Friday, June 27, 2014

Lacking an Alternative: Sherlock Holmes and the Best of All Possible Worlds. Deduction is as Deduction Does… Life is Like a Scratched iPad

You're probably an idiot.  The odds are stacked incomprehensibly against you.  Unless, of course, you happen to be Sherlock Holmes.  Next to him, however, no matter how smart you are, you are still a total fucking moron by comparison.  The version of Sherlock Holmes as portrayed in BBC's Sherlock (co-created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss)  is something of an insufferable prick.  Despite the fact that he exists at the very centre of a veritable whirlpool of arrogance and narcissism, there's something universally endearing and relatable about this modernized take on the Sherlock Holmes mythos, and we seem almost inescapably drawn into those swirling, mruky waters.  Inexorably, like a man on death row about to be hanged (not hung).  There's something about Sherlock Holmes that transcends his Victorian trappings and speaks to the very core of the human experience.

Even though the titular character of Sherlock represents the epitome of cold, hard, logical reasoning and stands as an ideal both for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence and startlingly anti-social behaviour, he is also more relatable to the common man than he may appear at first glance than other more apparently "human" versions of the character.

In Sherlock, one of the latest and by far the single best iteration of everybody's favourite consulting detective, Holmes is portrayed as having observational, intellectual, and logical reasoning skills bordering on (if not outright surpassing) the superhuman.  But what Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) does is different not in the classification but only in the scope and scale from what everybody does every day of his life.  Sherlock just does it while being all mysterious with his cheekbones and turning his coat collar up so he looks cool.

Typically, the type of reasoning most associated with Sherlock Holmes is deductive reasoning, as I believe the character himself makes explicit in the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle texts, though as many are now quick to point out, the type of reasoning Sherlock typically employs is not deductive or even inductive, but abductive.  I believe that going through both the original texts and the nine episodes of Sherlock currently available for your viewing pleasure so far, you could probably find examples of all three types of logical pursuits, an intellectual ménage à trois as it were.

This is significant because abductive reasoning is the sort of reasoning that most people use for a majority of the time in their day-to-day lives either for convenience sake or for lack of any better alternative. True deductive reasoning requires an established premise to reach a conclusion, taking general principles and applying them to a specific case:
  1. Your mom is only happy after I fuck her the night before.
  2. Your mom is happy this morning.
  3. Therefore, I fucked your mom last night.
Deductive reasoning is only useful, however, if the original premise is true, otherwise it simply becomes an exercise in schoolboy toilet humour or a philosophical circle-jerk:
  1. Everybody who masturbates excessively will develop brain cancer.
  2. Jimmy has a tumour in his brain.
  3. Therefore, Jimmy had a propensity for jerkin’ his gherkin.
Any conclusion deduced from a false premise will necessarily be false even though the deduction itself is logically valid.  The other problem with deduction is that the extent to which a premise can be said to be true is entirely dependent on the scope of the domain to which it applies, and there are very few premises aside from death and celebrity drug and/or sex addictions which can be said to be universally applicable, or as close to universally applicable as makes no discernible difference.

Abductive reasoning, on the other hand, relies on determining the best possible explanation for a given situation or circumstance based on all available knowledge.  Abductive reasoning is based on the relative probability of causes and effects, taking into account all of the known variables and constants and making the most educated conclusion that one could possibly make given the circumstances. Though, obviously, the ideal form of reasoning in any given situation would be deductive, unlike Tom Cruise, we do not live in an ideal world, a world where all of the constants and variables are accounted for all of the time and we are free to jump on other people's furniture at our leisure.  (Fuck your couch...)

