Sherlock and the fetishization of sentiment

There is one thing about the BBC show Sherlock that irritates the fuck out of me, and that’s the way it depicts moral problems. (Lots of spoilers below, if you haven’t seen both seasons.)

In the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, Holmes is a good man. He’s not always a nice man, but he never turns away an innocent person in need, he detests predatory crimes like blackmail, and he often lets deserving criminals go free. He makes thoughtful choices, sometimes coolly and sometimes with passion, in service of the greater good. If we accept Watson’s description of him as a reasoning machine, then he’s a good machine. We don’t accept it, of course—but if we did, our moral judgment of his actions wouldn’t change.

In Sherlock, the main character is, like his predecessor, not always a nice man. But the resemblance ends there. Sherlock is more emotionally childish than emotionally reserved. He acts on impulse without regard for consequences. In the first episode, when Detective Inspector Lestrade stops him from withholding evidence, Sherlock sulks like a grounded teenager. He treats Mrs. Hudson affectionately, then snaps at her for interrupting his train of thought. When he says something callous, he looks fleetingly guilty before shrugging it off. He almost throws his life away trying to prove he’s right. He casually tortures a dying murderer. When he realizes he’s made his first friend (John Watson), he’s as thrilled as a little boy. Other characters call Sherlock a psychopath, but it would be more accurate to call him a brat. Like a child, he feels flickers of empathy and conscience but has no organized ethical thinking. The only overt moral comment comes from Lestrade, who prophesies, “Sherlock Holmes is a great man, and I think one day—if we’re all very, very lucky—he might even be a good one.”

The third episode, “The Great Game,” introduces Moriarty, who straps bombs to people and makes Sherlock solve various mysteries in order to free them. Sherlock is delighted, and more interested in the mysteries than the people themselves. Later, he and John have something that might sound, superficially, like a moral conversation. John gets upset about his lack of empathy for the bomb victims. Sherlock replies like a rational ethicist: “Would caring about them help save them?”

In the final scene of the same episode, Sherlock makes a sort of play date with Moriarty behind John’s back, for reasons that remain unclear. Moriarty responds by strapping a bomb to John. Sherlock is deeply upset about this, which means look! He’s not a machine! He’s a person, with feelings! A bit cheesy, but good drama. Anyway. You can see Sherlock genuinely struggling with himself in this scene. It’s like the bratty kid is thinking, “My flirtation with an amoral criminal put my friend in danger. Maybe my choices have consequences for the people I care about, and by extension, other innocent people.” It’s like he’s growing up a bit.

He doesn’t. In the next episode, “A Scandal in Belgravia,” Sherlock has another extended flirtation with another amoral criminal—Irene Adler. Adler’s game isn’t as deadly as Moriarty’s, but she does some very disturbing things. As a professional dominatrix, she abuses her clients’ trust by taking photographs, and she beats and drugs Sherlock without his permission. Later, she fakes her death using a body that Sherlock misidentifies as hers, even though he’s seen her naked and is superhumanly observant. The question of where the look-alike corpse came from is never raised on the show. The drama doesn’t arise from ethical issues; the drama comes from Sherlock having his feelings hurt. Yes, you read that right. It’s not about what Irene does or how she does it, or even the exact reasons why. It’s all about Sherlock mourning like an emo teen for someone he’s spent less than an hour with. (Oh, and ambiguous sexual tension. Lots.)

At the climax of the episode, Irene proves to be a villain. She sabotages an elaborate anti-terrorism operation in order to extort money and protection from the government, and she implies that she’ll cheerfully endanger innocent people to get what she wants. That’s not where the drama comes in, though. The real drama is that Sherlock’s feelings are hurt, again. It turns out Irene was playing him for a fool the whole time, exploiting his sexual naïveté and craving for admiration.

Then, in a dramatic reversal, Sherlock calls her bluff. He takes away her one bargaining chip and “deduces” that she’s in love with him. She admits he’s right. (I’m not going to go into how cheesy and sexist this scene is, it would take several more blog posts.) Bitter, Sherlock sends her away, probably to her death. Afterwards, we learn that he did eventually admit his fondness for Irene, forgive her, and save her life (more cheesiness and sexism, not worth it).

