmesHolmes as rationalist superhero is a familiar narrative of histories of popular culture. The accelerating pace of life in the Victorian period, so the argument goes, called for the creation of a new kind of fictional hero able to decode the overwhelming signs of urban modernity. But this argument overlooks a crucial point: the intellectual qualities that made Holmes a hero also made him a figure of suspicion. The detective was not an immediate success. Arthur Conan Doyle’s first two Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of the Four (1890) initially received limited attention and unenthusiastic reviews, in part owing to their aloof and overly specialised hero. In these novels, Holmes euthanises an elderly terrier to test a hypothesis; elsewhere, Watson describes him as “a calculating machine” with something “positively inhuman” about him. And when Watson surveys Holmes’ areas of knowledge, he finds him comprehensive in some areas and curiously lacking in others. Holmes is strong on chemistry and good on anatomy, but knows nothing about literature, astronomy, or politics. The early Holmes’s narrow areas of expertise are decadent in the sense that the late Victorian psychologist and criminologist Havelock Ellis defined decadence: as the part obscuring the whole. Moral health is to be found in being an all-rounder, rather like Doyle himself (a medical general practitioner who wrote in a range of genres, and was skilled at seemingly every sport played in the early 20th century). Holmes is expert in often obscure subjects but his ignorance that the earth revolves around the sun satirises intellectual specialism.
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