In terms of Cause and Effect, one might consider the triumvirate of logical reasoning thusly:
  1. Deduction: Determining a known, specific effect from the application of a known, general cause.
  2. Induction: Establishing a known, general cause from the observation of a known, specific effect.
  3. Abduction: Determining the most likely, specific cause based on the observation of a known, specific effect.
In terms of the application of logic, you are actually more like Sherlock Holmes than you think (unless, of course, you're a pretentious douche bag).  The difference is that Sherlock is able and willing to A) dedicate his time to mentally acquiring and cataloguing massive amounts of data, B) carefully observe his surroundings, never taking even the most seemingly mundane detail for granted, and C) cross-reference the data to an extremely accurate degree.  Of course, his seemingly infinite mental capacity might also derive from his lack of sexual pleasure, much like George Costanza demonstrated in season 8 of Seinfeld.  Sherlock deals not in certainty, but in probability.  Just like everybody else.

Which is why, despite his seemingly incomprehensible levels of observational and reasoning skills, Sherlock is still so relatable.  He's not unusual because he's un-human: on the contrary, he's almost hyper-human.  He's taken our most common way of looking at the world and elevated it to a previously inconceivable level of mastery and sophistication.  In many ways, Sherlock is a version of ourselves: simply a better version of ourselves.

And in many ways, he's actually a much, much worse version.  In certain circles where such things carry weight, Series 3 of Sherlock was regarded as a falter in the rather tremendous gait of its first two predecessors.  To be fair, Series 3 did break with the previously established "formula" to a degree as it centred more upon the personal lives and relationships fostered by Sherlock Holmes and his trusty mankick Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman), but in the best possible way.  The slight shift in this third Sherlock trilogy brought into sharper focus one of the underlying themes of the entire series, which is Sherlock and John struggling with their inclusion in that strange fraternity known as humanity.

Though often overlooked, the character of John Watson is of exceeding relevance in Sherlock, more so, perhaps, than in any other version of the mythology, and the expansion on his character in this respect was all the more engaging.  Especially in Series 3, John is established not only as a muse for Sherlock with his seeming gift of inspiring genius in others, but also as his moral compass as somebody who has both literally and metaphorically saved his life.  His own struggle relates partially to his own inability to express his emotions, but also his addiction to a certain lifestyle.  When it's revealed that his beloved Mary (who put up with his shitty facial hair for six months) actually has a sordid past including some time as an international assassin (as one will), he has to face some unsettling truths about himself.  Picking up on a thread running right from the very first episode, John is simultaneously haunted by his military service yet inextricably addicted to the excitement that the job provided.  He is drawn, in many cases apparently unconsciously, to potentially dangerous situations and people and the adrenaline-junky high that they provide.

No, "He who smelt it, dealt it," is not
a valid deductive argument.
It is, however, Sherlock's struggle in particular that is so memorable because he seems to have much greater ground to cover.  The fact that the Holmes of Sherlock is portrayed as so much more antisocial and arrogant and isolated than other recent iterations of the character, in Elementary or Guy Ritchie's two SHERLOCK HOLMES films par example, is exactly the reason why his journey towards the Human ends up being so much more engaging.  Sherlock is incredibly gifted, but he is also deeply flawed.  Though he continuously describes himself as a "high-functioning sociopath," the fact that he applies this self-diagnosis himself is, in and if itself, enough to disprove its truth, besides which it is more likely that it's probably just another clever line he uses to throw people off-kilter to his own advantage.

Though Sherlock's behaviour does indeed lie outside the boundaries of a sort of normative range of social expectations, he is not entirely lacking in empathy or a moral code.  Friction between himself and his fellow human beings comes from his prioritization of utilitarian concerns related to his obsession with solving crimes and helping the police when they are out of their depth (which is always, apparently).  He isolates himself out of what he sees as necessity.  His discipline in excising all substantial human relationships is depicted in Sherlock as being almost monk-like, a comparison that his aversion to sexual intercourse in the show strongly supports.  Human relationships produce all sorts of entanglements that can affect judgement, and just like a doctor or a law enforcement officer (Oh no, not the Rangers!), he sees a certain level of detachment as necessary to completing his work.  Of course, what Sherlock sees as necessary (and what may, in fact, be necessary) to continue effectively with his professional pursuits is often at odds with standard expectations of propriety, privacy, or even basic personal hygiene and well-being.