Here’s what bothers me. When Irene’s feelings for Sherlock are revealed, there’s no indication that these feelings make her kinder or more ethical, even to him. And yet I think the show portrays her tearful vulnerability as a partial redemption, as though her real crime were not having enough feelings. When Sherlock saves her at the end, there’s no indication that he’s planning to reform her. For all we know, Irene may go on playing the same old tricks under a new identity. And yet it’s presented as a sort of happy ending. Sherlock has made peace with his conflicted feelings! That’s all that matters, right?

Well, fine. Suppose feelings are all that matters. In that case, we have to reconsider certain previous scenes. Would caring about them help save them? No, but in retrospect, that conversation wasn’t really about the ethics of saving people. It was about John feeling let down by his friend—or maybe it was about showing off Sherlock’s antihero callousness, and underlining how much he cares about John. Likewise, the end of “The Great Game” didn’t show Sherlock growing up or choosing to be good. It showed him learning to value the people he cares about while remaining his usual childish self. Moriarty threatens Sherlock’s friends, so he’s an enemy. Irene doesn’t, so Sherlock accepts her as a friend/ally/lover. He doesn’t care who else she hurts.

Most of the time, the show barely mentions good and evil at all. Sherlock’s emotional immaturity gets played for laughs at other people’s expense. Occasionally he shows pain, compassion, and remorse, just to reassure viewers that yes, he still has feelings. There are lots of heartwarming moments where we’re obviously supposed to go, “Awww, he does care.” To drive home the theme of feelings, the characters spend lots of time musing over the value of sentiment, making solemn pronouncements like “Caring is not an advantage,” calling Sherlock a machine, and discussing his “heart” or lack thereof.

Finally, in the sixth episode, “The Reichenbach Fall,” Sherlock goes up against Moriarty and makes a big sacrifice to save his closest friends. He gets to make a neat little speech about how he’s “on the side of the angels” but not “one of them,” which strikes me as a way of making selfishness sound morally complex.

I’m pretty sure this episode is a callback to Lestrade’s remark that Sherlock might someday be “good.” But as moral development, it rings false. Sherlock has always been “good” in a childish sort of way. He’s always been willing to put himself in the line of fire, too. The only new development is that in “Reichenbach,” he’s frank about what motivates him: he’s not doing this out of boredom or curiosity or egotism, he’s doing it for the people he cares about. He even cries as he says goodbye. If this is redemption, it’s another redemption by feelings.

Whereas the original Dr. Watson eulogized his friend as “the best and wisest man whom I have ever known,” John tellingly calls Sherlock “the best man, and the most human human being that I’ve ever known.” In Sherlock, humanness is more important than wisdom.

I speculated a while back that unadmirable characters can be especially compelling because they make us justify our emotional investment. That’s fair. Every storyteller has the right to manipulate the audience a bit; it’s in the job description. And not every story is about morality, or should be. But when a story raises obvious moral problems, it’s sloppy and offensive to subordinate those problems to sentiment. More broadly, it’s disingenuous to treat sentiment as a sort of panacea.

That’s not to say I’m tired of lovable antiheroes. What I’m tired of is seeing lovableness portrayed as a redeeming quality. I think it’s insulting to the audience to suggest that making Sherlock sympathetic is the same as making him good. I’m also tired of the idea that intellectual characters need to be humanized by feelings (which is a whole other rant).

I think the writers of Sherlock have kind of painted themselves into a corner here. They’re writing a classic wish-fulfillment story: the story of a genius who’s so brilliant, and so important, that he can get away with anything. Every other character either adores him or desperately needs him. Part of the fantasy is that he acts like a selfish dick most of the time, and he still gets his way; he even acts like a villain sometimes, and he still gets to play the hero. Another part of the fantasy is that, to a large extent, he can’t help it. He’s the victim of his own brilliance, his own impulsiveness, his own lack of moral compass. It’s a fantasy of power without responsibility.