Nowhere is Sherlock's struggle for humanity more apparent than in "The Sign of Three" where serving as best man at John's wedding to one Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington), he violates all kind of social norms in his earnest attempt to express his love for his best friend.  It is then that we realize that Sherlock is not entirely devoid of the desire for human relationships ("No man is an island" and whatnot) but that he has, in large part, sacrificed their pursuit in his devotion to his craft.

Really?  Nobody wants a moustache ride?
But it goes deeper than that.  Sherlock's obsession with crime-solving is more than just a profession or a craft; it's a quest.  Sherlock Series 3 established Sherlock more than ever as an underdog (though, understandably, not an aficionado of certain styles of facial hair).  He is exceptional, yes, but not in every respect.  He has a stunning intellect and he is confident well past the point of arrogance, but he is also portrayed as having been marginalized and even bullied.  With his abilities, he probably could have become a millionaire designing software, or trading stocks, or marketing sex toys like the Fleshlight to a loyal legion of perverts.  Instead, he spends his days solving crimes, often for others just as disenfranchised as himself.  He could have had fame and fortune, but he chose instead to submerse himself in the muck and the filth of crime and depravity to help other people (not entirely unlike Robert Stack did during his tenure on Unsolved Mysteries).  Though he attempts to mask or discard any sentiment and maintain the level of detachment that makes him so good at what he does, everybody's got a pressure point, it seems, and for Sherlock that pressure point is John.

That's why his killing of Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen) at the end of the third episode, "His Last Vow," is so significant.  Magnussen is presented as a counterpoint both to Sherlock and his arch-nemesis, Moriarty.  Moriarty is morally reprehensible, but as twisted as his mind is, he seems to adhere to a certain code of conduct in that he aims to antagonize the big boys.  He was constantly looking for somebody his size to pick on, a worthy adversary.  The reason that Magnussen is so repulsive to Sherlock is precisely because he aims to exploit the vulnerable.  When push comes to shove, and John and Mary's wellbeing is put into jeopardy, Sherlock takes action to uphold the vow he made to them at their wedding.
I've just stopped by to taunt you one last time for
dramatic effect. Also, because the bathroom at the
sandwich shop was busy.

In what is one of the most powerful shots of the series, we see Sherlock standing amidst the chaos left in the wake of Magnussen's death not as a man, not as a detective, but as a child.  It is only then that we realize that his last vow to be there for John and Mary was part of a larger calling.  From Mycroft's perspective, that vision of Sherlock the Boy is one of disempowerment: a child acting impulsively without considering the full consequences of his actions and now in over his head, desperately yearning for some parental figure to reach in and save him.  From Sherlock's point of view, the vision is one of youthful defiance against not only individuals but also a system that would allow for the exploitation of the weak at the hands of the strong, no matter how noble the ends might be.  

And that's the ultimate reason why Sherlock Holmes, and especially this version of him, is so endearing.  Despite his exceptional intellectual prowess (and excellent fashion sense) he proves our worst fears true:  Everybody's an idiot.  Even Sherlock Holmes.  Though he is portrayed as among the World Intellectual Heavyweights, he is socially inept and lacks what we might think of as social or interpersonal intelligence.  Then there are the constant comparisons to his older brother Mycroft, who is constantly reminding Sherlock that he is even smarter than the consulting detective.  But that's the great fucking thing that makes Sherlock so accessible: he exists in the same sort of world that we do where there is always going to be someone smarter, or faster, or stronger, or more well-endowed.  As Qui-Gon Jinn might put it, there's always a bigger fish.

Sherlock is depicted as being so far above the average person intellectually that he borders on being god-like.  But even he isn't the top of the heap, and he knows it.  Despite not being the absolute smartest dude, Sherlock still perseveres and dedicates himself to an ideal, as Henri Ducard might say.  (Actually, fuck it.  From this point on, you can basically just assume that Liam Neeson has something wise and insightful to say that will apply to pretty much any conceivable situation.)  The Sherlock Holmes of Moffat and Gatiss' Sherlock is, quite simply, the best and wisest version of the character that I have ever known.  And a snappy dresser to boot.



Post a Comment