But paradoxically, the fantasy works best if we can also see Sherlock as special and heroic and good. If we start to think of him as merely lucky—a pampered upper-class manchild born with a freakishly powerful brain, indifferent whether he uses it for good or evil—we lose some of our awe for him. The fantasy loses some of its sheen. We need for him to be responsible for his heroism so he can take credit for it. Just not too responsible.

That’s why the show fetishizes Sherlock’s heart so much. It’s the perfect way to make Sherlock seem special and heroic and good without actually making him responsible for his behavior. He can’t help his feelings. Yet his feelings define him.

I’m making Sherlock sound like an unbearably stupid show. It’s not. It’s a fairly smart show that sometimes pretends to be smarter than it is. What’s frustrating is the way the writers keep touching on interesting ideas and then taking the lazy way out.


On literature

“No true universal statements can safely be made about human beings or human nature; it is only permissible to make such assertions hypothetically, or metaphorically. This realization is what gives birth to literature, a realm where anything can be expressed because it is essentially without consequence. But we can never stop imagining the secret mastery we would gain if this artistic power could be surreptitiously reintroduced to the actual world: the combination of imaginative freedom and actual power would be a kind of magic. This helps to explain the special mystique that attaches to artists of the real like Marx and Freud. By stating their metaphors about humankind as if they were scientific laws, they seem to gain magical powers, and promise them to their adherents.”

—Adam Kirsch (here)

This answers pretty much all the questions I have about Marx and Freud and most other psych scientists and a lot of philosophers.

Short story: “Symbols and Signs”

“Symbols and Signs” (sometimes printed as “Signs and Symbols”), by Vladimir Nabokov

Appeared in the May 15, 1948 issue of the New Yorker (read here); read in the June 2008 New Yorker Fiction Podcast (here)

2,232 words

The cool thing about well-known stories is that you can check around and see if anybody else has figured out what the story is about. Surprisingly often, no one has. There are interpretations of this one, but the interpretations are more confusing than the story. (For example, this essay, which seems to argue that the misdialed number is a coded message or prophesy about the son’s future. Maybe the author did intend that meaning. If so, I feel that his time could have been better spent.)

I guess I usually think of Nabokov as kind of a cold, cerebral writer, but I really like the emotional content of this story. The couple’s helplessness, their quiet intimacy, their dependence on a rich relative they resent, the sight of a stranger crying on the subway, the wild plan of bringing the son home, everything.

All this, and much more, she had accepted, for, after all, living does mean accepting the loss of one joy after another, not even joys in her case, mere possibilities of improvement. She thought of the recurrent waves of pain that for some reason or other she and her husband had had to endure; of the invisible giants hurting her boy in some unimaginable fashion; of the incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world; of the fate of this tenderness, which is either crushed or wasted, or transformed into madness; of neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners; of beautiful weeds that cannot hide from the farmer.

Short story: “Kaspar Hauser Speaks”

“Kaspar Hauser Speaks,” by Steven Millhauser

First appeared in the spring 1998 issue of The Kenyon Review, volume XX, number two (order here); on JSTOR; collected in The Knife Thrower and Other Stories; mp3 reading here

A little over nine pages in my edition; not sure how many words

The more Millhauser I read, the more frustrated I get. He’s consistently good but only occasionally excellent. Most of his stories are on similar topics and employ similar tricks, and a knack for atmosphere and symbolism only goes so far. “Kaspar Hauser Speaks” reads like “Report to an Academy” with less depth and less mystery. Part of the power of “Report” comes from Rotpeter’s refusal to be explicit about his self-loathing; instead, he dwells obsessively on finding “a way out,” and it gradually becomes clear to the reader that finding a way out means trading his integrity for a lonely, troubled life. In this story, Kaspar Hauser’s desire to disappear is the explicit climactic reveal. I like how it cleverly echoes the life of the historical Kaspar Hauser, but it doesn’t come off as chilling or profound. Maybe if I knew more of the history I would appreciate it more.